At last week's Copyright Clearance Center “OnCopyright 2010” seminar at the Union League Club in Manhattan, a roomful of lawyers, publishers, artists, and creators gathered for a discussion, aptly titled “The Collision of Ideas.” Over the course of the day, panelists hit all the high notes of a media business struggling with rapid, disintermediating, technology-fueled change. But this year's seminar also featured a host of creators who focused the discussion on the deeper, cultural issues at stake: a contemporary artist, an electronic musician, a filmmaker, and critically acclaimed author David Shields, whose inventive new book, Reality Hunger, has caused a stir in literary circles.
A pastiche of original, borrowed, rewritten, reused, and remixed passages, Reality Hunger, Shields says, began as an attempt to reconcile his boredom with the conventions and complacency of contemporary fiction. The book wheels from topic to topic, musing on everything from reality TV to plagiarism, artistic theft, and the inherent nature of artistic work to build upon—to remix, and in some cases, to flat-out appropriate—the work of the artists that have come before. The book doesn't theorize; it demonstrates, audaciously cobbling Shields's own words together with others' into more than 600 short entries, leaving readers to wonder whose words they are reading until the very end of the book, where (at the insistence of Random House lawyers) he offers something of an answer key. Not knowing who you are reading, the author stresses, is a “feature, not a bug.”
The book, meanwhile, has struck a nerve, and raised a thornier, broader question than the narrower copyright or plagiarism debates: in the digital age, with sharing, remixing, sampling, and access fueling a creative explosion the likes of which the world has never seen, is literature stuck? Is the literary establishment using technology to fashion its own cement shoes, a “trial-by-Google” world, as Shields calls it, that seeks to reinforce false notions about artistic ownership, authenticity, and originality?
“It's been said that remix is literacy for the 21st century,” notes Virginia Rutledge, an art historian—and copyright attorney—in her panel with Shields at “OnCopyright 2010.” Shields agrees—and he later cites two painters: Picasso (“all art is theft”) and Rothko. “Rothko said he changed the weather for every artist after him,” he says. “That is the aspiration of every great artist, and an aspiration of mine.”
PW caught up with Shields to discuss the creation and publication of Reality Hunger, as well as his own conflicted feelings about fiction and literature.
How did this book come together, literally, and what inspired it?
Believe it or not, the book began as a coursepack. I teach in the creative writing program at the University of Washington, and the program has only two genre tracks, fiction and poetry. As my interests evolved from fiction to nonfiction, I felt that I had to almost justify my existence, because I was no longer really a fiction writer, a fiction reader, or a fiction teacher. So I developed a graduate course that reflects documentary film and the personal essay, and the material for the course was this huge, unwieldy packet I developed, hundreds of pages of thousands of quotes, stuff I'd written, stuff I wrote, quotes from everyone from Nietzsche to Emerson to Sonny Rollins, and everywhere in between. It was just this endless working document that I was using to figure out why I was no longer a fiction writer. Everyone always asks how teaching and writing fit; well, here is one example where the course really generated the book.
Was there a moment when you realized these remixed quotes and thoughts had become your book?
By the time I realized what a radical thing I had done, it was sort of too late. For the longest time, I just lived with these passages so fully, they seemed so much a part of my brain, that I somewhat vaingloriously came to think of them as mine. I had lived inside of them, and I had rewritten almost all of them considerably. Above all, I feel like there's a real art to editing, how I juxtaposed stuff, cut quotes in certain ways, and positioned them to make an argument. There's this line of Melville's that he wrote to Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book, and I feel as spotless as the lamb.” Obviously, I'm not comparing my book to Moby-Dick. But that's how I feel. I never thought I was doing something untoward. I wasn't, like, oh, gee, I'll pretend I'm Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the contrary, it was more like, look at this amazing stuff people have said and watch what happens when we throw it into fifth gear.
Writers especially are so ingrained against “appropriating” others' work. Did you at some point have to give yourself permission to pursue this as an original, authentic, creative work?
That's a great question. It just evolved so organically for me, which sounds like a dubious answer, but it's true. What comes to mind is a quote from a former student of mine, Brian Christian, about how he was finding it difficult to write in his own voice because increasingly he hears a chorus of voices, both as music and as text, and for him so much of the contemporary artistic gesture is to take this cacophony of voices and make them come alive in some new way. That's how I feel. Part of this book, for me, is my exhaustion with traditional literary practices that are hidebound to some pretty quaint stances. But I'm also very much influenced by people in music and in visual art, people who have been doing this kind of thing for decades, if not centuries.
The book is billed as a manifesto. But it doesn't read like one and it certainly sounds as if the act of borrowing and weaving happened, as you say, organically. Did you feel you were writing a manifesto, or were you just working?
I would say the latter. The manifesto subtitle came later. And to me, it's tongue-in-cheek. It's certainly not the Communist Manifesto! Some people seem to think it's a manifesto about appropriation, but I feel like it is an ode to uncertainty. The linchpin of the book is me trying to figure out for myself why fiction, conventional fiction, no longer has a purchase on my writing, and why nonfiction of a certain exciting stripe just has my heart, and why I made this shift.
Notably, your publisher, Knopf, is the standard-bearer for great fiction. What was their reaction to this book?
I don't think they necessarily agreed with every word, as it regards fiction or copyright. But I think they saw it as an inventive work, a provocative work, and artistically interesting. My editor, Ann Close, whom I've worked with on five books now, pretty strongly disagrees with the book's arguments, I think, but she's been great, saying more or less, “It's your book, and I'll work with you on it, and I'll promote it as much as I can. I don't happen to agree with it, but so what?”
Then there is the legal side. Building a work on unattributed quotations led to quite a discussion with Random House lawyers, I understand. Was that a tense discussion?
It was. I got pretty dug in. I was full of a certain kind of quasi-rebellious energy. I wrote document after document, arguing my position. I consulted with copyright lawyers, and I got very conversant with the issues. I tried to explain how the crucial gesture of the book is to argue that the most exciting works take place in the space between fiction and nonfiction. Well, what's a better trope for that than these quotes, where you can't quite tell who is speaking? To me, the book is a content test form, a staple of artistic poetics. The very essence of the book is to argue for the excitement of doubt regarding genre, provenance, quotations, citation, and appropriation. So I was quite adamant that the quotations not be cited.
The book was eventually published with citations, so how were the legal issues resolved, and are you satisfied with how they were resolved?
The Random House legal department finally just said, “David, these are really lovely points, but we'll never be persuaded by the intellectual argument. We're a multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation, and we have to make a legal call.” At one point they did say, “Look, if it's that important to you to publish it without citations, you may have to rethink the book being published with us.” But that wasn't a threat. They were quite sympathetic. And frankly, I was shocked that they let me include a statement saying I did the citations at gunpoint and urging readers to cut them out. I thought it was very cool they were fine with that and had a sense of humor about it. I really enjoyed dealing with the Random House lawyers. Yes, I was disappointed by their decision at first, but I have come to like the citations. A lot of passages are in fact mine, and there are passages in which I say I've remixed certain things, so I can appreciate the way the citations make sure the reader gets what I've done. I think there was a concern on the publisher's part that if I didn't tell them, a crucial gesture of the book might have fallen beneath people's radar.
I actually think that only a publisher like Random House could publish this kind of book, because simply having to answer a lawsuit over one of these quotes could potentially wipe out a small press.
That's interesting. That's not conventional wisdom, because I thought a small experimental press would probably publish this as is, without citations. But thinking about it, I think you're quite right. Random House isn't going to be wiped out by some nuisance lawsuit.
With technology, remixing is so standard in popular culture these days—mashups, and sampling, for example. But with literature, isn't there still a different standard of what's acceptable?
In general, I think that's the case. But there are a lot of exceptions. A lot of Montaigne's essays are basically classical Latin writers. William S. Burroughs in the 1950s was doing a huge amount of cutups. Shakespeare's Henry VI is basically Plutarch. Look at James Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake—those books are nothing without the tissue of echoes and quotations. And there are current writers like David Markson, who is a huge influence on me.
But there is this prevailing ethos, which I find completely nuts, this Oh, my God, we found a passage by Ian McEwan where he steals 170 words from a nurse's journal, let's rap him across the knuckles. I'm not enough of a legal scholar to know why or how we moved to what I call in the book this “trial-by-Google” culture, where we endlessly track how people might have reused other works. What interests me is staying creatively alive and plugged into culture, and trying to make writing not feel antiquarian—and, my goodness, so 19th century. I'm trying to shock myself awake, and I hope shock some of my fellow writers and readers awake, too.
The Web has been portrayed as the Wild West, where writers can't protect their works. But it seems to me just the opposite is true, because works can be so tightly, legally controlled by things like DRM, computer-generated DMCA takedown notices, or plagiarism-finding software, “trial-by-Google” as you say. But do these “protections” really protect artists?
On the contrary, they protect corporations. I gave a lecture at Bread Loaf a year or two ago that was partly the trial-by-Google chapter, which deals a lot with James Frey. I was arguing for something like a copyleft position. And some of the audience walked out because they were so upset with the idea that I was arguing against copyright. I haven't worked out where I exactly land on the continuum, but the way that we've begun to think is incredibly paralyzing. My book is an attempt, in theory, to articulate that, and in practice, to demonstrate it.
Speaking of James Frey, I found the section on that scandal entertaining. How did you come to fix on that cultural moment?
Well, when the Frey thing first happened, frankly, I wasn't enormously upset. But the conversation was so bad, and the framing of it was so off, I felt I had an obligation, given what this book is about, to address it. James Frey is one small chapter, but that chapter demonstrates so much of the frustration that drove this book for me, which is the idea that all nonfiction is a subset of journalism, and that we have to somehow vet a memoir as if it was an article in the newspaper. There is in fact a counter-tradition, which views nonfiction as a subset of art.
Now, I'm no great defender of James Frey. I don't think he's a good writer. But he was a scapegoat. He was used to pretend there are clear demarcations between fact and fiction in literature—and there just aren't. When we read memoir, we kid ourselves that we're reading something true when we all know the writer is fictionalizing and poeticizing. Then we're shocked, shocked, to find out James Frey didn't really go to the dentist on Tuesday, or whatever. If you go back to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides makes up the general's speeches. In Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, de Quincey's recovery from opium addiction is heavily, heavily fictionalized. There are thousands of other examples. I want to say it is okay to sometimes think of certain ambitious works in more poetic terms, not as a subset of journalism.
Your work comes along at a time when there has been a lot of discussion about the future of literary culture and immersive reading and writing in the age of reality TV, gamers, digital media. Any thoughts on that future?
Without being self-congratulatory, I think this book is an attempt to deal with that very issue. I feel I reached an impasse many years ago, where I was bored with what I was reading, bored with what I was writing, bored with what I was teaching. I'm bored beyond boredom with the status quo. I think of this book as an attempt to renew the form, for myself, if no one else. Graham Greene's idea that “when we are not sure, we're alive” is crucial to the book. That's what I want to espouse. James Joyce himself said he was quite content to go down as a scissors-and-paste man. I mean, that was James Joyce, and that wasn't all that long ago. The works I try to write, the works I read, the works I teach, I want them all to defy genre, to try to make the reader alive by never being quite sure where his or her next step will be.