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The Shadow of Mortality

David Shields interviewed by Max Liu.


Last time I saw American writer David Shields he was contending with some very literal misreadings of his book Reality Hunger in a Hay Festival debate about copyright. Had he really come all the way from Seattle, I wondered, to listen to Professor John Sutherland drone on about Harvard Referencing? His fellow panellists ignored the book’s rallying cry for new, exciting forms; they were perturbed by his arguments against copyright law, his call for moves away from traditional publishing that he believes will unlock opportunities for writers, artists and musicians. Nine months on, it seems appropriate that I’m meeting him on the day that Radiohead self-release their new album The King of Limbs.

“That – artists releasing their work themselves – is actually how I ultimately see art being disseminated,” he says when I mention Radiohead. “Reality Hunger urges the democratising of culture. That’s why I didn’t want citations in the back of the book. I didn’t want the reader to think, ‘This is Nietzsche so therefore I should bow down and be reverential towards Nietzsche.’ Or say, ‘This is Tony Blair so I should jeer at it.’ I didn’t want the obvious valorising of different strands.”

Shields published his first book, Heroes: A Novel, in 1984. Two more novels followed, then six works of non-fiction, including Black Planet, which was nominated for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Reality Hunger, he tells me, came about through his teaching at Washington State University.
“I devised a course on the self-reflexive gesture in essay and film. I put together a huge package of quotes from myself and other people. I started to organise them into chapters, arranging the quotes within the chapters. When I edited the chapters, I slowly realised that this was a book.”

He says he’s become an impatient reader, tired of wading through traction-less filler to get to what the writer really wishes to say. Does he think that his frustration reflects a wider appetite for the direct in American culture, not only in art but perhaps also in politics?

“The book was written from 2004 to 2007, during the very heart of Bush agony. People were saying, ‘I can’t believe I live in this country.’ Reality Hunger was a direct response to that. I quote an advisor to Bush who says, ‘We create the reality and you follow it.’ This book is a screaming pushback against that.”

When I tell him that Reality Hunger seems like a profoundly democratic book, he agrees, saying, “I want to argue for the proliferation of a thousand competing stories. I’m arguing against the idea that we can tell any story and claim it as the only one. The books I really love tend to let a thousand stories bloom – whether its J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello or Renata Adler’s Speedboat where there’s a trainwreck of different kinds of stories being told simultaneously. I want to argue for multiplicity and what David Foster Wallace would call the ‘multi-valence’ of stories.”

The multiplicity of writers Shields draws on in Reality Hunger crosses historical and national boundaries – for every quote from Emerson there’s one from Montaigne; V.S. Naipaul and Goethe figure as much as Wallace and Vivian Gornick – but I detect a distinctly American impulse in his desire to overthrow old forms.

“How so? Are you almost tracing it back to independence?” he asks, a little incredulous. Yes. Reality Hunger rejects the American dream myth and there’s an individualist streak to it, which might be descended from the transcendentalists, a wake up call, urging us to live and write, as Thoreau said, “deliberately, not desperately.”

“Wow. I don’t know what to say… ” Shields is a thoughtful interviewee, brilliant at appropriating quotes and willing to roll with ideas that would draw a smirk from a less generous subject.


“In America,” he says after giving my notion careful consideration, “there’s a powerful narrative of ‘We all die and go to heaven.’ I feel like my previous book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, pushes hard against that meta-narrative. There I’m trying very strongly to say ‘This is the entire ride.’ In a strange way both books try to say, ‘Here on planet earth everything is significant but nothing is meaningful. There is no salvation in a single narrative or a single God. There are just many Gods, from TV to Buddha. There are many narratives. So let’s get messy.’”

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead was published in America a couple of years before Reality Hunger but it’s just come out here in paperback; an unflinching meditation on death, moving and amusing father-son memoir, full of excellent sports writing, it details our universal decline with a clarity that somehow reconciles the reader to their mortal lot.

“The shadow of mortality is there in Reality Hunger too,” Shields says. “It’s by a middle-aged person who’s a bit exhausted by the forms and is trying to renew himself and stay vital. It prizes wisdom and consciousness. So many of the writers I love, whether it’s Proust or Sebald or Sterne or Melville or Kundera, are bored by sheer entertainment, they want to figure out what they’re doing on the earth.”

Does he think then, that a young writer could not have written Reality Hunger?

“The essay is a middle-aged form and Reality Hunger is a solidly middle-aged person’s book in its interest in melancholy meditation. The essay is not typically something that a twenty-six-year-old writes. I wrote novels from age 26 to my late-thirties. This is not the type of book somebody would write coming out of the gate. Although… What’s that British guy’s name. He’s Kundera-esque… ?” Adam Thirlwell? “Yes. He seems like a young tyro. I could see him writing a book like this. It’s young in its embrace of crazy-making forms and I try to be plugged in to contemporary habits across the board.”

Those “crazy-making” forms are for me the nub where Reality Hunger truly turns to the future. There’s a line in the book where the essay is described as “heroic.” I’ve always thought there was something heroic about the novelist’s attempt to imagine the lives of others, but what is Shields’ concept of writerly heroism?

“The essay is for me about the Montaignian idea that every man contains within him the whole human condition. The challenge is for the essayist to find within himself disturbing psychic states. The reader can either back off and say that he or she is a more morally, psychologically healthy person than the essayist or they can meet them halfway and acknowledge their own freakish loneliness.”

So is that what he means when he writes about “restoring the danger” to the reader?

“Yes. In Macbeth there’s a war between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth but the war in essay is between two different parts of one self. I’ve always loved that Wallace quote, where he said: ‘We are existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. You can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. Writing constructs a bridge across the abyss of human loneliness.’ I love essayistic writing because it puts that at the absolute centre of the work. That’s what Wallace does in his essays but in the novels it gets lost in some relatively conventional fictional operations.”

Before his death in 2008, few readers and writers this side of the Atlantic cared a jot for Wallace. Today the same critics who sniffed at his maximalism laud him as the best of his generation, so it’s refreshing to hear Shields sound a negative note. It’s no surprise that he should buck the trend though, and he pulls no punches with his views on other eminent novelists.

Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan seem to me to be almost the same writer – big baggy pillows that you fall into, basically 19th century novelists. They include thousands of contemporary details, like someone might be talking on a cell-phone, but that’s it. I despise their work. They’re popular precisely for the nostalgic verities the form of their work provides.”

But isn’t Franzen doing something subtle, knowingly using an anachronistic form to illuminate the vicissitudes of modern life? After all, part of what makes the novel the novel is that its demise is constantly being exaggerated.

Shields grins. “I could write a psychobiography of Franzen. I understand him because he’s my worse self. He’s a school-ma’am who clearly knows relatively little about what life in America feels like at ground level. It feels like he Googles new fads or he has someone report on them or thinks, ‘I’ll get into this new thing called ‘the internet’ or whatever.’ He’s the novelist for the square of squares.”


Franzen may be determined to write as though modernism and postmodernism never happened but I’m not convinced that mainstream literary culture is entirely at odds with Shields’ vision of direct, confessional lyric essay. He wants essayists to be granted the same freedoms as poets but what about Philip Roth? He‘s dramatised the line between fiction and reality, narrator and novelist, for half-a-century.

“Roth is important for me but I had to create space early on between me and him in order to breathe. As a Jewish American novelist of a younger generation, I had to say, ‘Roth is not sufficient.’ His big baggy novels that most people love bore me. I like the books that feel like unvarnished cris de coeur, the very short ones – The Dying Animal, Deception, Everyman – the ones that come very close to the essayistic. I love work in which there is as thin a membrane as possible between writer and reader. Roth is interested in making that membrane as thin as possible but he finally seems a little self-protective.”

Speaking of self-protective Jewish-American novelists, I’m intrigued by a forthcoming title listed on Shields’ website. What, exactly, is The Private War of J.D. Salinger?

“A film-maker, who’s making a documentary about Salinger, interviewed me a few times. For six years, he’d been travelling around the world, interviewing people very close to Salinger and he said, ‘How would you like to write a book based on the transcripts?’”

Shields adores Salinger and he strikes me as an artist of infinite possibilities when he’s writing about something he loves. After all, what better way to follow Reality Hunger than with a book that some will argue should not be written?

“You mean because it’s so wrong it’s right?” he laughs. “There are all kinds of connections between the Salinger book and my last two books. There’s also definitely a sentimental narrative where when I was thirteen Salinger told me it was ok to think. But the film-maker gave me fifteen thousand pages of transcripts and I’m there to serve the material, it’s not Reality Hunger Two or a remix of Salinger. Hopefully it will be out at the end of this year.”

Whatever form his next book takes, I expect that Shields – with the kind of deep, subtle connections that make Reality Hunger essential – will challenge us to reassess Salinger and question broader preconceptions about literature. He will ask us to think again, again. We need writers who do that.


Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 28th, 2011.