Burn It Down: A Brief yet Thrilling Dialogue with Mad Genius David Shields

Author David Shields, no doubt plotting the next phase in his assault on the literary world. - Courtesy
Author David Shields, no doubt plotting the next phase in his assault on the literary world.

Internationally bestselling author David Shields is a perverse provocateur, a legit rebel, a contrarian and a smug questioner of all that we hold dear. To say that I mean all of that in the most complimentary possible way is an understatement. As I mentioned here, Shields is maddeningly adroit at revealing rich and complex layers of psychological, philosophical and social meaning in his damn near unclassifiable works. Through a unique approach to literary composition, which involves eschewing all traditional notions of narrative and casting off the constraints of the fiction vs. non-fiction dichotomy, Shields seeks to foster a brave new world in literature — one that is more representative of the way we live today, and truer to the way our minds will work tomorrow.

For Shields, literary genres (like the novel, the memoir, journalism, poetry, essays, etc.) and the compartmentalized approaches that attend them are impediments to the kind of all-encompassing creative freedom necessary to produce works of literature that challenge and invigorate the contemporary reader. He argues that we must destroy the last vestiges of these outdated approaches to composition, so that the evolution to what's next can flourish and reach fruition. (Shit, I'm wondering as I write this if I am being too journalistic in my journalism here. Off with my head!!) His approach, termed "literary collage," has transfixed readers in his seminal works Reality HungerThe Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be DeadBlack Planet and, most recently, War is Beautiful, which is a magnificent send up of The New York Times and the way in which it legitimizes never-ending war by presenting it in aesthetically pleasing images on its front cover. 

All told, Shields has authored 20 striking and groundbreaking works of literature that are as engaging to read as they are useful as intellectual exercises. If this all sounds interesting — or alternately blasphemous — to you, you're in luck. He'll be hanging out in San Antonio this weekend for a Friday reading/talk at Trinity University and a Saturday workshop on literary collage at Gemeni Ink.

In eager anticipation of Shields' visit, I engaged the literary gadfly of record in a spirited back and forth via email earlier this week. Check out the full text of that exchange below.

After your first two books, you shifted style/approach dramatically for Handbook for Drowning. Can you tell me what led to this change? Was there some sort of epiphany? Were you reading someone in particular?
To me, the much bigger change was with my next book, Remote. Handbook was a transitional book, looking back to novels and gesturing toward essay. With Remote, I embraced collage. The big influences were Renata Adler, Renata Adler, and Renata Adler.

Renata Adler... of course! Is your process also related to or influenced by William Burroughs and the "cut-up" method at all? Why or why not?
No. Because Adler is about orchestration of theme.

You have advocated the destruction of genres and of the traditional distinctions between fiction/non-fiction. I am intrigued by this idea immensely, but I wonder what it would look like if we carried it to its logical conclusion. Can you explain the rationale behind this call for sea change and what you hope might come out of it?
It looks like this: Sarah Manguso, David Markson, Maggie Nelson, Eula Bliss, Simon Gray, Leonard Michaels, Spalding Gray, JM Coetzee, Laurence Sterne, Annie Ernaux, [Karl] Knausgård, Ben Lerner, et al.

But, culturally speaking, or speaking in terms of the reader (if you will), what is the effect (desired effect?) of this new method?
To show the reader how to make connections between disparate realms.

Do you associate yourself with postmodernism? Do you think there is value in the postmodern movement beyond deconstructionism? Is there such a thing as a "movement" anymore?
That is so old school. I’m about the school of “the only way to move French art forward is to first burn down the Louvre.”

So, would you say that rather than deconstruction you are more interested in destruction/erasure? How would you respond to someone who said (using your allusion) "if we burn down the Louvre and end up going down the wrong path in our re-invention, then we'll be screwed and left without any good reference points for starting over." I'm thinking of a Dave Hickey quote... To paraphrase: "If you think art is shitty now, go back to a time when art wasn't shitty and start there."
Every act of creation is, first, an act of destruction.

Tell me a bit about your process of "literary collage." Where do you start? How do you proceed? And, how do you go about teaching this process to others?
Come up with an idea that explains the world. Shoot a lot of film: 3000 pages. In these 3000 pages, find the 427 brief glints of gold. Think for years about how best to edit and order these glints into a tight but poetic argument.

One thing that intrigues me about literary collage is that different people could comb through the SAME source material and produce something totally different out of it. Is there something to that? Follow up: is the era of the traditional writerly labor gone?
No. Yes.

Do you think, with books like War is Beautiful or even Life is Short but Art is Shorter, that your style lends itself well to a reinvigorated kind of cultural criticism? Perhaps one that is more productive, vital and accessible than the bygone modes (I'm thinking of Žižek as I write this)?
Yes. Exactly. The critical intelligence in the imaginative position.

Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by "the critical intelligence in the imaginative position"? What is the value of this as far as challenging old social norms and outdated expectations?
The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it.

You're a New York Times Best Selling Author, so I’m sure you’re not too concerned with the canon, etc. But, do you ever get heckled by cantankerous old English professors who think you're a heretic and they just want everyone to read Jane Eyre? Like, the ones who think shit's getting edgy when they have their classes read The Stranger?
People get really, really mad at me because they know I am right.

An Evening with David Shields, Fri, May 13
Free, 7pm, Chapman Center Auditorium at Trinity University, E. Rosewood Ave., (210) 734-9673, davidshields.com.

David Shields' Literary Collage Workshop: An Evolution Beyond Narrative, Sat, May 14
$95.00, 10am-3pm, Gemeni Ink, 1111 Navarro St., (210) 734-9673, geminiink.org/event/literary-collage.


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