David Shields

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I just got into this writer David Shields. I first heard him on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, in a long interview about books, fiction, and culture. I loved the talk. I have a degree in English, and it was still challenging to keep up with. But it was the good kind of challenging, and a great example of two skilled writers blending esoteric takes on their work with practical considerations. Here’s the podcast:

Shields wrote a book in 2010 called Reality Hunger that apparently caused a little buzz in the literary world. I am 5 years behind in all my literary buzz. I have not read Reality Hunger yet, but they summarized it on the podcast. It seems Shields argues that “the novel” is is an ossified literary form that we keep trying to revive, when what we should be doing is moving beyond it and experimenting with different kinds of prose.  People like Jonathan Franzen are essentially trying to re-write the big, serious 19th century novels. Shields asks: why? Why is this the high water mark of the prose medium? Why are we just doing the same thing over and over again? Here is the Random House blurb for Reality Hunger, which makes me want to read it a lot:

Shields has written the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a variety of forms and media who, living in an unbearably manufactured and artificial world, are striving to stay open to the possibility of randomness, accident, serendipity, spontaneity; actively courting reader/listener/viewer participation, artistic risk, emotional urgency; breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work; and, above all, seeking to erase any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

That’s pretty pretentious. Which makes sense: it was written by a publisher. But the ideas Shields is playing with (spoken with his own words) are not. People want visceral experiences through art, not warmed-over Dickens.

I just read a book Shields wrote with Caleb Powell in 2013. It’s called I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. It’s like a novelistic podcast. Two people (a literature professor – Shields – and his former grad student – Powell) spend three days in the woods arguing. It’s part a Socratic dialogue, part-memoir blend of non-fiction and self-presentation. I read it in two days flat. There are few things better than being so into a book you devour it. Next up: a Shields-introduced collection of essays and prose called Life Is Short – Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity. God bless the New York Public Library.