How to Save a Life

Talking to David Shields

by by Drew Dickerson

The 2010 release of David Shields’s (B ‘78) Reality Hunger saw some of the greatest attention paid to a work of literary nonfiction in the past fifty years.  Almost anyone at all concerned with contemporary American writing has either read the book and formed an opinion on it or developed a no less opinionated reason to not read it. Composed entirely of quotations, Reality Hunger urges readers to consider new formations of the essay, to re-examine their tacit assumptions as to what the book as form can and should be doing. Shields has been widely read, widely misread, and widely written on. How Literature Saved My Life, now out from Knopf, is his follow-up. After calling for the death of the old, it fell and it falls to Shields to help inaugurate the new. What results is a candid and thoughtful investigation into the possibilities of the written. The Shields essay is highly personal, formally innovative, and searching. We talk here about truth-value, Zadie Smith, and Brown University. Shields will be reading at RISD March 4th.

The College Hill Independent: Between Reality Hunger and the new book, there was a lot of debate surrounding your own project. But I’m also thinking of The Lifespan of a Fact conversation with John D’Agata. Why do you think that people are so hostile to new formations of the essay?

David Shields: I guess the way I think about it—I think of three quotes that I really love. “You can always tell the pioneers. They’re the ones with arrows in their backs.” Then there’s a line by FDR who says—he had all these people trying to stop the New Deal, all these arch-conservative Republicans—“I welcome their hatred.” And then Jay-Z’s line, which is “I’m not looking at you; I’m looking past you.” So that’s the way I think about this stuff. I mean that is my general take.

The Indy: I guess I was interested in why it is that the scandals in our literature have more to do with truth-value—whereas before it might have been something like masturbation in Ulysses. It seems like the Puritanical anxiety has shifted from content to form, this form that makes truth plastic or at least manipulable.


DS: Right. Well I think it’s interesting. I do think that journalism as we know it is very clearly on its last leg. The web has completely changed human life. And I think the arts, journalism, literature, copyright are all in the process of changing. I can’t help but think, somewhat vaingloriously, that I’m a bit of a perhaps transitional figure—from a post-literature age to whatever comes next. First of all, I think there’s a huge journalistic investment in trying to pretend that journalism as journalists would want it still exists, that truth still exists in big black type. So there’s this idea that somehow truth still exists in a newspaper. And second of all, I think there’s a tremendously literal-minded, litigious, trial-by-Google thing, in which people can access through the web that you maybe took four pages from some nurse’s journal in World War II and endlessly re-litigate that. I think we’re in a hugely transitional age. What beats me is—all the twentieth century—in physics, in philosophy, in mathematics, perhaps in anthropology, practically every field was about this idea that the observer by his very presence alters what’s observed. And so to me it’s bizarre that anyone would still be fighting this. But when you have these debates, they’re always economic in origin. Everyone from publishers to websites to newspapers to magazines. I feel like when people push back against John D’Agata and—to a certain degree—push back against Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life, it’s almost always from what strikes me as literal-minded, flat-footed journalists who are still trying to cling to an unbelievably outmoded definition of the “real.” And I become, or John becomes, or whoever becomes a kind of useful whipping post. But they haven’t engaged with the issues at all. That’s the way I view it. Is that how you view it?


The Indy: I’m a student of critical theory, so I sort of have to recognize that these debates are ages old. To see it leaking just now into a literary space or inciting scandal within the small magazine world feels a little depressing. It speaks to literature as a sort of late adopter.


DS: Totally. Look at what the past twenty five years in contemporary music have been about. Hip-hop has already moved past this. It’s just unbelievable that we’re debating this when, as you say, in architecture, in music, in visual art, in film and television and stand-up these questions have been endlessly explored. But I feel like in literature, we’re still back in 1880 trying to argue, “Is it okay if we change this comma?” It’s kind of unbelievable actually. So there are people I show some of my work to, say Reality Hunger, and they go, “I like this, but what’s the big deal?” All these things seem to them terribly self-evident. The photographers, the visual artists all say “Okay, but you’re just saying what everybody knows, right?” And I have to go, “No, that’s not the way it is in literature.” So I know what you mean. There are more socially educated people than I who could point out why literature is that way. My basic take is that it has to do with that wonderful book by Ian Watt, who traces the rise of the novel and shows why the rise of the novel corresponds exactly to the rise of the middle class in Europe. Basically the bourgeoisie wanted to see their lives portrayed in flattering, politely honest ways. I don’t think literature has ever gotten past that. People are still invested in this idea. I’m not sure what to do about it other than push forward. I really love this idea that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. If you are doing serious work you have to be willing to break the form. Those are the things I’m trying hard to do. So full steam ahead.


The Indy: Do you think the essay is uniquely positioned to be a force for that sort of genre-blending good?


DS: Well I do. I guess you’re speaking to the choir here. I do think at one point the novel was doing that. Early twentieth century—James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Kafka—there are people doing incredible things with the novel one hundred years ago. To me that is not really where the action is. There are either incredibly boring bourgeois novels, which to me is no longer a very useful way of conveying what life is like. And there is the willfully experimental novel which, to me, seems to be drafting off of a false model. They just seem kind of beside the point. The word “essay,” going back to the medeival French, is “essai,” meaning to attempt, to try, experiment, to explore. I really love that, the tentative probing that the essay is about. The whole form of the essay is devoted to uncertainty, to doubt, to confusion, to paradox, to self-doubt, to self-questioning. And what could be a more perfect vehicle to convey what life is like now? Whereas somehow the monumental authority of the novel seems very far from contemporary life. I’m particularly interested in literary collage, the collage essay. Which to me seems to correspond even more excitingly to contemporary life, so that people whose work I really love like Amy Fusselman, Simon Gray, Spalding Gray, Leonard Michaels, J.M. Coetzee, David Markson, they’re all doing things that are nicely fragmented. Which to me captures even more powerfully how people think now. As opposed to that five hundred page seamless narrative, which seems to me to belong to a couple of centuries ago.

The Indy: I know that James Wood’s term “hysterical realism” isn’t really thrown around anymore and that moment seems to be…if not passed, then most of its writers are dead or doing other things. But it seems to me that the idea of a self-contradictory mega-novel can answer that concern within a fictional sphere.


DS: That’s not a bad question. To be honest, I’m not hugely invested in what the novel is doing or what the novel isn’t doing. Sometimes I somehow position myself or people position me where I’m this dumb antagonist of the novel. To be honest I just don’t read novels anymore. I loved Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, but that’s only a quasi-novel. I don’t have that much knowledge of the contemporary novel. For perhaps the last fifteen, twenty years I’ve read precious few of them. But having said all that, I sort of look at them, and I read friend’s books. So James Wood has this term “hysterical realism.” He meant to, I think, describe people like David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Zadie Smith, people like that with a sort of boosted-up realism. I think it’s not a bad term. One can see what he means. I think he’s saying there’s a kind of rhetorical storm. Where I agree with him is that he’s saying these are essentially realistic novels in an old-fashioned way.  And that they sort of cover the realism in a rhetorical wind-storm to try to disguise what is essentially a realistic novel.  Is this kind of work getting to what life is about? I’ll be at the bookstore and read twenty pages of Zadie Smith, and I can’t help but say “No.” You can feel those chains still imprisoning the writer. They’re trying to do some interesting things. They’re trying to have fun and trying to get a little splintered and chaotic and fragmented.  But they’re constantly trying to make these narrative gestures. It just feels like the game is not worth the candle. They’re over-invested in what feels like the furniture moving of the conventional novel.  They’re imprisoned in what seems to me like the nineteenth century reassurances of the conventional novel.  That’s my take on these books.