Caleb Powell's work is forthcoming or in various literary magazines, including The Baltimore Review, descant, Fourth Genre, Post Road, The Texas Review, and Zyzzyva. He also contributes to The Rumpus and The Quarterly Conversation. He has lived and worked in Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Guam, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and The United Arab Emirates, and has authored the ESL teacher's guide The World is a Class, published in Canada by Good Cheer.
"Bandied About from Both Sides":
Caleb Powell interviews David Shields
David Shields is the author of ten books: three novels and seven works of nonfiction. In his latest, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, he attacks traditional fiction as tedious and defends the artistís right to steal. Shields calls on artists to borrow and share ideas without compunction or fear of being labeled "plagiarist." He proceeds to offer, in lieu of the novel, the lyric essay.
From Heroes, his first book and a traditional novel influenced heavily by the Iowa Writerís Workshop, to recent work, he has shown evolution towards questions of memoir, existential doubt, and abstract thought. For those that find tedious much of contemporary culture, Reality Hunger should not only satisfy but free the future artist.
We met a couple blocks from his house in Wallingford, a neighborhood just west of the University of Washington overlooking Lake Union and the Seattle skyline. Where else but the ubiquitous coffee shop? We sipped the trademark Seattle drink and discussed his work, from the controversial Reality Hunger to "Copyleft," James Frey, Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.
I came prepared to disagree, to make him feel uncomfortable, to evoke reflexive self-doubt. But his counterpoints trumped the majority of my objections. Most importantly, he reinforced the dictum so ever present in Reality Hunger: a writer should never be bored. For once that happens the writer (and anyone, for that matter) is no longer alive.
Caleb Powell: Thereís controversy surrounding Reality Hunger. What have you heard?
David Shields: There are many, I would think. Thereís that wonderful line of Samuel Johnsonís ďFame is a shuttlecock.Ē Your name must be bandied about from both sides. Iím not sure the goal is ever fame, but you want a book that is argumentative, that isnít just one more polite little piece of doily making, but tries to ruffle feathers that need ruffling. So, I donít know, Iím not sure how controversial it is. Iíve been giving some talks about the book, and some excerpts, but what do people tend to worry about?
CP: There are those who defend the traditional novel. Then there are those bothered by your views on copyright and plagiarism.
DS: You donít want to give the opposition too much face time. I think youíve summarized it well. First of all, in terms of the so-called plagiarism, the published book has citations in the back. Despite my protests, I have yielded. Back to the controversial points. Theyíre not independent but wedded at the hip, and this is shown by the three epigraphs of the book: Art is theft; All great works of literature either invent a genre or dissolve one; and finally, the statement, When we are not certain, we are alive. What Iím trying to do, Caleb, is make an argument for doubt, doubt concerning who said what, until the appendix. I want them to feel this excitement, and to me the very best books take place in the space between fiction and nonfiction because thatís the way we exist. Between realities and imaginations. These controversies are not accidental, they are quite willful. The thrilling nature of art embodies and practices doubt.
Halfway through Reality Hunger I write, ďMost of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage Iíve clipped at least a littleófor the sake of compression, consistency, or whim. You mix and scratch the shit up to the level youíre onÖĒ Itís sort of a crucial moment. It has nothing to do with plagiarism. I mean I totally cop to it. Itís one of my main points. The moment you give a source to work, it completely domesticates it. It feels like journalism; like scholarship. If you go back into ancient literature, from...certainly Shakespeare, I mean my God, there are plays of his which two thirds have been cribbed from previous writers, from previous histories. From Adorno, Cyril Connolly, David Markson, the BibleÖwhat weíve lost as writers is what Lethem calls the "ecstasy of influence." My book extends this. Itís crucial to me that I cop to it halfway through. In no way could you understand this book to be, quote, ďplagiaristic.Ē Itís an argument for writers feeding off each other with excitement and freedom. Iím trying to make a case for nonfiction as art and the key move in that is to plunder previous writers as I hope they plunder me.
Iím terribly sympathetic with the movement "Copyleft": people who are against copyright. They see the intellectual and artistic marketplace as a creative commons. And my book is an attempt to push that argument forward, because the lawyers have commandeered the marketplace. Not artists or scientists. Basically, the history of art is the history of plagiarism. Art feeding off art feeding off art feeding off art and artists. In this very litigious society art has become oddly literal-minded. We say, "Oh my goodness, youíve stolen a sentence from some previous book." Writers have been stealing sentences from the beginning of time. Writers from Montaigne to William S. Burroughs to Kathy Acker, not to mention visual artists and musicians.
People always raise red flags of plagiarism. Thatís not what Iím doing. Iím not selling pirated editions of Titanic or pretending I wrote Moby-Dick. Iím just making explicit what artists have done since the beginning of timeógood writers borrow; great writers stealóand, in that way, Iím trying to move forward our understanding of quotation, appropriation, copyright, ďplagiarism.Ē A writer should be thrilled if someone else found their work of interest. I mean, people say, "How would you feel if someone started ripping off your work?" You know, Iíd be thrilled. Iím not sure if I can add any more to that.
CP: You sent me a letter two years after I graduated asking to borrow a paragraph of my work.
Whatíd you say? You said no, didnít you?
To read the rest of the interview, please purchase the issue here.