David Shields is a literary polymath. He's done (and done with) fiction, and has recently written an astounding series of collage-inflected texts including the recent How Literature Saved My Life (Knopf 2013). (See an earlier Huff Post review from Joel Drucker).
This book is memoir-as-exploded-diagram, full of insight, angst and the complications of looking to literature for answers.
Shields is currently at work (with Shane Salerno) on The Private War of J. D. Salinger (Simon & Schuster, September 2013), an epic oral biography of the reclusive writer through the lens of more than 200 interviewees.
When when Shields is not writing, he may be recording tape for future books, as with I Think You Are Totally Wrong (Knopf 2014), an argument with co-author Caleb Powell. Shields and his former student take a trip to a cabin for a week, secluding themselves from everything but their constant quarrel about life and art.
It's reality-show-as-book, and will be another fascinating entry into the genre of conceptual/collage literature, here deriving not from the Euro-inspired US avant-garde but from the drift of more-mainstream writers toward the same cultural space.
And yes, of course, Shields is writing now, while you are reading this, and he's writing while you are sleeping.
Readers of Shields' 2010 Reality Hunger will recall that the publisher required an appendix listing the sources for the many quotations that populate the work. Shields advises cutting these completely from the book.
I then took "Chapter Y" from Reality Hunger, reverse engineered to replace Shields' "original" comments with a string of "X"s -- and so leave only the quotations -- for my forthcoming novel [SIC] (Jaded Ibis), a completely plagiarized work.
[SIC] carefully and deliberately avoids infringing on copyright as part of its point about how we make art, and the legal limits of that practice. This theme became a portion of the email conversation I recently conducted with Shields, which has morphed -- two writers responding and responding and responding -- into a marathon 6000+ -word document (which will appear later).
For now, here is a selection from that conversation of what Shields' does best: provocation to get you thinking, reading and questioning, cut and re-sampled.
On the structure of How Literature Saved My Life: The prologue establishes the question the book is asking: given world we now live in, can we feel/can we create art? I discuss my own ambivalence/numbness/boredom. I talk about the/my difficulty of love the melancholy nature of mind (yours, mine; especially yours), the unsolvable question of death; and midway through the book I flirt none too seriously with suicide...I question if I even like art or only artfully arranged life; I finally eke out a quasi-quandary-resolution via the notion in the final chapter that the very self-consciousness that has so paralyzed me throughout the book....I'm interested in works that explicitly, manifestly, even melodramatically foreground the question of how the writer solves the problem of being alive (doesn't solve).
On the Author (capital "A"): Eliot said about Keats that he was more important for what he stood for than anything he actually wrote.
On a certain writer's most famous book: I hate The Magic Mountain.
On a certain writer and his particular "project:" I've always loved that Mailer line that he sought to do nothing less than "revolutionize human consciousness." What a ludicrous notion, but surely every writer should be trying to do that, no? Without that, why bother?
On a certain much-better author: The miracle of Proust for me is that he will tell, say, an 80-page story and you will realize at the end of it that it has no narrative value -- the narrative decomposes before your very eyes; it has value only in the larger architecture of what he's doing: it has vector/grid value.
On publishing: I do think -- how could I not? -- that we're in a transitional phase, and I think my work reflects that: one foot in "literature," the other in Tumblr; one foot in in Random House, the other in randomness. I would be very surprised if, within ten years or fewer (ten months or fewer?), traditional publishing as we know it still exists in any form whatsoever.
On emotion in collage: Then the excitement for me in really brilliantly done bricolage -- there is another term -- any better? montage? collage? pointillism? -- is that the pieces come together as intellectual and emotional investigating. The shards have not only speed and magic, but they have momentum qua excavation.
On the tradition: I am pulling on a tradition: Heraclitus. Rousseau. Pascal. Petronius, to an extent (going backward there, for a moment.) Catullus (same). Pessoa. Cioran. Nietzsche. Montaigne. Sterne. Melville. Proust. The analyzers. The contemplators, the meditators. The accidental philosophers.
On where we are/where we are going: On some level, sure, there is no pretense that these subjects vanish entirely [in collage]: we still are born, have bodies, try to love other people, and die; also there is still a social cataclysm just outside the window, but in these works...all these divisions of fiction/nonfiction, confession/reportage, public/private vanish and we are, I think, in a very exciting space.