The Trouble with Love: David Shields on Marriage’s Discontents


Several years ago, I collaborated with my cousin on a book that explored how the sexual abuse she suffered as a child had “formatted” her adult psychosexuality. Working with her on the book was a riveting, discomfiting experience, and I thought it had satiated my desire to explore these dark waters. However, a few years ago, when my marriage had reached an emotional impasse, I felt the need to explore my own subtle (not so subtle?) masochism.

This book-length investigation took the form of a letter, written over three years, to my wife (whom I will call here Elle); I tried to examine how I had been formatted (severe childhood stutter, deeply troubled relationship with my mother), why Elle and I were drawn to each other, whether we were still drawn to each other, whether we still belonged together, what we wanted to do now to and with and for each other after nearly 30 years of marriage.

It’s a brief book—fewer than 140 pages—and it’s full of quotations across the centuries from other writers about men and women and marriage and sex and porn and power—but at its center is an address from myself to “you,” who is a generalized, somewhat allegorical, slightly exaggerated version of Elle. It’s an attempt to force out into the open the marriage’s destructive and self-destructive modes of being and, thereby, either reanimate it or eulogize it.

Per the push-pull dynamic implied above, I was trepidatious about showing the manuscript to Elle. When I finally asked her to read it, she said (and I agreed) that she expected this would bring our marriage to a (civil) close. While I went away for a few days, she read the book once. Then she read it again. Was the marriage over? Apparently not yet. Did she like the book? Not especially. Wasn’t she dying to discuss every moment and observation in the book? Definitely not. Did she have any requested changes? At first a few, then none.

Now that the book is being published, Elle’s only request is that she and I not discuss it. Nor does she wish to ever hear it mentioned to or by any of our friends. It’s our verboten topic (and therefore, of course, that much more electric and alive). And yet—since, in her view, the book is far less about our marriage per se and much more about my own internal damage—she appears not to object to the book being published. (Was she hoping I’d cancel the book of my own accord? I certainly considered doing this, as recently as a few months ago. Is publishing the book a betrayal? She continues to say no. Is writing and publishing this essay a betrayal? Apparently not. I just asked her. “It’s your funeral.” Surely this is the book’s perfect epilogue.)

This strikes me as an almost impossibly beautiful and paradoxical position—Elle’s—very much along the lines of Evelyn Beatrice-Hall’s well-rubbed locution “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Elle’s existentially elegant move seems to me to accomplish at least three things: 1) grant herself the freedom in which to remain silent; 2) give me the freedom to talk about everything until I’m blue in the face; and 3) fan the flames that are the marriage’s emotive fire.

Thus far, my favorite response to the book has come from a friend who’s a psychoanalyst; she says, “Its counterintuitive, amoral perspective on love is the only perspective that works.” Which means that we’re all vectors on the grid of our own irreducible drives and that we’re destined to find someone with whom to enact these drives. Elle’s and my (mild) perversities align (perfectly and just barely). As Maggie Nelson writes in Bluets, “It was around this time that I first had the thought: we fuck well because he is a passive top and I am an active bottom.”

The book hasn’t transformed my life or my marriage in the way I thought certain it would, but no other experience has shaken me more to my core, made me feel simultaneously closer to and more distant from Elle. What effect has it had or will it have on our marriage? She and I are still figuring that out—including whether the marriage will survive and how and on what terms and how well. I would say the book has given the marriage a useful urgency. What would she say? Let me ask her. “No comment.” Romantic love is a phantasm; it’s crucial to understand this. It’s also crucial to understand your own flawed, failed, tragic character and fate—what Elle and I are aiming (and often enough failing) to do with ourselves and each other and our marriage, day by day.

Image credit: Pixabay/Bruno Glätsch.

Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps

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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.

Each 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

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

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Three books, each of which asks what is for me the only serious question: given that we die, and given that there is no god, how do we find purpose in existence?

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. This may sound unpromising: Dyer tries and fails to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, but the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography, and more importantly, it asks the question: how and why do we get up in the morning? In many ways, it’s a thinking person’s how-to book. How to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional, is drained of meaning. Dyer can’t commit to place, to relationship, to art, because he can always see the opposite position. Dyer’s conclusion: “The best we can do is try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.” By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence. I reread this book at least once a year.

J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello My favorite book of Coetzee’s, by far, because chapter by chapter it takes a commitment that Coetzee, in previous books, affirmed and now undermines: politics, sex, love, art, animal rights. This book is a series of lectures Coetzee actually gave, but it’s now a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello who gives the lectures. The book hovers between fiction and nonfiction, as for me, so many of the most exciting books do. By the end of the book, the only thing Coetzee can affirm, the only thing Costello affirms, is the belling of frogs emerging from mud. The animal life of sheer survival. I love how joyous and despairing that is: it’s affirmation, but along a very narrow margin. My favorite books are candid beyond candid, and they proceed form this assumption: We’ll all be dead in 100 years. Here, now, in this book, I’m going to cut to the absolute bone.

David Markson, This Is Not a Novel. A book built almost entirely out of other writers’ lines, some attributed, many not. One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile’s wet dream, but it’s no mere collection of quotes. It’s a sustained meditation on this single question: against death, what consolation if any is art? Against the dark night of death, what solace is it that we still read Sophocles? For Sophocles, Markson implies, not a lot, but for us, maybe a little. Markson constantly toggles back and forth between affirming the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity. Even for readers who don’t recognize the quotations, the book will prove provocative, because it forces you to ask yourself: what do you push back with?

I seem to like books that help you get out of bed, but just barely. These books do that, with ferocious and, for me, life-affirming honesty.

A reading list:

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
Renata Adler, Speedboat
James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Hilton Als, The Women
W.H. Auden, A Certain World
Augustine, Confessions
Nicholson Baker, U and I, A Box of Matches
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, Nothing to be Frightened Of
Roland Barthes, S/Z
Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth
Samuel Beckett, Proust
Alan Bennett, Writing Home
Sandra Bernhard, Without You I’m Nothing
Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew
John Berryman, The Dream Songs
Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest, Report on Myself
Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions
Joe Brainard, I Remember
Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America
Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain
Albert Camus, The Fall
Mary Cappello, Awkward
Anne Carson, Plainwater
Terry Castle, “My Heroin Christmas
John Cheever, Journals
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time
E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
Billy Collins, The Art of Drowning
Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
Douglas Coupland, Generation X
John D’Agata, About a Mountain
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Thomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an Opium-Eater
Joan Didion, “Sentimental Journeys
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being
Marguerite Duras, The Lover
Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
Brian Fawcett, Cambodia
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book
Joe Frank, In the Dark
Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love
Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries
Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night
Barry Hannah, Boomerang
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss
John Haskell, I Am Not Jackson Pollock
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
Frank Kafka, Letter to My Father
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat
Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature
Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer
Michel Leiris, Manhood
Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist
Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing
Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile
Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
David Markson, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel
Carole Maso, The Art Lover
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Daniel Mendelsohn, The Elusive Embrace
Leonard Michaels, Shuffle
Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne
Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
Vladimir Nabokov, Gogol
V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World
Maggie Nelson, Bluets
Friederich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Don Patterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Jonathan Raban, For Love & Money
James Richardson, Vectors
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror
François Le Rochefoucauld, Maxims
Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny
Chris Rock, Bring the Pain
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions
W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André
Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic
Lauren Slater, Lying
Gilbert Sorrentino, The Moon in its Flight
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Jean Stafford, A Mother in History
Stendahl, On Love
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Jean Stein, Edie
Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl
Jean Toomer, Cane
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War
George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress, Within the Context of No Context
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (prologue)
D.J. Waldie, Holy Land
Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s
Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception

See Also: Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps

A Year in Reading: David Shields

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Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist (there are passages in this book that I love as much as anything Baker has ever written–which is saying something)

Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (I reread this book seemingly monthly, attempting–futilely–to figure out how he managed this brief, perfect magic trick.)

Joe Brainard, I Remember (I’m very late to the party on this book, but it’s an extraordinary assemblage of seemingly unconnected–in fact, profoundly interconnected–sentences)

Albert Camus, The Fall (see The Mystery Guest)

Robert Clark, The Angel of Doubt (an as yet unpublished manuscript; a gorgeously written, deeply felt, and relentlessly smart sequence of intereconnected essays about religion, art, and sex, not necessarily in that order)

Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (see The Mystery Guest)

John D’Agata, About a Mountain (a beautiful embodiment of what is to me a
central principle of great nonfiction: it’s not remotely about what it purports to be about)

Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate (see The Mystery Guest)

Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries (4 volumes of diaries; read together, they dwarf his plays and are commensurate, I swear to god, with Proust)

Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night (see The Mystery Guest)

David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street (very late to the party on Kirby, too; I love his work; “poetry as well-written as prose,” as good ole Ez said)

Phillip Lopate, Notes on Sontag (I disagree with Lopate’s assessment–in my view, too generous–but I love the book)

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (one of the least sentimental and most deeply emotional books I’ve ever read)

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain (see above)

Maggie Nelson, Bluets (utterly brilliant)

Brevity: Blaise Pascal, Pensées; Don Patterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought; François Le Rochefoucauld, Maxims

Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour (the screenplay; the best book she ever wrote)

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (where it all started and ended)

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