Disclaimer: I’m far from an authority on anything transpiring in the world of literature, but I do read novels, essays, and philosophy, so I feel okay about playing correspondent here. Moreover, I’ve never read any of Shields’ work, though Reality Hunger has been of interest ever since it received a barrage of publicity upon publication in 2010. Maybe I’ll pick it up tonight and read from it while the conversation is still in my head.
The central thrust of the conversation was that Shields considers the best of contemporary non-fiction to be something like the lyric essay, and the most “revolutionary form” of written expression today. He sees it as a “trampoline” from which to bounce up to the most serious epistemological and existential questions that we currently face. For Shields — following Montaigne — nonfiction’s or the lyric essay’s artfulness lies in how they are not really about their ostensible content or material, but rather about how crafting it requires opening one’s heart to the entire spectrum of human experience, and pursuing a theme beyond what is presented. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology — he didn’t mention them, but I’d bet top dollar he has read them before, and closely — the author must marshal diverse flows of sensual experience or data — stories, interviews, film, audio, etc. — and assemble them in a way the permits diverse readers to connect. I’m immediately reminded of David Foster Wallace’s assertion that jokes and short stories work through exformation, which occurs when “vital information [is] removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient” (*). For Shields this makes for the best type contemporary writing.
As an outsider to this type of conversation, I very much appreciated Shields’ elaborations on the definition of the lyric essay: he called it a “scattering of form, a collage.” Citing a quotation in entry #384 from Reality Hunger the host, Jessica Burstein, explained that the lyric essay requires interpretation, that the voice of the author is more distant, coy, demure. Shields again evoked D&G when he said that he’s wary of the earnestness that prevails in the personal essay: their perpetual quest toward asubjectivity doesn’t mesh well with a written form founded on constant exploration of one’s own psyche or situation. But, I think, there’s a tension here that Shields illuminated with, unsurprisingly, a quotation from Wallace:
We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.
I take this as suggesting that writing — or any form of art — should exist externally or “out there,” between each of us, and that any artist worth his or her salt must take a back seat to the work they are creating. However — and this seems to be a critical point for D&G — the author and the reader are both responsible for becoming open enough to experience what is happening in the world. The author’s heart (Montaigne), unconscious (D&G), or soul (Wallace says in his Kafka essay that ‘unconscious’ is just a fancy word for the soul), must be probed to a depth enabling him or her to produce something with which others can connect; the reader too is tasked with a similar project. However, if I’m picking up what Shields is laying down, he doesn’t think this process of introspection or schizoanalysis (D&G) should — or can — constitute the work of art itself (**). It seems that the personal essay would be situated somewhere closer to this category, with its sustained meditation and present voice. From the arc of the conversation, it this appeared as a natural segue to another form of writing that Shields has practiced and abandoned: the novel.
His major point with which I disagreed somewhat came when he declared that the novel is an art form that no longer expresses our common condition. It’s too slow and cumbersome, weighted down by history: essentially a carriage ride in comparison to supersonic transatlantic travel, or instantaneous worldwide communication via facebook or THE TWEETER. For Shields the novel is too situated in place, and “place doesn’t matter as much now as it did for writers like Balzac” (this quotation in close to verbatim). To me this sounds like an already outdated conception of reality that seemed to course through Continental theory in the seventies and eighties with folks like Baudrillard and his simulations, or Castells and his spaces of flows. Perhaps “outdated” is the wrong term, but it carries the same connotation is the word “cybernetic” does for me: that is, of technophilia and Situationism and general boosterism for a world in which places are merely locations which are traversed (***, all of which I don’t dismiss, but find difficult to consider useful when I’m interested in the built environment: it’s heavy and it stays put).
Shields’ chosen whipping boys were, as one might expect, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan, though he also mentioned Jeffrey Eugenides and Chad Harbach. Shields considers at least one of them a “fine nineteenth-century writer” but is less than compelled by his work. For him, the novel form fails to push writing forward; it doesn’t tap into the present-day experience. His interest lies elsewhere, in ferreting out the revolutionary forms. I admit that this is indeed an important and valuable pursuit, but — given my interests in the built and inhabitable world, not to mention the novels that I read — I can’t let the content slip away. I left the conversation thinking that Franzen, for example, does indeed use a less-than-revolutionary form, but that his subject matter describes a portion of the modern condition extremely well. As I see it — again thinking with the Lefebvrean term “representational space” in mind — he taps into the feelings and impressions of emplaced contemporary life better than anyone else I’ve read recently.
I’ll close with another reference to Lefebvre. In The Urban Revolution he claims that “the urban is…pure form: a place of encounter, assembly, simultaneity” and that it “has no specific content but is a center of attraction and life” (****). This conception sounds very similar to what Shields is proffering, but Lefebvre — even though he considers the nature of the content to be unimportant — reminds us that each element remains distinct and unique (~haecceities in D&G). I’m confident that Shields doesn’t neglect the importance of such differences, but feel that his intense study of form could potentially lead him in that direction. Writers like Franzen and Harbach penetrate what it’s like to actually experience the world, and without the flows of “data” they generate, no essayist or avant-garde filmmaker would have any material to work with. I know this is all really just a case of the division of labor and specialization, but these are just some of the things I was thinking during the excellent conversation.
Tomorrow night is the big finale: Fredric Jameson.
* “Some Remarks of Kakfa’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed,” in Consider The Lobster, pg. 61.
** I read the art section of What is Philosophy? too quickly during general exam preparation, so I’m unprepared to cite it here, but I know it would be a helpful addition.
*** Feel free to pull a D&G card here, and argue for nomadism and its attendant smooth space. I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint but must concede that my desiring-machines need a place to rest, to dwell, even (ack, Heidegger!). Edward Casey tries to make some sense out of both of these tendencies in his call for “rough-edged places within smooth spaces.”
**** pg 118