Conducted by Gemma de Choisy
It was impossible to miss, once I started looking. On the corner of Swanson Street in the mostly-campus stretch of Melbourne’s downtown area, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Storey Hall is a venue with a distinctly mid-1990s Nickelodeon Television feel. Slime green bubbles of fiberglass – or maybe plaster, I couldn’t get close enough to tell which – oozed off of the building’s rooftop to dramatic effect. Inside, the ceiling kept with the theme of green in a geometric daze of translucent glass texture. Walking along the carpeted halls past intentionally warped walls, images of sci-fi classics came to mind more readily than the nonfiction masterpieces with which the NonfictionNOW 2012 Conference crowd, one presumes, might have been be more familiar.
Across the street at an indiscriminate café, my coffee choices were restricted to a Long Black or a Flat White – a caffeinated dichotomy it took my American palate a week to get used to. I ordered the Long Black, no milk. David Shields ordered a roasted vegetable baguette and a fruit salad, offering me half of the latter.
Shields sat himself in the back of the café, facing away from the door and the mild spring outside. He crossed his legs – black pants, black shoes – and his arms – black shirt – and asked the waitress to bring a pitcher of water. He is, he told me sheepishly, never sure whether or how much he should tip in Australia. When he smiled, he also shrugged, hunching his shoulders forward and tilting his chin down so that the wall lamp’s light reflected off his forehead. He smiled often and he spoke slowly, pausing, sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, as if waiting for the right word.
Shields was born in Los Angeles, California in 1956 and received an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1980. He is the author of three works of fiction and over a half-dozen nonfiction books including the 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger, in which Shields advocates for the obliteration of what he refers to as “the prison of genre”, and for the overturning of laws pertaining to the appropriation of the written word – what some might call plagiarism, and have. His upcoming book, How Literature Saved My Life, is due out from Knopf in early February. Last November, we sat down in Melbourne to talk about reading, writing, and controversy in literary nonfiction.
DE CHOISY: Most of the reviews for Reality Hunger were positive but invariably, whenever a writer calls for the end or blending of genre, some of the backlash is hostile. But rather than rehash that, I wonder if you can put your finger on why you think those negative reactions are so fierce?
DAVID SHIELDS: I think that – the why – is a good question to ask. For instance, there’s no great mystery as to what I feel about John D’Agata’s position. I blurbed his books in Reality Hunger. I loved About a Mountain and I loved Lifespan of a Fact, and its argument struck me as self-evident. I was stunned that it was controversial at all. Did you follow that, when it happened?
DE CHOISY: Yes. Actually, I accepted my spot in Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program right when the tempest hit the teacup.
SHIELDS: And your question is why people are so resistant to that way of thinking?
DE CHOISY: Yes: to the blending of genre, to the appropriation of other written work, to a certain doubt with regards to fact. Both of your books suggest an overtly transgressive approach to writing nonfiction. But why is that transgression perceived as threatening, do you think?
SHIELDS: Well, A few things come to mind. One is that the main people who pushed back against John’s book and, for that matter, the same people who pushed back against Reality Hunger were journalists. And basically, journalism as we knew it is over. Journalism as our parents grew up with it and as I grew up with it, when the New York Times was printing reality daily and a newspaper landed on your doorstep in the morning, doesn’t exist anymore. The Web has changed out lives in innumerable ways, that this is one of them. In that respect, I think some of the backlash was journalism’s last dying attempt to hold onto that purchase of reality. Also, we live in an unbelievably changing, turbulent, crazy-making time, and I think people have a desire to cling to these, really, kind of corny verities; the traditional novel, network television, news anchors. If there’s an earthquake, we have to send someone to Anderson Cooper to cover it, as if he’s going to somehow tell us exactly what’s going on, without subjective variation. I think that works that situate us in the time we’re actually living in tend to be dismissed as too troublemaking, to contrary to that desire for clean facts. Consider Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Fortune Magazine wanted a traditional magazine piece, and James Agee gave them something much stranger.
DE CHOISY: But if Agee had rendered that project with the typical mode of telling, would have been false to his subjective, extremely profound experience with the families he worked with. The content wouldn’t have fit form.
SHIELDS: Exactly! In Reality Hunger I say that we live in a complete media saturated, simulated culture, and as a result we crave the illusion of reality in our art. We really crave the real. And I just think that when a work like Reality Hunger, say, or John’s book problematize this notion of the real, to me that’s interesting. And as traditional journalism is demolished by the Web, people turn towards nostalgic forms as a way to escape into comfortable, but perhaps – at least I think – outmoded definitions of reality.
DE CHOISY: When I tried to describe Reality Hunger to someone who hadn’t read it yet, the best way I could explain what it was about was to call it heretical. By which I mean, it’s a book, like D’Agata’s, that could be interpreted as heresy within current literary culture, which posits clear lines between fiction and nonfiction.
SHIELDS: Wow. That’s an idea…that’s Reality Hunger is really a work of heresy in which I’m saying…what exactly?
DE CHOISY: From your perspective, that the world is not flat. That there is an increasing unknowability with regards to fact, and that allegiance to meaning might actually be more important than allegiance to absolute verity in literary nonfiction.
SHIELDS: You know, that’s a neat interpretation. I think you’re right, I think it is heresy.
DE CHOISY: And don’t all heretical works attack someone’s identity? For writers – everyone at the NonfictionNOW conference – books are enormously important to us. Literature has shaped our lives. To suggest that the terra firma on which we’ve rested is shifting is a disquieting thought, one that threatens the relevance of something a good many of us are deeply attached to.
SHIELDS: That’s beautiful, though, that shifting! All great literature, really great literature either defines or dissolves genre. And that’s what I think we’re approaching.
DE CHOISY: A paradigm shift?
SHIELDS: Yes, you could call it that. What do you think the main heresy that Reality Hunger exposes is?
DE CHOISY: It calls into question the illusion of an objective reality – the idea that we have a firm grasp on fact versus not-fact, and that there’s a litmus test to discern the one from the other. If you can say that you have enough documentation, if you have an audio recording, if you have a time stamp, and three or more eye witnesses, then yes, something can be called real within the historical and contemporary confines of nonfiction as a genre. You seem to take the Tim Obrien approach: “A think may happen and be a total lie: another thing may not happen and be truer than truth.”
SHIELDS: Exactly. An example I often give, which is in my upcoming book, is a time my wife and I were walking down the street and saw a car accident happen right in front of us. Five seconds after the accident, she and I had diametrically opposed views of what we had just seen, in broad daylight, in spring, in Seattle. The two of us couldn’t even agree on what we had seen a few seconds earlier, and yet as readers we’re supposed to believe, when we read a biography, say, that we can determine exactly what happened in Thomas Jefferson’s childhood? You can’t be serious! If we’re honest about the providence of so many augmented works – Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Edmund Gosse’s dialogue in Father and Son. Or Thomas De Quincey, take him as an example!
DE CHOISY: Confessions of an English Opium Eater?
SHIELDS: Yes. He basically fictionalizes the last thirty years of his life. Then there’s Vivian Gornick in Fierce Attachments, where she hugely collated and fictionalized the moments between her mother and herself. And these aren’t violations, is what I’m saying. They’re part of the essay tradition.
DE CHOISY: The essay is a tricky beast, though. Its identity is nebulous at best. What is the essay to you?
SHIELDS: To me, it’s a holding tank in which to privilege contemplation.
DE CHOISY: Your upcoming book, How Literature Saved My Life, is coming out in February. How does that book match your definition of the essay?
SHIELDS: The point with this next book was that I wanted to embody and inform what I was calling for in Reality Hunger. In the sense that I was trying to call for a certain – oh, what would you call it other than collage?
DE CHOISY: A kaleidoscopic approach to ideas?
SHIELDS: Yes, I suppose that’s it. A genre-crossing blend of criticism, memoir, philosophy. Also reportage, also fiction. Reality Hunger, in a certain sense, does all of that but it’s essentially a theoretical work with some gestures towards the autobiographical. So first and foremost, in this new book, I wanted to exemplify that theory. Second of all, there is a certain kind of imperial tone to Reality Hunger. In that book I present myself as an All-Knowing Oz who’s got it all figured out, and I wanted to totally undermine that with this new one.
DE CHOISY: Why? To present a little more vulnerability?
SHIELDS: Yes. And, I’m aware that Reality Hunger could be read as an attempt to kill off literature. I wanted to make it emphatically clear to myself and to readers that that’s not the case. I’m trying to save the patient, not kill it. I’m trying to prescribe a turbo charge for literature, not demolish it.
DE CHOISY: So you’re hoping for a reincarnation?
SHIELDS: Yes, and you know, when I started writing this new book I was just putting together fragments. At the time, I was trying to figure out how the fragments all fit with one another. But looking back on it now, I do believe I was trying to explain to myself and to readers what I hope literature can be.
DE CHOISY: Are you looking to reconstitute literatures purpose? Or rather, present a new idea for what literature’s purpose could be under a new approach to genre?
SHIELDS: I think that’s well said. I’m not saying, “Jane Austen and Anton Chekov are great and let’s all just genuflect to the monuments of the past.” As you say, I want to reconstitute literature. I’m asking how reading and writing can exist as artful, worthwhile things in a post digital age. And, how can we continue to love literature while treating it as a real activity – not as a sort of coterie activity or nostalgic activity – but as something that is congruent with our actual lives – at the speed and velocity of the violence, the humor, the channel changing. 29
DE CHOISY: Tell me more about falling out of love with the novel. You’ve said that before you wrote Reality Hunger, you were working on novel but found it almost impossible to write, despite already having written several.
SHIELDS: Yes, that’s true. It was only after my daughter was born that I turned to nonfiction. Now, did Natalie really turn me from a fiction to a nonfiction writer? Perhaps. It seems more lie coincidental to me now, though in the new book I say it as an absolute fact. But one never knows about these things. That is what I’m reaching at in How Literature Saved My Life, or at least those are the qualities that I find in the works that impacted me the most. I begin the by talking about my ambivalence – I’m an ambivalent person, I guess every essayist is – and about certain sadnesses and melancholies, and some relatively serious despairs, especially vis a vis loves and deaths. The book transitions about halfway through with reflection on a flirtation with suicide. At that point, I grasped onto literature as a kind of life raft, and literature of a certain kind breaks down for me and I come to the end of my affair with the novel and realize that the artists of the future will become digital manipulators and more formally and technically adroit than I am. That worried me. I worried that I may be a dinosaur in the age of a digital culture if I stuck to tried and true modes of writing. My parents were journalists, and I vowed to become a fiction writer so as to not follow in their exact footsteps. I wrote three novels, one of which was novel told in stories. And then there was the Paul on the road to Damascus moment where I just could not do the novelistic thing. I was trying to write a novel about a couple where were obsessed with media culture and for years I just spun wheels trying to find a fictional apparatus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that shortly after my daughter was born in 1993 I just said, basically, “Fuck it, I’m going to go after what I really care about.”
DE CHOISY: Which was?
SHIELDS: My own ambivalence towards media culture, instead of that of seven characters all living in St. Paul, Minnesota. I didn’t care about the novelistic apparatus, and so much was lost the moment I invoked it. I wanted to write my own nerve ending.
DE CHOISY: That was a major shift for you.
SHIELDS: That’s the moment in my life that I’m the most proud of because I had reached a limit point where, instead of going forward with the novel and forcing it to happen, I paid attention to what the work was trying to do. In doing that, I found the form that released my best intelligence.
DE CHOISY: Collage, you mean?
DE CHOISY: How did you come to that approach? Do you think it arose instinctively, or was it something you found in other writers?
SHIELDS: That’s a good question. I mean, I so do love other works of literary collage.
DE CHOISY Like the Book of Disquiet?
SHIELDS: Oh, yes, that was a big influence for me, as you can probably guess. In fact I talk about Pessoa in How Literature Saved My Life. I think the big thing for me at the time, with regards to collage, was that I was tired of teaching fiction. I had written a few works of fiction. I was supposedly reading and writing and teaching fiction, but I was watching a lot of self-reflexive documentaries and was watching listening to a huge amount of stand-up comedy and performance art, and was reading a lot of what I call anthropological autobiography, by which I mean memoir by people who’ve used themselves as a lightning rod to approach a culture. People like George W.S. Trow and Renatta Adler. Those were the works that I absolutely, genuinely loved as oppose to the stuff I was teaching.
DE CHOISY: What had you been teaching?
SHIELDS: Oh, the usual anthologies. You know, like the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, which had all of these remarkably well-made stories that I felt nothing towards. And so, as I was trying to write Remote, my fourth book and first work of nonfiction, I said to myself, “Hey, stupid, instead of trying to write the novels that you no longer read and don’t want to teach, how about trying to have your work embody the very qualities that you so love in Renatta Adler, Sandra Bernard, Spalding Gray, Errol Morris, etc.” 31 So finally, my own work caught up with the work I was excited about. It took a while, but at that point, I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d found a way into my own work.
DE CHOISY: That sounds liberating.
SHIELDS: It was! And it all came down to exposing myself to a huge amount of work that really spoke to me, and then allowing my work to do that thing, the very thing that made the works I loved so captivating. It was all of this that lead up to a realization about how literature can and did save my life; the ambivalence and despair, the suicidal flirtation, feeling both love and a skepticism towards literature, and a developing a sense of where I exist as a writer in a digital age. It a way, I guess that took an affirmation of literature’s uselessness.
DE CHOISY: You consider literature useless, despite its having saved your life?
SHIELDS: Absolutely. Because with that understanding came the realization that it’s literature’s uselessness that makes it invaluable.
DE CHOISY: What is that particular uselessness, then? And what is the value that it holds?
SHIELDS: I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness but, of course, it can’t. There’s nothing that can assuage human loneliness. And literature doesn’t lie about that. That’s the greatest truth that literature tells. That’s why literature is essential.
Gemma de Choisy is a writer based in Iowa City, IA and Glastonbury, UK. She is a firstyear MFA student in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and co-host of The Lit Show, a literature-loving radio program on KRUI.