Ask Difficult Questions

David Shields  Tin House 2017

“But let’s be honest. Ninety-five percent of novels published do that relatively traditional novelistic thing. I’m just trying to argue that genre is a minimum security prison. The moment you are wrapped comfortably within genre, whether a romantic comedy, a sitcom, or a novel, or a sonnet, I find it’s rare that you are doing work that is congruent with how people are actually living now and how they are actually thinking. Alice Fulton has a great essay on this: we have moved from formal verse, to free verse, to fractal verse—Newton, to Einstein, to quantum physics.” David Shields in conversation with Sean Carman, March 7, 2013.

David Shields changed the game or maybe began a new one. The problem for us is that we still don’t know which game we’re playing. The rules change right before our eyes everyday. And that’s how our post-post-whatever era works. What is truth? What is Real? Can we be sure of either? David wants an avant-garde to figure it out and make us uncomfortable when comfort is all we seem to want. His manifesto Reality Hunger is actually a manual on how to do it. Break with tradition or at least the “tradition” that gets rammed down our throats 24-7-365 on the internet. Throw the brick through the fucking glass. Find the shards of the world lying at your feet and use them to make a different reality. 

“I’m certainly very interested in this liminal space. My ideal reader is not going to be a quote-spotter or a cite-sifter. I very much want the reader to experience a certain vertigo when reading the book—is this Shields? Is it Chung? Is it some odd combination of the two? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it all of us? Just as a work of fiction might be based heavily on quotation (Finnegans Wake, anyone? Joyce said he’d be happy to go down to posterity as scissors-and-paste man), so, too, might a work of nonfiction. I want to claim for nonfiction the same license and freedoms as fiction writers and visual artists have done for centuries. So, too, just as I’m arguing for confusion as to who is talking—me or Sonny RollinsI want to argue for the excitement of work that slips the bonds of genre. The two arguments overlap: when we are in doubt, we are alive. I want work that defies genre, and I want work the author of which and the provenance of which is debatable, that is to say not fixed, that is to say alive.” David Shield in conversation with Sonya Chung, February 10,2010.

“As I work on a project, typically a book-length essay, I try to ask myself, what puts the reader at the most extreme point of discomfiture? And what puts, I hope in some small ways, the culture under scrutiny? Obviously this is all in some way metaphorical. I live in a Western capitalist First World democracy, so the level of my risk would be different from the level of somebody who might be under the threat of state arrest or torture, but the books of mine I’m most proud of, the books of mine that seem to me to have the best staying power for myself or some readers, or I hope possibly the culture, are the books that manage to do exactly that: ask difficult questions of myself and ask troublesome questions as well for the reader. I think that too many of my colleagues are comfortable producing work that in my view yields a kind of smooth ride or soporific bath or easy entertainment. [Franz Kafka says] “A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within.” Every student’s work, every colleague’s work I read, my own drafts I read, films I admire, books I read; the works I admire the most – from Heraclitus to Sarah Manguso – are by people who in my view risk the most.” David Shields in conversation with Gabriel Packard, November 30, 2017

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