After about twenty-five emails back and forth, David Shields wrote to say he was flying into Los Angeles and that I should come by his hotel on Sunset to talk. We walked around the area for two hours–at one point trying to get into the Getty. (David Shields: Can we walk up to the Getty? Is the Getty open tonight? Security Guard: No sir. DS: I realize it’s closed, but can we walk up and see it? Security Guard: No, no, no.)
In Bookforum, Minna Proctor calls Shields’ latest book, How Literature Saved My Life, the heart to Reality Hunger’s mind–collage and storytelling which have come together to form “a giant, thrilling riddle.” When we spoke, Shields made clear that it’s important for him “not to be a bland admirer of general literary history,” and that “you’ve got to find those writers who speak to you.” For Shields, it “goes back to Heraclitus’ Fragments and comes through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. And that,” Shields said, “is my tradition.”
– Hayden Bennett
I. THE ULTIMATE BOOK
THE BELIEVER: You re-use a lot of passages in your books–and re-use them from books that have re-used them. Do you view your work as evolving into one thing, like a hall of mirrors that you’re constantly trying to polish?
DAVID SHIELDS: I like that–an MC Escher kind of thing. I’m very interested in a whole series of artists who know they have one story to tell and they keep on telling it, trying to finally get that story right–Montaigne, endlessly revisiting the same essays; Munch’s Scream, which he painted over and over and over again; Monet’s water lilies. I’m terribly interested in having the reader feel, in a very direct way, how radically the story or the essay changes in its new context. I’ve been delighted by several reviews that have pointed out that I recycle, and that, given what my project is, it would seem very weird to criticize it.
DS: In Reality Hunger, I was stealing, or pilfering, or remixing or sampling other peoples’ work for a very specific purpose. Namely, to try to show that the most exciting work exists in a difficult-to-name area, whether it’s slipperiness of genre, or provenance of quotation, or whatever. Well, in How Literature Saved My Life–of the 200 pages, maybe 20 of them are resampled from previous books, and to me, that really accomplishes a lot in trying to argue for the excitement of literary collage. A lot of my project is about trying to resist this idea of defining non-fiction downward. There’s this idea that it has to be memoir, it has to be true, it has to be scholarship, it has to be footnoted. It has to be journalism, it has to be vetted. All of my project is an attempt to make us rethink non-fiction in much more poetic and literary terms
BLVR: Has this changed since your book Enough About You? In that one, you mention that you took a passage from an earlier book, but you don’t mention that when you put the same passage in How Literature Saved My Life, it was about watching a baseball game.
DS: Well, it’s interesting that in one book I felt a little more careful or reverential toward the conventions. It drives me crazy that that in say, poetry, you can quote all you want without citation: Paradise Lost, The Wasteland, and there aren’t citations expected. But somehow when we do this thing that we call an essay, we’re supposed to be producing a more sober text. Well, I’m really opposed to that.
BLVR: Do you think that there is an evolution toward one sort of ultimate book on your part?
DS: One thing I say––I probably have said this a lot, and I don’t think I’m by any means the first person who has said it, but every person finally has one story to tell, and you just keep on telling it. Some writers disguise that. But there’s another kind of artist and writer who embraces that kind of unified field theory, and he or she is on this one glide path, and keeps on studying this material. I mean, it’s a very risky thing.
DS: At worst, it’s incredibly boring and incredibly monotonous and incredibly repetitious. But at best, it has this unbelievable depth and solidity to it. There’s a book of mine that’s going to be published in 2016, when I’m 60, called Other People: A Remix, in which, to a very large degree, I try to take a lot of things I’ve written over many years, completely rewrite them, and make this book I’ve been trying to write my whole life: a sustained meditation on otherness—can one person know another? How do we live through other people? How do other people live through us? Is the gap between people fillable? If not, how does or doesn’t art fill the gap.
II. YOUR STRANGEST SELF
BLVR: In This Is Not A Novel, David Markson writes, “You can actually draw so beautifully, why do you spend your time making all these queer things?” Picasso: That’s why.” and then, “Writer has written some relatively traditional novels. Why is he spending his time doing this sort of thing? That’s why.” Do you think you have to spend some time writing traditional novels, drawing beautifully, or whatever, to kind of get to that point of doing something else?
DS: Yes. Some people say it makes sense for me to do this current work, because I wrote three more or less traditional novels from ages 20-35. So sometimes I do question whether I should be saying to college students, “Okay, try to write collage.” It’s a little bit of putting the horse––how does it go?
BLVR: The cart before the horse, yeah.
DS: The reality is that I tend to teach graduate students collage, but I teach undergraduates courses in brevity.
BLVR: You’ve stopped teaching Joyce.
DS: Yeah. All I can say is that it’s the way my writing has evolved geometrically. I wrote a traditional novel, a less traditional novel, a novel in stories hovered between essay and fiction, and then Remote, and then I was off to the non-fiction races.
But it wasn’t as if Markson had been writing splendid traditional novels. He had not found his form yet. This thing that I probably keep on saying is: you have to find the form that releases your best intelligence. I’m proud of those three novels in varying degrees––especially the latter two, but I hadn’t yet found the form that released my best intelligence. My strangest self. My most interesting self. Again, I do question sometimes the value of teaching young students collage, but I literally can’t teach the other thing.
BLVR: You’ve kind of gone past the point of no return.
DS: Yeah. There’s a wonderful line from one of Coetzee’s later novels in which he is implicitly criticizing his own work for not having the mark of greatness, which to Coetzee is that you have to deform the medium in order to say only what you can say. In Coetzee’s opinion, he himself never did that. Which is an interesting critique. Anyway, what I’m very interested in is altering the face of an artform. That’s what excites me. That’s what interests me. If my work is no good, it’s just a kind of random gathering of notes, and if it is good, it’s maybe pushing the non-fiction form a little bit forward. Without pretending I’m by any means the only person doing this, but I’m quite a champion of it.
III. A HUMAN WITH A SKULL
BLVR: One of the things I felt in How Literature Saved My Life was that the reader has to be complicit with what you’re doing. It starts out with Ben Lerner, and how you’re sort of obsessively comparing yourself to him. As a reader, I felt I was doing that to you, doing that to him. One of the things that I really appreciated was that it forced me to take my own stance against everything going on.
DS: I think that’s a really, really good reading of it, yeah. And I do think that people who read that book, the people who allow themselves to, as you say, be complicit, which is a very big word for me… they might actually get something out of it. Then there are those readers who use me to get, well, they pretend I’m a toxin, and they are uniquely healthy. And that’s just a really juvenile response.
BLVR: Is there something you hope the reader takes from How Literature Saved My Life?
DS: I think the last couple of lines are the target the whole book has been aiming for, which I didn’t realize until I got there. It goes: “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness but nothing can assuage human loneliness––literature doesn’t lie about this, which is what makes it so essential.” You come to realize, I think, that loneliness is the real subject of the book. And you’re meant to ask yourself to what degree you as a reader are alone in the world, just by being human. Not the fact that you got divorced or that you’re estranged from your mother-in-law. But that it’s just part of being a human with a skull, with your own consciousness. So basically I just want––at the end of that book––for the reader to ask himself or herself, how do you wrestle with the fundamental quality of your own alonenessI have obviously found literature as a beautiful bulwark against it. Without any pretense that it solves it. But it’s a beautiful bulwark against it. It may not be the same thing for the reader––but at least I want you to come away with, how do I wrestle with a similar darknesses? The writer is copping to his own loneliness. The reader is copping to her own aloneness, and there’s a funny marriage of the minds and of the hearts where you just feel completely joined. That’s a pretty serious communication. It’s not a trivial thing; it’s a really, really serious exchange between people. I take literature as a really serious human activity. It’s not just a playful thing. It can be hilarious and wonderful and performative, but I think it’s really serious.
IV. AMUSING YOURSELF TO DEATH
BLVR: Do you feel like readers are looking to read the same book over and over?
DS: Undeniably. How else could you explain things like Twilight, or Harry Potter? I’ve been traveling around the country over the last couple months on planes, and it’s striking to me how many people are reading the same disposable texts. How many of these are you going to read? This is called amusing yourself to death. They’re all the same book. To me, it’s a kind of madness. This guy who was a teacher of mine at Iowa in the poetry program, Henry Carlisle, had a stamp he would put on stuff––this is not art. I guess people have long days, they want to escape, and more power to them, but that’s not my job as a writer. I really take seriously this idea that art moves forward. Art, like science, progresses. Culture dies, and the forms change. To me it’s preposterous that we still have literary models that would be recognizable to Jane Austen in 1827. If you look at the other art forms, we’re not endlessly recomposing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, unless it’s done ironically. We’re not endlessly reshooting DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, or repainting the Sistine Chapel. It’s terribly important that art try to disrupt the flow. In my own little way, I feel like I’m part of a group of writers who care deeply about pushing the essay forward.
BLVR: Is there a difference between the creative and critical side of you? Is the critical side less emotional?
DS: I would resist that dichotomy. Just think of how emotional Borges’s work is, or how emotional Barthe’s work is. I’m immensely moved by the intellect. A friend of mine said about How Literature Saved My Life that I had never before gotten to serious melancholy in my work, or serious regret. I’m not here to say I did or didn’t, but there’s a sense in which I think that book is pretty naked. I clearly am pretty melancholy in the middle of the book, and I claw my way out into writing and literature, and I talk about my own emotional impasses, numbnesses, flatnesses… It’s a pretty naked book, I think.