by David Shields, March 22, 2013 10:00 AM
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 (Prokofiev
). I found all around me that the discussion of "nonfiction" defined the form downward — as some sort of literal transcription service — and I knew that wasn't what it felt like to write a book of "nonfiction" that strived to reach literary art.
Every year, this course packet became less repetitious, less full of typos, and I found myself pushing the passages — sometimes written by me, sometimes written by others, sometimes originally written by others and remixed by me — into rubrics, otherwise known as chapters. Stuff about memory clung to the chapter on memory; stuff about hip-hop clung to the hip-hop chapter. This course packet became my book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, published a few years ago. The book was an attempt to evacuate the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, overturn the laws regarding appropriation, and encourage writers and other artists to create new forms for the 21st century.
The book generated a lot of discussion — much of it, to my ear, pretty beside the point. The talking points for the book became "the novel is dead" and "it's okay to steal stuff," neither of which I say. Here, too, there was method to my madness — the whole point of my remixing other people's words was that I wanted to embody on the page the idea I was arguing for: namely, when you are not sure, you are alive. Just as I was arguing for instability of genre, I wanted the reader to experience instability of provenance.
In some ways, Reality Hunger burned literature down to the ground. I wanted to write a book that built literature back up for myself. I wasn't trying to kill the patient; I was trying to save the patient. But the patient was terminal — that much I was sure of. So I wound up writing How Literature Saved My Life, which Knopf published last month. I think of it as practice to Reality Hunger's theory — or as one reviewer called it, "the heart to the manifesto's mind" (Minna Proctor, Bookforum). I like that phrase — how could I not? — and I see How Literature Saved My Life as a fairly explicit attempt to apply the collage techniques that I championed and theorized about in Reality Hunger (and, to a lesser extent, in Enough about You: Notes toward the New Autobiography in 2002). HLSML is more visceral than Reality Hunger, more vulnerable. I begin HLSML with an ode to Ben Lerner's great Leaving the Atocha Station. I teach Lerner's question as my own: How to feel now? How to create art now? HLSML is divided into eight chapters and it takes the reader on what I hope is a serious emotional journey, an intellectual detective story.
I talk about my own ambivalence toward everything, including my own feelings; how difficult it is to get past yourself — to leave the Atocha Station — and fully love someone else; how difficult it is to get past the melancholy structure of the human (or only my?) mind; the unsolvable problem of death — how difficult I find it is to live a meaningful life in the shadow of mortality and without any religious consolation; I flirt, none too seriously, with suicide; I find affirmation and refuge in literature; but that quickly curdles and I crave a more naked art (see monologuists above) in which there is as little membrane as possible between life and art; I wonder if I even love art anymore or only artfully arranged life; and in the final chapter — which is meant to be genuinely suspenseful — I attempt to find a life and art that I can live with. Ironically, paradoxically, such art pivots on the very self-consciousness that has haunted me throughout the book (throughout my life).
I hugely love DFW's statement that we're existentially alone on the planet — you can't know what I'm thinking and feeling, and I can't know what you're thinking and feeling, but that literature at its best is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness. Wallace then went on to say that in fiction there is a huge amount of contrivance, but don't worry; we can get past this contrivance. That part of his statement I'm not in sympathy with. I want as thin a membrane, etc. I want a literature in which the writer foregrounds as fully as possible how he/she solves/solved/didn't solve the problem of being alive. I want a literature that doesn't allow us to escape existence but teaches us how to endure it (see Samuel Johnson). Such a literature I find truly loneliness-assuaging and life-saving.
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by David Shields, March 21, 2013 10:00 AM
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 Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, which was published five years ago and was to me the completion of a lifelong project about the body — from my first novel, Heroes, which deals with a sportswriter's crush on a college athlete, to Handbook for Drowning, which is obsessed with, um, drowning, to books like Black Planet and Baseball Is Just Baseball and Body Politic, all of which are obsessed to the point of mania with the workings of the body.
Having written at age 53 a book about death, I wasn't sure where to go next. It seemed like a bit of an impasse/road block/early graveyard. I spent months staring at the walls, not sure what book would come next. I was fascinated by the range of reactions to Thing about Life — some readers loved it and got how the different platforms were working together, but other people were completely baffled by the book, flummoxed by it. I wanted to explain to myself, to any readers who were interested, to my friends, colleagues, students, what I was trying to do — that there was method in my madness. How to do so without boring myself to death? I wasn't sure.
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by David Shields, March 20, 2013 10:00 AM
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 had no new experience I could or needed or wanted to write about. The novel as an operating system was not firing for me. I had become a weirdly fanatical fan of the Seattle Sonics in the early to mid-'90s, and I thought I needed to either kill the habit or do something with it. I spent a year going to Sonics games and keeping a journal of how white men, inc. myself, projected their fears and fantasies on black men's bodies. All of this was at the time of the Rodney King video, Clarence Thomas hearing, O. J. Simpson trial. I could feel racial tension in so many social interactions in my life in Seattle. Through the theater of the NBA, I wanted to write about race and the way in which all of us project what they can't understand in themselves onto a demonized other — men/women, east/west, parents/children, Jew/WASP, black/white, spectator/star.
Sports are to me an amazingly rich canvas on which to explore virtually every aspect of American society, since the issues are so manifest, and yet they are constantly airbrushed/suppressed, which makes them that much more toxic. All the soldiers die on an imaginary battlefield, getting up to live another day, at least for the nonce. Black Planet led to another "sports book," Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro — Ichiro is so opposite to Gary Payton that he is Gary Payton; there's a point at which Ichiro is so aggressively unaggressive he's aggressive — and that book led to yet another sports book, or a book that was perceived to be about sports: Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. I like some of the essays in this book (e.g., my essay on Howard Cosell) as much as anything I've written. I'm proud of these three works "about sports"; they are about so much more than sports — American myth, race, masculine vicariousness, etc. etc. — but I never wanted to be the go-to guy for deep-think sports pieces. That was never my goal in life. Sports had gotten me out of myself, but I needed to figure out a way to write about larger subjects that were not televised on the sports channel.
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by David Shields, March 19, 2013 10:01 AM
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
— 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, more idiosyncratic, more "me," for lack of a better term. And yet there were things about the book that I came to feel unthrilled about — the relative slowness of pace, the way in which that book is wrapped tightly within the growing-up-novel genre. Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories came out a few years after Dead Languages, and in some ways it's a bit of a sequel, or even a prequel, to Dead Languages, but it feels to me more fleet-footed, more boundary-jumping (mixing between essay and story, confession and reportage and fantasia), and more multi-perspective.
Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories is a novel, just barely — it hovers between stories and essays, and it hovers between story collection and novel. I thought I could and would write my fourth book, Remote, as a novel, but what I wasn't counting on was that Handbook had already pushed me over the cliff into collage, essayistic nonfiction, and genre-blurring. To the degree Handbook for Drowning gestured backward to my novels and forward toward my book-length essays, it created a way for me to write Remote. I tried to write Remote as a novel, but I simply couldn't get traction on it as a novel and wound up writing it instead as a game of 52-card pickup — a work of literary collage built of 52 chapters. It's one of my favorite books that I have written, but it began as a series of digressions to a novel that I couldn't write.
In my next blog post, I'll talk about how I came to an end of something with Remote as well — it was a beginning of something exciting for me formally, but I needed to figure out a way to not keep writing about myself, and sports — of all things — was the canvas on which I would attempt to do that.
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by David Shields, March 18, 2013 10:00 AM
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. I realized that I wanted to write something much more personal, subjective. I wanted to write something having less to do with setting and plot and invented characters and much more to do with my own life and the obsessions that animate it. I wanted to place myself much more directly in harm's way. I wanted somewhere in the work for myself to exist — I wanted a sense of danger and risk, so I wrote my second book, a very autobiographical novel called Dead Languages, about a boy (some version of myself, surely) who stutters so badly that he worships words.
In my next post, tomorrow, I'll try to take up how this, too, led me to yet another impasse, and so the next book was an attempt to yet again address the limits of the book just written and build off it into a new direction.
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by David Shields, February 15, 2010 3:40 PM
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.
For the whole argument of the book is to put reality within quadruple quotation marks. Reality here isn't straightforward or easily accessed; it's slippery, evasive. Just as authorship is ambiguous, knowledge is dubious, and truth is unknown or at the very least relative. The crucial, yoking gesture of the book is to web ambiguity of the provenance of quotation with ambiguity of genre — fiction, nonfiction, the lure and blur of the real. Art, not to mention life, seems to happen primarily in liminal spaces, edited, quoted and quoted again, and recontextualized, re-placed, collaged, stitched together. The book argues this idea passionately; it also needs to embody it.
"When we are not sure, we are alive."
By unmooring genre and deactivating sources, I'm aiming to both argue for and embody doubt. Nonfiction, if it's not defined downward as mere journalism or memoir, is a way to foreground the essential philosophical questions — what is real? what is knowledge? what is memory? what's a self? Great nonfiction is genuinely destabilizing in a way that no other form is. It's congruent with the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: the perceiver by his very presence alters what he perceives. What I want to do is take the banality of the form (the literalness of "facts," "truth," "reality," the "self"), turn it inside out, and make nonfiction a staging area for the investigation of any claim of facts and truth — an extremely rich theater for investigating the most serious epistemological questions. The lyric essay is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door.
It's crucial, in my formulation, that both the writer and reader not be certain what the form is, that the work be allowed to go wherever it needs to go to penetrate its subject. My recent misreading of David Remnick's profile of Bill Clinton in The New Yorker as the first page of Miranda July's short story was more interesting to me than the story itself; the excitement several summers ago of the Lonelygirl15 phenomenon resided entirely during the period when you couldn't tell what it or she was. I want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir).
For to think with any seriousness — as all the books listed below manifestly do — is to doubt. That is to say, thought is synonymous with doubt. To be alive is to be uncertain. I'll take doubt. A conversational dynamic is built into the essay form: the writer argues with himself; the writer argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. The very purpose of the genre is to provide a vehicle for essaying. The definition of "essay" is "trial," "experiment," "attempt."
When I was 17, I wanted a life consecrated to art. I imagined a wholly committed art-life: every gesture would be an aesthetic expression or response. That got old fast, because, unfortunately, life is filled with allergies, credit-card bills, tedious commutes, etc. Life is, in large part, rubbish. The beauty of "reality"-based art — art underwritten by "reality"-hunger — is that it's perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) "life as art." Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like — can be — art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
Renata Adler, Speedboat