David Shields is a professor of English at the University of Washington and author of fiction, nonfiction and various hybrids thereof about sports, autobiography, celebrity and death. His new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, uses collage writing to challenge preconceived ideas about form and genre in art, especially as they pertain to literature. Shields advocates disregarding these hardened constraints, a move which will allow art to use more of and become more like life itself. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
In reading the book, which I really enjoyed, I try to picture what it would be like if I was reading in a complete vacuum, absent all the talk that's been going on around it — and there's been a whole lot of it, as you know. This is probably the 1,000th interview you've done about the book.
I think, okay, here's a book: 618 numbered sections, a lot of collage writing, a lot of remixing of writing from other sources, it advocates the spaces between genres, the spaces between forms, between truth and falsity. All this cool stuff that I like and think is important, but it would seem to me that it's going to be a niche book, it's going to be an academic book, maybe. Maybe it's not going to get a wide readership. But now, in the real world, this book is one of the most talked-about in recent memory. What do you think is going on here?
That's a good question. I totally agree with you! I was shocked that it was published by a commercial publisher. I got a tiny advance for it; I blush to mention how low it was, a virtually nominal advance. I think the publisher never expected it to have a great amount of attention either. I was, of course, hoping for it; every writer does with every book.
But what happened? I'm not sure. I couldn't point to a single review. Obviously it's gotten hundreds, even thousands, of reviews and blog mentions and things like that, but I can't point to a single review that was the catalyzing review. The only thing I would say is, I think to a certain degree, the book's arguments got cartoonized as two points: one, the novel is dead, and two, it's okay to steal stuff. Those are part of what I'm arguing — not even what I'm arguing in either case — but I think what happened is, those hot-button topics got grooved into the cultural discussion.
It's not like I don't partially agree with those statements, but those are far more nuanced in my book. That's not even the ultimate target of the book. Frankly, the book just came at a time when it is talking about stuff that people are concerned about. The book probably came along at a time when these topics were really crucial. What's my point? My point is that the book got cartoonized and the book came along at a time that these things had to be talked about: what is the fate of writing now? How do we want to think about copyright in a digital age? How do we want to think about the blurring of genres? Do people still read conventional novels? The book articulates all that.
I do think the killer app of the book was the disclaimer and the citations in the back, in which I refuse to provide citations, but then, with a gun to my head, I provide citations. Somehow that became, without any planning on my part, the book's killer app.
You mean the pages at the end where you mark down, if you can remember, who the writing that you remix, revise and put together from other sources came from?
Yeah, and I also preface it with a disclaimer. That was the book's killer app, almost, where I say, “I didn't want to provide these citations. The citations are in microscopic type. Many of the citations are misleading. The publisher made me do it. Please, for the love of god, don't read the citations. Stop, read no farther.”
I think that somehow became a door that a lot of readers and critics and bloggers could enter, like, “Oh, okay. I can talk about all these issues of copyright which have been swirling around us for the last ten years, the last five years especially.” We're very confused about appropriation and copyright in literature, and that one-page disclaimer of mine became almost a Trojan Horse for people to enter the gates of the city.
The reason that's there, of course, is the writing you used from other sources, used for your own arguments. I like how that was done, and I like the arguments you use those in service of making. But here's the reaction I have, and maybe you, as the author of the book, think the same thing. What you say about how the novel as we know it isn't so relevant, about how genres aren't so relevant, about how they might hinder art, about how plots and stories may be hindering art — and the type of collage writing you use: should any of this stuff be controversial in 2010?
I agree with you. The book has received a lot of reactions, somewhat contradictory. Some, “My god, this is the most radical thing I've ever read. I can't believe you're talking about this stuff.” On the other hand, people like you, who are more forward-thinking, it's almost like, yawn, it's all self-evident. If the book hadn't had all those citation issues, the book might not have entered the jetstream the way it had.
I had reached an impasse in my own writing life. I no longer could read or write fiction. I wanted to figure out why. I wanted to articulate, for myself and my colleagues and my students, why a certain kind of nonfiction, often collage-like, is terribly exciting to me. It's almost a book that I needed to write in order to go on as a writer. I agree with you; I don't think that a lot of the arguments are terribly radical, but perhaps that's because you and I are drawn toward the same aesthetic. To me, it was almost like a kind of gathering for fellow travelers, like, “This is what we all believe, right?”
I have a whole group of fellow writers, like John D'Agata, Vivian Gornick, Philip Lopate, Sarah Manguso, Amy Fusselman and Maggie Nelson, who I feel a tremendous amount of blood loyalty with. It's almost like, this is is the really cool stuff. It's kind of against the conventional novel, against the conventional memoir, in saying, “Look, this stuff that blurs boundaries, that opens up categories, that appropriates at will, that's creating new forms, that isn't bound by genre…” It's almost an articulation of stuff that we already knew. It shouldn't be terribly upsetting, but for a lot of people, it is, to my astonishment.
Can you remember the last time, in your own life, you were satisfied with a traditional sort of novel or a traditional sort of genre of art?
That's a great question. There are novels I like a lot, but they tend to be almost exclusively not very novelly novels, as Geoff Dyer calls them. I love J.M. Coetzee's book Elizabeth Costello. Is it a novel? Not really. It's published a novel. I like David Markson's last four books, all of which were published as novels. Again, they are not by any means really novels.
I guess if you're asking, “Tell me the last time you really admired a work of art that was totally, faithfully tucked within genre,” where my mind flies to is movies. I feel like I gear down for movies, no offense to movies. I like a lot of great experimental film — self-reflexive documentary films were, in many ways, the origin of this book's aesthetic, people like Ross McElwee and Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman. If I go to the movies with my wife and daughter, and we're just going to go to a good movie, I feel like I sometimes am satisfied.
For some reason, the movie that comes to mind is No Country for Old Men, which I thought was simply good. I just simply liked it. I wasn't particularly dissatisfied with it, but I feel like I was gearing down, that I said, “Okay, I'm going for essentially an existential thriller.” It purports to be a thriller, but really, it's getting at something very, very deep, namely that in the absence of god the father, all bets are off. Life makes almost no sense. How do we start to function in a life completely drained of meaning? That film is really investigating that, and I thought the ending worked really beautifully. It's not a film I'd go to my grave for, but I thought it was a good, well-made film. Film I feel that way toward, where I say, “Okay, this is a good, intelligent film within a pretty circumscribed commercial framework.”
And No Country for Old Men has been called a film that uses genre to attain better, maybe higher things. Do you think that's possible in text?
Obviously, in a way, this is finally just my aesthetic. I don't want to become the arbiter of these things. People say, “My goodness, you couldn't have read this book or that book, because this is just an incredible novel. Surely you haven't read Roberto Bolaño's 2666 or DeLillo's Underworld.” I can't recall the last conventional novel that I was able to get traction on and read with genuine pleasure.
I have a whole theory of it, that so many of the novelistic gestures are no longer congruent with what we understand life to be. Just to take the most obvious example, the glacial pace of most novels seems to me not to conform in any way to contemporary life. The ways in which plots are coherent seems to assume a kind of meaning or purpose to existence that we tend — at least, I tend — not to think life has. The conception of character, which is backformed by psychology, seems to be to not give credence to what we know about DNA and genetic and genomes. It's as if our entire sense of character derives from how we were treated by our parents. Also, the whole sense of setting. So many novels have a strong sense of setting, place, and I think that, increasingly, where we live matters less and less to many people in Western democratized societies.
The novelistic apparatus seems to me just antiquated. Inevitably, the books that get traction for me are books that just simply are not making novelistic gestures. I read books that are supposedly very good novels, and for some reason I always mention — probably because they're honored so much — Ian McEwan, who's a much-applauded British writer, and Jonathan Franzen, who's a much-applauded American writer. They're both enormously critically praised and commercially successful writers, and their work is just, to me, completely dead on arrival. I can't believe anyone finds that work having anything to do with contemporary existence.
I don't know what to say, other than the fact that I can't think of the last conventional , well-made novel I could get traction on. I guess J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace — I really remember loving that book — but that book was also written about 20 years ago. That's an awfully good novel. I'm talking about books now, though. That book goes back some time.
You mention Ian McEwan, and I heard you mention him in this context as well; I saw you speak at AWP in Denver and, more recently, the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
Yeah, I must not be his favorite person!
I was reading a review of his newest book, Solar — which, I admit, I have not read — and the review had a line that seemed to me to tap into your criticism of McEwan, and others' as well, more concisely than I've ever seen it put. The review said, some books are so bad they're good; they get to good by being really awful. McEwan's books are the inverse; they're so good that they're bad. Is that something you might agree with?
That was a review by Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review. It was the first paragraph of the review. I was so excited, I sent Walter Kirn an e-mail saying, “Walter, I just loved this review.” I read it a couple times. He couldn't have been barking up a more similar tree if he'd tried. He, finally, is a novelist; he's written quite a few novels. He's the author of Up in the Air, the novel that became the George Clooney movie. He and I have somewhat different aesthetics; he's not as invested as I am in the lyric essay and the personal essay and literary collage. But I do love the whole review, and I love that paragraph in particular.
So much of literary excellence seems to be related to being a kind of good citizen, and that's not what art is. Art breaks forms. Art is, in a way, misbehaving. Great art breaks from the past. It learns from the past, but it breaks from the past. When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was first played, people went screaming into the aisles, appalled at the cacophony of these new noises. So with Manet's paintings, and so too with Joyce's Ulysses and Picasso — virtually every great work of art is a break from what we've had before.
So much of what happens in contemporary literary culture is works which are essentially working off of a completely desiccated 19th-century model, essentially a Flaubertian model of realism. Flaubert was a great writer, Tolstoy was a great writer, Dickens was a great writer. But those books go back 100, 150 years. The idea that we endlessly praise writers now for mimicking their forebears from seven generations ago, to me, is preposterous. It would be as if you were praising a composer now who was composing the 1812 Overture, or a visual artist who was painting, in a straightforward way, a realistic portrait of George Bush. It's just not what art does.
Art, to me, like science, moves forward. Forms evolve, forms die, art advances. I'm trying to figure out how writing in 2010 can speak to our moment and not only offer nostalgia, bubble wrap, dreamtime in which we essentially turn to literature as escape: Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Stephen King, the Twilight series. It's almost as if higher literature is serving the same function on a slightly more sophisticated level, whereas the books I want to argue for, some of which I've already mentioned, really show you how the writer solved being alive.
Samuel Johnson said, “A book should either allow you to escape existence or teach you how to endure existence.” I feel that way too many of the books that are praised allow us to escape existence, whereas the books that I really love put front and center the question, how does another writer solve being alive? Nothing more and nothing less. Those books strike me as fully adult, fully contemplative and truly exciting on an existential and literary level.
It's a really good question: why has is persisted so long? Why is literature, unlike the other arts, so reluctant to advance? Again, I'm not a historian or a scholar. I'm not really a critic. I'm just a writer trying to stay alive as a writer, so I don't have a hugely coherent answer for you. It begins, for me, with the fact that the novel began with the rise of the middle class, the rise of the bourgeoisie. The novel, from its very beginnings, has been tied with the middle class and presenting an essentially flattering portrait of the middle class, flattering in the sense that if finds its foibles and its mores fascinating. Those have always been the readers of novels. Disproportionately a female audience, from the 18th century onwards. The novel has been tied in always with the idea of finding middle class mores fascinating.
Obviously, there has always been experimental art at the margins, in literature as well. I guess we just find that form endlessly interesting, an attempted reminder that our lives are coherent, that our lives are interesting, that god's in his heaven making the plot work, that where we live really matters, that our little piece of the universe is fascinating, that all of our actions carry moral weight. I think you're right: it's essentially a deeply flattering and deeply escapist narrative. I'm capable of falling into it. I became a fan of Mad Men for a while, and I like a good, well-told movie.
Somehow, in the art I practice, in the book, whether you call it novel or anti-novel or lyric essay or book-length essay, I seem to want something more. I want work that really wrestles with existence. I'm very aware of this idea, which is derived partially from David Foster Wallace: we're existentially alone on the planet. I can't know what you're thinking and feeling, and you can't know what I'm thinking and feeling. The very best work constructs a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.
For me, work which is over-invested in narrative and setting and character development and dialogue puts that question at a far remove. The works I love the most — and I have a list of them, called “A Very Partial Reading List” of my 120 favorite books ever written, that really put this existential question at the very center of their existence. This is a long-winded answer to your question. Yes, I do think a huge reason that the novel has persisted is that it essentially offers us a coherent dream escape from our increasingly chaotic and somewhat confusing lives.
Some of the warier or more angered or scared reactions to your book and to the evident fate of the larger arms of the publishing industry, which appear not to be long for this world — you'll hear readers, the group of people who read novels a lot whose demographic you described, get a little bit frightened. “Oh no, what's going to happen to my beloved novels? Are they going to go away? We can't let this happen. We've got to fight to preserve the kind of novels we have been reading for the last 100, the last 200 years.”
What I wonder is, the kind of books you love, the books you advocate for in Reality Hunger — do you think those might have the power to widen the definition of who his a reader? These readers getting scared, they're the ones wedded to this very particular type of novel that's established. They're not a big group, but they're a large percentage of the people who are currently reading fiction.
I think they are a relatively large group. You're talking about the group that reads novels, or just the people that read novels in general? Obviously a huge number of people read novels, but which group are you saying, Colin, is not a very large group?
It's just a common refrain that “people don't read novels anymore.” Of course people, do read novels; we can point to the people who do. The group is not imposingly big. As a fraction of people who are reading all fiction, big novel-readers make a decent chunk of it. But do the books you love, do you think they might have the power to widen the total chunk of humanity that counts as fiction-readers?
I think that's the core of my project, really. In a way, my book is a very simple thing, and in a way, if the book had been published like this, which isn't the way I wanted it to be published, it probably wouldn't have gotten anything like the attention it's gotten. The book has been fascinatingly miscategorized, or misunderstood, as embodying those two ideas I mentioned earlier: the novel is dead and it's okay to steal stuff.
I mention hundreds of titles throughout the book, and in a way the origin of the book was simply me teaching a course in the graduate program at the University of Washington in which I had to justify my existence to myself and my colleagues and my students. I was hired as a fiction writer, and I was no longer reading, writing or teaching fiction. I had to explain to myself and my colleagues why I found a certain kind of off-axis nonfiction so exciting. I'm providing almost a reading list or an Ars Poetica. Here are these books I love to death. Here's what is so exciting about them. It's nonfiction at the highest reaches of literary art, and I'm trying to say, “These books are so exciting. Come on, people, you've got to read these books. They're so incredible. Here's what the books are doing.”
I don't think of myself as particularly esoteric. The books I love, I don't understand how every reader would not just pick up these books and find them utterly thrilling. The book I've reread a lot of late is a book I've mentioned a lot called Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It's published by a tiny press called Wave Press. It hasn't gotten very much attention, except some of the attention I've tried to bring to it. It's just a tiny book, only around 80 or 90 pages, it's made up of about 200 short fragments, and it's just an amazing book that I guess a lot of people would find frightening for its intellectual power. It really is wrestling with nothing less than the melancholy of the human animal: how come we're so sad? How can we live with loss? How can we live with the ultimate loss of death?
The books I like, you could say, are self-help books for very smart people. They're books that are wrestling with what we're doing on Planer Earth. How can we live our lives in the most serious possible way? The books I love, whether it's Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries or Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Maid or Spalding Gray's Morning, Noon and Night or Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay. To me, they're books that are just so essential, they cut to the absolute bone of human existence. I don't see how everyone would not want to read these thrilling books that make you want to live your life but not live your life under illusions.
I guess I'm sort of anti-illusions. I don't like illusions. I don't think that's the point of art, to maintain our illusions. I love books which break apart the iconography of illusions. I'm not sure that the books I love will redefine what we love as novels, because not too many of the books I love are published as novels, although a few of them are. The books I love tend to be published as quasi-nonfiction, but they're by no means nonfiction as journalism or scholarship or memoir. They're nonfiction as existential investigation, and I just find those books absolutely thrilling. Those are the books I try to write, those are the books I read, those are the books I teach. The whole book is doing nothing but trying to call attention to the excitement of this kind of art.
Here comes a pretty big simplification on my part, and maybe a cartoonification as well, but I want to see how accurate you think it is. Could we break artworks, irrespective of form — books, films, anything — into two categories: those that distract us from life, those that turn us away from life, and those that focus us on it, those that turn us toward life?
I think that's not bad. I quoted that Samuel Johnson earlier, which goes pretty close to what you're saying, Colin. The Samuel Johnson line was, “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.” That's a pretty close approximation of what you said, unless I'm mishearing you or misreading the Samuel Jonson.
That sounds similar to me. I'm glad I have a forebear as illustrious as that.
Exactly. I think that's pretty good. You can see how people would push back against what I'm saying, or what you're saying, or what Samuel Johnson's saying, which is basically that I'm seeming to ask for something that's too naked, too raw, too unfiltered. Their whole point is, “Why couldn't a story, told well, explore something very deep about life through implication?” Of course, for many readers it can and does. I'm just trying to argue a minority opinion: for me, given how simulated and artificial and mediated our culture is, I find for myself and for many of my fellow travelers, that more mediation, more dream world, more bubble wrap — it just doesn't get me anywhere. Kafka said, “A book should be the axe to break the frozen sea within us.” For me, the books that do that have the thinnest possible membrane between writer and reader.
Yes, of course, there's always a fictional element to any kind of composition. Composition is, by its very nature, a dream-making operation. Memory itself is a fiction-making apparatus in a sense. Just last night I was having trouble sleeping, so I pulled off of my shelf a bunch of books. I wanted to find book I could read 50 or 60 pages of until I fell asleep. I couldn't really read any of them until I picked up Nicholson Baker's book A Box of Matches, which is published nominally as a novel, but to me it's basically just baker sitting down and thinking about existence, about life and death and the ephemeral nature of existence. It's just Baker thinking; there's a very thin fictional apparatus to it, but it's essentially just Nick Baker thinking about life.
I found it thrilling. It's a book I've read many times. I read 30 or 40 pages and ended up falling asleep, but I just felt like, “Yeah, this I can read.” Yes, it's published as a novel, but there's virtually no plot, virtually no characters, virtually no setting. It's just Nick Baker thinking aloud, and I find that so much more thrilling. It goes back to that Wallace idea that we're existentially alone on the planet; the best work is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness.
The best work puts that front and center; it actually puts that bridge at the absolute core of the work. Proust's In Search of Lost Time, or Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy or Moby-Dick or J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello or W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants or David Markson's This is Not a Novel or Barry Hannah's Boomerang — there are plenty of books published as novels that do that. I'm just saying that the books I find genuinely thrilling are actually trying to show me what it's like to think inside of your brain. If that is the core project, I find that assuages my human loneliness in a way that sheer storytelling doesn't. Those are the books I want to affirm.
I believe that David Foster Wallace had a line that the best writing peels back the skull of the writer and exposes it in a way that is connectible to the reader, something on that order.
That rings very true. That's either something he said in the interview from which I'm quoting, or it might be in this brand new book by David Lipsky about David Foster Wallace, kind of a fascinating book where Lipsky traveled with Wallace in '96 when Infinite Jest came out. It was ostensibly going to be a profile in Rolling Stone. The piece never ran, and now, just in the last month or so, this book came out, called something like In the End You Come Back to Yourself, I forget —
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. He's going to be coming on this show, too, about that book.
Oh, is he? Lipsky, obviously, not Wallace — it was a year and a half ago. But I think it's a fascinating book. Wallace articulates his aesthetic in that awfully well, and I'm pretty sure that “peeling back” comes from that Lipsky book.
I want to ask something more about Wallace, because he's an important example here, along with Nicholson Baker, who I'm going to return to. Wallace, you bring him up as an example in the book, and of course in the interviews you've given before this, and in some of the live talks as well. Correct me if I'm wrong, but a lot of the time you mention specifically his — “journalism” is a bad word — his essays, his ostensible nonfiction: the piece about his time on the cruise ship, for example.
His career's divided into two parts by his fans: his fiction and his nonfiction. You like his nonfiction. Is that an example of your highlighting something, or are you actually saying that the fiction he writes doesn't speak to you.
I love the essays to death. I've read his two books of essays over and over and over again, especially since Wallace's death, just as a way to bring him back to life for me. I constantly am rereading the essays.
Me too, me too.
Almost with tears in my eyes — I'm just so sad that he's no longer with us, and I just want that voice in my ears some more. I endlessly reread the essays as a kind of homage to his wonderful voice. Those two books, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, I think are far, far, far and away Wallace's best work. To me, they dwarf Wallace's fiction. I like a couple stories that he wrote, but I must admit that Wallace's fiction does precious little for me.
He was a brilliant guy, a terrifically good writer, but I find his fiction, especially Infinite Jest — I think that book is much, much, much more highly praised than actually read. It's terribly revealing in the Lipsky book that he's ostensibly there because of this supposedly great book Infinite Jest, but Lipsky almost never talks about Infinite Jest. That's not what Lipsky talks about. He endlessly talks about the essays. The thing that people love about Wallace — does anybody say, “Oh, how about this incredible moment in Infinite Jest“? No, it's always “Shipping Out”, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” or the Illinois State Fair essay or the essay on John McCain, this incredible piece, or “Consider the Lobster”. That is Wallace at his best, and I could go on and on about why I think that Wallace in the essays is better.
That quote I gave you earlier, Wallace goes on in that interview to say, “Oh, and by the way, in fiction there's all this contrivance of character and persona and plot, but don't worry, we can get past those contrivances.” I want to say, “Au contraire.” In a huge amount of work, in Wallace's own work, I find the game is not worth the candle. All the contrivance just takes me away from the writer's actual project. I like work in which the writer's actual project is totally synonymous with what's on the page, rather than hoping that what the writer wants to get to somehow leaks through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I find it happens in Wallace's fiction.
For instance, I think in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”, he accomplishes absolutely everything in that 40-page essay that he wants to accomplish in Infinite Jest. To me, it's all about investigation of theme, pursuit of meaning. That essay about taking a ship cruise gets to every theme that Infinite Jest takes 1,000 pages to get to, so I'll definitely take Wallace's essayistic work over the novelistic work quite easily.
I do agree with you on most levels, as far as the essays being what I come back to. You can see it in my actions: I do the same thing, I reread the essays all the time and only rarely go back to the fiction. You mention Infinite Jest, his best-known novel. I don't know if he ever explored a certain theme anywhere else as well as he did in that book. For those who haven't read it, “Infinite Jest” is the name of a film in the book that's circulated around, and it's so entertaining that it paralyzes and causes starvation in the viewer. That's how super-engineered to be entertaining it is. It's the sort of villain of the book.
It was a theme of his life as well; his fear, almost paranoid fear at times, that entertainment was getting so entertaining — for him, it was television, that was his framing device — that he was afraid it was infantilizing and dehumanizing the human race. It seems to me that, from what we've said so far, that should be, for you, a super resonant theme. We talked about how certain forms of art are merely distractions from life. Wasn't that maybe more powerfully explored in Infinite Jest, or more deeply than anywhere else in his body of work?
You've summarized that novel awfully well. That's a beautiful syopsis of the novel. That is indeed the core of the book. It's no coincidence that his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” came out — I guess it was called “Shipping Out” when it came out in Harper's, but it was restored to its proper title when it was published as a book — right around the time Infinite Jest came out, maybe a month or two before. They, to me, are exploring precisely the same theme in different ways. Of course, in the essay, he's talking about taking a ship cruise, but you could easily substitute — he endlessly talks about how the word “pamper” is used as a verb, he shows how it's not a trivial verb, how it's trying to infantilize the passengers, restoring them to almost baby-like dependence on the staff of the ship, et cetera, et cetera.
Of course, the theme of Infinite Jest resonates powerfully with me, which is the very limited nature of entertainment and how infantilizing it is. But the essay absolutely gets to all of that with greater concision, power, wit, voice, less distraction. I must admit, I haven't read every page of Infinite Jest; after a while, I just started turning pages. I don't love Wallace's fiction; what can I say? I love the guy to death. He had a huge influence on my own writing. I knew him ever so slightly. I love the essays.
It's crazy, the cult of him, in a sense. He wrote probably 20 essays, and of those, probably fifteen are really good. And that's great, that he wrote fifteen incredible essays. That's his contribution, to me. The fiction — I like a couple stories a lot. I like “Little Expressionless Animals”, a meditation on the Jeopardy TV show in the form of fiction. But the two big novels do almost nothing for me. Again, not necessarily saying I'm right or wrong; I'm just trying to argue my aesthetic. I'm just trying to say how it actually feels at ground level to me, reading Wallace's fiction. I find it pretty tough going, pretty slow going, pretty tedious, whereas the essays I find absolutely thrilling.
The other important example we mentioned, Nicholson Baker, who happens to be very close to Wallace's age, same generation — I don't know if that's coincidental or not, but — he does much the same thing for me. He's billed as a novelist, but, really, his books — The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, A Box of Matches — seem to be more essays on the process of thought and the internal monologue.
I think about that, and I think about his work that's slightly on the other side of the divide, his work that is billed as nonfiction, for example, the essays, The Size of Thoughts, which is okay, but I don't go back to the well as much —
That's not his best work, no.
And I think of the more recent book. Not The Anthologist, that's a novel, but Human Smoke, the one before that, his book about World War II. He does some of the collage-style writing, he lifts things from various historical sources, writes brief sketches, arranges them together in not necessarily a narrative, but it is framed as nonfiction. It's framed as an argument.
He says it's an argument about how the pacifists in World War II were right. Now, I'm not a jingoist — I'm not going around talking about the “Good War”, but I did find that book almost completely unconvincing because of the form it was in. Do you have any experience with that book?
Sure, I've read and admired Human Smoke. I'm not enough of a historian to be able to pass judgment. That's fascinating, Colin, that you found it completely unpersuasive in the sense that you found it somewhat manipulative in which we paint a somewhat dastardly portrait of Churchill and we find the mitigating circumstances for Hitler. It's never a moral relativism; Baker is never, by any means, apologizing for Hitler, but I do think he's trying to show you that Roosevelt and Churchill were pretty gung-ho for war. But tell me how you precisely found it unconvincing.
I don't really hold any beliefs about those figures being the way they're portrayed in the history books, the way Baker would try to contradict. But the unconvincingness comes more in the sense of the way he assembles it; this is very much an issue of form. I'm not totally sure I could be convinced by any argument made the way he makes that argument.
It feels as if he doesn't step forward enough to post something worth being convinced by — or, for that matter, arguing against. I don't argue against that book, because I don't see how that's possible, but by the same token, I don't see how it's possible to argue for it. I almost admire that; you can't approach it as anything else but itself. It's not something you can necessarily tangle with. Or do you have a different opinion?
I think I probably disagree with you a little bit, or even a lot. I haven't read that book carefully. I read it once, when it came out, and it's not as fresh in my memory as it should be. I love Baker's work a lot, and I read everything that he writes with great admiration. It's not my favorite book of Baker's by any means. What you're saying is something like, “Because it is this collage work and because all the quotes in the book are decontextualized” — virtually the whole book is taken from other sources — “he's not manifestly generating an argument.”
But to me, he is generating an argument, in a sense that he's tried to rearrange the passages and juxtapose them and thematize them in such a way that he's making almost a didactic argument. Baker, I believe he's a Quaker, or at least he's a pacifist, and he's said, “I wanted to give myself the toughest possible case to argue for pacifism.” In Baker's view, no war is ever justifiable, so he took what would seem to him and to most people to be the toughest case to make, that even World War II was not justified. Baker takes a bunch of passages, hundreds of passages from hundreds of different news sources, and tries to position them in such a way that he is pushing his argument. I think you can either agree with it or disagree with it, and a lot of people disagree with it. It got some horrific reviews from some pretty predictable places.
I could think of Sven Lindqvist's book A History of Bombing that does something similar, I could think of Eduardo Galeano's A Book of Embraces which does something not entirely dissimilar, I could think of many works of literary collage — I would even think of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto being a kind of argument assembled by collage. I guess I'm not following why, for you, just because it's collage-like, the reader can't either agree or disagree with it. There's clearly an argument being made in Reality Hunger or A History of Bombing or Human Smoke or A Book of Embraces. Perhaps we're simply disagreeing, Colin, but I'm not seeing how, for you, one can't quarrel with the book.
With Human Smoke, my issue was maybe more, personally, I just couldn't find a foothold. I couldn't find a way to agree or disagree with it, though I was ready to do either. I couldn't find a platform from which to do that. But the more I think about it, the more it reveals an interesting issue which has to do with your book, Reality Hunger, as well.
You mention that it was subject to a certain amount of cartoonification, a certain amount of caricature of its arguments, and a lot of people are hearing about it first as an argument that it's okay to steal, or that the novel is dead. They come in and think, “This didn't convince me that it was okay to steal or that it wasn't. This didn't convince me that the novel was dead or that it wasn't.” Do you think I might have the same problem with Human Smoke, that I came at it thinking, “Here's a strong argument that World War II was wrong,” and I just couldn't get in because it was so different in form?
That book got some attention. It probably didn't get quite as much attention as Reality Hunger; I'm not sure, I didn't really follow. Nicholson Baker's a wonderful writer, so I don't think it quite came completely wrapped. That book was complicated. I remember, a week or two before it came out, there was this piece about him in the New York Times that, either intentionally or unintentionally, seemed to portray him as a bit of a nut. It was like, “Okay, here's this guy, he lives in Maine,” there's a picture of him where he looks like the grand old man of winter, “here's this guy with this crackpot theory of World War II: even the so-called 'Good War' was problematic.”
I do think that's an interesting point, that people had trouble getting beyond that, whereas I think that his argument is somewhat more nuanced, although he finally is arguing that point. The book is called Human Smoke for a reason: all deaths are human smoke. I'm such a lover of collage, I so respond to pointillism, to modularity, that I never have problems getting into the argument. To me, Reality Hunger clearly unveils an argument. Human Smoke clearly unveils an argument. You can definitely agree or disagree with both books. I think the point that is perhaps most relevant in both cases, because of the very nature of journalism, the books end up for better or worse, finding a hook or two. That's how the books get talked about. If a book doesn't have a hook, it doesn't get talked about in any case, so one can't be a hypocrite about this.
I'm glad my book got talked about, I'm glad that Nicholson Baker's book got talked about, but what happens in journalistic discourse, you have 1,000 words to talk about the book and half of it's a summary. You end up cartoonizing the positions badly. It's sort of an irony, because so much of my book is an argument against precisely this kind of categorization. The book got categorized, but that's how the book became — I hope — a literary and commercial success. At the very least, it's a success in that, my goodness, it's been talked about at such great, great length. I never expected it.
I guess the point is, one can't complain if a book is somewhat cartoonized, because if it hadn't been cartoonized, it would never have been talked about in the first place, which is complicated and brings us back to Wallace, in a strange way. I think that Baker and my books both got grooved, to a certain degree, and that sometimes readers have trouble getting beyond that, but that's where time has an effect. I hope my book is read and discussed and taught five, ten, 20 years from now. That's where you hope a work does its real work, where the arguments get played out more carefully over time.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.