An Interview With David Shields

by Ethan Milner


David Shields is the author of twelve previous books, including Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestseller; Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, winner of the PEN/Revson Award. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

Interviewer: I’ve begun reading Reality Hunger, it’s very interesting. It’s the first book of yours I’ve read. In it you deal with this idea of plagiarism and what plagiarism is, and you almost borrow other people’s work to create your own work, your own art. Can you talk a bit about that process and what made you think about that, what your philosophy is behind that?

Shields: Sure! It’s very complicated. It came about rather indirectly, it’s not as if I decided that I wanted to write a book about plagiarism and a book that embodies plagiarism, but it’s almost as if I stumbled into it through the back door.

I was hired at the University of Washington to teach fiction writing, but as my interest in fiction declined I became very interested in nonfiction, in film, essay, etc. So, I developed this course pack for my graduate students that was essentially made up of quotes from me, from my own writing, from other people’s writing. It was basically hundreds of pages of thousands of quotes, which was basically a gathering of what I thought were very provocative thoughts about how exciting a certain kind of very ambitious nonfiction is. Year by year this course pack got less repetitious, had fewer typos, it started falling into certain categories, like all the stuff on memory, all the stuff on hip hop, etc. And year by year by year the course pack became more and more manuscript-like. It finally became unmoored from the class, and I really started working on it as a manuscript.

I’ve been heavily influenced by a lot of visual art that does a lot of appropriation, I’ve been influenced by a lot of hip hop of the last thirty years that, of course, is hugely bound up in sampling and remixing. So, it wasn’t anything I really thought about, and it just seemed to be the most natural thing in the world. Then I sent the book to the publisher, and the publisher bought it. Then, relatively late, just before the book was about to be published, the publisher finally realized how many of the passages in the book are my remixes of other people’s words, and we had to figure out what to do about that. At one point I thought about withdrawing the manuscript and publishing it on my own at a Kinko’s or something. But we worked out this—to me relatively satisfactory—compromise: no citations, an appendix in the back, a disclaimer from me in which I say, essentially, Please, for the love of God, don’t read the citations. [They are] extremely cryptic, brief, and tiny citations.

To me the whole point of it is connected to my argument. A lot of the argument, for me, sort of swirls around this statement by the German writer Walter Benjamin, who says, “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” That is to say, the really exciting work places the reader in a kind of uncertain space in which you’re not exactly sure what the genre is. In exactly the same way I wanted the reader not to be able to tell who the speaker is: Is it me? Is it Sonny Rollins? Is it Nietzsche? Is it Emerson? Is it Eminem? I really wanted the reader, at the level of genre and at the level of the speaker, not to be able to be certain who the speaker is. That was a really important part to me. And then, in a more general way, I was trying to make the point that artists from the beginning of time have hugely “stolen” or “plagiarized” from one another. Picasso said, “All art is theft.” Shakespeare’s Henry VI: two thirds of it is stolen from Holinshed’s Chronicles. James Joyce said, “I’m quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.” It’s my contention that in the digital age that we live in now in which so much material is at our fingertips with just a click of a button that it’s vital to the future of art that we be able to remix and to sample and to appropriate the work around us. So, my book is an attempt to both theorize about that and to embody it as an actual practice. That’s my rather long-winded answer to your question.

Interviewer: Reality Hunger is set it up with these short snippets that are each their own thoughts, which are then organized into categories, and it is just so dense! You’re almost making something like twenty arguments in a few pages and there’s just so much there to grasp onto, and so much of it is very provocative and almost antagonizing.

Shields: Right. That’s interesting what you said. I’d love to hear how you found the book antagonizing. The only thing I’d say to you before I find out how you find the book antagonizing (cause it’s definitely meant to be provocative) is just… I think what you said I take very much as a compliment. It means quite a lot to me that the book has a tremendous density, and to me, a specific velocity that I am terribly interested in in works of contemporary writing, [works] that have tremendous speed and concision and compression to them, and, to me, those really slow-paced, kind of glacial novels that everyone praises I find absolutely, literally, unreadable. So, I really want each passage of my book to be a kind of mini explosion, where it’s six-hundred and eighteen really powerful thoughts. There’s this one passage in the book in the chapter called “Brevity,” it’s a quote from Nietzsche, he says, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book, or rather, what everyone else does not say in a whole book.” I just love the idea of saying things in a very compressed way. But anyway, tell me what you found somewhat provocative, or even antagonistic about the book.

Interviewer: Sure. Like you’re saying, you try to say so much in such a brief amount of time and I think that what that does is it creates a reaction in the reader because they’re going, “Give me more!” You know, give me your three sub-points to back up your statement or something, but it’s not there. But I love that because then you’re reacting to it. And then you have to look at yourself and say, “Why am I reacting this way?” It makes the reader have a more critical role, I think, in reading this novel, I guess you can call it, or group of thoughts, or whatever you want to call it. There’s a specific quote that, sort of, provoked me. I’m a writing student, I want to write fiction, I love fiction, and you have a quote where you say, “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe. The present period is one of administrative numbers.” This was difficult for me because, though it’s not necessarily depreciating the value of fiction, but it is something to think about, and it is something that brings about this new, not negative, but critical light onto what we think of as fiction and why we use characters. And the book is just chalk-full of these kinds of things. So, I just thought that was interesting and it provoked a big reaction from me.

Shields: I think in many ways you’re sort of the ideal reader in the sense that you’re a fiction writer, but you’re open to being provoked and challenged, and some of the most gratifying responses I’ve gotten from the book have been precisely from people like you: people who are fiction writers, people who aren’t entirely persuaded by the book, people who actually want to push back against it in various ways, but who find that, having read the book, they actually are returning to their own work with a new vigor or a self-critical vitality. I’ve gotten dozens of emails from fiction writers who say, “I don’t agree with everything you say by any means, but you’ve had a catalyzing effect on my own work, in the sense that I am trying to make sure that my work is never dully going through the paces.” In a way, I’m not trying to bury the novel, I’m trying to renew it. So it’s really good if you’re finding yourself challenged by the book.

Interviewer: I think that that’s a good thing because once something is challenged—something like fiction that has been the main-stay for hundreds of years—by things like sampling and technology and massive amounts of information at our fingertips or shortened attention spans throughout America and the world. These are things that are going to begin—if they haven’t already—fiction writers who, especially now when literary work is perhaps one of the more dwindling facets of media because you do have to sit down and read it, it’s not just a two-hour movie. Honestly, most people my age don’t even have the attention span to sit down and watch a two-hour movie, let alone a book. So I think it is good to have to deal with these challenges because otherwise maybe there won’t be fiction in twenty or fifty or a hundred years.

Shields: Exactly, that’s fascinating. I was just at a conference in Iowa City earlier this week, and someone told me that Kurt Vonnegut had said that for contemporary writers to ignore technology is like the way the Victorian writers tried to ignore sexuality, that it is, in a way, as transformative of a thing that we have to pay attention to. It’s interesting what you said, that you find that your classmates say that even a two-hour movie feels rather—that people want things even more compressed than that, that even a two-hour film is too long. That’s a very funny idea to me [laughs]. I think part of it is how unbelievably formulaic most films are, certainly all Hollywood films. I’ve taught film and I’ve studied it, and I’ve written some film scripts, and it’s an unbelievably formulaic art, even a very good film follows an incredibly precise map, and I think that part of the reason that films feel long, even very good films, is that there is very little genuine surprise in them and follow this incredibly unchanging script. So, so many of the books that I’m trying argue for and the books I’m trying to write and teach and read, are books that just don’t follow such a well laid map. They’re just much more scatter shot and they feel closer to ground level of life in a western democracy in 2010.

Interviewer: What are some of these books or movies that you find follow these guidelines, that are what you would consider to be powerful or important contemporary works.

Shields: I definitely have a list of them on my website and on my Facebook page, if you look for something called “A Very Partial Reading List,” but a few that come to mind are a film by Ross McElwee called Bright Leaves, some books would be books by Maggie Nelson called Bluets, Amy Fusselman’s book called The Pharmacist’s Mate, Leonard Michael’s Shuffle, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries. Those would be several examples.


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