Writer and filmmaker David Shields has authored twenty-two books, including the groundbreaking Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Vintage Books, 2010) and the award-winning Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), as well as, most recently, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power (Mad Creek Books, 2019). His latest documentary, Lynch: A History, explores the silence-as-protest of NFL star Marshawn Lynch.
Rebecca Gross: What would you cite as the major influences that inspired you to make the kind of art you do?
David Shields: Anthropological autobiography, self-reflexive documentary film, standup comedy, and performance art: those were the four huge pots of clay I was pulling from. And, compared to that, work that was collagistic, genre-blurring, trouble-making, risk-taking, nervous-making, boundary-jumping, anything so long as it wasn’t boring. So much of the fiction I was reading and writing and teaching seemed utterly glacial by comparison.
RG: I think it’s interesting to pull from so many different places because it’s kind of like...this idea of nothing being original. But it hasn’t, I don’t think, come through so explicitly in many [other artists’] works, and especially in the traditional novel it’s almost kind of buried, like it’s not supposed to come through. [Whereas] with your work, it’s right at the forefront.
DS: I was just trying to remain alive as a writer. That’s all that Reality Hunger was. It was my attempt to speak to myself: to my students, to my colleagues, to my peers, and to any sort of fellow travelers who found themselves equally mired, equally bored by the conventional memoir, which seemed to us a rather saccharin form. We weren’t interested in the consolations of traditional journalism or traditional scholarship—that seemed somewhat limited as well. So I was trying to find this place, this sort of Venn diagram, of overlapping things: the poetic essay, the lyric essay, the genre-troubling essay.
RG: What is being inspired from this movement, this different kind of autobiography—this collage style—this new hybrid form of literature? I was hoping you could speak a little to that, about where the direction of this new literary movement might be going.
DS: That’s a good question. Sometimes people say: “Ok, what’s next?” And so, I think the question is: “Where is it heading now?” I think, to me, your question implies perhaps a slight exhaustion with [the form of collage-style books]. First of all, I don’t really know where it’s going. Basically, so much of the work that I really value takes collage and makes it an evolution beyond conventional narrative. Like, it actually is incredibly beautifully organized.
There’s a short piece I did called “The Mute WWII Airman” where I took 10 quotations from WWII scholarship and put these 10 quotations into close juxtaposition. A friend of mine happened to teach the piece on a course at Indiana University and he happened to show me his lecture notes. He had read the piece so carefully and so rigorously, showing how each quote wasn’t just placed there in random order but how each quote was specifically built off of the next quote and that a real poetic argument was being conducted a few inches below the surface. I wasn’t telling the reader what to think, but slowly and surely, an actual poetic argument was being conducted by me. And he explained it really beautifully.
This is what I’m really interested in—not collage per se, or chaos on the page, but a seeming chaos that yields a kind of metaphorical gold. So people are demanding, I would argue, a more rigorously deployed collage. And I would add, everyone has a Twitter feed, and...some people curate their Twitter feed [to make it a] thoughtful discourse. And some people, that’s their whole thing; they might be considered so-called Twitter poets. I think what’s happened is that social media may have made some people’s collage work appear to be only slightly elevated Twitter feeds, and I want to push back really hard against that. Obviously some people’s Twitter feeds are really excellently curated but, what do you think, Rebecca, what do you think the next [stage is]? Because you’re there, you’re in academia, you’re trying to figure it out.
RG: I think there’s something to be said about this micro-fiction movement, and I think it lends itself well to the collage style. I’m much much more interested in reading a chapbook or a manuscript of micro-fictions or, say, quotes, than I am in reading one [traditionally] cohesive story. It’s just not interesting to me anymore. In general, I feel like we’re moving towards shorter mediums and, to me, things have to be exciting. And to bring it back to Lynch: A History a little bit, Lynch was so enthralling because [viewers were] watching bright things flash on the screen every two seconds. It’s constantly moving.... The fact that we scroll through social media feeds so much totally changes how we learn, and it’s sort of useless to force people to learn in the same way that they learned in the previous 50 years before social media existed.
DS: Scrolling is such a powerful term just because I feel like the world almost divides these days into people who are willing to [scroll]. There’s this famous line by Virginia Woolf, when she was trying to describe modernism and how she had grown bored with Arnold Bennett and that late Edwardian/early Victorian sense of literature and she said, “On or around December 1st 1909, the world changed forever.” Suddenly there were advertisements everywherethe—telephone was suddenly everywhere, there were telegrams, billboards, newspaper advertisements. This, to late Victorians, seemed as crazy-making as maybe the web seemed to us 20 or 30 years ago. So I would sort of argue, on or around September 1st 1990 the world changed forever...[with] the rise of the internet, Google, email. It was kind of a slow-motion ride, and now it’s this unbelievable wall-to-wall culture we live in.
And even though I’m 63, I’m so much more interested in the scrolling than I am interested in pretending I’m going to sit and read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House now. I’m just not. And yet, I don’t do that much on social media. I just have an assistant post [promotions]. And I don’t follow people on social media, I’m not on the web that much. It’s funny, it’s not like I’m scrolling all day long, but I’m hugely wired into it in my own strange way. The art that interests me is wrestling with what it means to be contemporary...it doesn’t pretend there are pieties that hold us together.
RG: In Lynch: A History, you’re also grappling with this rhetoric of silence in Marshawn Lynch, and how we communicate through silence. I was wondering what you thought about these binaries of nonverbal communication [versus] the ultra-performative communication that Trump is [displaying] on a public scale. It seems ridiculous to compare Marshawn Lynch with Trump—they’re so different.
DS: I’ve worked hard to try to end the Trump era [with my] book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, and Lynch is very actively involved in anti-Trump stuff. [Not to mention], my politics align with Marshawn Lynch very strongly. And he’s a fan of the movie...Marshawn came to the Oakland screening.
What they both have in common—Trump and Lynch—is they are both very interested in overturning agreed-upon discourse. That’s what makes them so powerful, and why I wanted to do a book on one and a film on the other. Trump, of course, is overturning some of the pieties of the rhetorics, the niceties, of political and journalistic and media discourses. That’s his whole thing. He says naughty things you’re not supposed to say. He’ll say bad words, he’ll say negative things, he’ll say untrue things and it’s all just one big performance art of Black Magic. It’s theater, pure theater.
Lynch couldn’t be more different, but, from a very different angle of attack, his silence has this amazing effect of being an assault against discourse itself. So, in this strange way, that book and that film become odd bookends.
RG: That’s a really good point. Whether you use silence or this manic speech, they’re both getting across something. The strategy’s different, but they’re both getting there.
DS: That’s fascinating. And so much of my work is about rhetoric and communication and mis-communication. For example, I wrote a book called Dead Languages about growing up with a severe stutter. I wrote a book about Gary Payton who was a trash-talking basketball player. You could argue that War Is Beautiful is a book about the huge rhetoric underneath war photographs, how much meaning is being communicated by these apparently neutral, benign photographs. So much of my most recent book, The Trouble With Men, asks what could a husband ask of a wife, or a wife ask of a husband. What could a couple talk about? What is acceptable discourse in private and public? I could go through book after book of mine that are so much about what can be said, what can’t be said. I’m really interested in that space of, let’s call it transgressive, language. That really interests me.
RG: Are there any new projects you’re working on now?
DS: We’re in post-production on a new movie called How Do You Know What You Believe. Some collaborators and I interviewed some people at the Nonfiction Now conference asking them, what, if anything, they truly believe in anymore. And in some ways, [we are trying] to connect some of the crises in the humanities and specifically in nonfiction with the crises in public discourse about Trump. So in a way, that film could not more totally be trying to bridge the gap between the things that you and I have been talking about. That’s the very leap across the private and public domain that you and I have been talking about over the last hour.