The Millions Interview: David Shields (Part One)

February 10, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 18 9 min read

coverDavid Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has been eagerly anticipated by many, including The Millions. (Note to reader: It might be useful to click over to Max Magee’s pre-pub consideration of it – including a description of the book’s format and structure – from last summer.)

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (RH:AM) is Shields’s tenth book, and a culmination of his dynamic and studied 30-year journey from fiction to nonfiction, conventional narrative to fragment/collage, genre category to genre blur, story hunger to reality hunger. Shields’s adventures into essay/memoir/collage began with the acclaimed Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (1996), his fourth book (following three novels), which Carolyn See of The Washington Post described as “a mishmash, a potpourri; it’s impersonal, it’s embarrassingly revealing… Without stooping to anything like characterization or chronology, Shields gives us his life, an American life, perilously close to the ones we ourselves live.”

I’ve known David Shields for 14 years, since I entered the graduate writing program at the University of Washington. While I consider David a mentor, he is also someone I have enjoyed (and from whom I have learned by) disagreeing with as much as anything. In this context, we had a spirited exchange about RH:AM. In fact, we got rather carried away, so we will be publishing this interview in two parts, today and tomorrow.

The Millions: Explicit self-exhibition has become such an integral part of contemporary culture: blogs, reality TV, YouTube, Facebook, etc. Look at me! is the unofficial slogan of digital life. You seem to both posit the reality of this, and argue for its artistic interest and vibrancy – in RH:AM and also in your previous nonfiction work. Is there anything you think is being lost as a result? Do you see any value in the privacy of artistic process, or, say, in the reader or viewer having no direct access to the author/artist but only direct experience of the work? (I am thinking just now of the late J.D. Salinger’s hyper-reclusion; clearly he felt that the work and the artist must be distinct.)

covercoverDavid Shields: Seems to me a very old-fashioned, high-modernist distinction—between the artist paring his fingernails high above the planet, and the work down below, to be studied and envied. It’s a completely false mythology and it’s made for an amazing number of books that are really bad and that no one reads. I’m not interested in Facebook and YouTube that much. I’m really interested in searing, soaring work that constructs a bridge across the existential abyss between author and reader. Without exception, such works are those that risk everything on a personal level, from St. Augustine’s Confessions to Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries.

TM: RH:AM features many different kinds of lists. You in fact inform the reader, “The earliest uses of writing were list-making and account-keeping.” At The Millions, we’ve noticed that posts and essays which feature lists tend to be very popular with readers. What is it about lists that interests you? Why do you think readers love lists so much?

DS: Why am I interested in lists and why do readers like lists so much? Because lists remind us of the randomness of the world, the insane heterogeneity and voluptuousness of the world, and the list evokes that in us. It separates the line between “art” and “life.” The list is the world, reframed as art.

TM: I was probably 1/4 into the book when I realized that many – most? – of the text is composed of quotations. At that point I had a decision to make about how to read the book, i.e. to read it straight through as a continuous voice – David Shields as a kind of “ventriloquist” for all these other voices, both owning and presenting these ideas as part of his larger thesis – or to flip back and forth to the citations in the back, to hear the polyphony in a more distinct, pointillistic way.  I ended up doing both — somewhat arbitrarily, sometimes because the passage particularly interested me — through different sections of the book. Tell us a little about your vision of the reader’s reading experience.

coverDS: I love your discovery 1/4 of the way through, Sonya, and I admire your mix-and-match approach, combining looking at appendix with not. I’m certainly very interested in this liminal space. My ideal reader is not going to be a quote-spotter or a cite-sifter. I very much want the reader to experience a certain vertigo when reading the book—is this Shields? Is it Chung? Is it some odd combination of the two? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it all of us? Just as a work of fiction might be based heavily on quotation (Finnegans Wake, anyone? Joyce said he’d be happy to go down to posterity as scissors-and-paste man), so, too, might a work of nonfiction. I want to claim for nonfiction the same license and freedoms as fiction writers and visual artists have done for centuries. So, too, just as I’m arguing for confusion as to who is talking—me or Sonny Rollins—I want to argue for the excitement of work that slips the bonds of genre. The two arguments overlap: when we are in doubt, we are alive. I want work that defies genre, and I want work the author of which and the provenance of which is debatable, that is to say not fixed, that is to say alive.

TM: RH:AM seems on one level a book length “worrying” over certain trouble-words: real/reality, truth, honest, fiction, nonfiction, authenticity, facts, know/knowledge. How much of the ideas and arguments you explore in the book boil down to problems of semantics – and in that sense are unresolvable, a kind of running-in-place?  It strikes me that defining these terms is a little like asking, “What is love?” and these are all of course The Central Questions; but I couldn’t quite reconcile it with “A Manifesto.”

DS: These are the central questions, yep, and they have no definitive answers, yep, but the book is best read as an anti-manifesto manifesto, is it not? I include many statements that argue against my premises; I argue against myself; I show the psychic underpinnings and artistic yearning underneath my manifesto. It’s best to see this manifesto as an unusually self-incriminating and self-doubting manifesto.

TM: Related to the above, you write in a chapter called “blur”: “These categories are plastic. But they aren’t. Ah, but they are,” and also quote traditional storytellers in Majorca, who would begin their performances with, “It was and it was not so.” Tell us a little about the inherent paradox of positing “A Manifesto” about blur and shifting ground and the slipperiness of truth and reality. Is this ultimately a book about the certainty of uncertainty?

DS: Seems to me close to a rhetorical question. Also, see above. I think you’ve captured it well, Sonya. A book about the certainty of uncertainty. Hard to think of a better description. Don’t have a lot more to add. You’ve left me speechless. I quote the Graham Greene line as epigraph, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” That’s the book.

TM: Leonard Bernstein I believe wrote that in music he was making “cosmos out of chaos” – in other words, the notion that the power of art is not just in reflecting the world as it is, but also in shaping and transforming that world with one’s artistic vision. Many people look to religion in this way, i.e. to give shape and meaning to apparent chaos, which is something you clearly reject as a false management of the human experience. Do you have a sense that RH:AM primarily reflects contemporary life, in its blur, chaos, mix-and-match experience; or is your vision that the book will also effect a shaping of the culture, of lived experience?

DS: The latter, with a bullet. I definitely don’t see the book as merely reflecting contemporary culture, which would be a major yawn for me. I have the vainglorious hope that the book will shape the culture. That has to be the goal.

TM: A follow-up, then — you write:

What I want to do is take the banality of nonfiction (the literalness of “facts,” “truth,” “reality”), turn that banality inside out, and thereby 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;


Autobiography at its very best is a serious handshake or even a full embrace between the writer willing to face him/herself and the reader doing the same. At a lower level, it’s a sentimental narrative about fall and forgiveness.

You also quote Lauren Slater who wrote, “I, for one, expect that my readers will be troubled; I envision my readers as depressed, guilty, or maybe mourning a medication that failed them. I write to say, ‘You’re not the only one.’” So it seems clear that, for you, genuine solace and consolation happen in a “misery loves company” kind of way, or, as I’ve heard you say before, “Aren’t we all Bozos on this bus?” I wonder, though, if you at all share Chekhov’s moral vision for his art, i.e. “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

DS: Yikes. The Chekhov line is fingernails on a blackboard to me. That can’t be what we’re after, is it? It’s not even what Chekhov did, did he? I have nothing like the reverence that so many contemporary writers do for Chekhov, but he said that he was diagnostician, not solver, of people’s woes. I’m not sure my aesthetic is “misery loves company.” I’m interested in writers finding a metaphor and making that metaphor ramify as The World, and that metaphor must always include the fact that we die and that we are in some sense alone on the globe. The end-point of all this is that serious work is at the very least deeply shadowed, deeply tainted by sadness and failure. I think of Mark Schorer’s lovely introduction to The Good Soldier; Schorer says that good work shows us how we fail, and that makes us at least want to—futilely—live better lives.

TM: Follow-up to follow-up: I’m not sure how the Schorer quote is so different from the Chekhov quote. Is the main difference “futilely”?

DS: Oops. You’re right. I misread the Chekhov line as “what he can be like.” My remix.

TM: A strong thread throughout RH:AM is a refutation of the novel in its conventional, plot-and-invented characters form. You write, for instance,

[Writing fiction] feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody,


Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication—autobiographical frisson or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication, aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

You also quote Geoff Dyer who wrote, “Increasingly, the novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential.” This was probably the argument in the book that I found most frustrating; not surprisingly, since I am a novelist. For me, personally, I find that writing a “me” persona in a memoir-type work always feels like a caricatured me, or a sliced-off cross-section of me; whereas in fiction, I can inhabit many characters, so that a truer, fuller me, lives in and is expressed through the work, via multiple characters, their psyches/experiences, and all the in-between spaces of the story. In other words, fiction is more “purely true” from my perspective than memoir. What would you say to novelists like myself who feel that in fact fiction is the more honest, less clown-like medium?

DS: Different strokes, isn’t it, Sonya That’s interesting that for you essayistic gesture flattens things out whereas for me the novelistic gesture is invariably deadening. I’ve always loved that piece you wrote about Leonardo DiCaprio; wasn’t that a work of essay—not exactly? You think of that as a fiction?

TM: Yes, fiction; and I always remember and find it interesting that you assume/assumed that it is/was essay; I absolutely think of it as fiction, and if I had tried to write it as memoir, it would have turned out terrible, I think. I will say, however, that I pretty much stole the activating premise – of meditating on celebrity – from Remote. (Note: the piece discussed was published in the Crab Orchard Review in 2002; it was not categorized by the editors as either fiction or nonfiction.)

covercovercoverDS: I agree that it’s interesting and revealing and funny that I keep insisting on that story as essay. I tend to try to kidnap work for the nonfiction canon. John D’Agata does this, too, beautifully, in his anthologies of the lyric essay. To me, that work is among the most powerful things you’ve ever done. And for writer after writer after writer I see that their best work is their essayistic work, in my view. Wallace’s essays. Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist. D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classical American Literature. Hawthorne’s “Custom-House.” I could go on and on. Cheever’s Journals, which dwarf his fiction. Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, which dwarf his plays. Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain. Leonard Michaels’s Shuffle. Naipaul’s A Way in the World. Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Baldwin. Nicholson Baker. Flaubert’s Parrot. Didion. Barry Hannah’s Boomerang (nominally a novel). Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. David Markson’s last four books (nominally novels). If you’re against abortions, don’t have one; if my argument doesn’t work for people, they should go on writing the novels that they’re writing. But I do think we’re at a crossroads. I’m trying to renew the novel form, not end it. A relationship is like a shark; if it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. What we have here is a dead shark. Can we not shock it awake?

Read Part Two of this interview.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.