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The “Hunger” Artist

Genre-bending author David Shields issues a wake-up call.

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“When we are not sure, we are alive.”
— Graham Greene

David Shields believes that fiction as we know it is over.

He wants to be part of the next level of the novel — some hybrid still being born but evident in culture everywhere around us. Hence his controversial new manifesto, “Reality Hunger,” a wildly illuminating remix of a book consisting of 618 short passages that compress literary theory, philosophy, memoir, lyric essay, journalism — you name it.

The controversial surprise? Shields lifted more than half the text from other artists and thinkers, modern and ancient, sculpting in his own writing in hopes of illustrating one of his main themes: The history of art is one of theft, and appropriation is a natural part of the creative process. He lost a battle with publishing-house lawyers and was forced to include an appendix of references — but he would prefer that you cut it out.

A creative writing professor at the University of Washington, Shields has written 10 books, including a National Book Award finalist and PEN/Revson winner. But he didn't find bestseller success until he gave up on fiction and became what he calls a “sideways nonfiction” writer.


Style: It seems dangerous for writing students to jump right into collage. What questions do you teach writers to ask when examining their artistic motives?

Shields: The thing I talk to students about a lot: What can you not shut up about? What are you passionately confused about or even obsessed with? A lot of fiction writers begin with a great idea and end up burying it under an avalanche of novelistic technique. What I urge people to do, and what I love the most, is work that takes what you're obsessed with and stages it, actually goes into it with intelligence and research, thought, humor, self-mockery, exploring the interest. Some people might find that indulgent. But in the best work, I think people take that and make it thrilling. … Many novels become a form of entertainment, not a form of investigation. What I find entertaining is emotional and intellectual intensity and investigation. I want work that has nerve and the resources to explore how the writer saw being alive.

Both your parents were journalists. When did you realize that transparent truth in journalism was a bit of a joke?

Well, that is a crucial part of the book. In a strange way, the book is an odd conversation between myself and my parents. I grew up with a stuttering problem, and I feel like it's pretentious to say, but at an early age the stuttering taught me that language is not transparent. That it has this really powerful self-reflexivity about it, this strong reverb. I was drawn to my parents' journalism and terribly suspicious of it because it had this notion of clear, transparent language.

What are people missing if they read this in piecemeal fashion?

This one guy in England said it's the essential literary bathroom book of the decade.

The book is meant to be open to such readings, but for me there is definitely an argument being unfurled. I spent years getting them in order for the maximum effect. … What you'd miss is any notion of a coherent argument … my whole project is to argue for the excitement that takes place in the liminal space between fiction and nonfiction.

I want that very confusion to be the emblem of what I'm drawn to. I like the way the form of the book is an exact mirror of the content — I hope.

There are so many legal constraints with creative endeavors today, from music sampling to gene and seed patenting, medicine, food. We've never had to deal with this level of control over ideas.

Tell me about it. An interesting review of my book recently urged me to take a more hard-line Marxist view of it all, because the whole reason we've become so litigious is related to capitalism. For centuries, artists would feed off each other with relative ease, and there are plenty examples — Shakespeare taking parts of “Henry VI” from Plutarch, Montaigne reading classical writers, Warhol or Richard Prince, hip-hop. … What's happened is the protection of capitalism and corporate interest always take precedence over creativity — it's really a dominant theme. We've lost these freedoms that artists have taken for granted for so long.

I'm definitely a part of this movement called “copyleft,” which is kind of against copyright. My book aims to contribute to that discussion and push the argument forward. Recently the New York Times' Week in Review talked about my book, as well as a German author, Helene Hegemann, who was accused of plagiarism. At the end, the writer quoted literary critic Louis Menand, who said basically if these works are successful, the law will change to respond to them. So I'm hopeful. Things have gotten so boring and tamped-down, seems like we've reached an endpoint, and maybe books like mine are just pushing back.

Can you talk about the process of how you sculpted the text?

For me it was one of the most interesting processes for a book I've ever written.

The book began as a course I teach at University of Washington in the creative writing program. There's only two tracks - fiction and poetry - and I had to make the case for why I thought I should be teaching nonfiction, since I was hired as a fiction writer.

Over the years, my interests have evolved toward nonfiction—how and why nonfiction can be so exiting … Ultimately, I developed this course with thousands of passages from myself, contemporary writers, ancient writers basically talking about some aspect of writing. Over each year, I would get the packet to become more and more coherent, rid of repetitions, rid of less interesting passages. The big break for me was to get it so that the passages were pushed into separate categories or chapters—one about memory, contradiction, doubt, etc. etc.—then I realized within each chapter I had to organize and arrange the chapters in the best order. Over many years, I kept refining and shaping and it became this amazing remix book, procreation book, whatever you want to call it. I came to realize the appropriation was a perfect way to convey one of my main themes.

I couldn't agree more about the boredom, the endless circling, in a lot of modern novels.

That's it for me. In a way, the core of the book is this idea: I wrote three novels, got bored with fiction writing, I couldn't teach it anymore, or read it, or write it anymore.

And I wanted to show what a total dead end contemporary fiction is in its current guise and suggest a new way to write that is more congruent with contemporary culture.

So many books that are so highly lauded are unbelievably boring. And I just wanted to say there's some way of doing this that's more “real” or “alive” or “funny” or contemporary. So much of contemporary fiction is written like we're still living in 1938 … The real break for me was in the early part of college at Brown, I tried to be part of the college paper and the conventions of journalism struck me as not conducive to my best writerly interests. I would want to make stuff up (laughs). So I became a fiction writer and it took a long time to circle back and become the sort of sideways nonfiction writer that I am now.

Did your early stuttering have any connection to you exploring collage?

Interesting, that's a great connection. A friend of mine who was a research assistant is somewhat dyslexic and we talked about how his dyslexia got him interested in collage and my stuttering got me interested in anti-linearity; something about distrusting the official narrative. Often stutterers will substitute a word: if they can't say “cat,” they'll say “the feline animal” or something funny to avoid the word—and there's something collage-like about that. You see how artificial language is from the beginning. Interest in going crabwise, being interested in your own recursive utterances. The book suggests some of those close links.

So where do you see the novel going? Sometimes, it almost seems like you want to condense it into a poem…

Most novels are very leisurely. I want to match the speed of culture and our consciousness now. I'm not a huge reader of poetry. I like Tony Hoagland, Stephen Dunn, love Philip Larkin—I like poetry that feels like thought. I do think I'm calling for an incredible amount of compression. That line that Nietzsche says about wanting a book that says in 10 sentences what people take a whole book to say or a whole book not to say. Brevity is really important to me, we live in an incredibly rapid culture. It seems crazy to me to continue to write the novel as if we still take the horse and carriage to market every day …

You're also doing a Salinger book next, will you talk about that in Richmond?

Not much …. I signed a confidentiality agreement so there's little I can talk about that. I think I'll just read from “Reality Hunger” and hope to start a discussion.

David Shields gives a talk, “Genre Is a Minimum-Security Prison,” March 22 at 7 p.m. at the University of Richmond's Weinstein Hall (Brown-Alley Room).

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