Two Hungry Davids

categories: Cocktail Hour


One good picture of a bald guy (Bill's of Diaz) deserves another

Not long ago I sent an essay to a magazine where the cool kids hang out.  To be fair, the cool kids were very nice when they rejected me, but they did say something that confused me a little.  “Too much like David Shields,” they said.   Hmmm, I wondered, who is this Shields of whom they speak?  The ideas in my essay—Against a Literature of Fact—were ones I had chewed over for a couple decades, ideas that had obsessed me as a writer, teacher and human being.  But apparently I was behind the curve.  So, I figured, if I sound like David Shields, I had better read him.

I read the book, Reality Hunger, in two short bursts.  In between those bursts I met Shields very briefly at AWP (see if you can pick him out in this picture from Talking to ghosts 2) and he seemed like a nice enough guy.  Now I’ve finished and while I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it later, for the moment I’m just going to jot down ten random reactions.  Shields claims that his main desire is to provoke, and he has certainly done that.  As for the “manifesto” aspect I’m not so sure.

1. The very best thing about this book is the sheer exhilaration that comes when you give the world the finger and decide to be completely yourself.   (It just so happens that in Shields’ case being yourself means quoting other people a lot.)   It is the most important lesson here. In this time when publishing is completely geared toward e-books about vampires (no offense, Justin), we can’t hear often enough that there are still pleasures in following one’s own genius.  Even the fact that commercial success in literature–which is the dream of many who don’t admit it–is all but impossible, becomes exciting.  Many of the quotes in Shields’ book are just well-written versions of “be yourself.” Not really very revolutionary, but……

By the way, one of the few quotes he didn’t corral was this one by Thoreau:  “A man is best when he is most himself.”

2.  Speaking of Thoreau, he, or anyone else who likes plants or trees, is nowhere to be found in this collection of aphorisms.

Yes, we have Emerson, the parlor general, who I too have come back to lately with great enthusiasm.   But while Shields sometimes tries to define himself against New York, he shares their revulsion at the thought that human beings are animals that evolved next to other animals.  I was weaned on Philip Roth and love Woody Allen.  But how can any serious thinker today be merely urbane and urban; that is how can they think of human beings, creatures that evolved in nature for thousands of years, as merely brainy creatures unconnected to the animal world?  Even Roth no longer does this (if he ever did), frequently including “nature” in his recent work.

Or as Tracy Seeley puts it in her post on Shields: “Where in all of this is the body?”

3. Another of the good things about this book is that it cuts through the phony baloney and gets right to the heart of why we love to read, at least why we like to read nonfiction of the autobiographical or biographical sort.  The almost greedy instinct to take what others have to offer and put it to use in our own lives.

On the other hand, one of the worst things about the book is that it serves up its own brand of phony baloney.  That is because Shields tries to take what are really a bunch of random ideas and, despite claims of embracing uncertainty, attempts to write edicts.  (It is, after all, a manifesto.)  He tells us that lyric essays are what matter and that anything with a plot does not, as if there were not varied pleasures in different sorts of reading.  This is like a tennis pro suggesting that golf be outlawed.  Or telling someone that because they like the Talking Heads they can’t like Neil Young.

Or, to put it yet another way: he does a great job of focusing on one of our reading pleasures, and one that New York publishers/ marketers have neglected.  But spare me the “there’s only one kind of writing/reading” bullshit.

4. There were many things I loved about this book, and many passages I underlined and marked up.  It made me remember that in high school and college I used to like reading introductions to classic works more than the works themselves, and that I sometimes preferred biographies about great writers to their actual writing.

5. I enjoyed reading all the quotes but for me, and most reader’s I suspect, it became a parlor game of trying to guess who said what and flipping to the back.  This grew irritating and while I know the author wanted all the quotes to go un-attributed, that would have been even more irritating.

6. Given the basic premise of unoriginality—nothing is really new–it’s funny to watch the way Shields is being touted as thoroughly original, and the next big thing.  That is not the author’s fault of course and in this day and age when everyone defends themselves against even the possibility of reading, any way you can get a title in peoples’ hands is justified.  Still there is an inherent irony in the proceedings.

Shields has definitely captured something that is in the air.  But it isn’t particularly new to most of us.

7. Shields should read Walter Jackson Bate.  Not only was Bate the best 20th century thinker on originality and influence (sorry Harold Bloom), but he followed to their logical conclusion many of the ideas that Shields simply presents in seed.  For instance, Shields likes to quote Goethe talking about how un-original he is.  This is accurate, and bracing, since we are talking about one of the most original artist in the last 200 years.   But what the short quotes don’t get at it is that this admission of unoriginality was just a starting point, and that by leaning on and learning from great predecessors, Goethe made the long climb toward greatness and originality.  What Shields seems to suggest, on the other hand, is a “Well you can’t be original so why try” attitude.

So here’s an aphorism of my own: an admission of our unoriginality is just a starting place.  It’s where the climb to art begins.

8. This last point shows in Shields’ own writing.  It’s sometimes hard to pick out the quotes, but you’re always pretty sure when it is Shields himself writing.  One small problem of placing your own prose next to the prose of the greats is that your prose may look a little weak.   Shields is a provocative, smart, interesting writer.  But Emerson he ain’t.

9. Why, in books of this sort, does there have to be an obligatory Franzen bashing?  Maybe they—the whole artsy experimental gang—should get it out of their system once and for all and form a lynch mob and go after the man himself.  Are they really so jealous or afraid of Franzen?  Why riles them up so?  The Corrections was not penned by the anti-Christ.  You know what the Corrections is?  It’s a good, old-fashioned page turner.  It’s real predecessor isn’t Delillo, but the Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities.

And there should be room for page turners.  The last thing we want to do is say reading can’t be fun.

10. If you don’t have time to read this book pick up The Art of the Personal Essay and read Lopate’s introduction to the anthology.  Lopate’s essay on the essay is not just the best thing he ever wrote, but just about the best writing about the essay that I’ve ever read.  Shields, by the way, ends up quoting substantial chucks of the Lopate essay.

The two men follow essentially the same argumentative path, until the end of Reality Hunger, when Shields splinters off toward an even more specialized essayistic form—the lyric.  I think a happier, and more honest, conclusion would have been to admit that all sorts of writing—the personal essay, autobiography, biography, poetry and fiction too—can provide the sorts of pleasures and wisdom—the “reality”–that Shields is hungry for.  To say that only the lyric essay can satisfy this hunger is a little like saying one should eat Chicken Marsala every night.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Marsala as much as the next guy.  But I prefer a full and varied fridge.

[related posts on Bill and Dave’s: Against the Literature of Fact: Part One (Dave’s Take) and The Fact of Literature: Part Two (Bill’s Take).]

  1. Richard Gilbert writes:


    Rereading your wise Writing Life Stories this winter and musing on Shields’s stimulating, provocative “manifesto,” I can weigh in with certainty: no, you don’t do the same thing as he does. Not at all. Yes, Shields prefers nonfiction, but that’s not really the issue. That’s a red herring. He likes some fiction, actually a lot of fiction, since he’s well-read, but of a certain type. The issue is narrative—storytelling—and its tools. Shields says he’s not against narrative, not against telling stories. And that’s true: he’s not against TELLING stories. He hates the powerful, evolved art of scene, along with its ally plot. Like John Gardner before you, you emphasize scene. Gardner talked about it purely for fiction, as I recall, but in your case you’ve shown how it works in nonfiction as well, especially in memoir and narrative essays. And in your writing about writing you try to place scene within the great trifecta of storytelling: scene, summary, exposition. In that order. Shields reverses it. Except don’t try to give him ANY scene, bro. Won’t have it! Don’t want it! And forget plot or event sequence, too, while you’re at it.

    As any journeyman writer knows, scenes take place in time and in a particular space, and man do they take space—pages—to convey. A good scene of me and Sam cleaning out the barn, using our pitchforks to pry up wedges of petrified manure, is going to take five to ten pages to do right. To show it. Our gut-wrenching labor, our banter to distract and amuse ourselves, the sparrows squabbling in the eaves, the day tipping toward evening in the light that slants through the dust we’ve raised. You can summarize what we did in one sentence—I think I just did—or explain it well in a paragraph, maybe two. And that’s what Shields wants and argues for: “Cut to the point, cut the artifice of scene and of unfolding the story via a plot. That’s tired, passe, crude. Just TELL me. I’m no child who needs to lose himself in another world, and I can’t respond to that move anyway. It bores me. It angers me.”

    Trouble is, scenes are the best way to convey experience. To show how it was—really, how it felt to be you. This is what most readers crave, of course, to learn what another’s emotional experience in life is, or was. The hunger for this has fueled millions of years of storytelling, which at base is how our species has always bonded, sharing tears and laughter. That’s the real Reality Hunger. The hunger for stories that give us the experience of another’s subjective reality. We desire for others to understand our story, and we desire to understand theirs. Not intellectually. Emotionally.

    Shields isn’t only a very smart and intellectual reader and writer, he’s a rebel, deeply contrarian when it comes to prose storytelling. And he has elevated his idiosyncratic objections into a philosophy, or tried, in Reality Hunger. For him, nonfiction, or even fiction, isn’t about how writing uses the ancient tools of storytelling in order to convey experience and to become art. Not about how I can share my sense of loss at Sam’s untimely death, so that others will understand how I feel and maybe share it. Shields seems to feel that’s unnecessary, or manipulative.

    The question for writers is, Do you throw in with Roorbach and Gardner and the narrative tradition, or with Shields? For me, as time goes by, the fundamental things apply . . .

    • Richard Gilbert writes:

      Sorry, didn’t mean to dis Dave by addressing my post to Bill. I was trying to reply to Bill’s comment on Dave’s post!

      • Dave writes:

        I don’t feel dissed! Thanks for commenting. It makes me happy when someone takes pity and addresses the occasional comment to Bill.

  2. Steven Stafford writes:

    Great piece.

    Shields likes to quote Goethe talking about how un-original he is. This is accurate, and bracing, since we are talking about one of the most original artist in the last 200 years. But what the short quotes don’t get at it is that this admission of unoriginality was just a starting point, and that by leaning on and learning from great predecessors, Goethe made the long climb toward greatness and originality.


  3. Johannes writes:

    Didn’t much care for the Franzen bashing either. If the heaviest criticism you can hurl at a writer is that he’s a “realist” and that he insists on having a plot…well, that’s still okay by me. And this particular statement–“Fiction/nonfiction is an utterly useless distinction”–may be a hint that there’s a certain exaggeration of opinion for effect here. I hope so, anyway.

    But besides the fact that Shields comes off as an extremist, this was an almost magical reading experience (for this guy, anyway). It’s been a while since a book made me so giddy about reading and writing. I would save a chapter for each day, and as soon as I finished, run to the computer to start typing (nonsense, most of the time, but typing nonetheless).

    The idea of collaging isn’t Shields’ by any means, and I think one of the most recent forerunners to Reality Hunger–Jonathan Lethem’s plagiarism essay–is even quoted in Reality Hunger. But Shield’s collaging is just so, so good. True, you can often tell which passages are his, but I think he also composed some of the most memorable lines in the book. Take this parenthetical to the “ds” chapter: “(I may have made this detail up, but it sounds right, it feels right, maybe it happened once; I’m going to leave it in.)” Dig it.

    As for the absence of Thoreau and nature–the inclusion of which leads me to ask how “sick of nature” you really are–I believe Thoreau appears on page six. And Emerson is probably only eclipsed by Montaigne and D’Agata in appearances. Plus Annie Dillard sneaks in every now and then. But DESPITE the inclusion of the treehuggers, Reality Hunger stills achieves that elusive quality–writing a book that forces the reader to talk about it.

    Oh, and amen to the enjoyability (word?) of reading author bios sometimes eclipsing the enjoyability of their work.

    Thanks for the good read, David.

  4. George de Gramont writes:

    Glad you keep the essays coming . Since I like reading good writing I found this one fascinating . I just finished the best book i’ve read in years, Pushkin’s “The Captains Daughter and other stories”. Tolstoy read Pushkin whenever he got stuck in his writing.And I never realized that P had a great sense of humor and sense of words.GdG.

    • Bill writes:

      I kinda like the sampling of passages from here and there in Mr. Shields’s book, like a DJ running cuts of “I Have a Dream” or Mick Jagger’s voice or whatever into a rap song, or a dancer paying tribute to Nijinski by leaping a certain way (out an open stage window, for example), or painter using figures from the Japanese masters, or a poet just saying “breadwinner breakfast parent” and not really caring whether you get the reference or not, or, I don’t know, a carpenter building a Cape Cod house because Cape Cod houses are great-looking anywhere. But the subject of the manifesto seems pretty well warmed over to me, destined for an audience that’s already heard it or for (and I guess this is good) a new wave of students who will get all exercised about it, and will then need to be exorcised… Anyway, main thing from my point of view is that I wrote this book twice, twelve and fifteen years ago (under different names, “Writing Life Stories” and “The Art of Truth,” and even at the time was sick of talking about truth and its representation, memory and its failures, the nature of narrative, and etc. The epigraph to “Writing Life Stories” is the Thoreau quote placed incognito in “Reality Hunger,” so obviously that refers to me. Kidding. What else? I saw Mr. Shields on Colbert and felt very sorry for him when Stephen explained about how the publisher of “Reality Hunger” had insisted on an appendix giving attributions for all the many unattributed quotations in the book, and how Mr. Shields suggests in an author’s note that readers just cut those pages right out of the book, and then he, Colbert, takes a pair of scissors and cuts those very pages out. Mr. Shields looked satisfied until Colbert kept the pages in hand and threw away the rest of the book.

      And David (Gessner), I know you’d be happy with a fridge full of beer, no food at all, even if the beer were all the same brand, just as long as there was an opener nearby. Or I guess they’re all screw-tops now.