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David Shields

The controversial author on why he came to bury the novel, not praise it

Interview taken from the March Issue of Dazed & Confused:

David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life is another brain-buzzing tour de force from one of our current favourite writers above ground. Following his ludicrously exciting, much talked-about manifesto against fiction Reality Hunger (2010) and the hilarious heart-wrench of his dad and death-obsessed The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008), Shields’ new book is another collaged and layered and thoroughly cutting-edge text with an admirable fondness for bashing the conventional novel. HLSML is an exploration of what good writing means to the author (everything), and what it should be doing now and next. It also handily serves as a map through modern literature: Shields is an enthusiastic, ever-reliable, serial recommender. Not so much life-affirming as literature affirming and death-reminding, it’s a celebration of how good writing saves lives because it doesn’t pull punches or lie about loneliness and the cold inevitability of the grave. It’s also a lot funnier than that sounds. We called Shields in Seattle totalk about the future of books.

You quote John Updike at one point in your new book: ‘I loathe being interviewed; it’s a half-form, like maggots.’ Do you share this feeling?

David Shields: Not at all. I disagree with everything John Updike has ever said. I was just quoting him as a pivot-point there. I actually like conversation! To be honest, there are parts of How Literature Saved My Life that began as interviews. Someone was telling methat they think the book sounds very phonic, that it sounds like me speaking. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there aresix to ten passages that I cadged from various interviews that I did post-Reality Hunger.

You write in the new book about how Reality Hunger made you into a poster boy for the end of the novel and the death of copyright. Is it a role you particularly relish?

David Shields: Not especially. It’s a somewhat complicated thing for me. On the one hand, I am interested in work that jumps boundaries, and that makes trouble. Part of me is comfortable with that, with being a bit of a troublemaker. You know, I am truly bored with 99 per cent of conventional novels. I do think it’s a somewhat desiccated form. And I do think that the way we think about copyright needs to be rethought quite considerably, postinternet. Those are real things, but I finally just love literature. I love reading and writing.

Just not reading and writing traditional, ‘made-up’ novels?

David Shields: I mean, it’s true of so many fiction writers that I much prefer the essayistic work they did, whether it’s David Foster Wallace’s, or John Cheever’s, or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. I am wary of playingthis endless sort of puncher and punching bag. I’m just not interested in the novel. I really love the essay, and I do some drive-by shooting on the way toward my defence of an excitement about the essay. It seems to me a given, frankly, that the novel is not wherethe exciting work is being done.

Your drive-by shooting at the novel made you notorious pretty quickly...

David Shields: My position gets cartoonised a bit. I mean, I love Ben Lerner’s recent Leaving the Atocha Station, and that was at least nominally a novel. I’m also not an anti-copyright absolutist. I’m trying to raise what seem to me like significant questions about the boredom of the conventional novel. People like Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen completely bore me.

So you’re not losing sleep over making enemies in the world of fiction writing?

David Shields: Oh, God no! I mean, that idea thrills me! I quote too often this incredible line of Flaubert’s, ‘The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it.’ That’s so beautiful. Like that Naipaul line that I quote at the end of Reality Hunger, ‘If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.’ And I just believe so much in what it is: the trying to push the forms forward. And I’m willing to stand before it. You’ve got to be willing to break a few eggs.

There was great appeal in your brazen writing-off of the need to ever bother ploughing through long novels like Freedom, Infinite Jest or One Hundred Years of Solitude...

David Shields: I guess that idea irritates some people, but good, they should be irritated! I definitely want to be a kind of map for where literature is going, and can go. But it’s also important to me that the work not just be a theoryof literature but a practice of literature. That is to say that I hope that the form my book takes embodies the very thing I’mtalking about, if you see what I mean. I want the book to be a map of where I want to push literature, but also a visceral work of embodied writing. I’m hoping that came through.

Yeah, we got that. You talk in HLSML about how ‘Twitterisation’ of the culture turns ‘personality into a cult and gossip into the only acknowledged platform’. Is this an idea that horrifies you a bit, or are you totally optimistic about the brave new world?

David Shields: Well, I’m talking a little bit out of both sides of my mouth, aren’t I? You know, I have a Facebook account, I have a Tumblr account, I have a Twitter account – which, I must say, I use rather sparingly. I basically just post stuff like, ‘I have an essay out here’, or, ‘There’s a thoughtful review there.’ Just telling people who might be interested in my work. People urge me to do more with it, but so much of my writing is collage-like, I don’t want to give it all to Twitter.

You’re interested in books that have emerged from Twitter though. Like Justin Halpern’s Shit My Dad Says...

David Shields: That’s a really lovely book. It began as a Twitter account, and that’s not a bad model. But I really resist and push back against people who somehow think of me as someone who wants to give in completely to Facebook and Twitter culture. On the contrary! I want to take those contemporary forms and push them into deeper collaged spaces. I do think our attention spans have changed. The world changed forever. Not post-9/11, but postinternet, post-Google, post-all-this stuff. And I think the idea that we’re supposed to go on clippety-clopping with our horses to market and pretend that we are still living a mid-19th century life is absolutely crazy.

You predict at one point that the next Shakespeare will be some kind of preternaturally talented computer programmer, or a hacker. What’s with that?

David Shields: Well again, I’m being a little playful. I’m just trying to say that perhaps the next Shakespeare – someone who absolutely revolutionised the culture – will emerge from that world. I often think, when are we gonna get the incredible Twitter novel, or Tumblr novel, or Facebook novel? Part of me would like to write that book, but I don’t think I have the digital chops or even the digital enthusiasm to actually do it.

How do you envisage this incredible book? What will it be like?

David Shields: I do think we are waiting for this incredible work of art that marries brief video clips with Twitter accounts, with Tumblr images, YouTube videos. I would love to see that book! I want to be conversant with those forms, where the book actually takes place and happens on screen. All the books I like, they feel as if, if you wanted to, you could read them online, as a series of very beautifully composed blog posts. It’s almost like the blogpost turned into postmodernist art. The idea of reading some huge old big, baggy, 800-page novel: I can’t pretend that’s what I’m interested in. Ina way I’m probably trying to talk myself into a radical position that embraces the future. And I’m trying to write in a form thatfeels conversant with how I actually think and behave on the internet.

Photography Chona Kasinger

How Literature Saved My Life is out now, published by Knopf