A representation of David Shields' Reality Hunger,
a manifesto about remixing, plagiarism, non-fiction,
reality, and the culture of appropriation.

G - blur


David Shields

I think of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and all forms of storytelling as existing on a rather wide continuum, at one end fantasy (J. R. R. Tolkien and the like) and at the other end an extremely literal-minded register of a life, such as a guy in eastern Washington–named, as fate would have it, Shields–who (until his recent death) had kept the longest or longest-running diary, endless accounts of everything he did all day. And in between at various tiny increments are greater and lesser imaginative projects. An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. "Fiction"/"nonfiction" is an utterly useless distinction.


Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–


Irving Babitt, quoted by D'Agata in conversation as via negativa

Genre mingling is responsible in no small measure for the moral debility of intellect and character and will.


David Shields

These categories are plastic.

But they aren't.

Ah, but they are.


First two sentences: Mary Gaitskill, quoted in Joy Press, "The Cult of JT LeRoy," Village Voice; the rest is Stephen Beachy, "Who Is the Real JT Leroy?" New York

I like to write stuff that's only an inch from life, from what really happened, but all the art is of course in that inch. My books tend not to have the narrative and story you associate with fiction, but at the same time they are arranged and structured, to put it somewhat pompously, as works of art rather than accumulations of information. To that extent, I like to think they're more novel than many novels.


David Shields

David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. Leonard Michaels's Shuffle. Simon Gray's four-volume Smoking Diaries, which dwarf his plays. Albert Goldbarth's Great Topics of the World. The prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five is the best thing Vonnegut ever wrote. Jean Stafford's A Mother in History. Samuel Delany's The Motion of Light in Water. Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.


Raban, Passage to Juneau

The grist of the material is factual–a narrative with people whose names you can look up in the phone book or who have historically verifiable existences–but it's fiction in the sense that it's heavily patterned and plotted; it's structured like a novel.


Raban, interviewed by Dave Weich,

I'm interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction.


Raban, For Love & Money

The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the journalist is to tell what really happened, as it happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart. There's a good case for arguing that any narrative account is a form of fiction. The moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature. The words themselves begin to suggest patterns and connections that seemed at the time to be absent from the events the words describe. Then the story takes hold. It begins to determine what goes in and what's left out. It has its own logic and it carries the writer along with it. He may well set out to write one story and find that he's writing quite another. The more self-consciously language is used, the more responsive the writer is to the medium in which he works, the more elaborate that fashioning is. The na–ve storyteller will burden you with a mass of irrelevancies, which get into the story just because he remembers that they happened to be there; the sophisticated storyteller will fashion his contingencies so that they support and move his story forward. That is fiction-making.



I have never written fiction, and this memoir may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is a memoir true to life. Because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer's business is to find the shape of unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story. There really is no choice. A reporter of fact is in service to the facts, a eulogist to the family of the dead, but a writer serves the story without apology to competing claims. This is an attitude that some have characterized as ruthless: that cold detachment, that remove, that allows writers to make a commodity of the lives of others. But a writer who cannot separate herself from her characters and see them within the full spectrum of their human qualities loses everything in a haze of nostalgia. Now you may ask: Just what is the relation of your memoir to the truth? It is as close as it can be. The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life–that one damn thing after another–is lost.


Jefferson, "From Romantic-Comedy Sidelines to Glaring Spotlight," New York Times

Good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I'm not bothered at all by this artifice.


Sebald, quoted in The Emergence of Memory, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz

You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn't any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth, which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylization. What I'm striving for is authenticity; none of it is real.


T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.


Joseph Lowman, quoted in Jane Ruffin, "Be More Shocked When You Don't Lie," Raleigh News & Observer

We all stretch the truth and tell lies by omission. Just getting along with people involves both. Humans are hardwired to deceive. We deceive when we're competing with other members of the same sex; we deceive when we're trying to attract the other sex. Deception is more the state of nature than not deceiving. In the animal kingdom, virtually every species deceives all the time. Why don't we lie even more? It helps our reputation for people to know they can believe us.



There has always been something that bothered me a little bit about the invisible camera of classic cinéma vérité—an attempt at some pure form of objectivity that always seemed impossible and, at least in my attempts, dishonest, in some ways. In all of the hue and cry about objectivity and truth being captured by a camera at twenty-four frames per second, I've missed the idea of subjectivity. Somehow melding the two—the objective data of the world with a very subjective, very interior consciousness, as expressed through voice-over and on-camera appearances—seemed to give me the clay from two different pits to work with in sculpting something that suited me better than pure cinéma vérité


Werner Herzog, interviewed on Fresh Air; David Shields: "I am equal parts Terry Gross's investment in explanation and Herzog's striving for mystery."

Cinéma vérité doesn't make a clear enough distinction between fact and truth—as if facts constituted truth—but there's quite a distinction. When you read a great poem, you instantly notice that there's a deep truth in it, which passes into you and becomes part of your inner existence. In great moments of cinema, you're struck by a similar illumination. And that's what I'm after, in documentaries and feature films. You can't even call my documentaries "documentary," though; I fabricate, I invent, I write dialogue. The border line between documentaries and feature films is blurred; in fact, it doesn't exist.


Picasso; Virginia Woolf

Art is real.

I make it real by putting it into words.


David Shields

I see every art as importantly documentary. Everything is always already invented; we merely articulate, arrange. The forms of art that make art's status as document the most explicit give me real delight. I'm inclined to say that this preference in me has something to do, also, with my lesser inclination to sign than to design. One looks not with a predisposition as to meaning, selecting items according to some prior sense of importance, but rather with an eye that roves, catching only the unforeseen patterns across a field. At least that's what the pleasure of a documentary intelligence seems to me to be. It's always, of course, a fiction: a description of the pattern-loving eye, the perceiver's ways of moving, removing, seeing, revising. Revisiting a site three times, one revisits three sites. Also, threesomes start to matter. But things matter in documentary as embodiment, not argument–at least in the documentaries I like, the least narrated ones. In documentary, more than in any other kind of film, I'm aware of the camera. Nothing short of a shot of a camera (as at the end of Death in Venice, the empty-headed camera apparatus on the beach) can so remind me of the missing cameraman. The missing cameraman, a presence that informs, a fierceness that's effaced–that's as close as I can get to being reminded of the strangeness of being in a body, oneself, in the world: always facing out.



Inherently, documentary is going to have an edge in getting at truth that fiction doesn't have, but of course if you're intelligent about it, you have to admit that there's no single truth, anyway.


Geoffrey O'Brien, introduction to Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights; David Shields: "as is so often the case with me, I like the book, but I like the introduction as much or more: concision."

Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one? At the same time, strict reportage, with its prohibition against invention, has its own aesthetically intolerable demands.


Roman Jakobson, "Linguistics and Poetics," in The Discourse Reader, eds. Adam Jaworski and Nikolas Coupland

As a preamble to their performances, traditional storytellers in Majorca would say, "It was and it was not so."



The poles of fiction and nonfiction are constantly bouncing their force fields back and forth between each other.


David Shields

–the indivisibility of the varieties of expression.


David Shields

The books that most interest me sit on a frontier between genres. On one level, they confront the real world directly; on another level, they mediate and shape the world, as novels do. The writer is there as a palpable presence on the page, brooding over his society, daydreaming it into being, working his own brand of linguistic magic on it. What I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported.


David Shields

Most, perhaps even all, good work (or, okay, work that excites me) eludes easy generic classification: once we know it's coloring entirely within the lines called "novel" or "memoir" or "Hollywood movie," I honestly don't see how anything emotionally or intellectually interesting can happen for the reader.


David Shields

It's crucial, in my formulation, that neither the writer nor reader be certain what the form is, that the work be allowed to go wherever it needs to go to excavate its subject. My misreading of David Remnick's New Yorker profile of Bill Clinton as the first page of Miranda July's short story was more interesting to me than the story itself; the excitement of the Lonely-girl15 phenomenon resided entirely during the brief period several summers ago when you couldn't tell what it or she was.


David Shields

Genre is a minimum-security prison.


David Shields

Just as out-and-out fiction no longer compels my attention, neither does straight-ahead memoir.


David Shields

I want the contingency of life, the unpredictability, the unknowability, the mysteriousness, and these are best captured when the work can bend at will to what it needs: fiction, fantasy, memoir, meditation, confession, reportage. Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I'm constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unselfconsciously as a novel, since it's not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now. Instead, it must constantly be shifting shape, redefining itself, staying open for business way past closing time. "Don't mess with Mr. In-Between," my father would often advise me, but it seems to me that Mr. In-Between is precisely where we all live now.


Bonnie Rough, "Writing Lost Stories," Iron Horse Literary Review

In all the reconstructive or restorative arts–forensics, forensic anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, art restoration, fields into which scholars have put enormous work, defining methods, freedoms, and boundaries as they strive to fill in the blanks of history–people make the best educated guess as to what "really" happened. Archaeologists imagine the buildings that once stood upon the foundations they unearth. Forensic specialists imagine the faces that masked old skulls. An art restorer "paints over" a painting to bring it "back to the original." A police sketch of a suspected criminal is routinely derived from the imaginations of several witnesses. Similarly, imagined stories have an important place in nonfiction. Why are certain kinds of knowing favored over others in a genre in which veracity carries weight?


Slater, Lying

There is only one kind of memoir I can see to write and that's a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating one, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.


John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

A character is either "real" or "imaginary"? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not think of even your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it, fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf–your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens.


Tad Friend, "Virtual Love," New Yorker

By eluding definitive observation, he remains perpetually real and perpetually imaginary.


David Shields

To be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.


Henry Grunwald, Salinger

Like a number of playwrights from Luigi Pirandello to Jack Gelber, he is attempting to bring the audience completely into the action, to make it forget what is real and what is not.


A. O. Scott, "A Cock and Bull Story," New York Times

Mr. Winterbottom's recent films have trampled the boundary between artifice and documentary.


Stephen Holden, "A Reprieve for Reality in New Crop of Films," New York Times

How much is true and how much is acting in this extremely intimate, fake-but-real documentary about the Wagners, a voluble, often abrasive New York couple in late middle age who drive across the country with their adult daughters to visit their son, a Los Angeles filmmaker? That filmmaker, Andrew Wagner, who accompanied them on the trip, is actually the producer, director, and cinematographer of The Talent Given Us. Whatever the truth, this fascinating, lively film adds a new twist to the documentary form.


Susan Buice, Four Eyed Monsters

It's always been tough getting my life and art aligned, and I firmly believe that in order to be a truly good artist, you need to link your art to your life.


The song "Compared to What," written by Eugene McDaniels, was made famous via recording by Les McCann and Ed Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival; that record sold more than a million copies. An antiwar and civil rights polemic, the song has recently been retooled by Chicago rapper Common and R & B singer Mya as a Coke commercial.

Try to make it real–compared to what?


McElwee, Sherman's March

My real life has fallen into the cracks between myself and my film.


David Shields

Richard Stern is, as one critic has said, "almost famous for being not famous"–friend of Pound, Beckett, Bellow, Mailer, Roth. Stern says, "My whole life I've pursued these people: great inventors. What is the best, the most interesting thing going? Since I was a little tyke, I've wanted to find out what makes the great tick. Growing up in New York, I trailed Sinclair Lewis up to what didn't succeed in being an escape route, I met Artur Schnabel on a bus and asked him if he'd like to use our piano, Einstein in Central Park. In England–Cambridge–the physicist Paul Dirac came over with a mis-delivered letter, so I used to cross the street and ask dumbie questions about the Big Bang. He was supposed to be laconic, Delphic, but I found him open and fluent. Being at the University of Chicago has led to friendships with all sorts of remarkable people. Writers are usually the best to know. Their business is openness and fluency. People frequently ask, 'Isn't it bad to be in Roth's and Bellow's shadow?' I don't feel that." He doesn't feel that because his deepest subject has always been the making and remaking of actuality. By standing next to monuments and measuring them, he has produced meditations on the relation between imagination and reality that are as meaningful, powerful, profound, beautiful, and funny as any of the monuments he was measuring. A book he has cited as one of his strongest influences is Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: the putatively pathetic Dowell contemplating the putatively heroic Ashburnham. "You make something of your limits," Stern says. "Maybe that's your signature." It's shtick: R. Stern, pro schlemiel; friend of the great, the near great, the ingrate. An interviewer asks him, "How did this brainy, intellectual, deliberately obsolete persona of yours evolve?" Stern's reply: "Boy, I'm devastated." Asked why his work isn't more popular, he says, "There's an absence of something–an energy, a breadth. A severity, a sourness. Some recusant quality which repels? A low quotient of magic? Who knows?" He quotes John Barth saying to him, "Oh, you know a lot, and you're productive, but where's the virtuosity, where's the art?" The art consists of feigning that there's mainly miscellany and little order to Stern's "orderly miscellanies," which Hugh Kenner has called "almost the invention of a new genre." In their hybrid messiness, straddling fiction and non-, life and art, Stern's "orderly miscellanies" perfectly embody and dramatize Stern's perpetual agon. The miscellanies' titles invariably define, with precision and subtlety, the thematic investigations the books undertake: One Person and Another is about idolatry; What Is What Was is about memory; The Position of the Body is about mortality. Asked who have been the biggest influences on him, he says, "Stendhal. Proust means so much. James. Dante. Bellow: he's someone who kept going, who was disciplined. I admire that. I can already feel – I've had a flirtation or two with extinction. Life readies you for not living." Asked what current work he admires, Stern says, "The real stuff going on today is women's poetry–Sharon Olds writing about sex, or her feelings for her father, or her daughter, having a baby, and all that. That's big stuff." Whenever Stern starts talking about literature, he inevitably winds up talking about life; the anxious relation between life and literature is what his work always worries. Several years ago, Stern was going to visit my class, but due to a medical emergency in his family, he had to cancel and reschedule for the following year. First, though, he had suggested, "I could call you or you could call me, put me on the speakerphone, perhaps with microphone amplifier. I would apologize to the audience, speaking about the way life erupts and how dealing with it is one thing literature does, and then I would like–if possible–to read my story 'Wissler Remembers' over the phone and –" On and on his email went, deliriously trapped in the interstices between life and art.


V. S. Pritchett

It's all in the art. You get no credit for living.


A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats

The life we live is not enough of a subject for the serious artist; it must be a life with a leaning, a life with a tendency to shape itself only in certain forms.


David Shields

In The Shadow, also known as The Detective, the French photographer and conceptual artist Sophie Calle arranges for her mother to hire a detective, who follows Calle and documents her movements; the detective doesn't know that Calle is aware of him. In Venetian Suite, Calle meets a man at a party and decides to follow him to Venice, where she stalks him throughout the city, taking photographs and chronicling his movements. At the end of the experiment, she confronts the man. The Hotel: she takes a job as a chambermaid. Before she cleans each room, she photographs and documents what each visitor has brought and in what state he or she has left the room, drawing conclusions about each person. Dominique V is Calle's investigation into the disappearance of a woman who told Calle she wanted to be just like her. There has been a fire in the woman's apartment, and she has disappeared. Calle photographs the scene and compares it to the charred portraits and photos the woman took before she had vanished. In Journey to California, a man writes Calle a fan letter, saying he's heartbroken and wants nothing more than to sleep in Calle's bed. She ships her bed to him in California. The two keep in contact over the next six months. The bed is returned. The work documents the journey the bed took. The Sleepers: Calle invites twenty-eight random strangers to take turns sleeping in her bed. She interviews and photographs them, displaying the results in an exhibit. Double Game: Paul Auster, who based a fictional character on Calle, assists the artist in her attempt to imitate the life of Auster's fictional character. Calle documents each step of the crossing and recrossing of the border between fiction and reality. The Stripper: Calle takes a job as a stripper. A friend photographs her, the crowd, and the milieu. In The Blind, Calle asks several blind people to define what they think beauty is. She posts each of their responses next to a photo of each subject. The Address Book (much my favorite): Calle finds an address book. Before returning it to the owner, she photographs its pages, then calls everyone in the book. She asks each of them to describe the owner of the book, his habits, qualities, idiosyncrasies, creating a portrait of the man via these interviews. The man is upset when he discovers what she has done. No Sex Last Night is her video of a trip she takes across the United States with a man. The relationship between the two is nearly over. They marry in Las Vegas, but the marriage lasts only until the end of the journey. In Take Care of Yourself, one hundred seven women interpret a breakup email Calle received on the last day of a love affair. In Last Seen and Ghosts, Calle asks people to describe pictures that had been removed or stolen from a museum, then she places the museumgoers' responses in the empty spaces. Public Places, Private Spaces: she travels to Jerusalem, where she asks both Israelis and Palestinians to share a public place with her that they consider sacred. Her audience isn't sure if the transformation is supposed to occur within the artwork or themselves. Calle: "These projects are a way for me to have emotions which I can control because I can decide in a way when it's going to stop, whereas in normal life I can't control my emotions as easily. I was always curious. I could watch people sleep even when their wives didn't, because it was art. Now it's a way of life. I no longer ask myself what I'm doing, but I'm not obsessed with whether it really is art. For me, it's a game; it's the critics' decision to call it art."


Jenny Gage, interviewed by Heidi Julavits, Believer

Usually I'm pretty honest. I say I'm doing a series of portraits of young women, and I want to do one of her. I explain that it's about her, but it's also about myself, and the tension this creates. I look at her, seeing myself in her and also being really into the character that she is in real life–a character that's based in truth, but a character that is also prompted by the fantasy the photographs project on her. I would rarely use an actress to play the role of a drifter. Nor would I go and find an actual homeless girl, but there are elements of these characters in the person I find that I'm really responding to and that I want to preserve through the photographs. I've never been completely straightforward; I like work that frustrates me. I don't like things that are spelled out, and whenever I feel like I'm spelling things out too easily, I'll back away and try to make it confusing for myself.


David Shields

Because they live in a nation in which it's virtually impossible for a novel to be both interesting and popular enough to create a scandal, American novelists are drawn to the work of succ–s de scandale photographers. Ann Beattie wrote the introduction to Sally Mann's At Twelve, then produced a novel, Picturing Will, that contains unmistakable parallels to Mann's life and work. Reynolds Price wrote the afterword to Mann's Immediate Family, her book of photographs of her three children in various stages of undress and prepubescent sensuality. Jayne Anne Phillips's essay "A Harvest of Light" prefaces Jock Sturges's The Last Day of Summer, photographs that the FBI confiscated as "child pornography." The epigraph to Kathryn Harrison's novel Exposure is a Diane Arbus aphorism–"A photograph is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know"–and the book concerns Ann Rogers, the thirty-three-year-old daughter of Edgar Rogers, a retrospective of whose photographs has been scheduled at the Museum of Modern Art. The photographs document Ann, as a child, in poses of "self-mutilation and sexual play."


Robin Hemley, "A Simple Metaphysics," Conjunctions

Photography: the prestige of art and the magic of the real.


David Shields

Part of the American character is the urge to push at boundaries.


No comment

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David Shields

Biopic: spit-shined, streamlined narrative; caricature as character; hyper-fake as a way to get at essence of real–exactly reminiscent in all these ways of porn.


David Shields

The lives in memoirs often have clean lines, like touched-up photographs. They glow in the dark. Does the pursuit of dramatic effects enhance the truth or bend it?


David Shields

The Fun Effects feature included with Kodak's EasyShare software can make people in photos appear at once lifelike and, somehow, larger than life–which is all we want from art: reality, mysteriously deepened.


McElwee, Cineaste interview

What does it mean to set another person before the camera, trying to extract something of his or her soul? When are we exploiting? When are we caressing? Are they the same? Maybe it's impossible not to do both. Maybe that's the truth of human relationships.


David Shields

Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

I could go on about this forever.