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