So, David, you recently got back from a long book tour; what were you reading in your downtime on the road? Any book(s) really blowing you away right now?

Have you heard of this book called Shit My Dad Says?  I love it a lot.

What’s making you love this book so much right now?

What do I love about the book? I was talking to Laurie about it tonight, as we walked around Green Lake. I really love how compressed the book is. I love how there is no space between the articulation and the embodiment of the articulation. I love how there are vast reservoirs of feeling beneath Justin’s voice and beneath the father’s aphorisms. The father is legitimately smart, even wise; he’s trying to teach his son that life is only blood and bones. Nothing more and nothing less. The son is trying to express to his father his bottomless love and complex admiration.

I have been aware of Shit My Dad Says as a blog. So there is a book out now also? What are the things about the book that you like? I thought the blog was pretty funny. The blog says they are getting a show on CBS. I wonder if the dad will slowly become aware of his minor celebrity status and become more self-aware, thus spoiling the main source of humor? The massive unselfconsciousness might be polluted?

Yep, there’s a blog posting, and it’s already become a TV show (bad, apparently) and a best-selling book. It sounds too easy–this guy just collecting vulgar wisdoms that his father says, but the book is actually kind of lovely. I love how Justin Halpern writes, and I love the mix between his father’s crazy truth-telling and the son slowly getting it. That is, the title is what it is because the son finally learns to embrace the rude vitality of the father. Also, the book is, to me, hugely about Vietnam—the father was a medic in Vietnam–and to me, based on a single crucial scene, it’s not inconsiderably about the father endlessly processing that violence, that anger. It’s also hugely about being Jewish in America–again, very obliquely, mentioned just once; it’s about the father teaching the son how to be Jewish and male in America, which is a complicated thing.

The blog entries all look like about the length of a Twitter post. Is the book set up that way, too? From what I’ve seen of the blog, the whole thing comes off as a very vulgar, un-PC version of something like La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims or Pascal’s Pensées: raw aphorisms that all seem to have some sort of brutal truth at the core. Does the book layout look at all like the blog–a bunch of 200-character bursts?

Yep. I think each entry is meant to be 140 characters or less: the length of a tweet. I love how it just cuts to the chase. How short all of the sections are–how it tries to have as thin a membrane as possible between author and reader and writer, and I love how it’s essentially a tape recording of the father’s best lines, overdubbed with very brief monologues by the son. To me, it’s almost a model for what writing can be now. It’s not great or even good, probably, really, finally, but above all it’s not boring. Which is everything to me. I compare it to the excerpt in the NYer recently of Franzen’s new novel. I couldn’t read past the first paragraph’s high-church sonorities, which have zero to do with life now lived.

The analogy of the tape recording of the father with color commentary by the son is a good one. I like that sort of double-layered narrative. It almost sounds like what I love about a really well-done sports broadcast. You have the main voice calling out all the detail as it happens, and then you have the color-commentator adding a less specific, wider view on events.

That’s a great analogy, but I’d change it more to the father is the action on the field, then the son is the announcer trying to explain it, analyze it, get it.

So are you seeing Halpern’s book as a pretty much flawless work?

The only mistake in the book is the last ten pages, and it’s a serious one. The mask comes off, and everything goes badly sentimental.

Till then I love the book.

That is interesting about the last 10 pages. I wonder why Halpern makes the sudden change at the end? Is it because he felt that a book needs a “book-ish” ending? Or maybe it was editorial advice?

It’s a terrible move. Almost certainly derived from editorial advice.  In many ways it ruins the book, as does the sit-com.

Do you think Shit My Dad Says could be a glimpse of a new form of book born out of the Myspace/Facebook/Twitter realm? Halpern’s instinct was to make a blog first. The book seems to be a secondary recasting of the blog. Before this conversation I didn’t know it was a book. To me it was a blog people kept telling me about.

I do think it suggests that you can be living as an unemployed screenwriter in San Diego and six months later you’re a best-selling writer. I love that.

Do you think Halpern put the book together by harvesting and editing down the blog posts that had built up over a stretch of time? Or was the blog part of a more deliberate plan, and the book was always the end goal? For some reason I find the latter scenario more artistically appealing, maybe because it starts to feel more like organic folk art. Also, do you think a book like this shows that the social networking, web-log impulse can lead to good literature?

I definitely don’t see it as a deliberate plan. If it is, I’ll kill myself. Can social networking, blogging generate great books? On very rare occasions such as this, yes. Justin Halpern has said that he was collecting notes for a screenplay, then of course the notes became tweets, tweets became blog, website, book, etc. That’s crucial for me: the notes for the book are the book, are the better version of the book than any too-considered book.

As I mentioned above, I find it interesting that I was told about Shit My Dad Says by a handful of people, but always in terms of it being a blog I should check out. It might be because the book has been out only a few weeks. But it makes me think about the fact that in the course of everyday discourse at work and in conversations with friends, I’m almost always being urged to check out blogs, YouTube videos, the odd TV show episode or movie now and then, and sometimes podcasts. Books are probably the furthest down on that list. Books don’t seem to occupy the “fun zone” (for lack of a better term). The word-of-mouth recommendations I get from friends are usually some sort of oral endorsement about how great something is and how I really need to have a look because I am missing out on the fun. That is how I found out about Shit My Dad Says. Someone said, “Have you ever read [the blog] Shit My Dad Says? It’s hilarious. This kid just records all the crazy stuff his dad says, and his dad says some real messed-up stuff.”  I’ll wager a million dollars that I’ll never have one of these folks come up to me and say, “Hey, have you heard of this book Shit My Dad Says? It’s great.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems far less likely to happen.

I think that’s crucial. The book as object is, as you say, not part of the “fun zone.” Book culture is dead. Books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes. That’s what I try to do. Those are the books I love, read, teach, and try to write. Eg, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, David Markson’s This is Not a Novel, Leonard Michaels’s “Journal.” They’re all more literary versions of Shit My Day Says, but they all have that cut-to-the-bone, cut-to-the-chase quality. “This is how we write now.” At least it’s how I write and read now.

It just seems that 20-something and 30-something people I am in contact with are much more open to a new reading experience when it is a blog. I know there have got to be a hundred complex reasons as to why that is, but none of them change the fact that these folks, these non-literature-heads are reading. They haven’t stopped reading; they just don’t get as excited about the book form. I wonder if this is because the blog form is so much easier, immediate, low-time-commitment, non-homework-ish, and of course free?

Crucial for me are the immediacy, the relative lack of scrim between writer and reader, the promised delivery of unmediated reality, the pseudo-artlessness, the nakedness, the comedy, the real feeling hidden 10 fathoms deep.

I think for the most part we can rule out cost as a factor, because these same people don’t hesitate to buy a CD even if they could download it, if the spirit moves them enough or if the artwork is cool enough or if the significance of the release is high enough. I think the reason for these media habits has more to do with low time commitment, and also the feeling that with a blog they are getting something “rawer,” more unfiltered, more direct from writer to reader.

That’s so much what I argue, of course, throughout Reality Hunger. For instance, this new book about David Foster Wallace, called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. David Lipsky spent a couple of weeks with Wallace 14 years ago, then 13 years later he went back and excavated the notes. The book pretends to be just a compilation of notes, and maybe that’s all it is, but to me–this might be way too generous of a reading–it’s a meditation on two sensibilities: desperate art and pure commerce. Lipsky, I hope, knows what he’s doing: evoking himself as the very quintessence of everything Wallace despised.

I don’t think that these media-use habits that we’re talking about mean the book is obsolete. I think it means that we as writers are somehow missing a new element. It could be that a book is just less inherently immediate and raw because it has to go through the old-fashioned labyrinth of the publishing industry, and even when the book is printed and ready to go, you have to either go down to a store to get it, or have it shipped to you via Amazon. But I think this is a constraint that we writers can work around. I think it’s just a challenge for us–to give the book that “live” feel, that up-to-date, awake, aware, instant feel. There will always be a place for, say, the traditional novel that is read on the beach on vacation or chapter by chapter at bedtime for a month as a means of entertainment and escape. But there is this whole other, newer form of reading that most books being published today don’t have an answer for. Even achieving a happy medium between the new and old reading experience would be a great breakthrough. To me a book like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets has that sizzle on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. It’s boiled down to the bare elements, stripped down to just the basic notes (in both senses of the word).

That’s what I’m aiming for. The paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle is everything to me. Fusselman, Gray, Michaels, Nelson, to take just a few examples—-these books books have an extraordinarily artful “artlessness” that is to me crucial to contemporary art.

I have been taking notes and collecting quotes for nearly 2 years, all for this future book that I hope will materialize at some point. But every time I attempt to turn the notes into the book, I hate the results. It also doesn’t hurt that I love all these books, like The Pharmacist’s Mate, that are collections of scraps laid out in a pleasing manner. I think my love of this sort of structural style definitely nudges me towards the notes staying notes, or you could say “the book” staying notes. Really what I have built is a database of little meditations, riffs, metaphors, and quotations. I even find my notes on how the book should be structured to be full of energy, because it is an outline of my massive aspirations for the book, most of which I have no hope of actually pulling off. It almost feels like my book wants to be about the planning of a book. A hypothetical literature that can’t exist under earth’s current gravity. So, yes, I am with you all the way regarding your interest in these sorts of books.

The notes are the book, I promise you.

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DAVID SHIELDS’s new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is being published by Knopf on February 23, 2010. His previous book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, (Knopf, 2008), was a New York Times bestseller. He is the author of eight other books, including Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages: A Novel, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Utne Reader; he’s written reviews for the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Boston Globe, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Shields has received a Guggenheim fellowship, two NEA fellowships, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington. Since 1996 he has also been a member of the faculty in Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA Program for Writers, in Asheville, North Carolina. His work has been translated into a dozen languages.

8 responses to “David Shields: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    I think the idea of blending media is important, and while the impending death of printed books remains a matter of opinion, I definitely agree the trend of successful printed novels and non-fiction will be toward this unfiltered reality you mention. A great example of this for me is House of Leaves. Here you have a novel that is a collection of notes, pictures, a manuscript, and more that give the impression of a real event…that the event is supernatural (and believable) demonstrates the power of this mixed media, reality-based rawness.

    I loved this idea and tried to use it as a template for my next novel. My chapters are very short. The first-person protagonist breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader, engaging him. He questions the validity of the reader spending his time reading a novel, living in a fantasy world (my protagonist also believes he is living in a fantasy world). There are hyperlinks in the book. The protagonist reveals his email address, and I plan to answer queries to him directly. Set him up with a blog that contains content and stories not available in the novel text. The point of the story is to question reality and blend worlds, so I figure if the reader feels closer to the text, that he can email the guy, maybe that will give the novel a chance to feel immediate the way The Blair Witch Project did for some. Or maybe it will come off as hackneyed and trying too hard. I suppose it’s all in the execution.

    I read the Listi interview as well. Thanks for sharing your ideas here.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    The skeptic in me has always wondered if the “Shit My Dad Says” axioms were as real and off-the-cuff as they seem (in Twitterland), or if they were re-crafted by the author for the sake of economy and depth.

    Thanks for the heads up on Lipsky’s book. I still remember picking up my hardcover copy of “Infinite Jest” after it first hit the shelves, and the manic weeks that ensued as I became engrossed in it. I surely was insufferable during that period for anyone unfortunate enough to have to listen to me rave about that novel as I plodded through it.

  3. Greg Olear says:

    This was interesting to read, David, as was the interview with Brad.

    I disagree with the David Shields who says books don’t often occupy the “fun zone,” that books are not discussed and recommended as much as blogs or YouTube clips. The Harry Potter books, the Twilight series, Eat Pray Love and now Committed, Running With Scissors, The DaVinci Code, The Shack, the Mitch Albom catalog, and those are just the obvious examples. Are these high literature? Of course not. But they certainly occupy a central part of the culture. The only two blogs that approached that level of ubiquity recently are Shit and the one about what white people like, whose exact title escapes me. And maybe Post Secret, if that even counts. Meanwhile, the blogs and (especially) YouTube clips that go viral are, 99% of the time, disposable. Do I need to watch the “Chocolate Rain” guy more than once?

    The novel, as you suggest, can never have an “immediate element,” any more than a nonfiction book about, say, Watergate can have the immediacy of the articles that ran in the Washington Post. Instead the novel trades that quality for greater insight and better craftsmanship, which confer longevity on a piece of art. That’s a trade-off I’ll make every time. I’m not interested in Ian McEwan tweeting Atonement.

    As for the idea of art by appropriation, or sampling, or collage, or whatever name we give it — and it is, undeniably, art; no argument there — the problem is that it’s finite. Like parody, you’re limited by the need for adequate source material. It’s like adapting a new Lego house from an old Lego house set. Sooner or later, someone has to provide more Lego bricks.

    • Tom Hansen says:

      Greg: “The novel, as you suggest, can never have an “immediate element,” any more than a nonfiction book about, say, Watergate can have the immediacy of the articles that ran in the Washington Post. Instead the novel trades that quality for greater insight and better craftsmanship, which confer longevity on a piece of art.”

      I’m far from being an academic on these matters, and while I totally appreciate Shields’ commitment to books being “not boring,” I see the evolution of books toward something more immediate and made up of bite-sized pieces coming at the expense of something else. Is it something we need to try and hang on to, or should we just go with it? I dunno. I do think there is something that cannot be conveyed except with long, wordy, slowly developing narrative.

      I deliberately structured my memoir to throw the reader into the pit of the muck (the reality, so to speak, or the present) right off the bat to hook them. It even happens within chapters at times, action, reflection, end. Apparently it worked, readers often tell me they read it in one sitting (I think it’s 76,000 words). My point being that while I wrote it I was concerned that the book goes by so fast that some of the deeper issues and themes that are there in the book get short shrift. I liken it to eating too fast.

      • Greg Olear says:

        I really have to read your memoir. It’s on my list.

        My point is that, while there’s much to be said for books you can read in one sitting — and mine is one of those, too — I love a book like, say, Austerlitz, which is so dense and rich with detail and obviously written by someone smarter than me, who writes better than I do. I love that someone so talented has invested the time.

  4. Tom Hansen says:

    Welcome to TNB and the self-interview

  5. […] someone else’s backswing. Okay, so….sorry this is so long-winded….so I was just reading that David Shields self-interview where for the third time he more or less said “literature is dead” and I was thinking how that was […]

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    “I definitely don’t see it as a deliberate plan. If it is, I’ll kill myself.”

    Dear David Shields: welcome to TNB. It is a true pleasure to have you here.

    Ah, how the lines are blurring. But is there a point where Luddism and love of culture overlap and blur? Can we be too pretentious or too lowbrow in our selection of what is and isn’t of value, or are we allowed our say as consumers and influencers of culture?

    This shit is fascinating, man.

    I’d prefer to be fascinated by it while I was making some money from it, of course.

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