With his prolific recent works, New York Times Bestselling author David Shields has called out contemporary writers to break away from our traditional ideas of “memoir” and “the novel,” said Elissa Schapell of Vanity Fair. According to Shields, he is “obliterating any distinction between fiction and nonfiction,” to come up with something dynamically new, even harried, that can keep up with modern culture.
He is re-envisioning our rather beloved ideas of narrative and prose and asking writers and readers to evolve beyond it.
Shields will give a free reading at Trinity University on Friday, May 13 at 7 p.m. at the Chapman Auditorium, 1 Trinity Place. That Saturday, he’ll be participating in a Gemini Ink Workshop, Literary Collage: An Evolution Beyond Narrative, at 1111 Navarro Street from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Registration costs $95 and spaces are still available. For more information, visit geminiink.org or 210-734-9673.
In order to offer the San Antonio literary community a glimpse into this writer’s intellectually rich and wide-ranging body of work, I conducted an interview with David Shields earlier this week comprised of five questions centered around his writing life and views on contemporary literature.
Alexandra van de Kamp: Your work, such as the 2010 Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, has been described as “mapping out the literary future of the next generation” and as a “literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre,” one capable of keeping pace with our quickly-evolving, reality-blurred, digital age. For someone new to your body of work, how would you explain this urgent need for writers – and readers for that matter – to leave behind their familiar ideas of what a memoir or novel can be?
David Shields: Think about the 19th century novel: how glacially paced it is, how it foregrounds background, how much it centers on family and property, and also how much it implies a God-like entity hovering over our existence. I would argue that place has nothing like the significance for us that it did for Balzac; that a Freudian or post-Freudian psychology does little to explain what we now understand about the genetically drive nature of behavior; that the shape-shifting daily lives most of us live bear no relation to the glacial pace of existence for, say, Balzac and Dickens; and that many working writers have no belief in an all-powerful deity ordering our existence, and therefore, a contemporary work of art (whether nonfiction or fiction) should reflect how we actually live our lives, and not be beholden to a 19th or 20th century definition of literary form. And yet the huge majority of contemporary works feel to me as if they are written as a nostalgia-delivery system for the reader.
AV: Several of your books look at mortality with an unblinking candor that I think few of us could manage, such as the New York Times Bestseller The One Thing about Life is That One Day You’ll be Dead. Even the 2014 anthology you edited with Elizabeth Cooperman is entitled Life is Short—Art is Shorter and celebrates writing forms that relish their brevity. How have you managed to approach this subject matter with such candor and unflinching curiosity?
DS: Thanks, Alexandra. I guess you’re right. Several of my books deal fairly directly with the irreducible fact of human mortality. As Cormac McCarthy says, “Death is the topic, the subject,” and yet there is an odd taboo about discussing it directly in western culture. I don’t see a way to live a meaningful life without thinking about death. I’ll turn 60 later this year and am, I believe, in reasonably good health. I wonder if I’m any more obsessed with death than other people, or if I’m just more prone to articulating my obsession with it. I would say after writing The Thing about Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead, which was written at the height of my death-haunt, the obsession has abated. A bit.
AV: You are an immensely prolific writer, having written over twenty internationally, bestselling books, and with more works forthcoming. Could you offer us one or two writing practices or philosophies that you employ, or have found yourself following over the years, which have helped you cultivate a steady writing flow in your daily creative life?
DS: : My jokey answer is that they’re all brief, collaborative, and plagiarized, but quite a few of the last several books have been under 200 or 100 pages. I find myself working a lot with collaborators of late, and a few of these books have been partial remixes of existing material—for instance, my most recent book, War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. Beyond that, I would just say that I follow my own curiosity and am somewhat obsessive about seeing projects through to completion. I think it’s related to the previous question. I really believe in contributing something to the huge river of literature—adding my tributary—pushing the flow forward.
AV: And just for fun, let’s close with a few off-the-cuff questions from the Proust Questionnaire to get a sneak preview of your likes and dislikes. For example, what do you consider your greatest achievement?
DS: Not my achievement, but I’m certainly crazy proud that my 23-year-old daughter Natalie’s first book, The Body Never Lies, A Boundary-Blurring Mix of Photos, Illustrations, and Prose, is being published later this year.
AV: And, finally, what is it you most dislike (this can be from any facet of life)?
DS: The Conventional Wisdom.
Top image: A selection of David Shields’ most recent work. Courtesy image