David Shields in Conversation: Notes from the Highly Self-conscious Rat Lab
-David Shields = highly self-conscious lab rat; David Shields = Canada
-Will the internet ever save anyone’s life?
-Bret Easton Ellis’s twitter feed
Catherine Lacey: I read How Literature Saved My Life during a two-week period when my only exposure to the internet was responding to a few emails on my phone. I read almost a book a day. It felt like it was saving my life. Since then my disdain/distrust of the internet seems to grow every day and your book made me remember, in a way, why. When I got to the list of fifty-five works you swear by, I realized that of all the works I find the most admirable, very few of them came to be online. And yet I have spent a lot of time reading things online, disproportionate to the enjoyment or worth I’ve found here. In light of this book and Reality Hunger, I’m curious about how you use the internet.
David Shields: I use the internet as a tool to figure out where the war is being waged that day on our individual and collective minds.
Catherine: Specifically, what websites and what kind of content? News? I’m assuming you still read books, too?
David: I read books almost entirely offline. Stuff online: I just follow what links come in to me and I explore them. There are no websites I return to in any predictable way.
Catherine: When I read Reality Hunger in 2009 I think I was feeling more positive about the possibilities and influence that the internet was having on literature, but now I’m not so sure. Am I just turning into a crank? I am starting to get the feeling that the brevity and quick turnaround time of internet publishing is not our friend. Do you think it is our friend?
David: Hmm. Internet publishing. Not sure I even know what that is. You mean the way you can write an article and it will be up on the web within minutes?
Catherine: I mean exactly that. The immediacy of online magazines.
David: Not hugely crucial to me—this aspect. I’m not running a newspaper. I’m trying to write books that will alter how people think in 20 years. Seems to me that we’re not quite there yet with internet publishing. I’m virtually certain that within a generation—if not much sooner—publishing as we know it will be no longer, and my sense is that any decentralization of publishing, any removal of the middleman, is good. It’s more chaos-making, but it’s largely for the good. I gather you were/are writing a book about religion, and you may have religious impulses that I don’t have. I have zero drive toward anything beyond this; there is nothing beyond the world of humans as nature and animals—and so if this is the particular chaos that we occupy now, it’s no more and no less “meaningful” than the chaos occupied by our ancient amoeba-ancestors.
Catherine: I am doing the research for a project of some sort on religion, but I’m probably closer to your stance on caring about the here and now and the chaos that always has been and always will be. What I am concerned with is missing the slowness of books. I feel a tension between being a part of the global conversation that happens online and the vastly decelerated conversation that happens in books and literature, which take more time and thought to make and are generally edited more thoughtfully. I’ve been thinking of this a lot in the past year or so and How Literature Saved My Life made me think of it even more.
David: I’m offline a huge amount, I am mainly reading books, but when I am online I’m thinking as hard as I can about what this water is in which we’re all swimming.
Catherine: As a culture we seem to be bingeing on ideas or the ideas of others constantly with no filter, no standards, no awareness. Information decadence. Social media is not what bothers me (it seems benign at least in this context.) I’m more concerned with the things that are being presented as news or guideposts in our conversations. Of course I don’t want anyone to be censored, but do you ever feel like there is too much internet?
Catherine: I’m 27, but I get the sense I may not have the most popular stance on this issue in my generation.
David: I feel like I implicitly have immense distance toward the entire phenomenon. I’m Canada, looking across the border at all the shootings going on in the US and thinking about it all. I’m not actively invested in the web as a place where I forge anything. (All puns intended.) It’s more that I just know and think that it is entirely the air we breathe—you know it, I know it, even John McCain knows it—and so I dip my toe into it constantly and relatively briefly to feel what it is that has completely taken over our consciousness. I keep on thinking of myself walking up a hill in Seattle many years ago and having what felt like an epiphany of some kind. I just remember thinking how much everything I respond to has some velocity built into it—stand-up, prose-poem, literary collage, etc. One could protest this or recoil from this, but I feel like ever since that moment I’ve tried to watch my mind “getting faster,” and I’m trying to write off of that velocity. That is, I’m trying not to push back against that speed. I could deplug and figure out a way that I could reread Proust in all 7 volumes with the attention and devotion I gave to in graduate school, but I feel like there is value in submitting myself to the whirlwind of the web and social media and trying to feel what it is like, what is it doing to our nerve endings, and trying to write about that. I’m a highly self-conscious lab rat, still unable to get out of the lab.
Catherine: That’s beautiful. I feel like a highly self-conscious lab rat, too. You know, a lot of people would be surprised to hear you say that you even have a passing interest in reading Proust again. When I heard the title of your latest book I wondered if, in some way, it was an apology for Reality Hunger. Like you were saying, “Hey, wait! I don’t hate novels! I’m not dancing on their graves! I love(d) them deeply!”
David: Reality Hunger burned literature down to the ground for me—How Literature Saved is my attempt to reconstitute it for myself. As Minna Proctor said generously in Bookforum, the heart to the manifesto’s mind. Practice to the theory. Pam Houston called it something like rapturousness to the earlier crankiness.
Catherine: What I really want is there to be a book 30 year from now written by 2043’s version of David Shields titled “How the Internet Saved My Life.” How do we get there?
David: That is a great question. Steven Soderbergh is looking for “a new grammar”; he’s weary of narrative prison of films. He’s seeking a new language by which to express himself. Hey, join the fucking club. How do we get there? You just know it’s out there, don’t you? Someone is going to make of a million Facebook posts or Twitter feeds an astonishing collage. See Christian Marclay’s The Clock. If that isn’t a model, I don’t know what is. You probably know The Clock, don’t you, Catherine?
Catherine: I do. You talk about it in the book, too.
David: The 24-hour-long video made up of the briefest scraps of other people’s films, transformed into a harrowing contemplation of time itself. That is a model. The Grey Album is a model. James Blake is a model. Bret Ellis’s Twitter feed is a model.
Catherine: Why Bret Ellis’s Twitter in particular? Is Bret Ellis’s Twitter saving your (or anyone’s) life?
David: He actually is. I think his twitter feed is utterly brilliant. It’s my favorite work of his. He is actively trying to figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel, post-Empire. He’s on it. He gets it, completely. He gets how to push back, how to be part of the culture and how to push back against ferociously it at the same time, to ignore it and transform it. He is a hugely catalyzing force for me.
Catherine: A few months ago I was describing this problem: I want to know what is culturally relevant and I want to know what is happening politically in the world and I want to know what topics are being discussed in the public arena. Yet I can rarely read an article beginning to end without wondering if I should be reading something else instead or clicking some link away from the piece or whatever, which seems like a thoroughly modern problem and one I’m not alone in. What I really need is someone to curate the 10 things each week I need to know about, yet I don’t trust anyone (at least not any editor I know of) to tell me what those 10 things are. I have Reality Fatigue. Do you have any remedies?
David: I think this is a nearly universal condition, and Dr. Dave has no remedies. I feel like you are describing what it is I’ve been writing about since Remote (in 1996) onward. I like that line by Virginia Woolf, “On or about Dec 1, 1910, the world changed forever.” I have the line not quite right. It’s close to that. But it’s hard not to think that on or about December 1, 1990 (or 2000 or 2010) or somewhere in that 20 year period, the world changed forever. It seems inarguable. As massive a change as the Guttenberg press. We might not like it, but to ignore it seems willed ignorance.
Catherine: Absolutely. Ignoring it would be much worse.
David: In some ways I think of my whole life as being a conversation between three parts of my study: the computer where all this internet activity happens, my chair in which I write on my yellow legal pad, and my day-bed on which I lie down and read books that take the top of my head off. I want to only be lying on that bed reading, or maybe sitting in my chair writing on my yellow legal pad, but it seems to me crucial to also be hugely tapped into the evolving human consciousness as it develops and deploys on the much-maligned and –bookmarked web. On the plane from Seattle to DC, I read Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen in its beautiful little University of Nebraska Press paperback, and it saved my life every step of the way.
Catherine: What in particular about that book was life-saving? Would you add it to the list of the other fifty-five things?
David: It’s very short, but I am loving it to death. It is unbelievably great. I’ve read it before, and I’m loving reading it again. What is so great about it? I’d say how she creates what Wayne Koestenbaum calls “an emergency out of sensibility.” The whole book is AE describing external things: things in her Paris suburb, things seen on the metro, on TV, in film, in the newspaper. And it slowly emerges how much the book is about the intersection of internal psychic violence and outward public and political violence. .She is tracing the lineaments of that connection very subtly. By book’s end, if I remember correctly, it all comes together in one extraordinary image involving a poster of a vagina, onto which someone has splashed red paint. An utterly, utterly great book. Brian Evenson in the intro gets the book wrong—he says it exists at some halfway point between life and art. Hardly. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a more complete, exciting, and contemporary work of art. It makes immense sense of contemporary being. “A great painting comes together, just barely.” Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled.