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The Innermost Law of the Form: An Interview with David Shields

By Robert BirnbaumApril 25, 2013

The Innermost Law of the Form: An Interview with David Shields

MY ACQUAINTANCE with the then young novelist David Shields began in the last decade of the last millennium, when Shields was writing conventional novels, and it has progressed through to the publication of his increasingly tendentious tomes, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and his so-called contrarian collage, How Literature Saved My Life. What follows, in this our fifth or sixth conversation transversing a decade and a half, is a somewhat oblique rendering of David  Shields's literary holy war against conventionality, an unsubtle exhibition of his persona and his wide ranging erudition, and other matters of cultural interest.

David Shields is not constrained by conventional boundaries — he is apt to write a hagiographic chapbook on the great Japanese baseball player Ichiro Suzuki (Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro) or a book about how race plays out in the NBA (Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season), or edit (with Brad Murrow) an array of writers on death (The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death), or assemble (with Matthew Volmer) an amusing collection of literary oddities  and curiosities (Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts). And coming soon: his oral biography of JD Salinger.


Robert Birnbaum: When you did a guerrilla reading at MOMA, was it with their permission or without?

David Shields: Alas, with their permission.

RB: How guerilla would you say that is, then? There’s a little authenticity question here.

DS: Maybe it was g-o-r-i-l-l-a.

RB: Yeah.

DS: Do you know Kenny Goldsmith? Great guy. He arranged the event. I questioned the body language of the head MOMA curator, I kissed my ex-girlfriend in the audience, I punched an old friend in the shoulder, I knocked off Kenny’s hat, and all these Dutch and Japanese tourists didn’t know what to do — it was really fun. Anyway, the whole point was anything to gum up the works.

RB: You just walked in, and then what happened? Were people expecting you to be there?

DS: Some friends knew about it. You don’t know Kenny Goldsmith’s work? He does what he calls “uncreative writing.” One time he typed up an entire edition of The New York Times and made it into a book, an object. He has a new book out that I love — audio from nine cultural cataclysms — Columbine, JFK, 9/11, etc. He asked me to come to the museum and read, but he urged me to break the fourth wall. “Just don’t read in that Workshop voice. You’ll just vanish in this space.” There’s a lot of noise, people are there to worship the modern monuments, and you gotta own the space. You know, I’ve been teaching and writing and blathering for 30 years, and I’ve finally learned how to project a little bit.

RB: Were you nervous?

DS: Surprisingly not at all. I don’t know, my liquid courage is coffee; I’m a relatively new coffee drinker and I just love how it gives me an instantaneous high. I drank a large latte beforehand and I just had a riot. I would say the space got very weird, very alive — or at least I think it did.

RB: The assumption, or not the assumption but the underlying thing here is no one knows what’s going to be next. There’s no pattern of behavior that they could —

DS: That to me is practically the definition of art. I gave a presentation at Sarah Lawrence the other day. Do you know Melvin Bukiet?

RB: Yes. 

DS: Melvin said, “I apologize my cell phone went off.” Because he was trying to close a New Jersey housing deal. I said to Melvin, “If a work can’t incorporate a ringing cell phone, then it’s dead.”

RB: Do you know Douglas Coupland? He, I think, replicated something about Columbine by having a video — I think, I’m not sure it was a video. I guess it must have been a video presentation of a lunchroom with a multitude of cell phones ringing but no people.

DS: Is that available online anywhere?

RB: I’m not sure.

DS: Is it pronounced Copeland or Coupland? I think it’s Coupland, but I was curious. But anyway, did you talk to him about it?

RB: Oh yeah, he told me about it.

DS: Wow, if you have a link I would love to see that. That sounds beautiful.

RB: Yeah.  I’m surprised you don't know more about him because, except — he’s Canadian. He’s close to you, in Vancouver.

DS: I know his work a lot but I just don’t know him. I traded email with him but I never knew how to pronounce his name. In any case, there’s also another recent example from a few years ago — when a conductor at, I believe, the New York Philharmonic was upset because someone’s cell phone went off right in the middle of Beethoven’s Ninth or something, but again — I will say, if the music has no way to incorporate these contemporary sounds, it’s DOA.

RB: Who in the creative community, maybe the writing community, really thinks you’re the anti-Christ? Do you think there’s that level of animosity towards you or anger towards you?

DS: Do you think that’s somewhat self-glamorizing?

RB: No, no. I’m not coming in with any preconceptions, I hope, that I know of — that I’ll confess to. [laughs]

DS: I agree, it’s a somewhat tedious thing that makes one sound more dangerous than one is.

RB: I don’t think of it as more dangerous, but I do think of the level of emotion that was summoned towards you. I mean, people can be afraid of mice and they’re not dangerous.

DS: I do think — I don’t know if you’re referring to that one line in How Literature Saved My Life where I say I was talking about the death of the novel, and also that it’s okay to steal stuff. I find other people’s vitriol fascinating. I find it very moving. I remember Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post reviewing Black Planet — do you remember that book?

RB: Yeah.

DS: Yardley said that, on the basis of it, my wife should divorce me. I take that as the highest of praise that a book could get under somebody’s skin that much. I definitely get —

RB: — Just to get this out of the way, have you given up writing novels?

DS: I don’t know about that. I think of my work as being very novel.

RB: Did you create the word “appetitive”?

DS: I love the word, but I don’t think I created it. I’m not even sure I’m pronouncing it right.

RB: It’s the first time I ever encountered it.

DS: Do I mention it in the book?

RB: Yeah. I think you’re describing the sports announcer — Dave Mahler from Seattle.

DS: He’s a big guy, yeah. I like that part of the book; that was a very late addition. I thought you’d get a kick out of that. I wrote that for you.

RB: You could have put that in parentheses. I read a wonderful piece by Noreen Malone, who’s a writer for The New Republic  — she has a bunch of stuff there — and she ostensibly did a review of this Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Malone hastened to point out that book was 172 pages and eight pages were acknowledgements. The review, or the discussion, was about — what did it mean that this woman was writing a self-help book, a feminist self-help book, and would spend eight pages thanking people? Malone scrutinized the people that she thanked.

DS: Was the whole review about that? 

RB: Pretty much, yeah.

DS: I love that. Because — how many more reviews do we need in which you do a bit of a trumpeting of the horn at the beginning to contextualize, then you do a little bit of a summary of the argument or the plot, then you do a little bit of praise, then you take away that praise briefly, then at the end you say, “It’s not great, but it’s pretty good”?

RB: Well, it’s a degraded enterprise, number one. And number two, it’s a test of your ability to write original prose.

DS: I know what you mean.

RB: For the most part, I’m going to read — for example, if I see Jim Harrison has written a review, I would read it.

DS: You like Jim Harrison?

RB: Or Tom Mallon, whom I enjoy as a writer. He splits his time between writing novels and criticism.

DS: Perhaps. I think he’s doing less reviewing of late.

RB: For me it’s the person writing, not the subject.

DS: I agree. You want the critical intelligence in the imaginative positive.

RB: Original.

DS: That voice on high — mission control — an imperial authority telling you it’s good or bad. I can’t read that stuff anymore.

RB: One of my theories, which has yet to be exploded, is that in every generation there are only 400,000 readers. It’s an irreplaceable number. Like the 12 honest men in the Jewish tradition.

DS: That’s interesting. 400,000. I mean, there are 50 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.

RB: What do we call the people who read that? Do we call those people readers? You know, there are also 50 million copies of The Satanic Verses — how many people read it?

DS: Not me. I haven’t read it yet.

RB: [laughs] I briefly had a copy and I didn’t read it. Well, that wasn’t a good novel. That wasn’t something I could access.

DS: Anyway, the 400,000 — you mean of what? Supposedly serious readers?

RB: Yeah.

DS: That’s high. 

RB: So this grinding and fulminating and ululating that you don’t have a big enough audience and literature’s dying — I assure you it’s not dying, but it’s never going to grow into television. It’s not going to be the hula hoop.

DS: The Dickensian model: people showing up at the wharves to see the latest chapter. 

RB: Yeah.

DS: I take your point. Two thousand years ago, Greek writers complained that everything had already been written and that the culture was completely degraded. But in a post-digital culture the screens are getting smaller: film screen, a TV screen, a laptop screen, a telephone screen. It’s hard to figure out —

RB: A glasses screen — Google glasses screen.

DS: That will be fascinating.

RB: Why do you call it post-digital? Where’s the post part?

DS: Oh, that’s good. That we live in a digital age? It’s almost like a super-digital age. It’s like saying post —

RB: Industrial? 

DS: Yeah.

RB: It’s industrial somewhere in the world, I assure you. The sweatshops of Indonesia are industrial.

DS: Do you have a book? I see your emails. I don’t necessarily click on every link.

RB: What — you don’t!?

DS: Do you have a book or two out? At one point you had this idea of traveling around the country. I still think that’s a good idea. You could get a publisher to give you an advance, maybe.

RB: Noooo. I have to get a grant. I have to get somebody, you know — my fantasy is that one day I get a call that says the MacArthur Foundation has thought sufficiently of my work and has taken pity on me and given me some money. Because that’s what I would do.

DS: Well —

RB: I’d send my kid, I’d buy a house for my kid.

DS: That project, it can’t just be Robert Goes and Visits 24 Writers Whom He Can Stand. It has to be, I don’t know what —

RB: I would argue that the story will unfold itself as you put yourself in the way of life and things will happen.

DS: Of course that’s true.

RB: But to sell it you gotta tell someone —

DS: I totally agree with you, it’ll change as you go, but it would be great if it had —

RB: A really solid idea, to really sell it, to begin with.

DS: I don’t know what you’re obsessed with. I look at your emails and there’s definitely a political consciousness there; there’s an interest in art in relation to the broader culture. There’s an interest, you know — can you make a gesture that is in some ways vaguely meaningful in relationship to a capitalist matrix? Maybe the idea of capital, capitalism, money — to go to an obsession of yours and try to talk to every writer about that taboo of taboos — money. That would be interesting, do you know what I mean? I’m just brainstorming.

RB: Yeah. The project is still in the fantasy bracket somewhere, because I’ve been told so many times, and I —

DS: Have you broached publishers?

RB: Yeah. And editors I’m friendly with, to see what they — no pressure, what do you think, you know —

DS: The project I just finished is related, it’s going to come out in September of 2014, it’s called I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. Which I could have done with you, but I did it with a former student of mine, Caleb, a student from 20 years ago. We disagree about everything and we finally spent a week together in this cabin. We recorded every word. I thought I’d come back with nothing. We took every word, 400,000 words, we’ve edited down to a really tight 230-page book. Knopf is publishing it next year.

RB: Who’s editing it?

DS: It’s done. We edited. Well, Ann Close is the editor. In any case, the book I’d love to see you do, something like either you argue heavily with a writer or, maybe six writers. All of whom you have a similar quarrel with. I don’t know who they could be —

RB: It’s funny that you bring this up. I was talking to George Saunders yesterday. For some reason the notion that we might sit together and have a three-year conversation, which, in that process, would strip away all sorts of things. That we ultimately should get down to something truthful.

DS: And visceral.

RB: Something that develops out of the conversation that you didn’t start with.

DS: Because I don’t know how many interviews you have done, perhaps a few hundred, maybe more. On some level you probably are weary of the MO. At some level, this person wrote this book they’re pushing, you’re trying to get something done, but frankly they’re waiting for the cab and blah blah blah. So, this Caleb and David thing is an attempt to do an intervention such that the idea of a Q and A is forever demolished. Because Caleb and I — it gets very, very unpleasant and uncomfortable.

RB: Do you stage-direct? In the sense that you parenthetically point out things that were happening?

DS: Basically, we spent a week together, the whole point of which wasn’t to resolve our differences, about which who cares? It was to get a book. I was constantly telling him stuff to get a reaction and he was doing the same to me. We knew we had certain gold to pan. At one point I accuse him of being an alcoholic.

RB: Were you drinking while you were doing this?

DS: I’m a very, very light drinker. Over five days he drank perhaps 75 beers, sort of like a chain smoker. I’m such a light drinker that I think someone’s an alcoholic who has more than a glass of wine for dinner. Anyway, it was a really fascinating experiment, I assume[d] it would bomb. But weirdly it got traction.

RB: Well, it is odd that a big publishing house will publish it, yes, without — unless somebody believes in it.

DS: Of course they believe in it — that’s why they’re publishing it.

RB: It’s not, there’s no — it doesn’t smell of commercial potential.

DS: Sure it does.

RB: Does it?

DS: We already have film interest from two different people. In any case, the point being, I —

RB: Who would play you?

DS: I’d play me and Caleb would play Caleb. I don’t know how they came up with that, but they did.

RB: [Laughs]

DS: We want it to be basically, very, very indie, gritty, black and white, you know.

RB: It strikes me you’re not doing a big production; you’re not doing special effects.

DS: You’d be surprised.

RB: Are you going to do a car chase?

DS: More like I’m taking the car keys away from Caleb. But, in any case, what’s my point? My point is that, to my surprise, even a film as low budget as this costs a few hundred thousand dollars.

RB: Yeah!

DS: I thought it would cost 10 cents, but it’s more than that. In any case, the book is about a gigantic subject. Mainly, Caleb wanted to become an artist, but he overcommitted to life. He’s a stay-at-home dad to three girls. I always wanted to become a person but I overcommitted to art. That’s the drama. There’s a whole tradition of this going back to Boswell and Johnson, Goethe and Eckermann, Socrates and Plato. We’re not comparing ourselves —

RB: Cassidy and Kerouac.

DS: Two guys bullshitting.

RB: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — you’re talking about the buddy narrative.

DS: I know, but we’re trying to explode it. To render forever moot the idea of “great man speaks.” Where professor talks to student. I’m as lost as Caleb, I don’t know anything, Caleb doesn’t know anything, and we’re just trying to argue our way out of the woods.

RB: Well, you want to argue, do you want to suggest that there are no great men who speak?

DS: What do you mean?

RB: Would you say Lincoln, as he’s been portrayed in any number of narratives and films, was a great man speaking?

DS: I’m very dubious of those notions. You probably know Christopher Lydon.

RB: Yeah.

DS: We taped a little thing in Providence the other day. I like Chris a lot. I love that voice of his and I love his show. Anyway, he and I were having a friendly debate. He’s interested in my work but says about my work, I miss the master narrative, where’s the master narrative? It was an almost post-religious yearning for the master’s voice.

RB: He likes all those 19th-century guys like Emerson and —

DS: So do I. I love Emerson. But “to write only according to the rules laid down by previous classics signifies that one is not a master but a pupil” (Prokofiev). I haven’t seen Lincoln. I tried to watch it on the hotel TV but I turned it off after half an hour; maybe it gets better.

RB: I’m just thinking more like, who would you characterize, in the history of humanity, as a great man? A great person who spoke great things? Anyone?

DS: It’s just not that live a term for me. It’s like calling someone a genius. What have you done?

RB: How about “important man”? “Useful”?

DS: Why “man”? I really care about great artists. Einstein, say, came up with theories that advanced physics, and there’s this endless halo around Einstein. But if you know anything about Einstein’s life, he wasn’t much of a person. A better example is Arthur Miller, high on his moral horse, who, I believe, shipped off his disabled child to a hospital and saw very, very little of him. I’m skeptical of the category “great man.”

RB: I’d say Wittgenstein was a great man.

DS: He was a great philosopher — that’s a really different thing..

RB: He was accused of child abuse when he was a teacher in Germany.

DS: Interesting.

RB: But if you read some of his stuff, he had a much more joyful grasp of life, less doctrinaire, scholastic —

DS: He was obviously an incredible, incredible thinker.

RB: He could whistle concertos.

DS: Really?

RB: Yeah.

DS: I’ve always loved that story about Bertrand Russell, I believe, being very impressed by Wittgenstein, because he was always the only person who looked completely confused. That is the key to Wittgenstein. He was actually thinking about the stuff. He wasn’t pretending. He wasn’t sort of thinking. He was really thinking. And that’s all the difference in the world. He was actually thinking.

RB: I think the descriptions of his master classes or whatever, seminars, was that there were long gaps of silence.

DS: I love that.

RB: That he wasn’t talking —

DS: He was an authentic human being. He was actually trying to be present in the world. As to whether — he was a great thinker, that’s for sure. So was Einstein. Or, there are certain artists and thinkers I revere, my god — Schopenhauer, Pascal, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Cioran. I have an endless roll call of people I adore. As to whether they are great men or women, I don’t really think —

RB: But I would look at it with a more generous weight. In the history of the world what do we have — a total of 10 billion human beings? From the beginning of homo sapiens.

DS: A lot more than that, I think.

RB: What do we have now, five or six billion?

DS: Seven-point-eight.

RB: So let’s just say 15 billion.

DS: Is that all?

RB: Just a number. But of that number, how many people rise to the recognition that they’ve done something? And then pare away the things that are really —

DS: I know what you mean: you’ve got to strive to be somebody who contributes something. I’ve always loved this line of Flaubert’s: “The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it.” That’s the key for me — who changed things? I was at the National Gallery in DC 30 years ago. A guy was giving a tour of Rothko and asked a bunch of people, “What’s so great about Rothko?” People said, “He made a lot of money.” “He painted beautiful paintings.” “People wrote books about him.” And then the tour guide says, “No, he changed how artists thought about art after him.” They had to deal with Rothko. You’ve got to deal with Wittgenstein. You’ve got to deal with Picasso. That’s greatness. You change the weather for the generation after you. That’s everything.

RB: How do you respond to negative reviews? Laura Miller once wrote, “Who cares what David Shields thinks. Why should we care that he thinks the novel’s dead?" 

DS: I would say that if you’re being booed at Yankee Stadium then you know you’re doing something right. That’s my basic feeling. I’m not going to comment on specific reviews.

RB: No, no, okay, I guess I’m asking, in general do you feel like that you are so sensitive to a review that’s less than positive that you don’t care how well it’s argued, that you don’t care how well it’s written? You don’t care what its argument is?

DS: No, I mean, my goodness, I’ve been publishing books for almost 30 years, this is my 14th book, and, you know, after a while you don’t really read every review — to be honest, you’d drive yourself crazy with either self-flattery or self-criticism. You kind of glance at them. I’m endlessly open to people thinking about my work and pushing me in new directions. I’ve always loved the review that Robert Towers wrote on an early novel of mine, Dead Languages, that he wrote in The New York Review of Books. It was positive but he definitely had some criticism and it really influenced how I continued to work going forward. So I’m totally open to criticism that teaches me something.

RB: Wasn’t Dead Languages your first novel?

DS: Second. The earlier book — you might like — it’s a sports novel, Heroes, about a sports writer’s obsession with a college basketball player. You might actually like it because you’re a sports guy. But, anyway, when I think of reviews that push me in good directions, somehow the Towers review comes to mind. So no, I don’t feel myself particularly touchy or sensitive.

RB: I mentioned you to George Saunders yesterday and he said, “Oh yeah, Reality Hunger, I read it twice in a row.”

DS: Yeah, George likes that book. In any case, what’s your point?

RB: I don’t know. Do you participate in the book prize juries?

DS: I was the chair of the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 2007. That was recent.

RB: That was before Reality Hunger?

DS: It was. That was a hell of a lot of work, so I —

RB: Right. Would you, if asked, would you continue to participate in those things?

DS: Maybe. It was interesting; I talk about it briefly in this book. I’d love to write about it at length, but you are forbidden, of course, to write about it.

RB: You can write about it—

DS: Glancingly.

RB: Like, uh, what’s his name? Michael Kinsley. One might have thought that after Reality Hunger that you had said most of what you wanted to say, maybe that’s not fair, er —

DS: Go for it.

RB: Most of what you wanted to say about fiction and literature and then you come back with How Literature Saved My Life — does that mean it’s an endless topic? Where you continue to —

DS: Mine it?

RB: Yeah.

DS: I hope not. I don’t even think of it as a —

RB: You don’t think it’s sort of a continuation?

DS: It’s sort of a sequel. A prequel. It’s not like I was consciously thinking I’m going to write a book that’s a sequel/prequel to Reality Hunger. I was just shooting a lot of film, I was just chatting to myself, typing stuff up, transcribing stuff, just thinking aloud, and then I realized how it all came together. Namely, that I think of Reality Hunger as burning literature down to the ground and then I think of this book as reconstituting it. That is, I wasn’t trying to kill the patient; I was trying to save it. This is an attempt to apply what Reality Hunger was theorizing about. It’s me trying to show you what for me, a post-Reality Hunger book might look like.

RB: I assume you’ve seen John D’Agata’s book.

DS: Lifespan of a Fact?

RB: What did you think of it?

DS: I like that book and I love About a Mountain.

RB: It’s about a nuclear waste dump in Nevada? Ostensibly?

DS: That’s what it pretends to be about, but really, you might say “the lifespan of a fact” is what it’s really about. It’s about how impossible it is to determine anything about anything and how elusive knowledge is. It’s a pretty ambitious book. I really love it. I don’t know if you’d like either book at all.

RB: I found Lifespan’s construction was interesting, but I go with the theory that if, you know, when you’re writing a narrative, what difference does it make if you use the number “almost 50” as opposed to 48,000, you know, as a story — 

DS: I know what you mean. 

RB: If you like the way it sounds, it’s not substantial, but you just tinkered with the facts. What did you do? It’s an argument that the audience, the reader has an expectation —

DS: Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War: he invents the general’s speeches. This is a founding document of Western civilization and Thucydides is making up the general’s speeches. Somehow we’re supposed to be shocked that James Frey said he went to the dentist on Tuesday when he went on Saturday and had a filling done when he said he had all his teeth removed. From the very beginning of nonfiction it’s been a highly contested and dubious category. Thomas De Quincey fictionalized the last 30 years of his opium-addicted life. In George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,”  all his classmates questioned everything. Vivian Gornick has acknowledged moving stuff around in Fierce Attachments . And I think, in a way, I love this line of Adorno’s, who says, “The innermost law of the form of the essay is heresy.”  I just love that, because that’s what essay does, it says stuff you’re not supposed to say. That’s the energy of the essay, which is why I love it.

RB: But not necessarily an alteration of what people would normally accept as truth or reality.

DS: No. What’s that for, Robert? To make sure it’s recording? How’s it coming through? Excellently?

RB: Yeah.

DS: You know, my heresy, among others, is to say that it’s a fraudulent construction.

RB: What do you think of Basketball Diaries?

DS: Jim Carroll? I don’t know. I wanted to love that book and didn’t.

RB: I only know the movie and saw reviews of the book. I know of him as a person. His persona was amazing.

DS: Difficult life.

RB: Yeah, yeah. He wrote that great song, “People Who Died,” this litany of people that he knew who were dead. The refrain was “They were all my friends, and they died!”

DS: I should go back to Basketball Diaries, I remember reading it at the time I wrote about basketball. It’s hard to write about sports well, incredibly hard. But, in any case, I like a lot of writers and filmmakers who seem to be interested in this epistemological issue: Lauren Slater, Ross McElwee, Errol Morris —

RB: She just wrote a book about — something about spending $60,000 on her dog.

DS: I haven’t read it.

RB: I was thinking about the fact, you know, there’s this discovery that the publications, the venues that don’t pay very much, allow you to publish a little bio. So I wrote one this week —

DS: What did you write for? What was the magazine?

RB: Virginia Quarterly Review Online. I thought about, what if somebody wrote one of those 50- or 60-word biographies everyday for a year, and then collated, just —

DS: Each day you write a different biography?

RB: Well, I mean, if you’re honest you will write a different biography, I’ve been called upon to write these and I’ve probably written 20 or 30.

DS: I know, they’re fictions, in a way.

RB: Nothing’s untrue, but they’re not what I’ve written before.

DS: You should read Michael Martone. He’s pretty much written that book.

RB: What’s it called?

DS: Michael Martone  by Michael Martone. He’s a wonderful and funny writer.

RB: He was at Syracuse. 

DS: He was.

RB: There was some brouhaha and it split the department —

DS: I don’t know any of the details.

RB: I just know —

DS: Yeah, there’s a whole complicated —

RB: I just find that’s a whole other culture.

DS: Academic culture?

RB: The writer profession, the professionalization of writing instruction. You know, I see those kind of people a lot, I mean, you are in a way one of them. And you went to —

DS: Brown and Iowa. I’ve been teaching on and off for most of the last 30 years.

RB: What do you teach?

DS: I teach a course in literary collage, then I teach undergraduate courses in literary brevity.

RB: Do you like it?

DS: It teach out of my passions. I just — Reality Hunger came straight out of class. I would say Remote, How Literature, and my book with Caleb came out of a class.

RB: Would you say —

DS: I think of teaching as a lab. Like a physics teacher who’s going in and trying out problems on my class. I think it makes me a selfish teacher, and it makes me a good teacher. Because I’m there to figure stuff out. I’m not there to say: here’s how you do it.

RB: Right. Did you think — do you see any of Wittgenstein’s books as literary collages?

DS: Definitely.

RB: Have you seen anyone describe them as such?

DS: I have.

RB: I was thinking about Addison’s investigations; he sees them as aphoristic.

DS: Wallace saw them that way. And I think that Maggie Nelson sees them that way. I think you would really like her book Bluets.

RB: You’ve mentioned her and I don’t know her and I’ve wondered who she was.

DS: She’s a wonderful writer and I think she — increasingly, people like Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, John D’Agata, Wallace, Amy Fusselman, Sarah Manguso — we all work in, for lack of a better word, collage, in numbered sections, and it’s hard not to feel the influence of Wittgenstein, and behind him, Pascal; behind him, I don’t know who. Heraclitus’s fragments? Basically, the idea that holds this together for me is that, as you move, say from Wittgenstein to Pascal, the momentum doesn’t derive from narrative, as it would be in a novel. It’s, you know, how’s the argument building? So I think that, in How Literature Saved My Life, there’s a definite argument building. Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled. So, anyway, I’m finding a group of people who really love this form.

RB: Right. Because, you know, of course the people who favor traditional criticism, traditional literature, traditional —

DS: Exactly. There’s a review I saw, I can’t remember, where it was: “I don’t get this, I still love E.M. Forster.” But yeah, I really love some reviews that have been playful and funny.

RB: You know, I wonder what happens when you have these moments when you think of brilliance in the back of your mind and they disappear. I mean, I just had a question to elaborate — they do come back.

DS: I’ll get up and get some water and it’ll come to you. Keep this recording going and while I’m gone, there will be a lot of silence. You’ll get the big thing, the big idea. Do you need anything?

RB: No, I’m good. Thank you.

DS: [In the distance] Can I get a regular water? Thanks. That would be great — Did it come back to you, Robert?

RB: Yes, it did.

DS: I love that, that’s sort of late middle age or early old age. It doesn’t come back to you at first, but it definitely comes back.

RB: Yeah. A few years ago I reviewed the new novel by Cynthia Ozick. I later learned from reading other reviews there was some reference or homage to Henry James in this novel she had written.

DS: I’m aware that we grant a certain license in all these literary references in something like Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses, which are almost illegible without understanding the entire galaxy of literary references — so that of course there are all these James Joyce concordances that are nothing but tracking every reference, as I’m sure you know. So anyway, we have this very misguided notion which I’m very invested in pushing back against — that in nonfiction we have to be either sober journalists, scrupulous scholars, or redemptive memoirists, and we’re somehow citing everywhere. I want to say that nonfiction is capable of art at the highest reaches. And part of that is having a flexibility of reference. Not always having to cite.

RB: They don’t do it in jazz, you know that? If you take a riff from — I don’t know how many songs I’ve heard that have, like, three bars of “St. Thomas” —

DS: That’s a great point.

RB: But still, it’s also a decency. I mean, every once in a while I go somewhere and I see one of my photos. I tell them and they’re like, “What?”

DS: Such as where?

RB: The Chronicle of Higher Education just last week published a photo of a guy who’s the editor of a magazine, so I wrote them and said, “Gee, don’t you believe in copyright or photo credit?”

DS: What did they say?

RB: “Send us an invoice.” So I did. That once happened at Salon, so I —

DS: And what?

RB: I could have been greedy, I said, “Send me $200, since you responded in that decent way.”

DS: A photo credit is somewhat different. I see my work endlessly inscribed and reinscribed in other people’s work. Sometimes it’s credited and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the bigger ideas behind a work, to me, that come from my work are not credited, and sometimes a tiny line’s credited. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this, you know — all of journalism is this hugely self-generating plagiarism machine whereby ideas are endlessly stolen, but god forbid if you use the actual language. There’s plagiarism and then there’s plagiarism. It’s almost as if plagiarism is litigated at the micro level because at the macro level it’s so pervasive as to be ubiquitous. I’m not interested in stealing other people’s ideas. I’m interested in not defining nonfiction downward. I’m trying to define nonfiction in relation to the other arts. When you endlessly quote, cite, you domesticate the work. And a lot of the work I really like is more playful in relationship to “truth.” In this book I cite a lot more, because in Reality Hunger I equate genre blur with provenance blur; they were all part of the same argument. To me I wasn’t making the same argument, precisely, so I opened up the aperture a lot and I cited much more, but there are still many instances in which I found it more effective not to quote for a variety of reasons. In this very litigious, very literal-minded, trial-by-Google digital age, why are we even worried about this? These questions would be so foreign to Montaigne, Shakespeare, even Eliot. Shakespeare’s Henry VI steals 4,000 of these 6,000 lines from Holinshed’s Chronicles. The key thing for me is how do you transform? In Reality Hunger, did I steal these quotes or did I transform them? I don’t know if you had a chance to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock. It runs for 24 hours. It’s made out of thousands of shards of other people’s movies. Each shard lasts no more than five or ten seconds; the movie takes 24 hours to watch. It’s exactly 24 hours long. It corresponds exactly — if it’s 2:42 in the movie it’s 2:42 in your seat. The movie builds into a beautiful embodiment of time. I mean, you feel time —

RB: It’s like a pointillist painting.

DS: That’s good. At first I thought you said pointless painting. 

RB: Or those digital collages that are made of smaller —

DS: My god — but, in any case, you not only feel it builds to an enormous theme or epiphany, but he would have never thought of citing or getting permissions. If you recognize them, great, if not — I’m very interested in — I don’t know if you’re familiar with David Markson’s  —

RB: Wittgenstein’s Mistress?

DS: The four that followed I love. And, to me, it’s very important that in these four books he does not tell me who said what. It’s smart people speaking to smart people. It’s not me having to say — it’s kind of like saying if I have to tell you who said a book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us, I’m so banalizing the discussion I don’t want to go there.


LARB Contributor

Literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago’s Golden Ghetto,West Rogers Park, is also a veteran member of the Newton (MA) Little League umpiring corps and a (bumbling but) active father of a teenage athlete. He contributes to a number of smart journals and maintains a relentless web presence at Our Man In Boston. He counts among his influences Nelson Algren, Ernie Banks, Golda Meir, Mike Royko, Leon Dupres, Hannah Arendt, Howard Zinn, Eduardo Galeanos, and Barbara Ehrenreich. He lives in the working-class section of West Newton with his pooch Beny. He claims to be working on his long awaited memoir Just Talking: Doing Things With Words.


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