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

L - collage


James Joyce

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.


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

If you grow up not with toys bought in the shop but things that are found around the farm, you do a sort of bricolage. Bits of string and wood. Making all sorts of things, like webs across the legs of a chair. And then you sit there, like the spider. The urge to connect bits that don't seem to belong together has fascinated me all my life.


Donald Kuspit, "Collage: The Organizing Principle of Art in the Age of the Relativity of Art," in Relativism in the Arts, ed. Betty Jean Craige

Collage is a demonstration of the many becoming the one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many that continue to impinge upon it.


Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they're actually chaotic and opaque. There's no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances. There's no internal spectator of a Cartesian theater in our heads to applaud the march of consciousness across its stage.



Collage's parts always seem to be competing for a place in some unfinished scene.


Ronald Sukenick, Out

The law of mosaics: how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes.


David Shields

Resolution and conclusion are inherent in a plot-driven narrative.


Lance Olsen, 10:01

Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though–standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night–flies at us in bright splinters.


M. H. Abrams and Jack Stillinger, eds., John Stuart Mill: Autobiography and Literary Essays

Coleridge conceives God's creation to be a continuing process, which has an analogy in the creative perception (primary imagination) of all human minds. The creative process is repeated, or "echoed," on still a third level by the "secondary imagination" of the poet, which dissolves the products of primary perception in order to shape them into a new and unified creation–the imaginative passage or poem. "Fancy," on the other hand, can only manipulate "fixities and definites" that, linked by association, come to it ready-made from perception. Its products, therefore, are not re-creations (echoes of God's original creative process) but mosaic-like reassemblies of existing bits and pieces.


David Shields

Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesn't.


David Shields

If I'm reading a book and it seems truly interesting, I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of progress.


Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

I have a narrative, but you will be put to it to find it.


David Shields

The absence of plot leaves the reader room to think about other things.


David Shields

With relatively few exceptions, the novel sacrifices too much, for me, on the altar of plot.


Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

Plots are for dead people.


David Shields

The novel is dead. Long live the antinovel, built from scraps.


David Shields

I'm not interested in collage as the refuge of the composition-ally disabled. I'm interested in collage as (to be honest) an evolution beyond narrative.


Thomas Sobchack and Vivian Carol Sobchack, An Introduction to Film

All definitions of montage have a common denominator; they all imply that meaning is not inherent in any one shot but is created by the juxtaposition of shots. Lev Kuleshov, an early Russian filmmaker, intercut images of an actor's expressionless face with images of a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a child with a toy. Viewers of the film praised the actor's performance; they saw in his face (emotionless as it was) hunger, grief, and affection. They saw, in other words, what was not really there in the separate images. Meaning and emotion were created not by the content of the individual images but by the relationship of the images to one another.


David Shields

Everything I write, I believe instinctively, is to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, is a matter of adjacent data.


David Shields

Renata Adler's collage novel Speedboat captivates by its jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone and voice. She confides, reflects, tells a story, aphorizes, undercuts the aphorism, then undercuts that. If she's cryptic in one paragraph, she's clear in the next. She changes subjects like a brilliant schizophrenic, making irrational sense. She's intimate: bed talk uninhibited by conventions. Ideas, experiences, and emotions are inseparable. I don't know what she'll say next. She tantalizes by being simultaneously daring and elusive. The book builds: images recur, ideas are interwoven, names reappear. Paragraphs are miniature stories. She's always present, teasing things apart, but not from a distance. There's very little that's abstract. I can feel her breathe. "The point has never quite been entrusted to me," she says, and so we must keep reading, for we know there will be another way of looking at everything. In many ways the book has suspense and momentum. She's promising us something; something is around the corner. How long can she go on this way? I don't know, but timing is everything. She has to quit before we do and still give an oblique, sly sense of closure, of satisfaction. You can see her working hard on that in the last paragraph.



A great painting comes together, just barely.


Sounds to David Shields like Julian Schnabel, but that might just be because of the broken dishes.

A mosaic, made out of broken dishes, makes no attempt to hide the fact that it's made out of broken dishes, in fact flaunts it.


David Shields

Momentum, in literary mosaic, derives not from narrative but from the subtle, progressive buildup of thematic resonances.


Charlie Parker

I look at melody as rhythm.


Walter Pater, The Renaissance

All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.


Nicholson Baker, U and I

I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers–the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally reveals not blank mass but unlooked-for seepage points of passage.


Sven Birkerts, American Energies

–the shapely swirl of energy holding shattered fragments in place, but only just.


Nina Michelson, "Silence and Music," unpublished manuscript

Collage is pieces of other things. Their edges don't meet.


Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy

Found objects, chance creations, ready-mades (mass-produced items promoted into art objects, such as Duchamp's "Fountain"–urinal as sculpture) abolish the separation between art and life. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen.


Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy

You don't make art; you find it.


Nina Michelson, "Silence and Music," unpublished manuscript

The main question collage artists face: you've found some interesting material–how do you go about arranging it?


Nina Michelson, "Silence and Music," unpublished manuscript

The question isn't What do you look at? but What do you see?


Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy

–plunged into a world of complete happiness in which every triviality becomes imbued with significance.


Thomas Lux, "Triptych, Middle Panel Burning"

–the singular obsessions endlessly revised.


Deborah Eisenberg, quoted in Frank Conroy, "Angela's Second Boy," New York Times

The task is not primarily to have a story, but to penetrate the story, to discard the elements of it that are merely shell, or husk, that give apparent form to the story, but actually obscure the essence. In other words, the problem is to transcend the givens of a narrative.


David Shields

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters' names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It's not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I'm drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that's focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always "about what they're about"–which may sound a tad tautological–but when I read a book that I really love, I'm excited because I can feel the writer's excitement that in every paragraph he's manifestly exploring his subject.


Nina Michelson, "Silence and Music," unpublished manuscript

As a moon rocket ascends, different stages of the engine do what they must to accelerate the capsule. Each stage of the engine is, successively, jettisoned until only the capsule is left with the astronauts on its way to the moon. In linear fiction, the whole structure is accelerating toward the epiphanic moment, and certainly the parts are necessary for the final experience, but I still feel that the writer and the reader can jettison the pages leading to the epiphany. They serve a purpose and then fall into the Pacific Ocean, so I'm left with Gabriel Conroy and his falling faintly, faintly falling, and I'm heading to the moon in the capsule, but the rest of the story has fallen away. In collage, every fragment is a capsule: I'm on my way to the moon on every page.


Nina Michelson, "Silence and Music," unpublished manuscript

The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement (albeit one that, due to its variegated source material, can't be edited into the smooth, traditional whole that a work of complete fiction could be). The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument.


David Shields

Thomas Jefferson went through the New Testament and removed all the miracles, leaving only the teachings. Take a source, extract what appeals to you, discard the rest. Such an act of editorship is bound to reflect something of the individual doing the editing: a plaster cast of an aesthetic–not the actual thing, but the imprint of it.


David Shields

–the transformation, through framing, of outtakes into totems.


Walter Benjamin

This project must raise the art of quoting without quotation marks to the very highest level. Its theory is intimately linked to that of montage.



I hate quotations.


Olsen, "Notes Toward the Musicality of Creative Disjunction," Symploke

In collage, writing is stripped of the pretense of originality and appears as a practice of mediation, of selection and contextualization, a practice, almost, of reading.



Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest so rare and insignificant–and this commonly on the ground of other reading and hearing–that in large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. It is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.


First sentence: Emerson; the rest: Goethe

Our country, customs, laws, our ambitions, and our notions of fit and fair–all these we never made; we found them ready-made; we but quote from them. What would remain to me if this art of appropriation were derogatory to genius? Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand things; wise and foolish have brought me, without suspecting it, the offering of their thoughts, faculties, and experience. My work is an aggregation of beings taken from the whole of nature. It bears the name of Goethe.


Walter Murch, quoted in Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch, The Conversations

There are two kinds of filmmaking: Hitchcock's (the film is complete in the director's mind) and Coppola's (which thrives on process). For Hitchcock, any variation from the complete internal idea is seen as a defect. The perfection already exists. Coppola's approach is to harvest the random elements that the process throws up, things that were not in his mind when he began.


Theodor Adorno

The usual reproach against the essay, that it is fragmentary and random, itself assumes the givenness of totality and suggests that man is in control of this totality. The desire of the essay, though, is not to filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.


David Markson, Reader's Block

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. As is already more than self-evident.


David Shields

The problem of scale is interesting. How long will the reader stay engaged? I don't mean stay dutifully but stay charmed, seduced, and beguiled. Robbe-Grillet's Ghosts in the Mirror, which he calls a romanesque, is a quasi-memoir with philosophical reflections, intimate flashes, and personal addresses to the reader. About this length, I think: 174 pages.


David Shields

You don't need a story. The question is How long do you not need a story?


Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Nothing is going to happen in this book.


Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.


International Museum of Collage, Assemblage, and Construction (

By incorporating materials that are inextricably linked to the realities of daily life, the collage artist establishes an immediate identification, both real and imagined, between the viewer and the work of art.


Gopnik, "What Comes Naturally," New Yorker

It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity–expressed in genuine awkwardness, or in an authentic disorder.


D'Agata, interviewed by Carey Smith, Collision

Any opportunity that a writer has to engage the reader intimately in the act of creating the text is an opportunity to grab on to. White space does that. I don't ever want to be bored, and I certainly don't ever want any of my readers to be bored. I'd much rather risk them getting annoyed and frustrated than bored.


David Shields

The gaps between paragraphs = the gaps between people (content tests form).


First sentence: Eliot, The Waste Land

These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave. Eduardo Galeano's The Book of Embraces. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing.


Robert Dana, interviewed by Lowell Jaeger, Poets & Writers Magazine

The grandfather clock is the reflection of its historical period, when time was orderly and slow. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. It stood there in the front hall in its great, carven case, with a pendulum like the sun or the moon. There was something monumental and solid about time. By the 1930s and '40s, wristwatches were neurotic and talked very fast–tick-tick-tick-tick–with a second hand going around. Next, we had liquid-crystal watches that didn't show any time at all until you pressed a button. When you took your finger off, time disappeared. Now, no one wears a watch; your phone has the time.


Ben Marcus, "The Genre Artist," Believer

If fiction has a main theme, a primary character, an occupation, a methodology, a criterion, a standard, a purpose (is there anything left for fiction to have?), it is time itself. One basic meaning of narrative: to create time where there was none. A fiction writer who tells stories is a maker of time. Not liking a story might be akin to not believing in its depiction of time. To the writer searching for the obstacle to surpass, time would look plenty worthy a hurdle. If something must be overcome, ruined, subverted in order for fiction to stay matterful (yes, maybe the metaphor of progress in literary art is pretentious and tired at this point (there's time again, aging what was once such a fine idea)), then time would be the thing to beat, the thing fiction seemingly cannot do without and, therefore, to grow or change, must. Time must die.


David Shields

Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more or less than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I've ever wanted.


Ellen Bryant Voigt, "Narrative and Lyric," Southern Review

Stephen Dobyns says that every lyric poem implies a narrative, but the lyric poet might just as easily reply that every narrative poem obscures a lyric. The man in the restaurant crushing a wineglass in his hand acts out an emotional complex not wholly explained by a hard day at the office, or being cheated in the taxi, or what his companion just said. If the narrative writer is instinctively curious about the individuating "story," the distinct sequence of events preceding that broken glass, the lyric poet may be as naturally drawn to the isolated human moment of frustration–the distilled, indelible peak on the emotional chart.


Elvis Mitchell, "Fast Food, Fast Women," New York Times

In Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann takes the most thrilling moments in a movie musical–the seconds before the actors are about to burst into song and dance, when every breath they take is heightened–and makes an entire picture of such pinnacles.


David Shields

When plot shapes a narrative, it's like knitting a scarf. You have this long piece of string and many choices about how to knit, but we understand a sequence is involved, a beginning and an end, with one part of the weave very logically and sequentially connected to the next. You can figure out where the beginning is and where the last stitch is cast off. Webs look orderly, too, but unless you watch the spider weaving, you'll never know where it started. It could be attached to branches or table legs or eaves in six or eight places. You won't know the sequence in which the different cells were spun and attached to one another. You have to decide for yourself how to read its patterning, but if you pluck it at any point, the entire web will vibrate.