Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What I love/hate about David Shields

So the QB and were are lying in bed last night, talking about David Shields's new book, Reality Hunger, and I was trying to put my finger on what is bugging me about his outrageous claims about literature, plagiarism, truth, and reality:

First, the book's epigraph includes Walter Benjamin's famous line about great works of literature either dissolving a genre or inventing one.

As an epigraph to any book I might write, such a line would feel, to me, pretentious. But I've met David Shields and pretentious he is not. So it must be doing something else.

Second, the book 618 fragmented clips that all circle around ad discussion of how society reacts to and what society expects of "true" stories. A vast majority of the fragments contain at least a few tidbits pulled from other works--sometimes the entire fragment is lifted from some one else's work. None of this "borrowed" language is sources and none of it is captured by quote marks.

To me, the magic of collage essay has always been the surprise and delight that a reader feels when they get to see how the different fragments work side by side and we get to see how the author has interpreted, commented on, or otherwise placed caveats upon those fragments. Without quotes marks, without the reader being able to tell what language belongs to Shields, and what he has borrowed, we don't get the surprise of that juxtaposition and, worse, my brain, by default, labels all the great stuff in the book as the original creation of the author.

And that's a problem because when I read an un-sourced, unidentified quote from John D'Agata and think to myself, "Wow, David Shields is so smart," I have done a disservice to D'Agata's work.

The problem is, I know Shields knows all of this, and he still thinks its okay, so he must be up to something else.

David Shields is definitely up to SOMETHING ELSE...

What that something is...I don't know yet. But I know that i love him for it and I hate him for it. Still, I'm not done with the book. When I get done, maybe I'll have something more articulate to say. Mostly I think Shields is getting people who care about truth and memoir and nonfiction and art and literature to start talking--a lot.

New York Times

Seattle Times

The Oregonian

Book Forum


Beau said...

What you have said here is all I know about the book, but could the lack of quotes and source citations be an illustration of his point. Society tends to treat a citation as a truth stamp. When you remove the quotes from a statement it also removes the validation stamp. Is he trying to get you to question how society identifies what is true and what is not, and if it is truth can it be plagiarized or is it restating truth? Just a thought. ;-)

Joe said...

If he's doing an experiment on our tolerance for "uncited" quotations, or trying to get us to pay attention to some of our own obsessions or hypocrisies, I think that's great. But then that kind of reduces his book to a little bit of a gimmick, a theoretical firecracker, or an act of provocation that probably could have been done in 25 pages or less and that may not be something that stands tall as a monument of its age. I liked David Shields when he came here, and I absolutely love some of the things he says (quotes?) in that book. He is certainly as brilliant and thoughtful as most of the people he's (un)quoting. But here's the deal: Can he do this largely because he's David Shields and not some word-hacking unknown schlub from the Midwest like me? Does the idea that you can do this kind of stuff if you already have a reputation for being really creative and intelligent, but maybe not otherwise, start to blow back against his gestures towards a universal voice and the blurring of genres and the ratcheting down (or up!) of "truth talk"?

I'm glad David Shields is out there. He makes me think about some stuff.