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Reality Bites Back

A few questions for David Shields

Reading the new David Shields book, The Very Last Interview, made me wonder, and not for the first time, about the author’s masochistic nature. The book, which consists entirely of questions asked of him by interviewers from throughout his nearly four-decade career, was the result of a painstaking act of curation: Shields listened to every TV, radio, and podcast appearance he’s ever done. He then transcribed the interviews, culled hundreds of questions, and arranged them into twenty-two themed sequences (“Childhood,” “Art,” “Capitalism,” etc.). Although we never hear any of Shields’s answers, his skillful collaging turns each set of interrogations into a highly readable thread, both encapsulating and critiquing his life and work.

The project is in many ways a satisfying career retrospective, but what’s most notable about the book is just how relentlessly hostile the interviewers are to their subject. From a journalist who quotes to him from a particularly nasty blog comment (“David Shields is a dried-up hack who dresses his acts of plagiarism with layer upon layer of bullshit”) to one who seems to want to goad him to suicide, Shields sets himself up for a relentless flogging. Part of the tension in the book comes from the fact that many of the interviewers, however unkindly, raise legitimate criticisms of his work and, because of Shields’s lack of a direct voice, we’re left to guess to what degree he’s willing to entertain this criticism. Ultimately, what’s most interesting about the book, though, is Shields’s endless appetite for shit-eating, even if we understand this to also be a literary gesture. Either way, the final impression is one of increasing melancholy and desperation. Those of us who’ve been following along on the Shieldsian journey might have seen this coming; still, it’s a bit grim to contemplate this now sexagenarian man wondering (if only through the voices of others) if anything he’s ever done holds any lasting value.

What, though, is it that makes people hate David Shields so much? It feels like a lifetime ago now, but there was a moment when Shields seemed central to whatever we might think of as literary culture. That moment was 2010 and it saw Shields publish his epochal Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Addressing such then hot-button issues as the fiction/nonfiction divide, the death of the novel, and the debate over plagiarism vs. sampling, Shields’s book made a case for hybridity, for fragmentation, for soul-baring, above all for the abandonment of the so-called “traditional novel,” which he dismissed as “unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” Instead, he called for artists to draw on forms that incorporated and remixed large chunks of raw “reality” (such as diary entries, pilfered quotations, and music samples) into their texts. At the same time, he was interested in the way that these works always acknowledged the inevitable artifice of their makeup, the unreality of their own construction. Some of these forms, like hip-hop music, were already dominant in the culture; others, like the lyric essay, were more subterranean gestures, but Shields lumped them together as a single, multifaceted “artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one.” Here was Shields, at last, to state it.

The most striking feature of Reality Hunger, arguably the most controversial one, came courtesy of its own construction. Embracing the collage form, which he derived from sources as diverse as E.M. Cioran, Renata Adler, and Danger Mouse, and which he had been building steadily up to since his 1996 book Remote, Shields crafted his argument as a series of 618 brief numbered sections, none longer than a paragraph. These sections contained, by turns, direct arguments, bits of literary history, pure quotation, and personal anecdote. Only about a third of them, though, were actually written by Shields. Claiming the privilege of a hip-hop DJ, Shields drew the remainder from a dizzying array of other sources, writers he admired, newspaper articles, whatever he could get his hands on. His conception of a collective conversation, in which his writing mingled productively with other voices and you couldn’t necessarily tell who was saying what, was a thrilling way to present a shared public narrative as well as a shrewd statement about contemporary media, but his lawyers didn’t agree. When they forced him to append a list of sources at the end of the book, Shields prefaced the appendix by suggesting the reader remove it with a boxcutter and throw it away.

In The Very Last Interview, one questioner wonders if Shields’s relativism makes him “particularly complicit” in the rise of Trump.

There’s plenty to argue with in Reality Hunger, which seems to me to be a large part of the fun. Reading it today, its glaring weakness rests in placing so much of its argument on the back of the poorly defined “traditional novel.” Except for telling us he can’t bear to read Jonathan Franzen and implying that Henry James kind of screwed everything up, Shields doesn’t really define what he means by the traditional novel, just that it remains dominant and that he doesn’t like it. Worse, he seems to misunderstand the entire nature of the novel altogether. “You have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set,” he writes. Is that why we read novels, though, strictly to absorb their few epiphanies? What about all the novels that are only two hundred pages?

Still, the book was and remains thrilling, largely because of its very insouciance. It’s easy for me to say because I was—and am—squarely Team Shields when it comes to blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction and saying fuck copyright law, but it’s still exciting to hear his tossed-off judgments and his genuine enthusiasm for what, at the time, seemed like the most exciting trends in contemporary literature. How many people first came to Maggie Nelson or Amy Fusselman through Shields? But it’s also not surprising how his aggressively stated endorsement of unpopular viewpoints and the unmodulated arrogance of his tone not only turned people off but made them positively angry. While James Wood (who Shields would later label as “one lost human”) was rather measured in his take, calling the book “highly problematic,” Sam Anderson, writing in New York magazine, expressed a desire to inflict physical violence on Shields.

Shields’s insistence on seeing facts as largely fungible in nonfiction hasn’t exactly endeared himself to retrospective criticism either. In the light of the Trumpian assault on truth, even Shields defenders like Stephen Marche, reconsidering the book in 2017, felt that we no longer need “a rush away from the tyranny of facts,” but “rather the opposite . . . We need a new art of information.” Shields, for his part, remains defiant. In his 2018 book Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, he writes, “I’m against ‘alternative facts,’ I suppose, but I’m for ‘alternative interpretations.’” I find this attitude both a bit dubious and more than a little encouraging. In an era when we’re being asked to view facts as definitive and, correspondingly, journalism as both objective and infallible, a little correction may well be called for. Clearly, though, this attitude isn’t shared by Shields’s interrogators in The Very Last Interview; while one of them explains to Shields that “the culture is now exceedingly weary and wary of its own astonishing narcissism and solipsism,” another wonders if Shields’s relativism makes him “particularly complicit” in the rise of Trump.

In the twelve years since Reality Hunger appeared, Shields has been busy. From 1984 to 2010, he published ten books; since then, he’s brought out a baker’s dozen and directed a feature-length documentary. These volumes range from a trio of anthologies he’s edited to a work of photography criticism to his arrangement of a transcribed running dialogue with fellow writer Caleb Powell.

Despite the miscellaneous nature of these projects, the central thread running through these books, from 2013’s How Literature Saved My Life to The Very Last Interview, is Shields’s perpetual interest in the cursed nature of the human animal. Having already reduced humanity to its most base biological terms in his Darwinian 2008 memoir The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, Shields’s subsequent books act as relentless dissections of the perverse behavior of the human beast in its (un)natural setting.

In one of his favorite formulations—as with many of Shields’s pet quotations and anecdotes, he repeats it in several of his books—Shields writes that “everyone’s ambition is underwritten by a tragic flaw. We’re deeply divided animals who are drawn to the creation of our own demise.” For Shields, we are always doing things that are detrimental to ourselves or, at the least, doing things for reasons the opposite of why we say we’re doing them. We enjoy watching the bad fortune and destruction of others, and often ourselves as well. Worse, we don’t understand that that’s what we’re doing and so we remain lonely and miserable creatures, unable to connect with others or communicate our essential experience of life.

For Shields, we are always doing things that are detrimental to ourselves or, at the least, doing things for reasons the opposite of why we say we’re doing them. 

This is where literature comes in, at least potentially. In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields’s aesthetic prescriptions are revealed as more than mere theoretical quibbling. In that book, a typically Shieldsian mélange of memoir and criticism, we understand that Shields really does need literature to come to his rescue. A perpetual depressive and lifelong dedicatee of the world of letters who has never found much solace in other people, he needs books where writers place themselves in harm’s way, that are guided by his lodestar formula, “consciousness contending with experience,” because he sees that as the only chance to ease the essential isolation of the human condition.

Or at least, his own essential isolation. Shields is always drawing universal conclusions out of personal examples and it seems rather unlikely that the lyric essay holds the same life-saving potential for most of humanity as he hopes it might for him. In the end, Shields isn’t even able to affirm the bare consolation that he has always looked to books to offer. “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness but nothing can assuage human loneliness,” he concludes, before, in what feels like a round of special pleading, offering a final appeal for the written word’s continued relevance: “Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.”

Shields’s subsequent books inflect this question of humanity’s doomed nature in different ways, but the most interesting of these titles, if far from the most successful, may be Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump. Once again employing his trademark collage style, here Shields combines his usual assortment of quotation, short analysis, and anecdote with ample self-contradicting quotations from the then-president. It’s all in an attempt to understand not only Trump’s psychological motivations but the fascist tendencies in the culture that made Trump possible as well. Even back in 2018, this seemed like something we probably didn’t need.

Shields’s approach throughout the book is more psychological than political. Labeling his book a “detective story,” he sets out to unearth Trump’s “original wound” which he quickly locates in the persons of his tyrannical father and absent mother. This psychologizing extends to the larger world as well, whether that’s the Trump voter’s response to the supposed self-righteousness of liberal culture, the possibly contradictory behavior of a Trump-hating café owner in Shields’s neighborhood whose obsession with his establishment’s strict rules renders him unknowingly Trumpian, or the life and work of Shields himself. Shields quotes from a “friend” (quotation marks his) who, sounding much like some of the journalists in The Very Last Interview, writes to tell him that Trump would appreciate his strategy of borrowing other people’s quotes and then slapping his name on them to build his brand. Shields quickly dismisses this charge with a “wait—what?” but it’s hard not to feel that there’s some truth in it and also that Shields realizes there’s some truth in it.

The most frustrating part of the book is Shields’s continued blaming of so-called PC culture for Trump’s rise. This tendency reaches its nadir in a section entitled “28 Reasons Trump Will Be Reelected,” where Shields finds an explanation for Trump’s popularity in such phenomena as the University of California, Berkeley, including the phrase “America is the land of opportunity” on its list of microaggressions. Whatever miscalculations the author makes, though, the book remains instructive as one of the more sustained portraits of the entire Shieldsian vision. For Shields, our perverse self-destructiveness is both part of our makeup and a response to the numbness that we all feel. We can only come alive when we witness the undoing of other people’s lives or, for that matter, our own. As such, we couldn’t help but have created the society we currently live in. For the political thinker, it’s become commonplace to view Trump as the inevitable product of our increasingly anti-democratic society. For Shields, the eternal essayist, Trump’s inevitability is the result of something deeper: the very makeup of human nature.

In 2019, Shields published his most squeamishly intimate book yet. Titled The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, the book once again employed the collage technique—including, in this go-round, anecdotes, quotations, bits of memoir, and literary analysis—to bear down on the vexed question of heterosexual coupling, specifically his own. Intent on illuminating the perversities inherent in human nature, Shields sketches throughout the book a doomed portrait of romance (and human life in general) that’s rife with unequal power relationships, self-delusion, and people forever desiring what they can’t have.

In The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, Shields sketches throughout the book a doomed portrait of romance that’s rife with unequal power relationships, self-delusion, and people forever desiring what they can’t have.

Perhaps the most perverse thing about Trouble, though, was Shields’s insistence that by writing the book against the wishes of his privacy-minded wife, he was putting his marriage on the line. Addressing his wife early on in the book, he writes, “in dozens of complex, various, and subtle ways, you seem to me, subtly, sadistic. I am perhaps, not quite so subtly, masochistic.” This sadism/masochism dynamic becomes the guiding principle throughout the book, both undermining and eroticizing the possibilities of human connection and ultimately dooming humankind to unhappiness. More specifically, it makes of Shields’s own connubial situation a highly charged condition. His wife, who hates to be written about, comes across a bit obliquely, but she still registers as a cold, largely insensitive woman who thinks of her husband as more pathetic than sexually viable. Naturally this turns Shields on.

Shields ends the book wondering whether what he’s just written will spell the end of his marriage. I took that to be a purely literary gesture, but apparently I was wrong. Picking up The Very Last Interview, I was surprised to see her referred to as his “ex-wife.” Subsequent passages confirmed it. Having been reading Shields for over a decade, having followed his marriage (which, yeah, never sounded ideal) and his daughter’s upbringing throughout his books, this new information, presented so bluntly, took me aback. Even as his personal details are dosed out in small fragments throughout his work, a portrait of family life emerges and seeing it end made me feel oddly protective of Shields.

Shields’s most successful recent project finds him looking beyond his interior struggles. Turning to feature filmmaking for the first time, his 2019 documentary Lynch: A History takes as its subject the former NFL running back for the Buffalo Bills and the Seattle Seahawks Marshawn Lynch, known as much for his reticence in speaking to the media as for his bruising rushing style. Shields seamlessly translates his cut-up aesthetic to the screen, collaging some seven hundred clips (game footage, commercials, footage of historical figures, pundit commentary) to tell the story of Lynch’s career and public persona. Grounding Lynch’s story in both the history of his native Oakland and the racist legacy of the United States (the name “Lynch” takes on double meaning here), Shields proceeds both chronologically and associatively as he portrays Lynch’s prickly relationship to the media as act of both resistance and self-aggrandizement.

Shields positions his subject, who refused to speak with the press throughout the 2013 season, answering the usual assortment of unenlightening questions by repeating stock answers such as “I’m thankful,” as the latest in a line of Black athletes who’ve found ways to fight back against the demands hoisted on them by fans and pundits alike. “[Lynch] is leaving a legacy of the eloquence of silence, echo, and mimicry as the tools of resistance,” Shields notes in a closing title, and by intercutting footage of the running back’s non-responses with footage of both detractors and supporters, Shields presents Lynch’s silence as a powerful act of protest, a fresh and persuasive way to stick it to the “shut up and dribble” crowd.

Shields’s pointed collaging makes for a film both more rousing and disturbing than anything he could hope to achieve on the page, but he remains too much the essayist for the film to register as a simple celebration. Although some of Shields’s efforts to undercut the righteousness of his subject, particularly a juxtaposition of Lynch proclaiming his support for Hillary Clinton with the former secretary of state’s “superpredator” speech, seem both easy and mean-spirited, his consideration of Lynch as a man trying to exploit his exploiters creates a useful tension in the film that goes beyond simple A-B juxtaposition. Yes, Lynch’s silence is a powerful political tool, but it’s also one he’s willing to use to good financial effect, satirizing his media stance on TV spots and palling around with late-night talk show hosts while lining his pockets.

Shields places no blame on his subject here, understanding Lynch as a man “try[ing] to be true to himself in a capitalist, racist society,” while getting what’s his. It’s a smarter and more generous attitude than he exhibits in much of his contemporaneous work. If Shields’s recent books, from Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump to The Trouble with Men to The Very Last Interview, find the author increasingly isolated and desperate, if it finally feels like he’s backed himself into a corner, then Lynch offers a potential solution. By staying true to his aesthetic and thematic concerns, while looking beyond himself, Shields suggests one way to move past what was starting to feel like an impasse. How far he’s able—or willing—to push himself in this direction remains to be seen, but if he keeps to his prolific pace, it shouldn’t be very long before we find out.