How David Shields Turned Me Into a U.F.O.

June 21, 2017 | 5 books mentioned 3 8 min read

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David Shields has just published his 20th book, a rambling collection of essays called Other People: Takes & Mistakes.  Though he acknowledges that the book is in keeping with his metamorphosis from “a writer of novels and short stories to a writer of nonfiction books and personal essays,” he’s quick to add this disclaimer: “(Never mind, for the moment, that I don’t of course believe in the validity of these generic distinctions.)”  Of course the author of Reality Hunger doesn’t believe in the validity of such archaic distinctions.  He has moved beyond all that.

coverNevertheless, Other People reads a lot like straight nonfiction that’s firmly grounded in the “real” world, to use the quotation marks mandated by Vladimir Nabokov.  Shields’s real-life source material here includes his family, his college mentors and classmates, baseball and baseball-stadium cuisine, his bad back, his teenage acne, bad reviews of his books, sports clichés and sports movies, Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley, Curt Cobain and Bill Murray, love and sex and porn stars and ’60s TV shows, and the pleasing remoteness of his current hometown, Seattle.  From its Philip Roth epigraph to its final page, this book is tied together by what Shields calls his “favorite idea”—that “language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.”

By page 29, I’d begun to realize that this book was going to be personal to me in a way no book has ever been before.  The essay called “The Groundling” begins with this sentence: “As a student at Brown in the mid-1970s, I admired my writing teachers, John Hawkes and R.V. Cassill, but both of them were more than 30 years older than I, so I admired them as father figures, from a distance.”

My eyes widened.  I, too, was a student at Brown in the mid-1970s, and I, too, took a creative writing course taught by R.V. Cassill.  I didn’t admire the man as a father figure; in fact, I disliked him for any number of reasons.  First, his weekly classes—I suppose they would be called “workshops” today—were a refined form of physical and psychological torture that consisted of sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours as Cassill and my fellow students took turns tearing our undercooked short stories to shreds.  For good measure, Cassill chain-smoked Gauloises cigarettes and wore a beret, surely a hangover from his Fulbright year at the Sorbonne.  Cassill also assigned his own manual, Writing Fiction, to his students year after year, which struck me even then as shameless self-dealing, the academic racket’s version of an annuity.  To make matters worse, Cassill’s latest novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, a yeasty yarn about the John Profumo sex scandal in Britain, had just hit The New York Times bestseller list, a sure sign of mediocrity in my idealistic young eyes.  I still believed that good writing did not make money, and writing that made money could not possibly be good.  Riding the bestseller list with Doctor Cobb’s Game was Erich Segal’s Love Story.  I rested my case.  And finally, during the one-on-one student-teacher conferences at the end of the semester, my girlfriend reported that Cassill tried to seduce her over half a dozen Gauloises and a “bottomless” pot of coffee at the off-campus IHOP where I worked as a dishwasher.  This, you must realize, was the age when sleeping with students was a professorial prerogative, like sabbaticals and tenure.  The seduction attempt failed, according to my girlfriend, but Cassill had the final say when he used just six words to sum up my literary potential: “Works hard but possesses limited talent.”  Up yours!, I remember thinking.  I never took another writing course.  Instead, I got a job as a newspaper reporter after graduation and embarked on a tortuous, self-taught apprenticeship that led to the publication of my first novel 15 years later.

It wasn’t until much later in Other People, in an essay entitled “The Smarter Dog Knows When to Disobey,” that Shields really hit me where I live.  This longish recounting of Shields’s formation as a writer opens with a description of Brown’s much-vaunted New Curriculum, which was instituted in 1969 but had begun to feel dated to Shields by the time he arrived on campus in 1974: “no distribution requirements, optional pass/fail, fewer total courses required to graduate, the freedom to direct your own education, the encouragement to go deep rather than wide.”  The New Curriculum was a primary attraction when I applied to Brown, and, after that disastrous class with R.V. Cassill, it afforded me the freedom to go deep—researching and writing a book-length history of the city of Providence under the guidance of two inspiring professors, Tom Gleason and Howard Chudacoff.

Shields’s formation as a writer had less to do with the New Curriculum than with postmodernism, the experimental novelist John Hawkes, and the fledgling semiotics program founded by Robert Scholes during Shields’s freshman year.  To establish the school’s literary atmosphere and aesthetic, Shields ticks off the writers who have trod the campus down through the years, including Nathanael West and his brother-in-law S.J. Perelman, Cassill and Hawkes and Scholes, Robert Coover and C.D. Wright, Nancy Lemann, Jaimy Gordon, Rick Moody, Susan Minot, Ira Glass, Thomas Mallon, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, Jeffrey Eugenides, Andrew Sean Greer, A.J. Jacobs, and many more.  Shields states flatly that he never would have become a writer without the encouragement of Hawkes, who preached that the “true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.”

As much as it’s an exploration of the personalities and ideas that shaped Shields as a writer, “The Smarter Dog” is also an exploration of the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity bred into students at Brown, “that nervous self-awareness that never turns off.”  Small wonder that Brown was (still is?) the anti-Ivy Ivy League school, a place with an “overdog/underdog ethos,” the fallback (or “safety school,” in Shields’s preferred term) for those who didn’t make the cut at Harvard or Yale or even Princeton.  “In the work of a striking number of creative artists who are Brown grads,” Shields writes, “I see a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance: antipathy toward the conventions of the culture and yet a strong need to be in conversation with that culture.”  This leads him to wonder “to what degree, if any, Brown can be seen as an incubator of American postmodernism.”

A piece of an answer comes from Brown grad Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” who makes an astonishing admission: “Semiotics is how I defined myself.  To a large extent, it still is.  Most of what I understand about how to make radio is all filtered through what I learned in semiotics at Brown.”  What Glass learned in semiotics at Brown was that “language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place.”  What I learned at Brown was that language, specifically the English language, is a limitlessly versatile tool for expressing oneself, and the only way to learn how to use that tool is to fail again and again, until you are finally able to call yourself a beginner.  Most of what I understand about writing has come from watching people and listening to them (and of course from reading).  I learned to interview people not by understanding that language is a system designed to keep me in my place, but by sitting down with people and interviewing them (and of course by reading such masters of the form as Studs Terkel, Oriana Fallaci, and The Paris Review).  One of my very first interviews became the closing chapter of my history of Providence—a taped Q&A in the palatial offices of the city’s brash young Republican mayor, a felon-in-training with a bad toupee named Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.  The interview was a hash, but the point is that I believed in learning by doing, and I wasn’t afraid to fail.

Semiotics was all the rage during my last two years at Brown, and I wouldn’t have dared admit to anyone that I didn’t know exactly what it was, had only a vague notion that it had something to do with signs and symbols.  Thanks to Shields, I now realize I was not alone.  When Scholes was invited to a semiotics conference in Italy in the late 1960s, he had not yet heard the term.  When he founded the program at Brown, Scholes chose to call it semiotics, according to Shields, precisely because the word was so imprecise.  “It didn’t have a lot of baggage,” Scholes said.  “It was almost a blank signifier.”  When Shields’s mother learned that he had taken up this obscure new line of study, she said, “Semiotics?  What the hell is that?”  The novelist and Brown grad Samantha Gillison provides one answer: “Semiotics was an exclusive, self-contained puzzle for super-smart, super-rich kids.”  Shields wound up switching his major to British and American literature.

Which brings us to this essay’s punch-in-the-gut line.  After parsing Brown students’ self-consciousness and insecurity, their uneasily co-existing pride and dismay that they don’t go to Harvard, Shields writes this paragraph:

My junior year an essay appeared in Fresh Fruit, the extremely short-lived and poorly named weekly arts supplement to the Brown Daily Herald.  A Brown student, writing about the cultural clash at a basketball game between Brown and the University of Rhode Island, referred in passing to Brown students as “world-beaters.”  I remember thinking, Really?  World-beaters?  More like world-wanderers and-wonderers.

This time my eyes didn’t just widen, they nearly popped.  My first thought was: I was the Brown student who wrote that article!  My second thought was: Shields got it all wrong.  Coming in a distant third, but still in the money, was the rueful realization that Shields neglected to mention me by name.  I had become the lowliest link in the literary food chain: a U.F.O. or Unidentified Footnote Object.

What Shields got wrong was that the culture clash described in my article took place at a basketball game in the downtown Civic Center between Brown and Providence College, not the University of Rhode Island.  The distinction is important, at least to me, because this sketch fed into the history of Providence I was writing.  It was an attempt to describe the chasm that separated Brown, perched on College Hill, from the surrounding city, with its rotting waterfront and ghostly downtown, its tap rooms and abandoned textile factories and crumbling triple-decker neighborhoods, including Federal Hill, where Raymond L.S. Patriarca ran the New England mob out of the ramshackle offices of a vending-machine company, aided by colorful, cold-blooded lieutenants named Baby Shacks, the Frenchman, and Luigi Manocchio.  Another thing Shields got wrong was saying I called Brown students “world-beaters.”  Actually, I contrasted Providence College’s “pre-dental” students to Brown’s “pre-earth-ruling” students.  It’s a formulation I stand by.  Compared to the home-grown, Narragansett-swilling, blue-collar fans of the Catholic college on the far side of town, the Brown students at the Civic Center the night of February 4, 1975 were indeed a pampered posse of super-smart super-rich kids poised to rule the worlds of literature, art, politics, academia, and business.  Shields was interested in comparing Brown students to Harvard students, while I was interested in comparing Brown students to the people of Providence.

This is not a knock on Shields—or me—because all writers are free to choose their subject matter and use their source material as they see fit.  Frankly, I’m more than a little flattered that a writer as prolific and brainy as Shields bothered to notice a trifle I wrote during my apprenticeship four decades ago.  His inadvertent conflating of Providence College and the University of Rhode Island is probably not significant to anyone but me, and his failure to mention me by name is forgiven.  To harp on the omission would be to risk parroting that schlemiel Bob Uecker in the old Miller Lite ad where he’s sitting alone way up in the nosebleeds at a baseball stadium, bellowing at the umpire: “He missed the tag!  He missed the tag!”  The umpire can’t hear him, of course, and it’s a sure bet he wouldn’t care even if he could.  Which is as it should be.

It’s not all bad here in the purgatory of the Unidentified Footnote Object.  The pay’s not great, but we pretty much get to write whatever we want to write.  And best of all, we never have to take—or teach—classes in creative writing or semiotics.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

3 comments:

  1. Intriguing column – I like the pettiness mixed with the faux-humbleness.

    Interesting point: – what was written is: “What Glass learned in semiotics at Brown was that “language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place.” What I learned at Brown was that language, specifically the English language, is a limitlessly versatile tool for expressing oneself…”

    Ironically, by lazily/apathetically switching Providence for URI, Sheilds is proving that he DID learn that lesson – because to him, obviously, neither Providence or URI are anything different – they are both “kept in their place,” by his disinterest in finding out if he was right or not. He could have checked the archives to confirm of his memory of that column – but it obviously wasn’t important to him. So when somebody says “eh, URI, Providence, Roger Williams, I dunno – it was one of those Rhode Island schools – but not the good one,” it seems like that’s the semiotics that the author’s talking about.

    Anyway – interesting essay. I appreciate the willingness to confront pettiness and long-simmering resentments.

  2. @nsr — you nailed it. The big difference, of course, is in the comparative literary success between writer and reviewer. Why would Shields ever remember Morris’ name forty years later? The fact that Morris is willing to admit that it bothers him is a stunning admission, and makes this review worth reading.

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