The Books Interview: David Shields

Were you surprised by how much attention Reality Hunger, your previous book, received?
I was gratified and, on some level, bedazzled by the attention the book got. It was a relatively small academic book and I was surprised that trade publishers published it. My agent thought it would be published by a university press.It generated some proper discussion, but the reason it did so was that the book got completely cartoonised as representing two positions, neither of which I hold - "the novel is dead" and "it's OK to steal stuff". That's not even the heart of the book. All the reviewers said, "This is all about him killing off the novel." I mentioned it five times.

This will sound terribly self-glorifying, but the line I quote to myself is Flaubert's - approximately: "The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it." This book was very threatening to a lot of people, which I took as extraordinarily high praise.

Reality Hunger raised interesting questions about genre-busting. Where would you place your new book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead?
So many of the things I talk about in Reality Hunger seem to be the things that The Thing About Life does - things like risk, contradiction, compression, mixing modes of attack from the memoristic gesture to data-crunching.

Why did these books come out in the reverse order in the US?
Someone pointed out that the order in which they came out here in the UK makes more sense. I argued strongly to the American publisher that Reality Hunger should come out first. They thought that The Thing About Life would have more appeal because it's on a broader topic; it's about mortality, rather than art. In fact, it makes sense the other way round: theory first and practice second.

You've said that the novels you like are those that almost cease to be novels.
Your basic well-made novel by Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen just bores me silly. They start with some notion that they're supposedly exploring - say, freedom, or the idea of overcorrection - to give the work a kind of literary glamour or intellectual prestige. I find that such works pay the merest lip-service to exploring ideas. They are essentially barely disguised 19th-century novels. Take Jonathan Franzen's work: it's just old wine in new bottles. They say he's the Tolstoy of the digital age, but there can only be a Tolstoy of the Tolstoyan age.

In music they're not endlessly rewriting Beethoven's Third Symphony; in visual art they aren't painting portraits of 16th-century royalty. Art moves forward. Art, like science, progresses, and to me it's bizarre that a lot of acclaimed and popular and respectable books are not advancing the art form.

From my point of view, Reality Hunger called bullshit on our boredom with the novel. I just can't believe people think that these novels, which are so quaint, are great works of contemporary literature.

Is there anyone working in fiction today whom you do admire?
I like some of Annie Proulx, some of those very brief stories of hers. And I love J M Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. I like Geoff Dyer. I also liked W G Sebald, especially his book The Emigrants.

You've compared the essay form with the lyric poem - the poet is wrestling with a formal challenge. What is the equivalent for the writer of a lyric essay?
For me, it's the orchestration of theme, always. It's about how beautifully the mosaic comes together. I've always loved that. Like the way a great painting comes together. That's the formal challenge of the lyric essay or literary collage - this apparently rather random gathering of material. I hope readers will think that The Thing About Life is beautifully patterned, a tapestry.

You were very sporty as a child. When did you become interested in literature?
It wasn't as if I was a complete moron - I was reading books, but with nothing like the ability that my sister and my father did. But then I suffered a relatively bad broken leg and at that point I quickly slid to another game, chess: I started reading all these books about it. That pretty easily turned into reading John Updike rather than Bobby Fischer.

David Shields's "Reality Hunger" and “The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" are published by Penguin (both priced £8.99)

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