David Shields: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach:

So much of the gesture of my book is about rescuing nonfiction as art.

Why can Finnegans Wake be a tissue of citations and quotations without reference? Why can so many poems — whether it’s “Paradise Lost” or “The Wasteland” — be tissues of citation? James Joyce famously said, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.” The 1812 Overture has buried within it the French national anthem. Writers, composers and visual artists from the beginning of time have endlessly appropriated each other’s work. It’s only now in our extraordinarily literal-minded and litigious society that we absurdly have the lawyers telling the artists what they can’t create.

Two of my bêtes noirs are Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen. I use them because they’re relatively easy and large targets. You know, they’re both highly praised and commercially successful writers whose work bores me beyond tears. They’re antiquarians to me. They’re entertaining the troops as the ship goes down. They’re just utterly devoted to a 1910 version of the novel, pre-James Joyce essentially. To me it’s pure nostalgia that people find such works of interest. It’s essentially an escape from the thrillingly vertiginous nature of contemporary existence to retire and retreat into the cocoon of the well-made novel.

It seems to me obvious that in 20 years or less there will not be publishers. It’s hard to believe there will be these brick-and-mortar buildings, and someone will take a book, publish it, send it to a warehouse New Jersey and then to Denver on the off chance that a Denver bookstore wants three copies and when no one wants it, will mail those books back to New Jersey. It’s just a completely irrelevant model.

Somehow the remix is what we want. There’s a wonderful line in my book by Adam Gopnik where he talks about something that is really a beautiful statement of the kind of art that we’re talking about. And Gopnik says, “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity, expressed in genuine awkwardness or in an authentic disorder.” Gee, those are marching orders for me.

After writing Moby-Dick Melville wrote to Hawthorne and said, “I wrote a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” That should be the goal of every writer.

Nietzsche said, “I want to write in ten sentences what everyone says in a book, or rather, what everyone else doesn’t say in a whole book.”

There’s something about the very nature of compression and concision that forces a kind of raw candor. So I would say Nietzsche, Pascal, Rochefoucauld, Sterne, and Melville are giants to me. And you could see them as in a way — and this’ll sound absurd — but they’re kind of bloggers, you know? They’re writing down stuff.

We’re here on the planet. Let’s try to figure out a little about our existence. I’m going to tell you how I solve being alive right now. So listen up.

I have no consoling religions, no consoling god. We are existentially alone on the planet. We can’t know what each other is thinking and feeling. I want art that builds a bridge across that abyss.

Walter Benjamin says all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. That is tattooed to my forehead.

What I love about [my students] is their impatience, their Attention Deficit Disorder, their hunger, their weariness with formula, their desire to have voice just command them, and how little the Dickensian model holds for 2010.

We’ll all be dead in 50 years, perhaps less. Here’s our chance to communicate with each other. Bring the pain.

David Shields in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March 17, 2010.

David Shields is a name-dropper, too, who incites name-dropping in others. In an hour’s conversation, we referred to these, among others, in alphabetical order:

Theodore Adorno


St. Augustine

Nicholson Baker

Walter Benjamin

Anne Carson

DJ Dangermouse

Larry David

Don Delillo

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anatole France

Jonathan Franzen

Amy Fusselman

William Gibson

Jesse Helms


Dennis Johnson

Michiko Kakutani

Wayne Koestenbaum

Jaron Lanier

Maya Lin

Robert Mapplethorpe

David Markson

Ian McEwan

Herman Melville

Michel de Montaigne

Vladimir Nabokov


George Orwell

Orhan Pamuk

Blaise Pascal

Marcel Proust

François de La Rochefoucauld

Chris Rock

Philip Roth

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Vincent Scully

William Shakespeare

Tristram Shandy

Sarah Silverman

Zadie Smith

Laurence Sterne

Alexander Theroux

Leo Tolstoy

John Updike

David Foster Wallace

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  • 10 (my two bits)

    It is indeed courageous. Still caught up in scriptocentrism, love of the novel, and an authorship-based worldview, but courageous in its leap of faith, going toward the light without paying attention to the potentially bottomless pit underneath. With crocodiles.

    Some very insightful comments. And broad claims about the beginning of time (probably located in Ancient Greece or Medieval France, not in Humanity’s East African birthplace).

    In my mind, an author whose voice should have found its way through Shields’s work is Boris Vian. Not only because, like most French-speaking creators, he wasn’t driven by what Shields calls “narrative energy” (before and since Greimas, we’ve had other Robbe-Grillet and Dutour characters to avoid the narrative tyranny). But because his sentence-crafting went beyond the common wordsmithing that so many Anglophones seem to find fascinating. Besides, it’s been just over fifty years since his death so, at least in some parts of the world, his work should be in the public domain.

    Maybe we could ask Robert Harrison to do an episode on Boris Vian for his Entitled Opinions. There are enough connections between Harrison and Lydon that it could further the conversation.

  • I wish that list was in order of appearance. I made it as far as Maya Lin.

    I appreciated David Shields’ vehemence, though I have the feeling I am the enemy. I didn’t get any economics though in the part I listened to. Theory, for all its claim to lift up the ignored and downtrodden, oppressed by the middle-class strictures of the novel or the painting, actually turned out best for the upper class. When you destroy middle-class ideas of quality, the people with market-making amounts of money have more power than ever. In the visual art world, that mostly means buying artists low, selling them high and spitting out the husk. Why would anybody want this model in other artistic areas?

    On the ground, the turn to the book of the future is playing itself out here in Boston. Our libraries are in the process of getting rid of 1/3 of the books and closing branches. In return we will get the library of the future, where it looks like we will download the first chapter from Google Books. I wonder if it’s a good trade.

  • nother

    A man named Robert Ross was speaking with Oscar Wilde one day and Wilde was complaining that a well-known novel had been borrowed from an idea of his, Ross countered that Wilde was himself a ‘fearless literary thief.’ ‘My dear Robbie,” Wilde drawled in answer, ‘when I see a monstrous tulip with four petals in someone else’s garden, I am impelled to grow a monstrous tulip with five wonderful petals, but that is no reason why someone should grow a tulip with only three petals.’

    A similar sentiment was voiced by Mark Twain in a letter to Helen Keller after she had been accused of plagiarism as a child (I have a feeling I will appropriate these words myself someday if accused):

    “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone, or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did.”

    “To think of these solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant damned rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole histories, their whole lives, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they don’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—

    But you finish it dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.”


    Aristotle’s begins his “Poetics:”

    “Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation.”

    So, I think we can all agree that imitation is good. I push back however in another respect. I fear that in Mr. Shield’s zeal to “dissolve genres” he’s gonna throw the baby out with the bathwater. And by baby I mean, Plot.

    I imagine that Aristotle might respond to Mr. method with a passage from Poetics:

    “Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.”

    “The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colours, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of agents mainly with a view to the action.”

    Grandmaster Flash collected samples of catchy hooks from multiple songs and made it into one song, and Hip Hop was born. I applaud Mr. Shields for embracing that essence. At the end of this interview when talking about the future of writing he even says, “Bring the Pain” – which is the title to a song by Method Man.

    Methinks Aristotle would gently remind Mr. Shields to bring the plot first.

  • nother

    Correction: Aristotle might respond to Mr. Shields

  • Ed

    Fascinating hour. I’m going to have to let some of those ideas percolate for a bit. Can’t say I agree with all but I like the way Mr Shields was shaking things up.

  • I must read this man’s book!

    Thanks Chris.

  • Lauren C. Ostberg

    Tweet-as-aphorism is the best literary use of twitter I’ve heard in awhile. Thanks for that.

  • Another great podcast. As usual there’s a lot to say (I’m tempted to volunteer transcribing these podcasts because I’m already tempted to do so so I can write marginalia).

    I think I really need to pick up the book to really understand what is being said, I want to have a firmer idea of what an “ADD novel” is (It seems like a lack of a certain kind of unification, but what kind of unification? Thematic? Narrative? Stylistic? Each needs to be addressed differently), but I find it hard to believe any traditional form of novel is in any peril. We’re witnessing a great fragmentation in taste, many people are discovering forgotten genres and techniques and playing with them (in ways that aren’t always boring, that can’t always be dismissed as mere sentimentalism or pastiche). We will just have a few more literary techniques on the table, there’s nothing to worry about! (That kind of does take the fun out of it though, doesn’t it? We should have something to worry about!)

  • Brilliant interview, insightful comments. Some interesting ideas (or rather counter-arguments) may occur if you still feel provoked by old dichotomies.

    Fiction vs. non-fiction. Author (original) vs. translator (interpretation).

    The origin may be the juxtaposition of WHAT (i.e. object, matter, or theme = subject of narration) and HOW (the way this specific object is presented, described, or – be that as it may! – narrative energy). From HOW it is a short way to the author’s vision, the OUTER world imperceptibly replaced by the intricacies of the narrator’s mind, which becomes even more interesting than the reality under description. It is namely the tension between the objective reality and individual subjectivity, which grips the attention of the reader (culture recipient?) and brings about the shift of focus – no more the subject that interests the reader, but the way it is perceived by the author, the nervous pattern on the retina, the window pane (I think, it was this notion used in the recent podcast by Observer or Guardian Book Review). In other words, it is the “reality” as constructed by the author which a reader may (unawarely) hunger for (= fiction) and not the “reality” of non-fiction, which can economically manage without old-fashioned narration forms. Another juxtaposition – very Borges or Borges-like – is the juxtaposition of AUTHOR and TRANSLATOR (or rather interpreter). Imagine the subject as a piece of music invented by the composer and its ever new interpretation by changing performers. Which is more interesting? Both? The tension as result of the hidden conflict?

    The surplus of fiction (oversaturation?) may produce the reality hunger, as soon as the hunger is stilled, it opens up a nostalgic thirst for imagination, the old craftsmanship of story-telling and form-based culture. A circle change of phases…

  • Jonathan Franzen bores you? I don’t know, man. As Fairfield Porter said in the midst of a mid-century painting controversy about whether it’s egotistical to sign your name on your painting: “If you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you are not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them.” If someone can write then their experimental stuff will be good or their realist stuff will be good, etc. If J. Franzen feels the same as J. Galsworthy to you I would say that’s more your problem than his, with all due respect.