Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

 

 

This book has angered a lot of people.

You can calculate the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it. (Flaubert)

 

Early in the book, you say:  “Painting isn’t dead.  The novel isn’t dead.  They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.”  And then later: “The novel is dead.  Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps.”

So which one is it?   Is the novel increasingly peripheral or is it dead?  Or is it both?

Distinction without a difference.

 

So peripheral means dead?

Good point. Peripheral doesn’t have to mean dead. It’s just: let’s be honest. The novel, the traditional novel, is now the equivalent of chamber orchestra or ballet: coterie activity for a handful of people who believe they are maintaining civilization by writing as their 19th century forebears did.

 

Just because you don’t want to write traditional novels anymore doesn’t mean that the form is dead—does it?  Isn’t this just a simple matter of personal taste?

No.

 

How so?

If it were only a simple matter of personal taste, why would Reality Hunger have generated so much attention? It clearly “clocked or locked a feeling in the air,” as one reviewer put it. Some find the book catalyzing; others find the book threatening. Pretty much what I expected.

 

A quote from Gabriel García Márquez:

“The intellectual is the worst thing there is. He invents things and then he believes them. He decides the novel is dead but then he finds a novel and says he discovered it. If you say the novel is dead, it is not the novel. It is you who are dead.”

How would you respond to that?

I disagree.  I don’t respond to García Márquez’s work, so the quote doesn’t really mean anything to me. To me, he’s a good example of a very old-fashioned storytelling. It’s essentially Faulkner rebooted. It doesn’t interest me. A crucial moment in my reading and writing life was reading García Márquez and Proust back to back one summer, and I saw that, for me, Proust was a way forward and García Márquez wasn’t.  Reality Hunger is arguing for the emptying out of genre. I love a lot of novels, but they are almost never novelly novels. I’m arguing against memoiry memoirs and novelly novels.

 

On the issue of plagiarism, you say you feel no guilt.  You use no quotation marks in your book.  You sample freely from other artists and engage in “the art of appropriation.”  Had you been able to do things your way, without interference from the Random House legal department, you wouldn’t have attributed the material you used in the book—no end notes.  Why?

So that the reader would feel on his pulse the dubiety of the first-person pronoun and thereby experience what I’m saying about genre.

 

What are you saying about genre?

The book is arguing that the best work, or the most exciting work, or the work that I find most exciting, is work that defies genre. The trope for that throughout Reality Hunger is that in exactly the same way I want the reader (or wanted the reader) not to know who’s talking. Is it Shields? Sonny Rollins? Montaigne? Nietzsche? Frank Rich? What possible difference could it make? In exactly the same way, the best work resists generic classification. “When we are unsure, we are alive.”

 

Another quote from the book:

“Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing.  In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth.  Now relationships, links, connection, and sharing are.  Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work.  Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”

This sort of idea must not be too popular at, say, Random House.  Who will publish your future offerings if the current economic model fully collapses to dust?

I certainly hope we don’t have publishers to deal with soon, don’t you?  It’s a model that has far outlived its usefulness.

 

How should an artist feel if, say, his work is appropriated and he receives no attribution, not to mention compensation?  How will artists make a living in the kind of environment you advocate for—one in which the current understanding of copyright and fair use is pretty much obliterated?

Have you heard of music?

 

I keep hearing pop songs in Cadillac commercials.

The current music model is that music is free, but it costs to attend concerts. I’m virtually certain that this is the direction in which “publishing” will go. Everybody will have his/her book available on his/her website for $1.99. Why in the world do we need publishers, bookstores, reviewers as middlemen?

 

This could be a slippery slope, couldn’t it?  What about academia?  You’re a teacher, after all.  If I’m one of your students, and I’ve got a dissertation due, can I just appropriate the work of other writers and students, slap it all together in some kind of orderly fashion and hand it in?

I’m not a copyright absolutist. I’m arguing for the connection between the creative act and plagiarism. I’m not arguing that my daughter should steal her paper from Wikipedia.

 

And what about possible negative effects on creativity and imagination?  Does art by appropriation stifle creative drive in some way or remove a key imaginative element?

No.  And no one is saying that appropriation will be the only art form. It will continue to be, in our digital age, an increasingly crucial one. Artists have “plagiarized” from the beginning of recorded civilization 5,000 years ago. Roman sculptors directly copied Greek sculptures. Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s Henry VI is directly derived from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Danger Mouse remixes the Beatles and Jay-Z.

 

I was fascinated to read about how this book was born, relative to your work as a teacher.  Can you talk about that a little bit?

I was hired to teach fiction writing at the University of Washington, in Seattle, twenty years ago. As my interests moved away from fiction writing, I felt as if needed to justify my existence, since I no longer read or wrote fiction. I developed a course in which I could talk about what actually excited me—nonfiction as art. The book-length essay as a work of literary art at the highest possible level. Each year, the course packet changed: I began with hundreds upon hundreds of quotations that were sort of my life-raft, quotes by everyone from Montaigne to Trish Hampl about the excitement of the essay form. Year by year, I edited and transformed the quotes into Reality Hunger.

 

You quote Dave Eggers at one point.  An interview he did with The Onion several years ago.  Says Eggers:  “I’ve always had a hard time with fiction.  It does feel like driving a car in a clown suit.  You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody.”

In the end notes (which I know you didn’t want me to read—sorry!), you mention that Eggers no longer feels this way.  Do you have any insight as to why he changed his mind?

You would need to ask Dave Eggers; I believe his sense is that he is now writing more fiction.

 

You posted an essay over at The Millions recently called “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps,” which functions as both a Reality Hunger primer and a provocation.  The comment board responses are fascinating—the level of vitriol in particular.

Some samples (appropriated—appropriately?–from The Millions):

a.)  Is anyone else tired of Mr. Shields’ desperate and defensive attempts to justify his “manifesto?”
b.)  Wake me when you’re done pretending this is a post-narrative world.
c.)  David Shields is nothing more than a dried-up hack who dresses up his acts of plagiarism with layers of B.S.  When will his 15 minutes be over?
d.)  OK, David, if you really want the death of copyright, how about this:  Please stop attributing your writing to yourself. No pseudonyms either. And make sure you don’t collect any money for your writings.

Your thoughts on these kinds of reactions?  Do you ever stop and think to yourself:  What in God’s name have I done?

No. See Flaubert (above).

 

You call the advent of collage art the most important artistic innovation of the twentieth century.  Any thoughts as to what the most important developments of the twenty-first century might be?

Appropriation.  But really, I have no more of a crystal ball than you do…have no idea, I must admit. I wrote Reality Hunger to suggest a map for how I hope and want things to go. I’d say Winnebago Man and Shit My Dad Says are examples of where art is heading for now.

 

Another passage from the book, a thought from Brian Christian:

“I’m finding it harder to just ‘write.’   The seeking and sculpting of found text or sound have become my primary ‘artistic’ function.  Actually generating that text or music seems increasingly difficult.  Lately I’ll sit down with a blank pad and feel like I really have to dig down deep to get my own voice to come out over the ‘sample choir.’  It’s a very strange feeling, like a conductor trying to sing over the orchestra, and is, I believe, a fairly new one for artists.”

Is it really new?

Brian was my grad student a few years ago.  And yes, it does feel relatively new to me—the cascade of information available to us not just 24/7 but instantaneously. We’re all quite confused as to how this will affect art, but the solution isn’t to pretend that the web doesn’t exist and doesn’t completely dominate our lives.

 

Is Brian a new kind of artist?

Yes.

 

Don’t you think he might just be blocked?

No.

 

Don’t you think he might just need a Ritalin prescription and a six-week Internet detox?

I was on a panel a while ago with Rick Moody, and Rick had some of the same responses that you do: “Maybe Brian is just lazy or bored. Maybe he needs to work harder.” Actually, Brian is working hard on a new book that is in a way a contradiction of this statement. It’s not all quotation at all. We all change our views frequently, but I found and find this statement of his quite provocative. It captures the dilemma beautifully. We all apparently have different solutions to the dilemma. Reality Hunger is one solution.

 

And where are you headed?  What’s next for you?  Working on another book?

I’ve just finished co-writing an 800-page book about a famous American author–pub date TBD.  Details forthcoming soon.  And I’ve also co-edited a Norton anthology of essays by contemporary writers about death, which will be out in February 2011.

 

Sounds interesting.  Thanks so much for your time, David.

My pleasure.  Thanks for having me.

 

 

**

 

To purchase Reality Hunger, please click here.

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BRAD LISTI is the founder of The Nervous Breakdown and the author of a novel called Attention. Deficit. Disorder.  His latest book, Board, co-authored by Justin Benton, is now available in trade paperback and e-book editions from TNB Books. He is also the host of Otherppl wth Brad Listi, a weekly podcast featuring in-depth interviews with today's leading authors. For updates, follow the show @otherppl on Twitter. You can find him online at www.bradlisti.com and Twitter

46 responses to “Reality Check: An Interview with David Shields”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    A good way to lose interest in reading fiction would be to read Garcia Marquez and Proust back to back over a summer.

    Also: this business of having pages and pages of quotes as a life raft, and maybe using said life raft at the beginning of one’s book, in lieu of the usual single quote, and arranging the quotes in a clever way so that they contradict one another…we Breakdowners are already acquainted with that. ; )

  2. Becky says:

    I don’t understand why it’s so controversial. The argument over appropriation/attribution is at least as old as T.S. Eliot, right? (I’m sure there are more and older examples, but his is a famous one, and as we all know, I think of nothing else all day.)

    Wasn’t he forced to add end notes to the Waste Land, much to his consternation and in violation of his principles?

    Of course, I’m sure there’s more to Shields’ book than this one contentious aspect, but is the argument itself an appropripation? Are Shields’ detractors so illiterate that they don’t even know how old it is?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Becky, yer killing me with the Eliot. I think it’s as old as cave writing, but if I had to give literary examples, what springs to my mind is Ben Jonson’s railing against the mis-appropriations of printers in Renaissance England, and Thomas Creede’s having encouraged by example today’s aesthetics of scrupulous attribution. Of course Thomas Creede was also Shakespeare’s publisher-cum-printer, and we know well that Shakespeare is at the center of perhaps the longest-running, most furious controversies over appropriation and attribution in European history. I also think of the nationalist appropriations of Baldassare Castaglione (of which Eliot’s forbear Thomas Elyot was one of the appropriators, which Eliot saw fit not to mention in “East Coker” 😉 ). I also think of the emergence of conventions in Saracen scholarship around the 10th century upon the controversy over authorship of the Lamiyya. I also think of the ancient disputes over Homer, carried out mostly in the Scholia (basically compendious margin notes), to the extent that Peisistratus was accused of having book 10 of the Iliad, the Doloneia, which is basically hilarious, slap-stick hi-jinks (and my favorite part of the poem) hacked into the text . And these are just the scatter-shot examples that spring to mind from my own reading. I’m sure there are encyclopedic volumes on the matter going back to the dawn of literacy.

      • Becky says:

        I will never relent, Uche!

        Tommy Stearns Eliot 4EVAR!!!

        Yeah, like I said, I’m sure there are older, less well-known examples. I guess it’s true that the same ideas just have to keep being introduced and re-introduced, over and over, generation to generation.

        I mean, it’s like…making it new or something. 😉

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I hope you don’t relent 🙂

          The person who shaped my own poetic consciousness more than anyone else in the world was my best friend, for a while, Victor Okigbo, nephew of Nigeria’s greatest poet. He was an absolute Eliot fanatic. We went at it hammer and tongs between Pound and Eliot. He would discover something that illustrated the supremacy of his man, and gleefully show it to me, and I’d bide my time turning the tables.

          So i guess perhaps I have a extraordinary amount of practice bashing Eliot. But as I’ve always said, whether I like it or not, I cannot escape his genius.

          And you’re right, you did say “there are more and older examples.” I just couldn’t resist the urge to pounce 😉

        • Becky says:

          I usually don’t bother–at least not anymore–with the greatest/greater-than arguments when it comes to poetics.

          I discovered that they tend to have all the dignity of sports-related fist fights. And especially when you’re talking about two poets like Eliot and Pound, you end up haggling minutiae, which often comes down less to greatness or quality and more to what a given reader values in his or her poets.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh I thoroughly agree. But my point is that such arguments might come down to angels dancing on pinheads, but it’s the discoveries you make in the process of prosecution that are valuable.

      • Greg Olear says:

        I know this is much more recent, but the reason G&S wrote an operetta called “The Pirates of Penzance” was because people kept ripping off their last one and not giving them credit/paying royalties.

  3. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Brad, good job pressing the point on the contradictions. I’m certainly no lover of the novel, but the idea that it is either peripheral or dead contradicts anything resembling objective reality. Anyway, I think that just because Shields sees a revolt against over-used copyright, but he completely misunderstands the revolt. It’s as if he’s a sans-culotte in the French revolution assuming people are being guillotined because they put too much powder on their faces.

    This much is true:

    “Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection, and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”

    But he completely misses that the upshot of this is that attribution is more important than ever. If the new value is in relationships and sharing, then attribution is the new monetary system. Most people in the free/libre culture see as the gold standard (yeah, pushing the analogy, I know) a system along the lines of Creative Commons attribution/share-alike licenses, with commercial permissions as the main lever for an artist to possibly extract a living from some works.

    The sort of stream-of-conscious-misappropriation you describe in Shield’s book (disclaimer I haven’t read it, myself) will get him guillotined as surely in the 21st century as in the 20th, and rightly so.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Brad, you missed a lovely opportunity to put all of the interview in the first person (“I”) so that readers would not know which person said what. heh.

    Apart from the obvious negative reactions to David Shields’ book, some readers will say, “Excellent. At last I can read wise words without having to know who created them.”

    I can sympathise with that in the context of worry-worn wordsmiths. In order to get academic and literary street cred, folks’ attributing words to others has become an essential game in which the winner’s the one who can quote the most other writers. Her own opinion, though? Not so important.

    We have developed, in other words, a huge sad power-totem twist on the reasonable want of writers and readers to have attributed sources.

    Some of us have come through uni systems in which, for literature, you were expected to generate your own evaluation of a book, poem or play, and you were discouraged from seeking and citing critical sources. That was my experience at the U of Michigan (Ann Arbor) in the late 60s, and the same expectations prevailed at many universities in the UK. A “research” paper was regarded as another entity entirely, and it required the usual attributing. Somehow we understood the distinction between the two kinds of literary paper.

    As to whether Shields’ book is groundbreakingly interesting, I’d have to read it to see.

  5. Interesting interview. Reality Hunger sounds like a fine and intriguing, unique read. Shields has quite a slant on the future of the written word, and like Becky points out, there’s a beckoning of T.S. Eliot in regard to attribution. In many ways, I agree with what Shields says about “the art of appropriation,” but where the road forks in my thinking with his is one I think many would agree with. Say there is a writer with a particular style, philosophy, way of developing a plotline I enjoy. Take, for example, Olear’s novel Totally Killer, Orientalism by Edward Said, or your book Brad. I like these works. Enjoyed them quite a bit. If, with the art of appropriation and lack of attributes, a name was not tagged on these books, how would I know where to find another story, essay, or book by the author? I like the style, I like the message. I want to read more by this author. But with no attribution, I can’t. Shields, at least from how I read this, points to an anarchistic type philosophy. And I get it. I just don’t know, in the grand scheme of things, if it’s fair for one writer to be extremely dedicated to their craft and for another writer to use this work and not give credit where credit is due. That’s a lot of time and hard work hmmphed away otherwise.

  6. Jacob Drum says:

    That Flaubert quote, in my opinion, is the last stand of the bullshit artist. The implied logic: “Some great works have received a lot of negative criticism, my recent work has received a lot of negative criticism; therefore, my recent work must be great.” Not explaining art or avoiding criticisms specific to a work of art in the Kurosawa-Buddhist proverb mold (“Talking about movies is like drawing legs on a snake”) is one thing, but writing an artistic manifesto, something you claim or desire will guide art for a time after you yourself are gone, and then refusing to defend it via what is essentially an I’m-rubber-your-glue ideology smells like snake oil and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities, to me.

  7. Jacob Drum says:

    Also, why is it that I feel like I constantly need to convince politicians that government is good, journalists that journalism is worth saving, and authors that books are worth writing?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Come now. Do journalists really need to be convinced that journalism is worth saving? I think your point might be that many journalists have jettisoned their profession’s traditional principles in favor of interested comment, and that others are all to willing to say “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” to “citizen journalism”, but for one thing, our ideas of professional journalism are really just a half-century phenomenon. Until the mid 20th century, journalists were just as much a gaggle of corruptible scallywags as some say they are now. Maybe that’s the natural state. And besides that, I do hear a lot of journalists defending that late 20th-century arcadia, and doing what they can to preserve it.

      As for authors and books, jeez, has there ever been a time when there have been more authors writing more books?

  8. Jacob Drum says:

    My experience has been with journalists accepting defeat. Watching the last season of The Wire because they are “interested in the fate of journalism,” seemingly forgetting that they play a role in it. I know they aren’t a fully representative sample, but it’s still frustrating to be a young writer trying to break into an industry and hearing people with an actual printed voice bemoaning its demise on their personal blog. There is a poem by C.P. Cavafy called “Waiting for the Barbarians” that opens Lewis Lapham’s book of the same name that comes to mind here. (link: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/texts/cavafy.html)

    And the “authors-books” comment was related to Shields’s ideas, especially the part about Winnebago Man.

  9. JB says:

    I’m nearly done reading Reality Hunger and it’s been a good jolt to my system. Overwhelming in places. I find myself having to force a bookmark in (strangely, a dead AA battery) and walk around and process it.

    One thing I was wondering: why is fiction more difficult to produce than non-fiction?

    Furthermore, do fiction writers make the work more difficult than it has to be?

    Anyway.

    Wonderful interview.

    • Judy Prince says:

      ” . . . why is fiction more difficult to produce than non-fiction?”

      ” . . . do fiction writers make the work more difficult than it has to be?”

      Excellent questions, Justin. I’d really like to hear TNBers’ responses to these questions.

      Briefly, I find fiction more difficult for me to write, except in the form of plays. I’m pondering the “why” of that confession.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        ” . . . why is fiction more difficult to produce than non-fiction?”

        For the same reason that maintaining a network of consistent lies gets very wearisome after a while.

        ” . . . do fiction writers make the work more difficult than it has to be?”

        Well I suppose they could always lobotomize the part of the brain that abhors empathetic fallacy.

        Oh, I’m sorry, did you mean the part of TNB that’s not so hostile to fiction?

        :P;;;;;;

        • Judy Prince says:

          Telling lies is a marvelous (and, at times, horrid) art-skill innate in everyone.

          Constructing an entire room—-or house—-upon lies (ie, short story or novel) is, as you recognise, Uche, very difficult.

          I rather think that most fiction comprises “my ex-husband/wife, mother, father, neighbours, teachers, friends, and nemeses” with fake names.

          However, building a story, whether short or long, upon characters whose individual personality and attached events are a *fresh* mix of the writer’s own self and others’ selves, is one difficult exercise in creativity.

          Not only does everyone know well how to lie, they also know how to tell stories, both real (theirs or others’) and invented. So we all can lie and we all can tell stories. It seems, then, that we should be able to write fiction. I think that anybody who puts a mind to it *could* write fiction, but in most instances it would largely be autobiographical.

          Many fiction writers want very much to provide readers with wise insights as they unroll their stories while complicating the lives of their characters. However, sliding one’s insights into an unreal human being, as well as tossing the unreal human being into numerous cramping and disheveling experiences……is tough. It’s there that the disconnects begin. That is, the author has had to disconnect from her own experiences and find “substitute” experiences, as well as she has had to puff life into a personality balloon of her own making, but not one that closely represents her own personality. She has had to take frequent breaks from herself. What does she do? Reasonably, she grabs either the personality and experiences of her intimates, or she tries to concoct a personality and its experiences from a hydra of her intimates and, often, an intriguing stranger whom she can decorate with an imagined backstory.

          I’ve come to appreciate Maryann Evans’ _Middlemarch_ even more as I think about these issues. What an epic, wise, beautifully constructed novel! Not so much the “love interest”, tho, unfortunately.

        • Jacob Drum says:

          love your first answer. not sure how to take the second…

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh bugger all, Judy. I hadn’t bargained with your taking me so seriously.

          Well, then, ayup! Come on TNB sharks. Judy’s put the chum in the ocean. Frenzy time!

          @Jacob Drum, yeah I was being especially cheeky with that second one, but partly serious. I have no problem with modern fantasy and such, but I have a major problem with modern “serious” fiction. I don’t know whether it’s the Oprah effect, but much of it insists on palpably false efforts to tickle the empathy of the masses. So I re-used John Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy” tirade against the Romantic poets, which I think offers some strange parallels to contemporary popular literary fiction.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathetic_fallacy

          I expand on the argument a bit (just a bit; I should probably expand even further) here:

          http://copia.posterous.com/pondering-world-literature

        • JB says:

          “For the same reason that maintaining a network of consistent lies gets very wearisome after a while.”

          Are they lies if they never really happened, if, more or less, what you are writing is not a warping of some truth? Some say that fiction is how life ought to be (or to have been).

          Moreover, fiction writers are using “lies” to tell the truth, right? That doesn’t seem like it would be wearisome. Theoretically, there should be a light at the end of the tunnel.

          I think form, the sheer construction of the stuff, that gets wearisome. The rewriting. The revision. All those things your creative writing teachers tell you you need to do to creative a successful narrative. It’s a bitch.

          You know.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I think the idea of fiction is to tell lies to get at the truth. Straight from drama, through the school of Aristotle, if you like. I just don’t believe many modern, mainstream fiction writers do get either directly or indirectly at anything like truth. I think what they usually wind up with is a New York Times simulacrum of truth.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Uche, what you say here and in your copia post are teasers.

          I probably agree with you, but am not getting from you any reasons or help with examples for your main points. What do the modern writers do that have you feel as if they’re just racking up NYT “truth” points? And, conversely, what are the rare writers writing about that *do* offer the truth?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I certainly can’t dispute that. The biggest problem is that I don’t get through an awful lot of fiction these days. Certainly not popular fiction. I’ve tried to read a lot of it, and often find myself putting down the books in disgust after a chapter or two, or more usually, just never find the motivation to slog through. I think the fairest thing I could probably do to get beyond teasers, is to chronicle more exactly the problems I see, the next time I should try. I don’t really have the time for more of a rigorous study than that.

          I think it’s fair for anyone to brush off my attacks on fiction until I can elaborate, but I will say that my craving for truth comes from poetry. Because poetry concentrates so much from the writer in such a small place, it’s much easier to sniff out falseness. I think that spending so much time with poetry leads to heightened sensibility, and that sensibility is often sorely tested by the machinations of modern, Western conventions in fiction, conventions that I consider bad habits fanatically taught.

          As an aside, another problem of mine is that I am a slow reader. I can’t swallow without chewing. I argue with the author about every sentence. I look everything up, including re-looking up stuff that I really already know. I’m incapable of being an inert vessel for narrative, so anything in long form is quite a burden on my available energies, and I require the promise of significant payoff before I can commit. I find those characteristics compatible with much poetry, and much non-fiction, but not much fiction.

          The only other crumb I can offer is a little snapshot of what I do love in fiction. I love James Joyce. I love Robertson Davies. I love Amos Tutuola. I am very excited by the emergence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who tells stories as if she has never been exposed to whatever it is in modern curriculum that leads to empathetic fallacy. I read a lot of fantasy and some science fiction, especially from authors who do not insist on a literary approach to “character development,” which is to me one of the greatest sources of empathetic fallacy.

          Anyway, one thing you can be sure of is that this is a topic to which I’ll come back often. Perhaps at some point I’ll have accumulated my argument beyond teasers.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Uche, thanks for your explanations.

          You’ll find me a most unchallenging debater bcuz I’ve purposely read few novels, and for some of the reasons you cite. I’ve immensely enjoyed the TNB reviews of novels, though, and have bought several of the books, still working my way through them.

          You keep bringing up a weird-sounding phrase, “empathetic fallacy”. Explain it, please. It’s obviously pivotal to your evaluating of fiction.

          Also, give me the names of books by those novelists you mention (except Joyce). Better yet, paste in a couple passages from one or more of the books, and let’s have a look at the writing.

          :P;;;;;;

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Once again I have to say “fair enough.” 🙂

          OK. Warning: I just came up with the term today, anyway (in the comment above), and though it encapsulates something I’ve conceptually felt for a long, long time, this will be my first attempt to concisely explain it to another. As such, it might still fall short, and I expect to keep refining the definition.

          Empathetic fallacy: the introduction of false characteristics, themes and devices into fiction in an effort to to manipulate the empathetic response of the reader.

          It’s basically not telling the story straight. Of course, the tricky bit is the word “false”. This is where I admit that I have some work to do to get past teasers, because at the moment for me, it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things. I often encounter circumstances in fiction that are obviously derivative, and seem to scream to me “yeah, this one was put here specifically to stimulate XYZ conversation at the Stepford Society Book Club.” That’s what I mean by empathetic fallacy.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yeah, Uche, it *is* a tricky bit to skewer.

          Fiction writers DO manipulate.

          They MUST do so, or they’re writing non-fiction.

          Your example only shows enuff to tell me that you felt a particular manipulation did not ring true to you.

          That’s either an insufficiently described example, or we’re left with your judgement of the efficacy of the manipulation.

          “Fallacy” means an illogicality, an unreasonable reasoning.

          That’s logic, that’s reasoning……it is *not* a manipulation of events, people, and feelings/beliefs.

          I’m translating your definition to: “fake-feeling”—–which you could tag to characterisations, plot developments, or scene descriptions.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Uche, can you also have a go at answering the poem checklist guidelines for Liz Bassett’s poem called “First Love” that I put in the comments to Becky on her “community college” post today?

          me flying to the UK TOMORROW! 😉

          :P;;;;;;

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          That’s a pretty narrow definition of “fallacy”. It’s kinda like saying “truth is the boolean exclusive of false”. My term “empathetic fallacy” has nothing to do with logic. Believe me, as an engineer, and a former student of artificial intelligence, if I were angling to get logic into the picture, I’m well equipped to, but for the most part I reject Aristotelian reductionism (and yes, that extends even to _The Poetics_). You’ll find me instead in the region of Epicurus, and to some extent among the earlier Sophists.

          As for poem checklisting, hmmm, I don’t think that really suits my style at all. I’ve never been to a workshop but I wonder if that’s the sort of device that might be common at workshops? I can offer a quick unstructured comment, but no more.

  10. Art Edwards says:

    John Updike said something like, “Don’t read the classic because you love the. Read the classics until you love them.”

  11. Art Edwards says:

    If you don’t love fiction, don’t love it. It is harder work than cut-and-paste, and better, from my vantage, but plenty of people don’t love fiction and get by just fine.

  12. Dana says:

    That interview made my head hurt.

    Especially these answers: “No.”

    “Have you heard of music?”

    “You would need to ask Dave Eggers; I believe his sense is that he is now writing more fiction.”

    “No. See Flaubert (above).”

    “Yes.”

    “No.”

    Wow. For someone with such a rip roaring manifesto he sure doesn’t have much to say.

  13. jonathan evison says:

    . . . uh oh, gotta’ break from my nice-guy persona (in a big way) to fume a little about this . . . i would mark this as the beginning of a LITERARY FEUD, but then i have to remind myself that nobody really cares what i think, anyway, especially not shields, who almost surely won’t read it, because he’s out applying (and winning) thousand dollar grants which ought to be going to starving poets:

    this is all so nebulous, this talk of blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction . . . duh! great writing is always a blurring of this line!!! . . . 200 odd pages to make that argument? how about a 200 page manifesto arguing that lemonade is sweet, but it’s also sour? . . .gimme’ a break, shields, you’ve been stuck in the classroom too long . . .

    this whole “manifesto” points to the REAL PROBLEM with the novel–the fact that the academy has done its best MARGINALIZE THE FORM with a brand of intellectual elitism requiring that some instructor explain to me why something is good , and celebrates the “formalization” of language because nobody can tell a fucking story. . . quit talking, quit writing, and tell me a story, thank you very much . . . give me a genuine emotional experience, not a bunch of static navel-gazing . . . provoke my thoughts, don’t broadcast your own . . . i say its the AUTHOR not the novel which needs to go away . . .

    . . . this whole manifesto stinks to me of “publish or perish,” and i’ll bet there’s a lot professors out there who would back me up . . . shields said himself he hasn’t been publishing . . . hard to keep a job in the academy that way. . .

    . . .lastly, just because something is divisive, does not make it art . . . unless you wanna call a sarah palin speech art (and you will, and we’ll have to agree to disagree) . . .

    . . . and finally, who doesn’t cringe when they hear some terrible “band” appropriate james brown, and use it as the backbone of an otherwise terrible piece of music?. . . THIS is the direction which shields wants art to go? . . .

    . . .burn down the academy, i say! whitman would want us to! . . .so would twain, and dickens, and norris, and o’connor, and steinbeck, etc., etc. . . . the stories are NOT IN THE CLASSROOM, boys and girls! . . . the answer to the question “where do we go from here?” is not to be found in university basement, or in a slim volume of appropriations, but on the street . . .the street, i say!

    • Dana says:

      Hear hear Jonathon!! I was thinking about this again this morning and I think it’s a load of shit. Controversy for its own sake. (And a big fat paycheck.) What a douchebag.

    • Tom Hansen says:

      JE you beat me to the punch. Bravo.

      “Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection, and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”

      You know what I thought of when I read this? How much it must sound like what the Wall Street tycoons must be saying about any economy based on labor and production.

      Sure we wanna go there?

  14. Becky says:

    You people are all crazy.

    It’s so much cooler to not give a shit.

    I mean, check me out.

    I don’t give a shit.

    I’m so cool, I’m a cat.

  15. Wow. Interesting stuff. He’s a strong voice amongst the fearful mumbling about the future of eliterature, right or wrong. On the other hand, in the same way Marquez does nothing for him aesthetically, I find I have almost no interest in collage art or sampling. And I couldn’t disagree more that it makes no difference in your understanding or appreciation of a quote to know it came from Sonny Rollins or Sonny Barger. Ultimately, I love that this book has had such a polemic effect. For five minutes let’s talk theory and not ebook price points.

  16. Judy Prince says:

    Brad, “Impose”‘s appropriating (not attributing) your TNB interview with Shields makes the issue he raises Very Clear: It’s stealing and it’s illegal. It’s not arty or elevated or even humourous.

    If Shields had had his way, in the name of “art” he would not have attributed his books’ many statements to their authors. Now, “Impose” decides to gangster your work with impunity; p’raps they think they can get away with it.

    If an attribution by “Impose” exists, I failed to find it and would appreciate your pointing it out.

    If not, I intend to make a comment to “Impose” about it and encourages others to do so. Cheating and stealing are never “art”—-nor should they to be countenanced by journalists of any stripe.

  17. I think I’m with Mr. Beaudoin on this. It’s not where you take a stand that’s most interesting — or, one could argue, relevant — it’s that you at least stand up and recognize that these issues exist and Shields’s argument does have validity. Yes, these issues have been brewing for years now, but I’d say they’re more forward-moving than ever as the early 21st century begins to really assert its identity.

    Ultimately, anything that generates this much discussion is a worthwhile endeavor.

    All this said, Shields is dead wrong on Marquez. Or maybe I just like my lit old-fashioned.

  18. Schuyler says:

    Great interview Brad, thanks for sharing.

  19. Joshua says:

    So that went well.

  20. […] the (often Howard Sternsian) interviews.  With David “If You’re Hungry, Try The Sampler” Shields.  With Ellie “The Urban Planner” Our 1,500th Twitter […]

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