An Interview with David Shields

in conversation with SARAH MANGUSO
“Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear.”
Three silences, in order of increasing mystery:
Silence of withholding
Silence of aphasia
Silence of no content

An Interview with David Shields

in conversation with SARAH MANGUSO

“Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear.”
Three silences, in order of increasing mystery:
Silence of withholding
Silence of aphasia
Silence of no content

An Interview with David Shields

Sarah Manguso
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

David Shields is the author of ten books, including, most recently, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010) and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf, 2008), a New York Times best seller. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is a professor of English at the University of Washington. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

Sarah Manguso’s most recent books are the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (FSG, 2008) and the story collection Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007), which was included in One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the low-residency MFA creative writing program at Fairfield University. Her books have been published in five countries.

Shields read Manguso; Manguso read Shields; they began a correspondence. This conversation was culled from a series of obsessive email volleys that took place throughout 2009 and began before the correspondents had met in person. In distinctively plot-blind fashion, neither of them remembers at what point in the conversation they finally met, or whether it had any effect on any quality of the ongoing conversation. In any case, it’s still going on.


SARAH MANGUSO: Much of elementary school confused me, but it was the drivel that everyone seemed to find worthwhile to share in show-and-tell that was most puzzling. After every show-and-tell session, after being prodded by one of the fifteen other pupils, Mrs. Birkholz would say, “Sarah Jane will participate in show-and-tell when she has something to say.” I felt I was letting them. My classmates accused me of withholding, but I had nothing to say to them. In order of increasing mystery: the silence of withholding, the silence of stuttering, the silence of aphasia, and the silence of no content.

DAVID SHIELDS: Those last four phrases describe not only my book Dead Languages—autobiographical novel about growing up with a stutter—but also pretty much my life till now. That is just an extremely strong trope for me: the wound and the bow. The rupture that created the desire to write and—as I’ve come to see—describes the field of my aesthetic: my interest in short bursts of articulation, in consciousness, in communication, miscommunication.

SM: I like this line of yours from Enough About You: “I took my father’s halting speech and turned it into a full-blown stutter.”

DS: One of my proudest accomplishments of middle age is that I now give readings without any chemical assistance, as I did for years.

SM: You’ve said that memoir belongs to literature, not journalism, and that lately it’s been misfiled in journalism. I feel that we should probably talk about this, but it seems so obviously true, I feel that any questions I’d ask you, any challenges I’d put forth, would be artificial and a waste of time.

DS: I’d rather talk about our mutual shame: coming out of a movie and having no idea what the plot was—“He killed whom?” Are we missing the narrative gene?

SM: Maybe. The second Austin Powers movie has a scene in which Burt Bacharach plays the piano on the top of a double-decker bus. A few days after I saw it, I described the scene to a friend, but somehow I remembered a swimming pool on the roof of the bus. How would Burt play the piano in the water? I have no idea, but I can see the water, remember the color of it. I don’t remember how the movie ends, of course, but that misremembered scene haunts me.

DS: Such misrememberings never trouble me, I must admit, though they’re virtually a daily occurrence for me. A governing assumption for me is that memory itself is, always, a dream machine, a fiction-making operation.

SM: There’s a chapter in Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in which a group of folks with autism (maybe it was some other brain disorder) watched a political candidate on television—

DS: Nixon, wasn’t it?

SM: I think so, though maybe we’re misremembering; in any case, even though they didn’t understand the point of the speech, they all laughed their asses off through the entire thing. When Sacks asked what was so funny, they looked at him, incredulous, and explained that the candidate was lying, as if any idiot could have seen it. They saw something, but it wasn’t what they were supposed to see.

DS: What is it in us—and like-minded travelers—who find leisurely narrative so beside the point? The conventional wisdom is that only by the buildup of all this narrative machinery and atmosphere does the epiphany carry force, but I don’t experience it that way at all. On the contrary. I find that once the narrative apparatus is in full force, we’re really watching a machine at work, not a human intelligence. You’ve mentioned the idea that you can maybe read a novel if it’s funny, and these funny spots carry you through, but for me the game is almost never worth the candle, is it? One has to move through page after page to get the occasional laugh; why not get rid of the whirligig machine? So many of the books I love, from Saint Augustine’s Confessions to The Two Kinds of Decay, manifest what Emerson talks about when he says, “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”

SM: Yes, the word leisurely is frustrating even in the abstract. I hate wasting time and I hate wasting space. I hate chatting and I hate clutter. In college I was once accused of owning only six objects. In my dating days, as soon as I anticipated going to bed with the person, it seemed absurd, irrational, to further resist the inevitable. If there’s a good line in a book, I will happily copy out the line and sell the book at the Strand. Jettisoning content—temporal material, or textual—makes me feel good all over.

DS: In college, I told my girlfriend that I wanted to write a book that was composed of nothing but epiphanies; she laughed so hard we broke up. Twenty years later, starting with Remote, I’d finally figured out how to write such books.

SM: One good thing about my impending death is that I don’t need to fake interest in anything. Look, I’m dying! In Joseph Heller’s memoir, there’s a scene in which Mario Puzo, after visiting Joe in the hospital, says with marked envy that Joe would be able to use the diagnosis as a social excuse for the rest of his life.


SM: Another line from Enough About You I like is “Perfect final sentences seem particularly important to achieving closure in collage.” Yes: if the forward momentum isn’t as painfully obvious as it is in most conventional narratives, the end must be made clear. As in “I don’t know where we’re going, but when we get there, I’ll know.” I prefer not knowing where I’m going when I read, maybe because when I read a book, I can see how many pages are left. I know the end is coming. It’s never a surprise. That’s why it’s so important to keep me interested by other means. Keep me wondering. Keep me surprised. Please.

DS: And central to this, for me, is not being able to tell exactly what we’re reading or seeing or listening to, not being able to locate its genre. I think of the books and films and performances that helped me forge my aesthetic twenty years ago, and pretty much without exception they’re works whose valence is beautifully encrypted. Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March. George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context. Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing. Rick Reynolds’s Only the Truth Is Funny. Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer. Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven. What are these works: autobiographical anthropology, confession, documentary, cultural criticism, fever-dream? I love how the reader or viewer is constantly caught between floors of a difficult-to-define department store. My favorite works, from The Anatomy of Melancholy to The Smoking Diaries, do this.

SM: Exactly. Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear. No pure forms exist. And I wish everyone would stop telling me about the “new” “hybrid” writing. Everything is already a hybrid. In any case, I think books belong to their authors, not to genres. Many writers get marketed in more than one genre, but readers just think, Look, here is another book by so-and-so, don’t they?

DS: I hope so, and I do think the problem is exacerbated in the US by marketing and pigeonhole considerations. In Europe, generally, books are just published as books; they don’t come with a label on them to make sure that the reader knows what he or she is getting. In Germany, for instance, there are pretty much only two categories: literature—work aspiring toward literary merit—and then just pure information, train schedules and the like. Unfortunate example. So many of the writers I like so much—Dyer, Bernhard, Naipaul, Sebald—come with labels here that they don’t when first published in Europe. Adorno’s Minima Moralia was published sans citations in Germany; here it came with an elaborate apparatus of footnotes. Sigh. It’s the Ben Franklin in us, I guess.

SM: I heard Nicholson Baker say that he was trying to write autobiography but changed 7 percent of it and so it became fiction. Choosing a book’s genre before it’s written means choosing to write a book that resembles books previously marketed and sold as such. It’s a capitalist decision. A book’s genre seems only slightly more relevant than a book’s subject.


SM: I watched the first half of Vicky Cristina Barcelona today. It’s like a third-grader’s summary of Woody’s ’70s-era films, which really were (weren’t they?) explorations of lacunae, of actual nuance, of people’s failures to communicate.

DS: There are a handful of Woody Allen films that matter a lot to me, and pretty much without exception they’re barely disguised essay. I’d love to see the rough cut of Anhedonia, which was apparently stream-of-consciousness monologue before it became Annie Hall. He values drama, mistrusts comic monologue. It’s what he was born to do, obviously. There’s been much discussion lately (due to his biography) of Cheever’s reputation, legacy, novels, stories, etc. Whereas for me his entire legacy rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work; it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was feeding. So, too, the encomia a few years ago re: Leonard Michaels when he died. It’s not his stories that matter to me, or, if so, only the extremely collagistic stories in I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, such as “Eating Out.” It’s his journals for me. You, too?

SM: Yes. The problem of wanting to be excellent in the wrong genre—Shakespeare, Sontag…

DS: How so for Shakespeare?

SM: The legend is that he thought he’d be remembered for the sonnets and not the plays.

DS: So many of the writers whose “nonfiction” I love thought or think of themselves as primarily “fiction writers,” but really their best work is in essay: Wallace, Cheever, Pessoa, Gray, Michaels, Richard Stern, so many others. Recently, after I read an excerpt from Reality Hunger to a friend’s class, he—a poet—made the case that rhyme and meter in poetry, and narrative in prose, are ways to delight the reader so that the “instruction” will be remembered. I’m not saying it well, but his idea is that work can’t be exclusively meditative, consciousness-drenched, epiphanic; otherwise, there’s no place for the reader’s brain to relax and be delighted. I’m curious what your rejoinder would be. I know I disagree, but I’m not sure what my terms would be, other than “I really disagree.”

SM: Skillful use of verse form sets up expectation, meets expectation, then fails to meet it. It’s like a manipulative lover waiting for you just around the corner. She’s there, she’s there, she’s there, then she’s gone. That’s how I was taught verse form by Jim Galvin at Iowa. The interruption makes you start listening harder.

DS: It’s what I call duck-duck-goose. Same thing, I think.

SM: We English-language writers, not just poets, are absolutely crippled by the constraints of our unwieldy, noninflected language, in which word order matters terribly, and so when the presumed or familiar order is not used, there is delight (for this reader, at least). Is your poet- friend suggesting that people learn from listening to uninterrupted sing-song? If so, I really disagree. If anything, singsong makes us remember things by rote, but that isn’t learning. I’m not interested in resting, being passively entertained, fed something that goes down without my even noticing. As Zadie Smith has said, “The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.” I’m also against sleepwalking, sleep-reading, and sleep-writing. The conflict isn’t between “thinking” and “entertainment” but between what the conventional culture calls entertainment and what actually entertains. When I feel entertained, I feel as if I’m learning, whether it’s Kafka or Caddyshack.

DS: Oh, good, do we get to talk about Bill Murray now?

SM: Yes and no. I’ll watch a genius do anything. I’ll watch my friend use Photoshop to erase color impurities on the same image for an hour because he sees things I don’t see—until I see that he sees them. It’s like opening a gift. Or the original meaning of the apocalypse: the lifting of the veil. What most people call entertainment—the machine metaphor you use above describes it well. When I can’t locate a guiding intelligence behind a piece of entertainment, when I sense no actual emotional involvement of the guiding intelligence who made said entertainment, whether it’s a book or a cartoon, I lose interest immediately. It’s as if there isn’t any content there at all.

DS: A book’s “content” or “subject”! Don’t get me started. Or do. I’m obsessed with how great nonfiction works are inevitably misunderstood to be about their putative subjects rather than their real, subterranean subjects. I was recently talking to Geoff Dyer and saying to him that for me Out of Sheer Rage—surely one of the great books of the last fifteen years—is about whether or not to commit suicide. That seems to be manifestly obvious. It’s an utterly serious, extremely urgent book, though it wears its seriousness under a veil of Chaplin-esque comedy. When I said this to him, he seemed mildly taken aback, as if its real subject should never be spoken in public.


DS: Have I ever quoted to you a line by a reviewer about A Handbook for Drowning? He said that if Shields keeps going in this direction (i.e., toward concision), he’ll windup writing books composed of one very beautiful word. He meant it as put-down, but to me it was wild praise and has proved oddly prescient.

SM: I love that. The best response to dumb criticism is to pretend to take it as a compliment, but that criticism really is a compliment. It recalls a good story, “Brevity,” from a book of very fine miniature stories, Pieces for the Left Hand, by J. Robert Lennon. “A local novelist spent ten years writing a book about our region and its inhabitants which, when com-pleted, added up to more than a thousand pages….” Her editor tells her to cut it in half, and she keeps cutting it until it’s this: “Tiny Upstate town / Undergoes many changes /Nonetheless endures.” She goes crazy, of course.

DS: The book that I think of as mattering the most to me ever is Proust, but I read it thirty years ago and I find that I have trouble re-reading it now. Seems sad—do I still love it, did I ever love it? I know I did. Has my aesthetic changed that much? If so, why? Does one resist that aleration? I think not. The book still completely changed me, still defines me in some strange way. Do you have the same feeling about any books (can no longer read a book that you loved to death)?

SM: Vonnegut. Fitzgerald. I loved the growth I felt when I read them, but that sort of thing happens only once. Once the flint ignites the match, that’s it. One must get anew match. But then some matches (Hempel, Markson)light for me again and again.

DS: Have you read Grégoire Bouillier’s Report on Myself ?It has many incredible lines in it, including this one: “You can’t play the angel to deny death the way you can play the idiot to forget about it; nonetheless, the fact remains that we’re human beings, and if we begin with that, there’s something to find.” That seems like the flag that both of us are flying under: no idiocies, please; no angels; no for-getting, emphasis upon consciousness before death, upon trying to figure out a little something before ceasing to exist. An extraordinary exemplar of this is Simon Gray,whose four-volume Smoking Diaries I’ve just finished and which is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. A man,whose friends are dying and who by the final book is dying himself, stands before us utterly naked and takes ac-count: Rembrandt’s last self- portrait in prose. Each mini-section of Gray’s book is typically only a few pages long;the subsections connect in beautifully oblique ways; and each book is held together by a low-angle trope. An en-tire life, a way of thinking, comes to life as he dies; having read the book, I feel less lonely. I wonder what it is about white space per se that is so alluring to you and me; I find that I almost liter-ally can’t read a book if it’s unbroken text. What does such seamless fluency have to do with how I experience anything? Whereas the moment I see the text broken up into brief fragments, I’m intellectually and aesthetcally and almost erotically alert. Louise Glück: “I am attracted to the ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. Often I wish that the entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.” Why wish?Why not do it? Do you do this, too? Often stop reading front to back and read the book backward? I can’t predict which book sit will happen to me on, but this reverse-reading will pull me like a magnet about halfway or two thirds through. It often occurs on books that I love the most.

SM: White space: for me it signifies certainty that at least something has been said, that something has been finished, and that I may pause, digest, and evaluate. I fear being fooled into reading imperfect books. I don’t want to have to hold my breath until the very end and then find it wasn’t worth it. It’s terrible behavior, but I haven’tread all my friends’ novels. When I used to read a lot of poetry collections, I’d read the book “in order,” which is to say in order of length. I’d read the shortest poems first,then the slightly longer ones. I’d skip any that were more than two pages. No time. My taste for small art might be related to our apparent short-term-memory problem involved with long narrative (or length in general).

DS: The white-space book of all white-space books, form: one of my favorite books ever: Renata Adler’s Speed-boat. I love infinitesimal paintings, the more abstract and compressed the better. There’s quite a difference between it and Pitch Dark, though. In the former, she’s lost, struggling to find and focus and shape material, making discoveries as she goes; the loseness is thrilling. In the latter book, she knows exactly what she’s doing and one can feel all the moves coming way before they come, and to a certain degree she’s standing in the speaker’s corner, declaiming.

SM: In his essay on John Len-non, Lester Bangs wrote, “Once you’ve made your mark on history, those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you. ”I used that sentence to begin my introductory essay to Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books (which I coedited with Jordan Davis in 2004). Here’s some more: Once the first book appears and is read, it provokes a set of expectations of what the writer should produce, or is capable of producing, next. Sudden fame tends to demolish the lives of adolescent film stars, and writers, even with their tinier fame, do not escape the effects of the infinitely reflecting mirror of a readership. A Hegelian synthesis between writers’ first books and their first criticisms occurs not once, not twice, but forever. A mature writer’s facility with his craft can threaten the genuineness of his product—one that turns into a celebration of skill rather than a necessary foray into a mysterious world. This is not to say that all emerging writers are afire and that all mature writers are shallow—only that public validation and expectation increase as a poet’s career continues, and that the threat of writing to an audience becomes only more present a danger as time passes and renown increases. My coeditor and I wanted to publish poets “who, while already setting their new stars into the poetical firmament, are not mired in the stability-enforcing, niche-assigning public consciousness. ”

DS: Dyer calls this self-karaoke. It happens to virtually everyone. Hemingway, Carver, Brodkey, DeLillo come quickly to mind. Only men? Do women in their maturity avoid this? Not at all sure that’s true. This whole idea of self-karaoke, for Dyer, is predicated on the idea that at a certain age—mid-sixties?—new stimuli tend not to penetrate and so one is mining oneself endlessly in a not hugely productive feedback loop. Dyer says that people ask him who his main influences are, and, at this point, it’s himself. He’s his main influence. At a certain age, you’re building only on yourself, for ill or good.

More Reads

An Interview with Daniel Clowes

Nicole Rudick

An Interview with Lawrence Schiller

Suzanne Snider

A Conversation with Maureen Howard

Joanna Scott