Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps

May 17, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 68 4 min read

Both of my parents were journalists. My mini-rebellion was to become a fiction writer. I wrote three novels, but trying to write my fourth, I couldn’t commit the requisite resources to character and scene and plot—apparently, pretty important elements of a novel. This book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, became a literary collage, and that was my Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. I’ve never touched terra firma again. All of my books since have been literary collage.

I love literature, but I don’t love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition.

We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent.

Twenty years ago I was hired by the University of Washington creative writing program to teach fiction. However, by the mid-1990s I had stopped writing or reading much if any fiction. I felt after a while as if I were taking money under slightly false pretenses, so in order to justify my existence to myself, my colleagues, and my students, about ten years ago I developed a course in the self-reflexive gesture in essay and documentary film. The course reader was an enormous, unwieldy, blue packet of hundreds upon hundreds of statements about nonfiction, literary collage, lyric essay. That course packet was my life raft: it was teaching me what it was I was trying to write.

coverEach year, the course packet became less unwieldy, less full of repetitions and typographical errors, contained more and more of my own writing, and I saw how I could push the statements—by me and by others—into rubrics or categories. All the material about hip-hop would go into its own chapter. So, too, the material about reality TV, memory, doubt, risk, genre, the reality-based community, brevity, collage, contradiction, doubt, etc. Twenty-six chapters; 618 mini-sections. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has created quite a lot of controversy, so this may sound disingenuous on my part, or falsely ingenuous, but all the book really ever was to me was that blue-binder life-raft: it was a book in which I was articulating for myself, and my students, and my peers, and any fellow-travelers who might want to come along for the ride, the aesthetic tradition out of which I was writing. It wasn’t the novel. And it wasn’t memoir. It was something else. Hard to define, but it had to do with the idea that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one; if you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms; it’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many really do?

And here was the big break: I realized how perfectly the appropriated and remixed words embodied my argument: just as I was arguing for work that occupied a liminal space between genres, so, too, I wanted the reader to experience in my mash-up the dubiety of the first-person pronoun; I wanted the reader to not quite able to tell who was talking—was it me or Sonny Rollins or Emerson or Nietzsche or Frank Rich or, weirdly, none of us or all of us at the same time?

Until that point, I never thought a great deal about the degree to which the book appropriated and remixed other people’s words. It seemed perfectly natural to me. I love the work of a lot of contemporary visual artists whose work is bound up with appropriation—Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol. And I’ve been listening to rap for thirty years. Why in the world would contemporary writing not be able to keep pace with the other arts? My publisher, Knopf, which is a division of Random House, which is a subset of Bertelsmann, a multinational, mutli-billion-dollar corporation, didn’t quite see it the same way. I consulted numerous copyright attorneys, and I wrote many impassioned memos to my editor and the Random House legal department. At one point, I considered publishing the book on my own. Random House and I worked out a compromise whereby there would be no citations throughout the text, but there would be an appendix in the back with citations in very, very small type (if you’re over fifty, good luck reading it). I received permissions from everyone I quoted, including many whose work fell well within fair use.  Quite a few of the citations are of the “I can’t quite remember where this is from, though it sounds like fourth-generation Sartre; endless is the search for truth” variety. The appendix is prefaced by a disclaimer in which I explain that “I’m writing to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost,” and I urge the reader to “grab a sharp pair of scissors and remove the appendix along the dotted vertical line. . . . Stop; don’t read any farther.”

Numerous bloggers appear to think I’m the anti-Christ because I don’t genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property (there’s a misnomer if ever there was one).  I’ve become the poster boy for The Death of the Novel and The End of Copyright. Fine by me. Those have become something close to my positions. However, when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.”

My literary sea was frozen, and this book was my axe.

Art, like science, progresses.

Forms evolve.

Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason.

The novel is dead.

Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps.

See Also: All Great Works of Literature Either Dissolve a Genre or Invent One: A Reading List


  1. Is anyone else tired of Mr. Shields’ desperate and defensive attempts to justify his “manifesto”? Granted, he’s created enough controversy to move his product, so I’ll give him credit there. But grandiose statements like “The novel is dead” are just laughable and make it hard to take him too seriously.

  2. “We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent.”

    This paragraph gave me pause. An angry pause. But that was before I realized that this wasn’t an informative, interesting post, but rather a pretentious, self-serving ploy.

  3. I don’t think that David is the anti-Christ. I’m just bored by much of what he has had to say now. Haven’t we moved on? I thought that the humiliating Colbert appearance pretty much killed the REALITY HUNGER momentum. This continued posturing does both David and his interesting book a disservice. The time has come to shine the Kliegs upon Ander Monson’s VANISHING POINT, which David reviewed favorably and which doesn’t need sweeping statements like “The Novel is Dead” to make similar points. (Nor, for that matter, does Adam Thirlwell’s THE DELIGHTED STATES.)

  4. Edward Champion,

    Nor, for that matter, does mostly any work in the list given in his other post. I still need to read the book, if only just because I like to be more knowing of what I disagree with and because of its importance, or at least potential importance, right now. (I’m thinking about just stealing it and calling it collage of the mind or something.) It’s like he somehow fails to realize that lots of works have given up plot, have collaged in some way, have done interesting, non-traditional novel work, without just lazily slapping together as much of other people’s work as possible, then finding a way to self-agrandize.

    Then, in the end, you really, really get the feeling that this is all just his response to his own failure to do the type of work he admires.

  5. I like collages. I like David Markson. I would hate a world that has only that to offer. Wake me when you’re done pretending this is a post-narrative world.

  6. To add to the discussion, consider Richard Powers on why novels matter (more, perhaps, even than anti-novels): “A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.”

  7. I’m still very curious as to why Shields argues against “narrative” in the same book he rapidly defends memoirs, even dishonest fictionalized memoirs. Are memoirs not narratives? Or is narrative only bad when it is in novel form? Isn’t most creative non-fiction narrative driven?

    The book seems to argue that narrative and non-fiction are separate things, which does not make any sense to me.

  8. Ugh. Stop, collaborate and listen; Shields is back with the same old edition. I can accept a cult of personality to some extent, but you’ve got to back your play. This “essay” only makes Shields seem desperate.

  9. Henry Miller beat you to it about 80 years ago. First page of Tropic of Cancer says it all.

  10. I read it, so I suppose that makes me an informed reactionary.

    If Shields wants to parade his “numerous bloggers appear to think I’m the anti-Christ” straw man around town in an effort to drum up some publicity, the least he could do is respond to what they’re actually saying, instead of just portraying himself as some embattled truth-seeker.

  11. “But the novel is dead, both in France and in England, for the simple reason that the story-writers have lost the art of telling stories.” — William Thomas Stead (1905)

    “The novel is dead. As dead as alchemy.” — John Fowles, THE MAGUS (1966)

    “Nowadays the fashion for saying the novel is dead is itself dead.” — Brigid Brophy (1966)

    “It is sometimes said by literary people that the novel is dead. What they mean by this is that the form has run itself into the ground or is somehow no longer relevant to the present age. This of course is nonsense.” — Gabriel Josipovici (1971)

    “If the novel is dead, the corpse remains oddly fertile.” — Malcolm Bradbury (1977)

    “The novel is dead! Honor is dead! God is dead! Aargh, they’re all alive, and they’re coming after us!” — Salman Rushdie, THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET (2000)

    “In France a poor everythingplegic wrote a novel with his eyelid. And they say the novel is dead.” — Will Self, HOW THE DEAD LIVE (2001)

    “The novel is dead, long live the novel!” — Umberto Eco (2004)

    Or one of my personal favorites from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “If you say the novel is dead, it is not the novel. It is you who are dead.”

    Seeing as how claims about the novel’s death have been going on for some time, who’s really the one being reactionary here?

  12. I think Stephen Colbert’s treatment of Shields’ “manifesto” was an act of comedic art. David Shields is nothing more than a dried-up hack who dresses up his acts of plagiarism with layers of b.s. When will his 15 minutes be over.

  13. I don’t think it is reactionary to, based on interviews and other smaller pieces, make a similar point to that which L. made, but to take it a bit further to include the works Shields does list as having value. Many of the works in the other post are some of my favorite pieces of literature, but I don’t understand how they fit in with what Shields is against, or what he proposes. They hold to some narrative, they do have story, they pull in other sources while adding their own ideas and prose (think his inclusion of Sebald, Sebald deals with fragments, deals with collage, but the attempt for a story, the importance of tracing these fragments, of tracing sources is incredible for him)…It seems that Shields wants to encourage more work like them, and wants to be against not so much the novel and plot and narrative as boring, cliched, unoriginal plot and narrative, but that’s not enough to write a book about anymore, because those books have been written, and more importantly, the actual work is being done, so he has pursued this much more controversial take on it all.

  14. “Plots are for dead people.” There’s a kernel of truth in that; DeLillo famously writes in ‘Libra’ – in reference to conspiracies both general and particular – “Every plot tends toward death.” In the context of a novel – yes, a novel! – that treats a specific non-fictional event (The plot to kill Kennedy) through the author’s prism of the historical sublime, it’s precisely that foreknowledge of ‘death’ that keeps the reader plowing forward to the endgame. DeLillo knows and understands perfectly well that the primal 20th century American tragedy is ultimately a cipher, an inscrutable event, but his book is about the necessary struggle of art and ‘history’ to try, that human effort that maintains and nourishes us all – the formation of narratives. How can we live in a post-narrative world? That would be the sociological equivalent to living in a gravity-less world. “The novel is dead” is an ideological statement of unfathomable narcissism. And if the integrity of Narrative is threatened, ideology in the public square is the man holding the gun.

  15. Saul Alinsky said it best: ‘Academic is just another word for irrelevant.’

    The kind of writing the author describes drowns in incestuous self-reference. Authors and professors like this do their best to stifle the vitality of fiction writing while the novel carries happily on.

  16. OK, David, if you really want the death of Copyright, how about this. Please stop attributing your writing to yourself (what’s the point in authorship if not for financial gain or reputation). No pseudonyms either. And make sure you don’t collect any money for your writings. Furthermore, I advise all your followers that one of them should be nominated to purchase any new book you put out…that person will copy the book, remove your name and distribute it to anybody else who wants it. He or she can also claim authorial credit if they’d like. In fact, hey, why not…I’ll even say they can charge people for the books (just make sure it comes in a few dollars under your books). As long as others can also copy and distribute the work for free and claim authorship. Yes, what a wonderful world it will be…

  17. “We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent.”

    But when was life ever coherent? This world has always been a chaotic mess. Why, when we’ve been telling one another stories since the beginning of language, would this world suddenly be “post-narrative”? We write and read novels for the same reasons we always have. I’ve read novels published within the past twelve months that have shocked me with their brilliance and changed the way I see the world.

    I’m an admirer of Mr. Shields’ work. I’ve read Remote a dozen times; the dust jacket has long been lost, and I’ve carried it with me from city to city. But with respect, and at dire risk of stating the obvious: just because a given author doesn’t want to write traditional novels anymore doesn’t mean that the form is dead.

  18. Perhaps it is not that the “novel is dead” but that the “novel is dead for you” — there is a difference. For many of us, it is still alive and kicking mightily. I hope I never lose the pleasure of reading novels, because I am not sure life will be worth living at that point.

  19. Filling out one of the quotes Ed Champion posted makes it even more relevant to Shields’ delusion:

    “The intellectual is the worst thing there is. He invents things and then he believes them. He decides the novel is dead but then he finds a novel and says he discovered it. If you say the novel is dead, it is not the novel. It is you who are dead.”

    – Gabriel García Márquez

  20. David Shield suckered virtually all commenters into playing David Shield’s game, which is based on the premise that novels exist, that they have objective reality.

    They don’t; What exists are ideas that permutate in different stylistic as well as physical forms, fractal-like, all being presentations to the reader, achieving levels of acceptance or rejection, depending on what shape/form the presentation coagulates into. At that point, the fractal stops permutating and gets marketed.

    Also, Shields is ignorant to say that he does not know what his non-novel product is, yet he has the hubris to imply that he is teaching that non-novel product.

  21. p.t.smith:

    I’ve read Shields’ book and am responding directly to claims from the book. I think my question is pretty fair. It is silly to say any criticism is “reactionary.” It is equally sillier for Shields to pretend that everyone is calling him the anti-christ or that his foes are feeble “dinosaurs” (the term he used last time on here) “genuflecting at the altar of the novel.”

    Really, this is Sarah Plain style argument. Its just all lamestream media and gotcha journalism to David Shields I guess?

    It would be more interesting for Shields and his defenders to engage his critics on their actual arguments. Isn’t the point of this book to start a dialogue?

  22. I think that Shields is right in spirit: We are just beginning to glimpse the incredible things that can be done with appropriation, collage, juxtaposition, etc, where the language is the plot. And it’s important that writers be able to experiment with such techniques without fear of litigation (as DS points out, Shakespeare himself plagiarized–for instance, some excellent lines in The Tempest are cribbed from Montaigne).

    However, the book doesn’t live up to its own high standard; for that, we need to turn to folks like Ander Monson, Susan Howe, and…well…David Shields, in this AMAZING little piece called “Life Story,” where he leads us from crib to abyss solely with bumper-sticker slogans (scroll down halfway):


  23. My problem with this essay is its all-or-nothing take on the novel. Why can’t literary collage exist at the same time as the novel? As a comparison, Girl Talk, who makes new songs based entirely on samples from top 40 style music, exists at the same time as the musicians he samples. Girl Talk’s existence doesn’t make the musicians he samples irrelevant. David Shields’ Reality Hunger can exist at the same as novels, one doesn’t have to die for the other to live. They are not mutually exclusive.

    What I love about Reality Hunger is something that Shields is getting at in this essay; in many other genre’s of art, remixing and remashing, playing with genre, is far more present. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t gone on in literature before (Kath Acker’s Great Expectations, anyone?) – but Shields is right to defend his book like this: “I love the work of a lot of contemporary visual artists whose work is bound up with appropriation—Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol. And I’ve been listening to rap for thirty years. Why in the world would contemporary writing not be able to keep pace with the other arts?”

  24. 1. As long as humans have been human, we’ve told stories to make sense of our lives. The basic stories repeat–a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a journey–but what makes them fresh is the relationship the stories have for the people grounded in a specific time and place. We’re not post-human; we have the same basic needs today that we’ve always had. Some of those stories, most of those stories, will not qualify as “great literature,” which creates a new form of art or narrative. But is that the criterion against which we measure what literature ‘should’ be written? Not for me. 2. The fragmented post-post-modern (? would this be a sufficient label? for what Shields is trying to point toward?) perspective is a wealthy, priveleged western take on the vast category of ‘literature,’ reinforced by his largely similarly populated list of model texts. Much translated literature from Dalkey, Archipeligo, Open Letters, New Directions, involve experimentation, but probably not up to the measuring stick that Shields uses…yet these voices from Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe are meaningful narratives. 3. Shields in his methodology is probably in part trying to avoid falling back on linear narrative account of his argument, but it can’t stand as such. The pointilist quotations aren’t going to add up to some direct apprehension; what is still needed by Shields here, and anyone trying to talk with any sense about Reality Hunger, is a version of traditional narrative. There is significant irony here. 4. If Warhol and C. Sherman in their mediums are the equivalent Shields seeks in literature, then I’ll just stop reading. They were/are interesting in their tricks, but are dead ends, more easily characturised than repeated and built upon.

  25. Well, I’m not sure whether that was supposed to be a response to my post or not.

    “I love the work of a lot of contemporary visual artists whose work is bound up with appropriation—Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol. And I’ve been listening to rap for thirty years. Why in the world would contemporary writing not be able to keep pace with the other arts?”

    (Keep pace with the other arts?? Quotation has been a staple of literature for many years, poet ape…)

    A couple of final comments:

    A.) Shields HAS a publisher. Shields lives as a writer and teacher. He is not a carpenter, a wine-maker, a sailor, a soldier, or a banker. He lives off of the intellectual property he is so quick to dismiss as free trade–he contributes little else to the world. The same is true of all those artists (except Cindy Sherman…who, btw, does not really utilize appropriation much, but hey, who needs accuracy?). All of Richard Prince’s books, of late, bear copyright notification. I sure Shield’s do too. This is all lip service designed to sell nothing more than David Shields. His search for an audience belies an artist sans merit who is merely trying to distill the chatter of our time into a marketable form. If you really care about literature, Mr. Shields, donate all of the money you make from your writing to publishing others…and stop publishing.

    B. Kafka published just about nothing in his life–he instructed his best friend to burn all of his writings after he died. The invocation of Kafka is pure BS. Such posturing reveals Shields to be nothing more than a confidence man. Likewise, his invocation of the COOL artists of our time (invoking rap…oho, so he’s aware that Jay-Z has become a major collector on the scene…ummm, and that said, although there’s plenty of rap that utilizes sampling…they PAY to do that…). Sorry Mr. Shields, you’re no Kafka (who already gave us The Castle and several other works that trump yours without trying). As one apt commenter identified…you’re much more like the Girl Talk of contemporary literature.

  26. I’d really love to be inside Shields’s head when he reads this kind of stuff. I wonder if he thinks, “My ploy is working! Look at all this press!” Or is it more like, “No one understood any great man during his own time!” Then again, maybe he’s thinking, “Oh shit! I think I just screwed up my career.”

    We’ll never know, but it’s fun to think about.

    I despise the ideas of David Shields, but I must say, I’m almost starting to feel sorry for the guy. Sure, I think he’s wrong, but what’s happening here and what happened on the Colbert Report do make me cringe a bit. But at the same time, I agree with John Gardner when he says, In “the Art of Fiction,” that we should seek out fake art and attack it with everything we’ve got. And so far I’ve not come across anyone that agrees with that statement more than I do, except perhaps Mojo Nixon. (I think most fans of literature are far too passive in terms of attacking crap.)

    And though I think that it’s incredibly fun to attack Shields, I think it’s even better to completely ignore him and his ideas. (This guy has sold ten times as many books simply because of discussions like this. We should’ve shrugged this off the same as we do a Nicholas Sparks book.) If his book were actually a danger to fiction, I’d say we should lob every grenade we have. But it’s not. It’s just another book from another dilettante, and one that no one is really even taking seriously.

    David Shields’s book is dead. And if you don’t believe that, try to find a copy in five years.

  27. Mr. Shields’ piece starts off with the personal–his becoming a novelist as a “rebellion” against his parents. We are human, like Mr. Shields, and so, as readers who care about other humans, who read because we want to connect with other people’s humanness, we start down his narrative arc, journeying from his breaking up with plot to his finding that narrative collage makes him hum to discovering that traditional narrative just doesn’t resonate for him. And then, on to the second paragraph…where he announces that narrative is for chumps. Chumps like us. *We,* it turns out, unlike post-epiphanic Shields, are just folks who like to “pretend that life is still coherent,” followers of an unevolved form. Gosh, Mr. Shields, I rode your arc and got called stupid for it.

    Mr. Shields complains here that bloggers are being mean to him, knocking him around for having *a* point of view–one that challenges conventions, one he feels is uniquely unique. But, in fact, they’re knocking him around for positing that he has *the* point of view–a stance that implies negation, or at the very least debasement, of most everyone else’s.

    Recently, in talking to my five-year-old about religion, I explained that different people’s beliefs about God co-exist. (In a not-entirely-unrelated discussion, I explained the difference between saying, “I don’t care for Brussels sprouts” and “Brussels sprouts are yucky and nobody should ever eat them.”) Reading and writing, for many of us, are tantamount to religion in the way they reflect our belief systems. I can support the truth and beauty in Mr. Shields’ collages, even if it is truth and beauty that is invisible to my eye. What I don’t quite understand is why he needs to declare my belief system–the traditional novel–to be dead and its practitioners to be wasting our time with a form that is “tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” Perhaps he’s just pissed off that he can’t kill it.

  28. I believe, Mr. Shields, there’s a rather conspicuous metal glove lying on the ground just in front of you.

  29. File under: reasons I get a little nauseous thinking about signing up for an MFA. Or for anything further in academia, for that matter.

  30. I’m thinking I might pick bits and pieces from all of these comments, compile them into a new piece of art, and declare commenting as a form of art to be dead.

  31. Perhaps it’s the print media which are dying?

    More than two-thirds—68 percent—of public school children do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade, according to a new report to be released on Tuesday, which uses the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress as its benchmark. “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters” will be released by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is working to draw attention to the problem and to push for stronger learning standards across the country. The end of third grade represents “a pivotal milestone when material becomes more complex and children are more likely to slip behind,” according to the report, which draws links between early literacy and future economic success. “The concern about reading is reaching a critical point,” Ralph Smith, executive vice president for the foundation responsible for the report, told the Washington Post. “Our ability to compete in a global economy is severely compromised if we don’t improve these literacy rates.” Smith’s foundation believes that access to early-childhood education needs to be improved while the educational community also works to combat chronic absences. “Susan B. Neuman, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in early-literacy development, said it’s a key time to raise awareness,” the Washington Post reported. “Foundation and federal funding have been drained in recent years from some established early-reading initiatives. And unemployment and poverty are growing, setting more children up for learning challenges.”

    Read original story in The Washington Post | Tuesday

  32. Wow, talk about a variety of reactions! As so many have pointed out, talk about the death of the novel is nothing new. And I’m not really sure that what Mr. Shields is doing, or attempting to do, is really anything new, either. This sounds a lot like some of the experimentation done in the early 20th century by the Surrealists and Dadaists, etc. And what Mr. Shields is doing my just be one of those blind alleys that artists sometimes find, and that really don’t go anywhere. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    There are two other quotes that come to mind, that no one else has mentioned. The first is from Anthony Burgess, writing about Bernard Malamud’s novel, Dubin’s Lives: “There is no real ending to the book, which is a grave fault. This is life scrupulously rendered, but Malamud is perhaps too honest to give it artistic shape. Yet shape is the essence of the novel.” This is from Burgess’ book “99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1984” for those who want to look it up. The second is from Annie Dillard’s Living By Fiction:

  33. To complete the quote from Annie Dillard: “Which shall it be? Do art’s complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist is nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know.”
    Certainly questions that are well worth asking, and attempting to answer, by any means necessary.

    (Sorry about that–I must have hit the wrong key. My comments above were posted earlier than they should have been.)

  34. I guess that I have a few more random thoughts on this subject. I think that Mr. Shields may be on to something here, at least partially. I do like those aphorisms at the end. “The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps.” This is, indeed, a manifesto. When I was 19, and student at the university, I probably would have been thrilled at this. Now, at 49, it makes me yawn. I have seen this before. I believe that Alain Robbe-Grillet was writing what he called anti-novels in the 1950’s, but the few that I have tried to read have been rather boring. Experiments with plot or structure are nothing new–again, this was something that the members of Oulipo attemtped, sometimes with great success (Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual come to mind). And the third sections of Hopscotch (From Diverse Sides) also contains something of a collage of quotes from authors as diverse as Jonathan Swift and Claude Levi-Strauss, as well as fictional memoranda from one of the minor characters in thebook, a novelist named Morelli, who mentions many other books, from Tristram Shandy to Ulysses and the Lord Chandos Letter. This actually adds a very rich overlay to the book–read separately, they would probably be meaningless, but add great depth when read in context, and makes Hopscotch something akin to Tristram Shandy–a novel about writing a novel.

    To change subjects here rather awkwardly, the quote from Kafka in the above piece got me thinking. Nadine Gordimer, writing from the periphery of Western Civilization, in Johanesburg, South Africa, wrote an essay called “The Essential Gesture” which I would like to quote from. Her perspective is rather interesting, I think: “Kafka was also a seer, one who sought to transform consciousness by style, and who was making his essential gesture to human destiny rather than the European fragment of it to which he belonged. But he was unconscious of his desparate signal…..He was unaware of the terrifyingly impersonal, apocalyptic, prophetic nature of his vision in that ante-room to his parents’ bedroom in Prague. Beckett, on the contrary, has been signalled to and consciously responded. The summons came from his time. His place–not Warsaw, San Salvador, Soweto–has nothing specific to ask of him. And unlike Joyce he can never be in exile wherever he chooses to live, because he has chosen to be answerable to the twentieth-century human condition which has its camp everywhere and nowhere–whichever way you see Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky.”

    Besides, there are other examples of works made from this kind of collage: Eliot’s The Wasteland, for example. I think that Mr. Shields will find that, rather than being formless, that collage does, also, take on a form. Has anyone seen the film How to Draw a Bunny, about the artist Ray Johnson, who worked in collage? Very interesting. I recommend it.

  35. Mr. Shields has obviously written what used to be called a commonplace book. And like many authors of such things, madly scribbling the pithier excerpts of others’ works (often novels) that enrich their own thinking, he has left off the attributions–well, he tried to. Ho hum. I’d rather write my own commonplace book.

  36. All good points, Michael, and yes Dada with it’s Anti-Art, already tread all of this ground many, many years ago (and had their literary equivalents). Beckett, too, eliminated narrative…even Melville…Moby Dick, though adhering to a larger narrative, utilized any number of verbal collage elements–Bartelby hardly had a traditional narrative…. Heller, Coupland…even Timequake (by Vonnegut)…there is nothing new in the theories that Shields is expounding. Which is why I’m really annoyed that, at it’s basis, Shields books is mostly a purposeful attempt to try to justify stealing…an anti-thesis against intellectual property, as it were (since all of the literary techniques and ideas he’s touching upon have already been discovered). And herein is the problem. Shields is not a genius. He doesn’t see a new way to find a path to writing a novel. And yet, he self-identifies as a writer and want to make money. So…he grabs a bunch of quotes, swirls them together and…there you a go…a new form of literature is born!

    NO…all that happens is it is revealed that Shields is not a genius–to hide that lack of true ingenuity, he has stolen from others to give his feeble ideas a “voice”. Richard Prince is guilty of the same, underhanded strategy. I for one, would like to preserve intellectual property for the next genius who comes along…. Otherwise, when they do come along (and they will, never fear detractors…every age thinks they’re at the end of history) , Shields and others will just steal from them, and will easily get away will it, firmly ensconced in the publishing mechanism as “established authors”–there will be nothing to keep them from doing so. Shields should just find another way to support himself and stop thinking he is anything like Kafka and the rest.

    Oh, BTW, think I’m wrong (about such predatory practices)? Take a look at Richard Prince’s body of work. More recently he was sued by a photographer for stealing a massive amount of photographs…and the fraud makes millions of dollars selling cowboy photos made with the blood, sweat, and tears of other photographers… There’s a very telling video on youtube from Sam Abell…one of the primary cowboy photographers.

  37. Collage and cut ups as a literary form is not a new concept. My problem with Sheild’s is his complete disregard for any women. It’s offensive to scan his reading list and see so many women overlooked: HEY SHIELDS: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? You have forgotten about the headmaster of appropriation and cut ups Kathy Acker. What about the anti-logic lesbian movement that turned the novel on it’s flaccid head a la Monique Wittig and what about Dodie Bellamy with her “Cunt Ups” and “Letters to Mina Harker” and what about the performance artists who were alongside Cindy Sherman (photographer who did provocative self portraits not a writer) like Jenny Holtzer, Karen Finley and Diamanda Galas? I’m sick of women being excluded from panels (LA festival of books) and being dismissed from literary movements.

  38. There are more than 20 works by women included in his reading list. That does not demonstrate a “complete disregard for any women.”

  39. A short list of pre-2009 fiction and non-fiction books that use appropriation, collage, juxtaposition, unattributed borrowings and fragmentary forms–lest Mr. Sheilds, or anyone else, think that Reality Hunger is the first to dismantle traditional, linear narrative and argumentative modes:

    The Satyricon, Petronius (late 1st century)
    The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton (1638)
    The Complete Angler, Izaak Walton (1653)
    Urn Burial, by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
    A Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift (1689-1712)
    A Voyage Round The World, or, A Pocket Library, John Dunton (1691)
    Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1711)
    A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe (1722)
    A Narrative of the Life of Charlotte Charke (1755)
    Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (1759)
    Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
    The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot (1922)
    Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce (1939)
    The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly (Palinurus) (1945)
    Minima Moralia, Reflections from Damaged Life, Theodor Adorno (1951)
    The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald (1995)
    Octavian Nothing, M.T. Anderson (2006)
    The Whale (or Leviathan), Philip Hoare (2008)

  40. A lot of what appears in this essay, and the book, appears to be self-promotion for the type of writing he does, what he has written. Parts of the book mention that it is memoir, which he so vehemently props up as the “real” art of the moment. Of course subsequent essays would continue to push the kind of work he wants people to read: his own.

    Edward Champion, thanks for the list of quotations about the death of the novel. A friend and I were just discussing this antiquated proclamation yesterday.

  41. “My literary sea was frozen, and this book was my axe.
    Art, like science, progresses.”

    These two statements are logically completely unconnected to each other. Shields’ struggle with his inability to write might be praiseworthy, inspiring, productive of excellent works. It does not constitute a literary revolution. No man is an island, but neither is any man the universe.

    I outgrew my alphabet primer long ago, but you don’t see me claiming that we live in a “post-alphabet” world.

  42. Isn’t it funny to proclaim narrative is dead, that we live in a “post-narrative” world, by writing one–one with a beginning, middle, and end. This essay is a biography, a memoir, a narrative of ideas with which David Shields wishes to garner a reader’s attention, empathy, anger. He wants to reach across a divide. He wants to speak. He wants someone else to listen. This isn’t post–anything. Even if you took everyone of my sentences here and scrambled their order, nothing substantial would change. Wallpaper, doesn’t make a house, and so on. We should all be happy (and maybe a bit amazed) that one of the best to get attention for the novel is to announce someone, somewhere is killing it! Aren’t we so….Aren’t we?

  43. Is the novel dead or is this just an excuse for not being able to write one? He says art forms evolve. But isn’t that a slight contradiction to the overall thesis of his argument? Is the novel dead or has it evolved? Evolution is something adapting to survive the times. Death is something ceasing to evolve because it cannot survive the times. So, either the novel is dead or extinct because it is not one of the “fit” in the Darwinian sense of the word, or it is evolving into something else.

    Gotta ask, which one is it, DAVE?

    The novel has already evolved more times than any of us care to count. It isn’t dead, it is just in need of a new evolution. Perhaps we should take Mr. Shields’ argument as a call to arms, a challenge to break with cliche and start something fresh.

    Writing has become a formulaic system. It isn’t the novel’s fault, it is the fault of what is being published and read. As we do in so many facets of life, we create patterns in order to ensure success. But art and formulas have never been polite bedfellows.

    It comes down to a choice, either we fabricate what can be made swiftly, cheaply with the greatest assurance of what sells or we make something fresh, evolved, unusual and risky. This is the essential difference between the manufactured homes on every carbon-copied street of Suburbia versus the crafted architecture of uniquely modeled houses that make the cover of art and architectural magazines. This is also the paramount difference between the manufactured novel and a work of genius.

    Maybe we just need to say that the old, trite, cliche novel is dead?

  44. I have to say, that while my agreement with Shields is partial at best, the shrill–at times, hysterical–tone of some of these comments go a long way towards proving the guy’s salience. Not for an instant is Shields suggesting what he’s doing is “new” (he’s well aware of working out of a tradition, and many of the excellent books noted by Emily Wilkinson above are cited–or I suppose, “referred to”–by Mr. Shields in Reality Hunger and elsewhere.) You can quibble with the not-very-interesting proclamation that ‘the novel is dead,’ but it seems to me Shields has written a book that’s far more slippery than that, and to say, for example, that “Shields is not a genius” is to miss the whole point by a significant margin. Likewise, the question of whether the novel’s moribundity belongs to Shields himself or to the form: I don’t think it’s all that arguable that the novel’s cultural currency has decreased. Likewise, I don’t think it’s arguable that there are a significant number of people–us lot, who read The Millions–who care passionately about the form, past present and future. It seems to me that beyond a certain penchant for rhetorical overstatement, Shields is merely collating and arranging some ideas that worth considering: that ‘narrative’ alone isn’t necessarily the paramount virtue, that forms can still be exploded, and that what Shields calls “novelly novels” (we can define this by our own respective lights, but I take it to refer to a certain mandarin tendency, a wrought narrative caution–I won’t name names here) might frequently be just a tiny bit…boring?

    Not new ideas, and nowhere does Shields suggest they are: they’re merely considerations, or even provocations, that prompt comparisons to Sarah Palin, accusations of being a “con artist” or a “hack,” and even the disingenuous intimation that the book “isn’t dangerous.” (Really, an astonishing rhetorical fillip, if you think of it.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was a student of Shields’ at one point. We disagreed heartily, about all kinds of stuff, but I found him–as I find this book–exceedingly generous, argumentative only in the most stimulating and encouraging ways, and delightful through and through.

    To each their own, though.

  45. Nathaniel,

    The juxtaposition of the statements at the end of this little diatribe…science progressing, the novel is dead, etc… all carry the clear inference that something new is emerging out of Shield’s work…in fact, I’d say, by specifically invoking, more or less, “the king is dead, long live the king” (ever so slightly modified) Shields is specifically trying to argue his new form of the novel is THE new form.

    This however, is all pedantic, and I agree entirely that it’s beside the point (except to note that the ideas he’s collating have all been collated before–Shields apparently has some value as an educator…but that doesn’t mean he concomitantly has any value as a writer…the book should probably never have been compiled from seminar form).

    But the objectionable part of the book is not the form. It’s the process. Shield’s form is fine…the novel has no form (which is why this work is nothing new). He can run around all day and proclaim the novel dead all he wants…the next JK Rowling will come along with intellectually questionable and easily digestible and will make far more money than Shields can imagine. It’s his process that’s flawed. (And, to make matter’s worse, his process isn’t new either). Compiling quotes isn’t writing…arguing that the quotes needn’t be cited or acknowledged, even worse…

    Out of curiosity, do you think Shield’s would have been OK with it if you had carved out portions of his own books and handed those extractions in as an academic paper? What about all the online students that purchase papers off of the internet and copy and paste whole term papers? I don’t think this is the right direction for humanity. If I’ve learned anything from the artwork of Richard Prince it’s that when the rules don’t apply (Richard’s use of the cowboy photos don’t violate the artists’ original copyright and he apparently settled a suit with Phillip Morris), there is no more incentive to actually come up with new ideas–Prince just made copies of other shots (and then borrowed Barabar Krugers theory of media to justify the theft). Shields isn’t killing the novel, he’s killing creativity and imagination…it’s potentially predatory and is not a whorthwhile idea…this is happening all over the country already…it doesn’t need to be encouraged.

    it makes me wonder how Shields runs his classroom.

  46. James,

    (Nice name, by the way. And entirely germane to any discussion of sampling.)

    Having a legitimate philosophical beef with appropriation is one thing. (I don’t, but only because I think it merely makes explicit something that’s implicit in every piece of writing ever committed.) But well over half of Reality Hunger (I think–I haven’t kept count, but approximately half at a bare minimum) consists of Shields’ own writing. I feel that to say so is both to violate the spirit of the book (“Shields'” “own” both become misnomers, in this context) and a form of nitpicking, but it’s not as if RH is some pure exercise in sampling. It’s thinking, in a way that interpolates the thinking of others, and it’s worth wondering to what extent attribution matters. Does an idea ‘mean’ more for originating (allegedly, ‘originating’) with Stendhal than if it does with Shields? I hate this argument–it feels legal, whereas obviously the test of the book rests with how it sits with the reader. Some, obviously, attribute to Shields a set of cynical motives I’m confident are not there. And I’ll stop on that point, because a personal defense really isn’t useful, or mine to offer. But I’ll remain uncertain as to how Shields’ gestures amount to “killing” anything at all. I’m a novelist, and my own works are very much in (non-pseudonymous) print. The idea of being–not straight plagiarized (which really would only bother me as exhibiting a failure of imagination) but plundered, expropriated and redistributed is really rather a pleasant one. It doesn’t cause me anxiety in the slightest. Perhaps–ahem–I would feel otherwise if it had happened more extensively than it already has, but I rather doubt it.

    In any case, there’s a world of difference between Sheilds’ project and straight plagiarism; about as much, in fact, as there is between lived experience and fiction making. So it seems to me.

  47. Nathaniel,

    I think the problem is, without the original material in front of you, how do you tell what’s been appropriated versus what’s original thought in front of you. Certainly, people inadvertently paraphrase others, but in that transcription something may be gained or lost…and those subtle changes can impact both the text and subtext profoundly. But, this is a very slippery slope. At the end of the day, I’ve got very little problem with appropriation (though, as stated, using appropriated material is an old, old practice…I don’t consider this the next step in evolution for literature…)…my problem is the step further saying that there needn’t be attribution. From what I’ve read of Shields I’m not all that impressed…he’s interesting, but not that interesting. I sympathize with exploring new processes and strategies to compose text…but I’m not keen on this non-attribution issue. The kids purchasing their papers online and submitting without alterations are a clear problem…but what about the kids that download a paper and re-write half of it…should they still receive academic credit for the other half? …Now extend that to a novel. Now remove attribution. How do you tell how much a novel is really the product of the author? The legal side of things is what keeps people in line…look at Napster. I know any number of people who still think they’re being ripped off for having to buy music…but I also know musicians and have hung out in studios for hours listening to people laying down tracks. Appropriation is a lazy process and if there’s no oversight I just don’t think literature will benefit.

    In a certain sense, editors also muck this up (sometimes), and I’m not wild about that either, but there you go–consider them the producers of the art world and the best of them work with authors to hone their craft without loosing the essential verve…it’s different..

    I’m glad you don’t feel apprehensive about this, but you’re also an established author. The reality, though, is I’m not so concerned about you–I’m much more concerned about the generation of writers that emerge ten years from now. I know it’s a “legal” argument but as with so many thing in life involving money, it has to be. Shields has made some very grandiose statements (and therefore elicited vehement responses)…I don’t think the novel is dead, I don’t see this as progress (Burroughs “Ghost of Chance” wasn’t published all that long ago), and I don’t think Shields is really adding anything to the dialogue other than adding his voice to the anti-copyright contingency. I can’t see any reason for him to do so except he thinks it’s “cool” and he’s promoting his book…which more or less undermines the message he’s promoting (since, if there is no copyright, how do you sell books or published materials…the technology to copy and reproduce is ubiquitous)…

  48. in a poem in Angle of Yaw, ben lerner writes something along the lines of “i’ll concede that the world doesn’t need another novel if you concede that the novel doesn’t need another world”.

  49. Pop Serial magazine, free download (http://www.mediafire.com/?hdykh1d1tmt), features Tao Lin, Brandon Scott Gorrell, Zachary German, Joshua Cohen, and others. Includes a piece entitled “Some Trembling Melody” that “samples” David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and appears to be ambiguous re: “literary genre.”

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.