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Author Archive: "David Shields"

A Very Partial Reading List

I recently heard someone say that if a writer doesn't investigate uncomfortable places within himself, why would he bother writing? All great books wind up with their authors getting their teeth bashed in. Here are 124 books (and other works) that place the writer/narrator/speaker overtly in harm's way and, in so doing, attempt to assuage human loneliness by making the reader feel less freakish (Lopate). We're all Bozos on this bus. Every man contains within himself the entire human condition (Montaigne).


How Literature Did, More or Less, Save My Life

Heavily under the influence of self-reflexive documentary film (esp. Ross McElwee) and anthropological autobiography (esp. Renata Adler and George W. S. Trow) and monologuists (Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Sandra Bernhard, Chris Rock, Rick Reynolds, Denis Leary, Jonathan Goldstein, Sarah Silverman, Joe Frank), I found my work gravitating away from fiction toward nonfiction, then away from narrative toward literary collage. Every year I was teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Washington in which the main course packet was a big blue binder of my favorite quotations — by everyone from Heraclitus to Sophie Calle — about the excitement of a certain kind of essayistic gesture. It wasn't memoir; it wasn't journalistic; it wasn't scholarship. It was something else. It was the idea that if you want to write seriously, you might be willing to break the forms (Naipaul), that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one (Walter Benjamin), that if all you do is worship masterpieces you remain a pupil and have no chance of becoming a master ...


The Thing about Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Bored

So I wrote some books that used sports to get at larger questions, I hope, of race, vicariousness, masculinity, and American mythology, but I was wearying of writing about sports; I was still following sports out of the corner of my eye, but I no longer had any particular desire to continue writing about the subject. And yet I continue to be interested in/riveted by the body in motion — mine, yours, everybody's. Martha Graham: the body never lies. I had a desire to keep writing about the body, to show to myself and to readers what the larger project of my "sports writing" was about, and yet not deal with sports per se.

My daughter was an 11-year-old soccer genius, my father was a 94-year-old tennis champion, and my back was killing me (it hurt every time I turned the steering wheel). I kept writing riffs about the body, then I added data to my riffs about the body, then I added philosophical meditations — by myself and others — to the riffs and data crunch. The result was my meditation on mortality, The Thing about ...


“Fuck the Game If It Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’” – Public Enemy

Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity was my first work of nonfiction — the first work in which I forged a form that felt entirely "my own" and in which my voice felt unmistakably my own. Not to say that I wasn't proud of my three novels, esp. the latter two — Dead Languages and Handbook for Drowning — but I've always loved that line of Coetzee's in which he articulates what literary greatness is for him: when someone deforms the medium in a way it's never been deformed before in order to say something that only he or she can say. I'm not talking about greatness here, but I do think that Remote, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, does push the form forward for myself. I found a form (collage) that released my best intelligence, or so I see that book now. And yet where to go after Remote?

In some senses, Dead Languages, Handbook, and Remote are a bit of a trilogy — looking at my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood from different points of view: verbal, familial, televisual. I ...


Fifty-Two-Card Pickup

In my previous blog post, "Where Do Books Come From?", I talked in a general way about how I moved from my first novel, Heroes, to my second novel, Dead Languages, and in today's post, I'm going to talk about how Dead Languages became Handbook for Drowning became Remote — books I published in 1989, 1992, and 1996. The point here, I hope, is not to rehash the various books I've written, but to perhaps spur some interest on the part of writers and readers in how one book begets another book. A variety of things influence a writer to write his or her next book, but in a strange way, the biggest influence or one of the biggest influences is the satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction one feels about the previous book, and one is endlessly trying to write the "perfect book," but of course one doesn't finish a book; one abandons it (Valéry). "Fail better," as advised by S. Beckett.

I like Dead Languages, my second novel, more than my first novel, Heroes; Dead Languages feels more personal, more nervous-making, more risky, ...


Where Do Books Come From?

My new book, How Literature Saved My Life, was published by Knopf a little more than a month ago, and as I've been traveling around the country talking about it, a lot of people have asked me how the book exists in relation to my previous book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which was published by Knopf three years ago. Is HLSML a sequel to Reality Hunger? A prequel? A contradiction? A rethink?

I will get to these questions by the end of this week of blog posts, but I wanted to circle back to the broader question of how each book a writer writes is often the result — or at least is the result in my case — of thinking about the previous book the writer has written and how he or she wants to build on it, amplify it, extend it, undermine it. At its worst, this is, I suppose, what Geoff Dyer calls self-karaoke, but one hopes it's not always that or even often that.

I think of the first book I wrote, a novel called Heroes. Pretty traditional. Very traditional. ...


Reality Hunger: A Crash Course via the Epigraphs

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has three epigraphs: "Art is theft" (Picasso), "All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one" (Walter Benjamin), and "When we are not sure, we are alive" (Graham Greene). Since the entire book can be spied in these epigraphs and in their relationship to one another, I'll try to unpack them.

"Art is theft."

The book is awash in conscious, self-conscious, conspicuous appropriation. The mimetic function is replaced by manipulation of the original. Art is a conversation between and among artists; it's not a patent office. The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation flattens, domesticates, denudes the work of its power, its art, its danger. Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do — all of us — though not all of us know it yet. Reality can't be copyrighted. In the back of the book appears an appendix identifying the book's sources, to comply with the publisher's legal obligations, but until then I'm inviting/daring the reader to identify the "stolen" material and see how I've used/exploited it to make a new work of art. The history of art is the history of artists appropriating other artists; Reality Hunger makes that process of appropriation explicit and asks us to think in new ways about quotation and appropriation and copyright and "plagiarism." As I say at the beginning of the Appendix, "The book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I'm trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you've just read is not a bug but a feature."

"All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one."

Genre is a minimum-security prison. Every work should find its own form; how many, though, as Geoffrey O'Brien asks, really do? Reality Hunger weds the question of appropriation to the question of authorial ambiguity and generic slippage. This technique shadows the entire book. Most readers will spot only a handful of the most well-known quotations, suspect that a lot of the paragraphs are quotations (even when they can't quite place them), and come to regard the first-person singular whenever they meet it as a floating, umbrella self, sheltering simultaneously one voice ("my own") and multiple voices. The possibility that every word in the book might be quotation and not "original" to the "author" should arise. This continuous uncertainty is meant to be unsettling, making the reader feel on his or her pulse the dubiety of the first-person pronoun; it's me (you thought it was); no, it's not, it's Sonny Rollins; no, in an important sense, it's neither of us; it's both of us; it's all of us. My favorite readers of the book aren't going to be quote-spotters but those who relish the ambiguous authorship of the text.


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