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Interview with author David Shields

As David Shields's Reality Hunger becomes available in paperback, the author talks truth, twinges and technique.

We’ve all had the feeling. Part-way through an irritating, time-wasting novel full of plot contrivances and unrealistic characters, there’s a decision to be made: stick with the story in the hope that it might improve, or throw the book in the air, heave a heavy sigh, and give up.

But the reaction was rather stronger for the best-selling novelist David Shields. He didn’t just shake his head at the latest book he was reading: he appeared to give up on fiction, full stop. And to try to understand why he could “no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form”, he wrote a book about it. The result, Reality Hunger, was a manifesto for non-fiction in 618 soundbites. And it caused quite a storm.

Blake Morrison, writing in The Guardian, said Shields had forgotten that fiction “offers the sustenance of truth”. Philip Womack in The Telegraph countered that “our hunger for the fantastical is still as strong as ever”. And yet, a year on, as Reality Hunger receives its worldwide paperback release in tandem with his best-selling quasi-memoir The Thing About Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead, Shields hasn’t read anything to convince him he’s wrong.

“But I want to get one thing clear, it’s a misnomer to say I’m against the novel, even though I’ve become the poster boy for the death of it,” says the 54-year-old American. “What I’m definitely against is the plodding, paint-by-numbers 19th-century-style novel that’s still being written today. I just don’t understand why you’d read or write that in 2011. I mean, we have all this exciting stuff all around us and yet somehow people want to shut off and want to read about life in an 18th-century French castle. It’s hard not to read the success of someone like Hilary Mantel as the product of a world that is too nervous, too crazy and perhaps too interesting for some people.”

Reality Hunger is full of this kind of polemic. Comprising chunks of quotes from unattributed sources – until the end of the book you never know whether you’ve just read a comment on the purpose of fiction from Nietzsche, Woody Allen, The Beastie Boys or David Shields himself – it’s actually an incredibly persuasive read, a vast collection of thoughts concertinaed together that attempt to make sense of what storytelling should be about.

What it doesn’t ever do is argue that novels are completely pointless. Reality Hunger simply suggests that a 550-page book is likely to have 10 or so key ideas. The rest is just background. “I argue for various things, but one of them is brevity,” he says. “One of the quotes from Nietzsche is about wanting to write in 10 sentences what it takes someone else a whole book to write. I love that idea of radical compression.”

Shields points to another quote from the High Fidelity director Stephen Frears, where Frears admits that he realised, in adapting Nick Hornby’s book for the screen, that all the fictional furniture in the novel was simply there so Hornby could talk about masculinity, creativity, self-destruction and so on.

“And it’s come to the point where I really just want those moments in a book, rather than all the other superfluous detail,” says Shields.

“It might be creeping Attention Deficit Disorder, but to me the great art is where there is no wasted motion, no ‘he walked across the room and picked up a cocktail’. In fact, the real impulse of most books is to tell a story to keep the reader lashed to the page. I don’t get why that’s a proper use of an adult’s time. It’s just pure escapism, whereas I want art, I want work that is wrestling with what we’re doing on this planet before we die.”

So much for all the highfalutin literary theory. Is entertaining people really so wrong? Shields smiles. He’s engaging, friendly company – we regularly digress into talk of sport and movies and he asks me as many questions as I do of him. Maybe it’s a deliberate disarming tactic, but it’s difficult, spending time with him, to conclude that his thesis about the modern novel was written from a purely cynical, destructive point of view.

“Look, I’m obviously aware that most people don’t agree with me, that people like to escape into a coherent world that is apart from their own,” he says. But there is, for Shields, another way. “I’m interested in non-fiction, but a form of it which is very badly behaved, which doesn’t define itself as straight-ahead journalism or memoir. It blurs boundaries, plays fast and loose with the truth – not to be silly, whimsical or lazy, but to get greater purchase on what it feels like to be alive.”

This kind of writing – examples might include JM Coetzee’s strange fictionalised memoirs or Damon Galgut’s compelling Booker-nominated In a Strange Room – can be both thrilling and perplexing. It’s also the crux of his other book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead. Ostensibly a memoir of his family, but weaving in biology, philosophy and basketball, its basis is the unnerving vitality of his 97-year-old father. Shields is drawn towards his father’s embellished stories, but maddened by them too. Like Coetzee and Galgut’s books, how much of it is true doesn’t, in the end, matter. What is important is that he talks about mortality in thought-provoking, unsentimental and often hilarious ways. In the book Shields is something of a hypochondriac, and I tell him I’m sure I felt hitherto unannounced twinges when I read it.

“Really? That is hilarious. You’re not the first person to say that, incidentally.”

Of course, the kind of non-fiction Shields now writes and argues for isn’t so far a jump from James Frey’s famously embellished “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces. Oprah Winfrey, memorably, said Frey had “betrayed millions of readers” by being so economical with the truth. Shields has some sympathy – but not too much.

“Look, Frey is an awful writer. But I do think it’s interesting that he was made such a scapegoat for all culture’s sins. If you take two of the biggest films of recent times – The Social Network and The King’s Speech – they want to claim the prestige of saying ‘this really happened’ but do so while boiling a life down to 24 scenes. They can’t possibly be true tellings – but then, that’s where we are now. We’re completely confused about the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. To me, the moment you compose, you’re fictionalising, the moment you remember, you’re dreaming. It’s ludicrous that we have to pretend that non-fiction has to be real in some absolute sense. In fact, you’ll be fictionalising our meeting as soon as you write about it.”

I tell him that I will – not least because the readers of The National’s books pages are unlikely to want to plough through verbatim transcriptions with umming, ahhing, and y’knows in them. Of which there would be many. Still, I agree to play along with a straight Q&A for a short period, just to make his point. With annoying umms and ahhs removed…

Q: So, was there a moment, then, when you threw your hands up and said, “enough of the novel”?

A: The big moment was in my own writing. I couldn’t get the novelistic apparatus to happen in [his 1996 book] Remote and I was utterly, utterly bored by the form. I was hugely influenced at the time by filmmakers like Errol Morris, performance artists like Denis Leary and Chris Rock, and anthropological autobiographers like George WS Trow and Renata Adler. I felt like these were the people who were exciting me. So it was a case of how can I make my work as exciting to myself as their work is to me?

Q: You have a section of your website where you list the books you really love, don’t you?

A: Yes, the Very Partial List. You know, people think I will always argue for the wildly experimental, post-modern writers but the books I really love are bottomless. In JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello he doesn’t do the thing of sitting everyone around a campfire and telling them a great story, which is the default mode of most novelists. He boils one idea down to its nub. Perhaps it’s because I used to have a stutter, but storytelling doesn’t fascinate me. In Reality Hunger there’s a quote from Montaigne – “every man has within himself the entire human condition”. That’s what I find riveting.

Although a whole interview written in this way might be less riveting. What’s not in doubt is that – once experienced – Shields’s writing changes expectations of the constituent parts of a great novel.You might not agree with him that the form itself is ludicrous. But Shields should be on everyone’s reading list.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead and Reality Hunger (Penguin) are out now.

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