David Shields is a novelist, essayist, critic and standard-bearer for a fresh approach to literature’s place within the wide arc of contemporary culture. Of his two books published over the year, 'Reality Hunger: A Manifesto' argues that the novel has never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself, what’s needed, Shields suggests, is a good pair of metaphorical scissors and an awareness of the things going on in wider culture.
Shields champions the lyric essay and collage techniques that place an author more as an editor or a producer where ideas and words work as samples for splicing, re-mixing, looping, connecting and re-framing. Shields’ second book 'The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead' puts his ideas to practice by looking straight down the barrel of the gun at mortality by using facts, memories and thoughts to examine the staggering life of his 97-year-old father. We caught up with David for a chat about both books and his thoughts on what he describes as the ‘indictment’ against literature...
Dazed Digital: What’s the link between 'Reality Manifesto' and 'The Thing About Life…'?
David Shields: I’m really interested in nakedness and I’d say that there’s a voice and an approach to both books that are interested in pulling back all the curtains. The works that I really love tend to avoid huge amounts of narrative armature. I’m interested in work in which there’s a thin a membrane as possible between life and art. In relation to The Thing About Life, I wanted to examine mortality completely nakedly … There’s a line in the book – ‘bare bodies housed in a mortal cage,’ that’s all we are. The connection I make between the two books is like a body without flesh – there’s both a psychic and a physical nakedness.
DD: Talking of ‘nakedness’ on page 48…
David Shields: ...I talk about the length of my penis when erect. I know. And all of the reviews focus in on it, I mean – who cares!? It’s not as if I have a 12inch penis or like a 2inch penis, the point is that I’m just a person. There’s a phrase in America – We’re all bozos on this bus, that’s what I was trying to tap into.
DD: Tell us about the form...
David Shields: 'The Thing About Life', to its credit, is pretty uncategorizable. It mixes data, quotation, memory but is not hugely memoiristic. I feel like I’m trying to push back against the kind of American memoir writing that had dominated for the last 20 years. In a similar way, Reality Hunger seems to have been perceived in two ways; some people say that I’ve totally missed the point about how great conventional fiction is. Other people seem to think of it as an early warning system for what may be coming. The difference is that Reality Hunger is explicitly trying to insight a wave or a movement, to clear the decks and say The King is Dead, Long Live the King. It’s over, let’s start again.
DD: You’re talking about the fact that the form and very idea of the novel hasn’t changed in 200 years?
David Shields: Yeah, this is a terrible thing and such an indictment to literature. I mean, do people involved in music constantly re-write Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony? Do people in the arts now just create portraits of 17th century royalty? No. They focus in on moving their art form forwards. For me, it’s so bizarre … Take for example novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan – their novels could have been written in 1860. Ok, so a few of the details may be current – there may be a gay guy, or someone may use the Internet – but other than that these are all mid-ninetieth century novels. It’s ridiculous to think of these novels as ‘art.’ The idea is to move things forwards, it is our obligation to renew the form and to reject this idea of continually recycling the past.
DD: Is the difficulty in the fact that these novelists are quite formally skilled? They’re pretty good at what they do?
David Shields: These books are essentially a warm security blanket. Obviously, as you say, they are skilled writers, but they are only really popular because they provide the nostalgia of coherence, the linearity of narrative, the popular glacial pace of novels in and amongst a whole host of other things. These writers are nostalgia merchants. We need to call total bullshit on it and say – this is not literature.