David Shields: The Novel Is Dead; Long Live the Anti-Novel


SPEAKER 1: I love this
beginning of this videotape. It’s just wonderful. So, welcome to everyone. My name is Kathy Woodward. I’m director of the Simpson
Center for the Humanities. And it is my great pleasure to
see you all here this evening for this evening with
David Shields, who is our Katz
distinguished lecturer for this academic year,
coming from the UW faculty. From– oh–
approximately 2004 or so, it has been the custom of the
executive board of the Simpson Center to name a
UW faculty member as one of the Katz distinguished
lecturers for the year. And this year, the honor
goes to David Shields, whose work is acclaimed
around the world and also acclaimed in
my own household, where you can see this stack
of books that keeps getting higher and higher. And I have read them
all, and voraciously. Any of you know that the Katz
distinguish lectures, in fact, are our highest
tribute to work that is sustained and
important over a long time in the humanities– so our
most important tribute. And I think many of
you, but not all of you are going to know that Solomon
Katz was a faculty member here. He was a scholar of
Byzantine history. He was an admired and
beloved administrator as chair of the
Department of History, and as the dean of the
College of Arts and Sciences. And he also played many,
many other roles as well. The purpose of the lectures
is to honor his memory, and also to give
us an opportunity to come together as a public,
to be together, and bringing testimony to the importance
of the liberal arts and the sciences. I mention that
because, this year, there is a wonderful and
serendipitous happening that absolutely made me smile. All three of the
lectures for this year are members of Phi Beta Kappa. It just happened. And what’s wonderful about
that is that Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and, I dare say,
the most prestigious Honor Society in the United States. It was founded in 1776 at the
College of William and Mary. And it elects people to Phi
Beta Kappa in their junior and senior years. And the requirements for it are
very, very stringent, excellent work in academics, and
a breadth of knowledge, also, across the
arts and sciences– very important. So I’m very happy that this
academic year, the series that includes, also, Elantra Nelson,
and, in addition, Lorraine Destin– pick this up on your way out
if you didn’t get it coming in. The series is being
co-sponsored by our chapter here, at the University
of Washington. There are 268 chapters
around the country, in colleges and universities. And we have a very important
one at the University of Washington. In fact, it’s called
the Alpha Chapter. That’s because we were first. But even so– in the
state of Washington– even so, I love it. And I love the fact
that Norm Arkans, who is our Vice President for media
relations and communication, is leading Phi Beta Kappa. Norm– all right, thank you. And also, the lecture
series is being sponsored by our association of Phi
Beta Kappa, the Puget Sound association. And the president of
our association is– Linda– yes, Linda. Would you stand up please? Very important. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. The motto of– motto, I
don’t really like that word. But Phi Beta Kappa
means, translated, essentially, love of learning
is the guide of life. And I think it’s very important
that we gather together today under that mark, love of
learning is the guide of life. How important are
universities and colleges in the United States. I have two people to thank
at the Simpson Center, Erin Langner and also Jon Hiskes,
right there, our communications director, and Aaron, right
there, our program and events manager. And I have two people in the
Department of English to thank. That’s Brian Reed, who
unfortunately isn’t here today, our chair– and I say our chair
because I’m a faculty member in the Department of English– and then also
Jessica Burstein, who is going to introduce
David Shields to you. I want to say the inimitable– if I may say so– Jessica Burstein. And I want to simply add that– one small little thing– that Jessica’s been
teaching a micro-seminar, for our graduate students
in the humanities, on the subject of fashion– theories of fashion– in tandem
with the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the
Seattle Art Museum, which is a wonderful
community partnerships. So community, and publics,
and also, David shields. So, Jessica– thank you. [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 2: Unfortunately, they
did not give out free samples at the Yves Saint Laurent show. So I just threw this on. First, facts– he’s
written more than 20 books. He’s white. He’s won several Guggenheims. He likes sports. His work has been translated
into 20 languages and counting. He’s published pretty
much everywhere. There are several
upcoming films. And he’s a professor in
the English department at the University of Washington. But really, the first thing
to say about David Shields is that he is a contrarian. He likes to argue. He is so much a contrarian
that he may very well disagree with my
characterization of him as a contrarian. So here’s some evidence. One of his more recent
books is called, I Think You’re Totally Wrong. And it is structured
as a quarrel between two men, Shields and
his interlocutor Caleb Powell. You just saw a clip. That exchange between
self and other is at the heart of
something like a philosophy throughout Shield’s work. It is the repeated
push into the world of other people and
a recurrent return to reflect on how that
world has reshaped his own. In this way, I think Shield’s
work also has an ethics to it. The ethics are
about the necessity and repeated difficulty of
understanding other people. Here’s the title of
another forthcoming book. It is called Other People:
Takes and Mistakes. Other people are hard. And Shields knows this. He knows that we
mostly get them wrong. I wanted to quote
from the writer Philip Roth on this
point because I wanted to rile up
someone who is saying the novel is dead by quoting
from a great American novelist. But then I realized that Shields
had already used the quote and that he admires Philip Roth. So I am now going to quote
Shields, quoting Roth. Quote, “The fact remains
that getting people right is not what living
is all about anyway. It’s getting them
wrong that is living– getting them wrong,
and wrong, and wrong, and then, on careful
reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive– we’re wrong.” End quote. Difficulty, for Shields,
does not preclude necessity. The engagement with the self
and the engagement with others is hard. And it is necessary. We also see the desire
to argue with Shields having issued a manifesto, in
2010, that got a lot of people riled up and excited, rightly. His book, Reality
Hunger: A Manifesto, has become part of
the cultural lexicon, so much so that even the
aesthetically conservative book reviewer for The New Yorker
magazine, James Wood, referred to it a few weeks ago
just as a matter of course. He said, “there’s the
current literary propensity for reality hunger.” And I thank our colleague, Joe
Butwin, for pointing this out. Further evidence of Shields’s
propensity for disagreement is clear from the
title of today’s talk. He’s well-aware he’s suggesting
something that a lot of people would disagree with,
that the novel is dead, and that it’s time to
advocate for the anti novel. We’ll hear what that means. But I will note that,
structurally, he’s advocating for an art form that
is in an antagonistic relation to what a lot of people want. The title may be suggesting
that the novel is dead. But it’s vital that you realize
Shields is not a nihilist. He is a fierce believer. He is– and I say
this with admiration– an art monster. Moreover, he has great taste. And that is not something
to be taken lightly. One last thing– Shields’s his work
has an urgency to it, at both formal and
aesthetic levels. You see it in his love of
what’s called the Ponce, the writerly form that
privileges brief and punchy thought. But this urgency is also
an aesthetic one for him. I have noted Shields’s
propensity for argument. Rational dissent is
one of the achievements of American democracy. And we may be at a
moment in history when we need to think very
clearly and very noisily about the role of
art in our culture. Above all, Shields’s work
is testament to the fact that art is urgent. I give you, with
pleasure, David Shields. [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 3: Thank you,
Jessica, so so much. I feel weirdly,
nakedly comprehended. The only contradictions I
would say to what Jessica said is that Philip Roth isn’t
a great American novelist. And I definitely have that
won several Guggenheims. I don’t know what that would be. But thank you for that
incredibly beautiful summary of my work. I’m going to tweak
the title ever so slightly, to
“The Novel Is Dead: Long live the anti-novel.” And I forgot to mention, long
live the anti-novel built from scraps. That seems like an important
part to reemphasize. And this talk will be divided
into six little scraps. One is Creation
Myth, number one. The second one is
creation myth, number two. The third section we’ll
call Defining Collage. The fourth section
will be called Remix. The fifth section will be
called Examples of Collage. And the sixth and
final section is called, How Collage Can
And Will Save Your Life. So just to give you a
broad map of the six points I’ll try to get to tonight. Creation Myth, number one– I’m not a big believer in
major epiphanies, especially those that occur in the shower. But I had one. And it occurred in the shower. Working on “Handbook For
Drowning: A novel in stories,” I had the sudden intuition
that I could take various fragments of things– aborted stories, outtakes
from novels, journal entries, lit-crit, and build
a story out of them. I really had no idea what
the story would be about. I just knew I needed
to see what it would look like to set certain
shards in juxtaposition with other shards. Now, I have trouble
working any other way. But I can’t emphasize
enough how strange it felt at the time, 1992,
working in this modular mode. The initial hurdle, and
much the most important one, was being willing to follow
this inchoate intuition, yield to the prompting,
not fight it off, not retreat to the tried and true. I thought the story probably had
something to do with obsession. I wonder where I got that idea. Rummaging through
boxes of old papers, riffling through drawers
and computer files, crawling around on my hands and
knees on the living room floor, looking for bits
and pieces I thought might cohere if I could
just join them together. Visoring and taping
together paragraphs from previous projects,
moving them around in endless combinations,
completely rewriting some sections,
jettisoning others, I found a clipped, hard-bitten
tone entering the pieces. My work had never
been sweet, but this seemed harsher, sharper,
even a little hysterical. That tone is, in a sense,
the plot of the story. By the end, the reader,
feeling, I hope, the depth of my main
character’s solipsism, understands why the close
third-person narration is so acerbic. The short story
writer, Antonia Nelson, once said to me that she
thought in any work that comes together, the
writer had to get lucky, by which I took her to
mean that at least one more drawer of meaning has to open
up beneath the drawer you, the writer, thought
you were opening. I thought I was writing
a story about obsession. I was really writing
a story about the hell of obsessive ego. It was pretty revelatory
and exciting for me to see how part of
something I had originally written as an essay about James
Joyce’s novella, “The Dead,” could now be turned
sideways and used as the final bruising insight
into my alter ego’s psyche. All literary possibilities
opened up for me with this story, which
is called, “A Brief Survey of Ideal Desire.” The way my mind
thinks, everything is connected to
everything else, suddenly seem transportable
into my writing. I could play all the
roles I wanted to play– reporter, fantasist,
autobiographer, confessore, personal essayist,
comedian, critic. I could call on my strengths,
juxtaposition, and confession, and meditation,
hide my weaknesses, plot, and plot, and plot,
be as smart on the page as I wanted to be. I’d found a way to
write that seemed true to how I am in the world. That’s the end of
Creation Myth, number one. Creation Myth, number two– asked how he came to
write so seamlessly about the intersection of
personal and political lives. Milan Kundera said,
“It’s not hard when you go to the grocery store
and the cannon of a Soviet tank is wedged in the back window.” When I read Kundera’s
statement and wondered what if anything was
the American equivalent of the Soviet tank,
I was 30 years old, unemployed, broke, lying on my
father’s couch in an apartment in San Francisco, and watching
a performer on TV pretend to be having trouble juggling
knives while riding a unicycle. Actually he was in exquisite
control of both the unicycle and the knives. I loved how he
pretended not to be. I even started crying. And I realized that part
of what moved me to tears was that I was
watching this on TV. This was one more level
of distance and control, and that if I had been
watching him live, I almost certainly
wouldn’t have been moved anywhere nearly as much. That is, the degree
of removal was central to my
emotional engagement with the scene, which,
to me, was the answer to Kundera’s Soviet tank. The American equivalent
is or was the ubiquity of the camera, the immense
power of the camera lens on our lives, on my life,
on the way I think about life. Like here’s a camera right here. [LAUGHTER] SPEAKER 3: I resolved to write
a novel, my fourth, about this. And my model was Kundera’s
own “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in
which romantic love was the a prism through
which the dominant mythology of the culture, in his case,
the kitsch of communism, gets examined. I wanted to do something
similar with a married couple and American media
celebrity culture. I took notes on thousands
of color-coded three by five cards. I read innumerable books
by cultural critics from Theodor Adorno to
Mark Crispin Miller. I wrote many meditations
and reportorial rifs, which I thought I would
incorporate into my novel as Kundera incorporated
his digressions. In truth, those were the
only parts of his book that actually engaged me. I watched a staggering number
of other movies and TV shows, trying to chart my reactions
even as I was having them. And try though I might, for many
years, almost my entire 30s, I couldn’t work up the requisite
interest in the supposed warfare between the husband
and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend. I didn’t believe in it. Since my wife’s and my my
takes weren’t vastly dissimilar and any staged debate seemed
very staged, very debatable, I couldn’t bring myself
to give the two characters jobs, such as high school
English teacher and film critic for a provincial newspaper. I knew what our jobs were and
they weren’t fascinating fodder for fiction. I wasn’t interested in imaginary
beings friction vis-a-vis mass culture. I was interested in
my own ambivalence towards mass culture. My own failure of imagination? Sure. But as Virginia Woolf
said in a passage that I re-read dozens of
times in the fall of 1991, “The test of a
book to a writer is if it makes a space in
which, quite naturally, you can say what
you want to say.” This proves that a book is
alive because it has not crushed anything
I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it
in without any compression or alteration. A novel, for me, had become
nothing but compression and crushing alteration. Desperate, I even consider
asking a former student if I could purchase from her
some passages she had written. As ballast– I don’t know
if they’re going to fire me for that or what– as ballast for a ship I
couldn’t get out to sea. When I thought I would never be
able to write anything again, my daughter, Natalie, was born. And the physical
universe suddenly seemed unforgivably real. I newly knew that the
digressions were the book. The seeming digressions
were all connected. The book was everything
in front of me. The world is everything
that is the case. This book became
“Remote: Reflections on life in the
shadow of celebrity,” which was my Natalie moment. I’ve never touched
terra infirma again. Everything I’ve written
since has been collage from the French [? Collet ?] to
[? Glue. ?] By the late 1990s, my early 40s, I’d stopped
writing or reading much, if any, fiction. I was weary unto death of
teaching fiction writing. I would teach
standardly great stories and I would admire
them from afar and sometimes, students
would love the stories. But I had no real
passion anymore for, say, Joyce’s “The Dead.” I could see what made
Joyce’s story great, or good, or at least well made. But I had and have zero interest
in doing something similar. I was watching a lot of
self-reflexive documentary filmmakers by directors like
Ross McElwee and Errol Morris, reading a lot of
anthropological autobiography by writers like Renata
Adler and George WS Trow, listening to a lot
of stand-up comedy by people like Richard
Pryor and Rick Reynolds, and watching and listening
to a lot of performance art by people like Joe
Frank and Spalding Gray, and Sandra Bernard. This was the kind of work
that truly excited me. And there was a
radical disjunction between the books I was
pseudo-espousing in class and the books that I loved
reading outside of class and was trying to
write on my own. The teaching, the
falsity of the teaching forced me to confront, and
find, and define, and refine, and extend, my own aesthetic. It was thrilling. I once was lost
and now I am found. Now I’m lost again. But that’s another story, which
I’ll talk about a little later. I felt as if I were taking
money under false pretenses. So in order to
justify my existence to myself, my colleagues,
and my students, I developed a graduate seminar
in the self-reflexive gesture in personal essay
and documentary film. The course reader was an
enormous, unwieldy blue packet of hundreds upon hundreds of
statements about nonfiction, literary collage, lyric essay. That packet was my life raft. It was teaching me what it
was I was trying to write. Each year, the packet became
less unwieldy, less full of repetitions and
typographical errors, contained more of
my own writing, and I saw how I could
push the statements by myself and by other people
into rubrics or categories. All the material
about hip-hop would go into its own chapter, so too
the material about reality TV, memory, doubt, risk, genre,
the reality-based community, brevity, collage,
contradiction, doubt, etc. 26 chapters, 618 many sections,
all my book, “Reality Hunger” ever was to me
was that blue life raft, a manuscript in which
I was articulating to myself, my students, my peers, and
any fellow travelers who might want to come
along for the ride through the literary tradition
out of which I was writing. It wasn’t a novel and
it wasn’t a memoir. It was something else. It was the idea that all
great works of literature either dissolve a
genre or invent one. If you want to
write serious books, you must be ready
to break the forms. It’s a commonplace
that every book needs to find its own form,
but how many really do? As the South African
novelist, JM Coetzee has written about his
own work, “Nowhere do you get a feeling of a
writer deforming his own medium in order to say what has
never been said before,” which is, to me, the
mark of great writing. And here was the big
break, what Tony Nelson would call “getting lucky.” I realized how perfectly the
appropriated and remixed words embodied my argument. Just as I was arguing for
work that occupied a bleeding edge between genres, so
too I wanted the reader to experience, in my mash up,
the dubiety of the first person pronoun. I wanted the reader
to not quite be able to tell who was talking. Was it me, or Sonny Rollins,
or Emily Dickinson, or David Sawley, or weirdly, none of us
or all of us at the same time? Until that point, I hadn’t
thought a great deal about the degree to which the
book appropriated and remixed other people’s words. It seemed perfectly
natural to me. I love the work of a lot of
contemporary visual artists whose work is bound up with
appropriation, Richard Price, Gary Levine, Cindy Sherman,
Elaine [? Sturdivant, ?] Christian Marclay, Glen
[? Luguant. ?] And I’ve been listening to rap since
Grandmaster Flash in the late 1970s. Why in the world would
contemporary writing not be able to keep pace
with the other arts? Most readers of the
book, as intended, would have spotted
only a small percentage of the most
well-known quotations and suspected that a
lot of the paragraphs were quotations even when they
couldn’t quite place them. I’d come to regard my “I”
as a floating umbrella self, sheltering,
simultaneously, one voice and multiple voices. The possibility that
every word in the book might be a quotation and
not original the author could have arisen. The whole argument of
that version of the book was to put, quote, “reality”
within quadruple quotation marks. Reality isn’t straightforward
or easily accessible. It’s slippery, evasive. Just as authorship is
ambiguous, knowledge is dubious and truth is unknown, or at
the very least, relative. My publisher, Knopf, which is
a division of Penguin Random House, which is a
subset of Bertelsmann, a multinational,
multibillion-dollar corporation did not see it
quite the same way. I consulted numerous
copyright attorneys and I wrote many
impassioned emails to my editor and the Random
House legal department. At one point, I considered
withdrawing the book and printing it at Kinko’s,
now a subset of FedEx Office. Random House and I
worked out a compromise where there would be no
footnotes in the text but there would be an appendix
in the back with citations in very, very small type. If you’re over 50,
good luck reading it. Quite a few of the
citations are of the, “I can’t quite remember
where this is from” variety. The appendix is prefaced by
a disclaimer in which I say, I’m writing to regain
a freedom that writers from Montaigne to
Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. And I urge the reader to, quote,
“grab a sharp pair of scissors and remove the appendix along
the dotted vertical line. Stop, don’t read any further.” Some people seem to think I
was the Anti-Christ because I didn’t genuflect at the
twin altars of the novel and intellectual property. There’s a misnomer if
ever there was one. I became, briefly, the poster
boy for the death of the novel and the end of copyright– fine by me. Those have become something
close to my positions. The key thing for an
intellectually rigorous writer to come to grips with
is the marginalization of literature by more
technically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms. You can work within
these forms, or write about them, or through them,
or appropriate the strategy these forms use. But it’s not a very good idea
to go on writing in a vacuum. The novel was invented
to excess interiority. Now, most people communicate
through social media. And everyone I know under 30
has remarkably little notion of privacy. The novel is an artifact,
which is why antiquarians cling to it so fervently. Art, like science,
progresses, forms evolve. Forms are there to
serve the culture. And when they die, they
die for a good reason. So that’s the end
of that section. Not sure everybody
agrees with all of that. This next section is
called Defining Collage. I love literature, but not
because I love stories, per se. I find nearly all the moves the
traditional novel and memoir make 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 the 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 experience the excitement
that, in every paragraph, the writer is manifestly
exploring their subject. I’m not interested in
collage as the refuge of the compositionally disabled. I’m interested in
collage, instead, as an evolution
beyond narrative. Conventional fiction
memoir 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. All definitions of montage
share a common denominator. They all imply that meaning is
not inherent in any one shot, but is created by the
juxtaposition of many 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, emotional
as it was, hunger, grief, 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. A great painting comes
together just barely. 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. Momentum in literary mosaic
derives not from narrative, but the subtle progress
build-up of thematic resonances. Any opportunity
that a writer has to engage the reader intimately
in the act of creating the text is an opportunity to grab onto. White space does that. I don’t ever want to be bored. And I certainly don’t want
any of my readers to be bored. I’d much rather risk them
getting annoyed and frustrated than bored. The very nature of collage
demands fragmented materials, or at the 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, cannot 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. 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. Everything I write, I
believe, instinctively, is to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, is a
matter of adjacent data. So that’s the end
of that section. And couple of more
sections and we will slide toward inclusions. Let’s see, how am I
doing on time here? Let’s see. Are we fine on time? OK. The next section is
called appropriation. I’m not an anti-copyright
absolutist. I’m not the director
of Moonlight and don’t walk around
selling DVDS of that film with my name on it. There are three crucial terms
when it comes to fair use– when it comes to copyright. Fair use, you can quote
10% or less of a book or 250 words or fewer
from a shorter work. Public domain, you can
quote from Rudyard Kipling since he’s been dead
for more than 75 years. And most importantly,
transformation– in your appropriation
of another work, are you simply plagiarizing
or are you remaking it? This is where it gets harder
to define and most interesting. Immediately after I
had asked a student if she had copied a
passage from Wikipedia, she changed the Wikipedia
entry, erasing the evidence. Lawyers, servants of
late-market capitalism, want a bright line now. But in the history of art, there
has never been a bright line. The system of writing was
invented in isolation, at most four times. The first system of writing
was invented in Mesopotamia. The second might
have been in Egypt, but there’s a
compelling argument that the Mesopotamians
influenced the birth of the Egyptian writing system. The third was in China. And again, there’s debate
about whether the Mesopotamians influenced the Chinese. The fourth and only the
second undoubted instance was hundreds of years
later in meso-America, with the Mayan
civilization, which had no contact with Mesopotamia. Each of these between two
and four isolated inventions of writing systems was not some
lightning-strike invention. In each case it evolved
over many hundreds of years and was a collaboration
among whole societies, evolving and being modified
generation after generation, starting with a few
agreed upon symbols and expanding from there
as necessity dictated. None of these original
writing systems were, quote, copyrightable. The 21st century concept of
owning certain arrangements of words runs counter to 5,000
years of written language development. Every other alphabet and
writing system on the planet is an appropriation
of one or more of these original
two to four systems. The borrowing has been
with us from the beginning. Quote, “theft starts at
the extreme headwaters of the big, muddy river.” John Dominic Crossan’s
book, “The Historical Jesus” is painstakingly
researched and shows, in great detail, how the
New Testament is a mash-up of literally epic proportions. The gospels are pretty much
collages of many ancient texts, with the older ones
being from and rewritten in the newer ones. The New Testament
that people read today is a composite of
numerous sources. And in many cases, such
as the gospel of Mark, one ancient writer wrote over
the top of a previous one, tacking the whole
rising-from-the-dead ending onto a previous document that
ended without any such miracle. Shakespeare, quote,
“plundered” Arthur Brooke’s “The Tragical History
of Romeus and Juliet” for his play of
nearly the same name. Of the 6,000 lines in Henry
XI, parts 1 through 3, 4,000 are directly derived
from Holinshed’s Chronicles. And just recently
discovered or found out that Christopher Marlowe
probably co-wrote much of those three plays. Tchaikovsky’s 1812
Overture hijacks the French national anthem. Bella Bartok says,
“Stravinsky never mentions the sources of his themes. Neither in his titles
nor in footnotes does he ever allude to
whether a theme of his is his own invention or
whether it was taken over from folk music.” Stravinsky apparently takes
this course deliberately. He wants to demonstrate
that it doesn’t matter a jot whether a composer
invents his own themes or uses themes from elsewhere. He has a right to use
musical material taken from all sources. What he had judged
suitable for his purpose had become, through his very
use, his mental property. Ezra Pound’s, quote,
“Creative Translation,” homage to Sextus Propertius has
done more than any other book to keep alive the
poetry of Propertius. Some have criticized Pound’s,
quote, “errors,” while others understand that
Pound was playing cover versions of the Roman
poet and taking liberties as he saw fit. In the essay “Tradtion and
the Individual Talent,” TS Eliot discusses his theories
on influence and borrowing. The Waste Land, in many
ways the defining text of literary modernism, is
of course, composed almost entirely of literary
samples, references, conspicuous
assimilations, fragments to shore against his ruins. Aaron Copeland’s
“Applachian Spring” kidnaps the shaker
melody, simple yet– Marcel Duchamp didn’t conceive
“Fountain,” nor did he make it. A urinal was art
because he said it was. After Duchamp, what
is the nature of art? Christian Marclay’s “The
Clock” is a 24-hour long video, constructed of thousands
of film fragments in which a character
interacts, in some way, with a clock or a watch. As each new clip
appears, a new narrative is suggested, only to be swiftly
overtaken by another one. The video is synchronized
to the local time. At any moment, I can look at
the work and use it as my clock. There are amazingly
few different kinds of gestures available in the
repertoire of human behavior. And yet, there is a comfort that
at, say, 5 PM, for most people, it’s quitting time. Film, life itself, is an
incredibly melodramatic medium. The clock features
very, very few clips from comedy, which would
wreck the mood, which is our birth is our death begun. Many of the actors are now dead. Soon enough, I’ll join them
you too, dear listener. Seconds are ticking
away as I’m watching. I want to identify the clip. I exist, but the fragment
and my identification are almost immediately
overwhelmed by time, which always wins. When the medic function has
been replaced by manipulation of the original, art,
not to mention life, now seems to happen primarily in
liminal spaces, edited, quoted, and quoted again, and
recontextualized, replaced, collaged, stitched
together anew. Stitching together anew is
what I really care about. I’ll skip a section
which gives you examples of many examples of collage. I can give you– if
anyone’s interested, I have a sort of thing I
call, “Very partial reading list of my 150 favorite
books of literary collage.” And some examples which
I won’t go into tonight are Ross McElwee’s
film, “Sherman’s March,” Amy Fusselman’s
“The Pharmacist’s Mate,” Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets,” Sarah
Manguso’s “The Guardians,” Renata Adler’s
“Speedboat,” George WS Trow’s “Within The
Context of No Context”– anyway, many books
that are really lovely, powerful examples
of the kind of art that I find most exciting,
most relevant, and most pushing prose-forward. I’ll finish with the last
section called, How Collage Can And Will Save Your Life. We live in a culture
that’s completely mediated and artificial,
rendering us– me, anyway– you too– exceedingly distracted,
bored, and numb. Straightforward
fiction functions only as more bubble
wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel,
circa 2016, no longer germane, and the postmodern novel
shroud upon shroud? Most novels’ glacial
pace isn’t remotely controlling with the
speed of our lives and our consciousness
of those lives. Most novels’ explorations
of human behavior still owe far more to
Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive
science and genetic theory. Most novels still
treat setting as if where people now
live still matters to us as much as it did to Balzac. Most novels still
frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments
straight out of John Ford. And above all, the tidy
coherence of most novels– highly praised ones
in particular– implies a belief in an
orchestrating deity or at least a purposeful meaning to
existence that the author is very unlikely to possess,
and belies the chaos and the entropy that surround,
and inhabit, and overwhelm us. I want work possessing
as thin a membrane as possible between life
and art, or grounds the question of how the
writer has tried to solve the question of being alive. A book should either allow
us to escape existence or teach us how to
endure existence. Acutely aware of our
mortal condition, I find books that simply
allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time. Literature matters so much to
me that I can hardly stand it. A student in my class, feeling
self-conscious about being much older than
the other student, told me he had been in prison. I asked him what crime he
had committed and he said, shot a dude. He wrote a series of very
good, but very stoic stories about prison life. And when I asked him why the
stories were so tight-lipped, he explained to me the
jailhouse concept of, quote, doing your own time. Which means that when
you’re a prisoner, you’re not supposed to
burden the other prisoners by complaining about
your incarceration, or regretting what you’d done,
or especially claiming you had done it. “Do your own time.” It’s a seductive
slogan, isn’t it? I find I quote it to
myself frequently. But really, I don’t
subscribe to the sentiment. I’m not, after all, in prison. Stoicism is of no
use to me whatsoever. What I’m a big believer in
is talking about everything until you’re blue in the face. 25 years ago, Caleb Powell
was my undergraduate writing student. We’ve stayed in touch. I’ve read and critique
his novels and stories. A stay at home dad
to three young girls and freelance journalist, he’s
interviewed me occasionally when a new book came
out, and invariably reviewed it pejoratively. We disagree about
nearly everything. Caleb wanted to become an artist
but he over-committed to life. I wanted to become
a human being, but I over-committed to art. He’s one of the most contrary,
contentious, confrontational, quarrelsome people
I’ve ever met. I like how he questions
nearly everything I say. A couple of years ago,
we spent a long week together in a mountain cabin,
recording all our conversation. We played chess, shot hoops,
hiked to lakes in an abandoned mine, dined at a small town
cafe, relaxed in the hot tub, watched films that featured only
two actors locked in struggle– [LAUGHTER] SPEAKER 3: –argued
about a multitude of topics, Michael
Moore, moral placebos, my high-pitched
voice, Jewishness, transgender fellatio, artistic
jealousy, David Foster Wallace, the semi-colon, Albert
Camus, DJ Spooky, our respective families,
Cambodia, racism, capital punishment,
inevitably circling back to our central theme
of life and art. We went at it hammer and tongs. In our self-consciousness,
we couldn’t help but act naturally. Two egos tried to
undermine each other. Our personalities
overlapped and collapsed. There was no teacher, no
student, no interviewer, no interviewee, only a
chasm of uncertainty. We turned that uncertainty
into a book and then a film, which you saw
glimpses of before. And I think they’ll be
showing glimpses of afterward. Taking our initial
500,000 word transcript and constructing an argument
out of it, a through line, I love the collage
nature of this project, which is a perfect expression
of my literary aesthetic. And I’d even go so
far as to say it’s an apt metaphor for any
writer’s artistic process. When you’re dealing with such
a massive amount of material, you perforce ask
yourself, isn’t this what writing is
more or less, taking the raw data of the world
and editing it, framing it, thematizing it, running your
voice and vision over it? What you’re doing is just
as much an act of writing, in a way, as it is
an act of editing. Multiply 500,000 by
a very large number– a trillion, say– and you
have the whole of a person’s experience, thoughts, anecdotes,
misremembered song lyrics, etc, which he or she
then edits into art. I no longer believe
in great man speaks. I no longer believe in
great man alone in a room, writing a masterpiece. I believe in art
as pathology lab, as landfill, as recycling
station, as death sentence, as aborted suicide note,
as lunge at redemption. Your art is most
alive and dangerous when you use it
against yourself. When I told my friend
Michael the title of my then forthcoming book,
“How Literature Saved My Life,” he said, literature never
saved anybody’s life. It has saved mine,
just barely, I think. I wanted literary collage
to assuage human loneliness. But nothing can assuage
human loneliness. Literature does not
lie about this, which is what makes it necessary. [APPLAUSE] Well, I think
that’s a standard– I think that’s not a cheap shot. And I’ve given versions
of this lecture before. And when my book reality
hunger was published in 2010, people say, well, you have
all of these fancy notions about copyright,
but you yourself are making money or
something out of the book. And I think people think
that’s a sort of gotcha moment, that you [AUDIO OUT] fast
and loose with copyright, but my books are copyrighted. I mean, my argument is more
subtle than just simply saying, I’m against copyright. When you appropriate
someone else’s work, as Christian Marclay does in his
remarkable 24-hour-long film, [AUDIO OUT] things are, have
you taken as brief a clip from [AUDIO OUT]
work as possible? Are you making some
kind of commentary– that is to say, are
you transforming it? And can the so-called average
reader or average viewer perceive the argument
you’re making? So I’m in that
interesting gray space in which I’m trying to
argue for the excitement of that literary gesture,
which goes all the way back to ancient [AUDIO OUT] Rome. We’re in a very confused
trial-by-Google time now. Where in our
incredibly litigious, incredibly literal-minded,
hyper-digitized world, in which we’re
endlessly saying, this– [AUDIO OUT] seven words from
some World War I nurse’s journal. And that makes
[AUDIO OUT] for her work incredibly problematic. My stance is actually
an old-fashioned one, where I’m trying to recover
for contemporary writing what writers and creators
have done for millennia. So yes, my work tends
to be copyrighted. I constantly find on the web
stolen documents of my books– and never complain. You know, that’s
totally fine by me. When professors want to
use my work in class, I always say, by
all means, use it. Don’t pay me some nominal fee. Sometimes people think they’re
doing something terrible– like when “Reality
Hunger” was published, someone typed up
the book and put it on the web for free,
thinking [AUDIO OUT] terribly embarrassed
or something. And I was completely
fine with that. To me, art’s a conversation. And one wants to continue
the conversation forward. So I appreciate
the gotcha impulse. And I think if I were
a copyright absolutist, as this whole group that some
of you may no doubt call, a copyleft, in which they’re
arguing against copyright– they have an absolute
abhorrence of copyright. And I’m not that far on
the copyright spectrum. [AUDIO OUT] SPEAKER 3: I know. [INAUDIBLE] That’s
a fascinating– that’s a Gotcha one. Because I so love collage, that
if my beloved little form dies, I’ll be terribly crestfallen. But I think your
point’s really good. And again, collage
is something I find that speaks [AUDIO OUT]
our contemporary [AUDIO OUT] all kinds of pretty
obvious ways. But in a way, it has
ancient roots to [AUDIO OUT] Paracletus’ fragments to
[? Haskell’s ?] [? Ponces, ?] to any number of works
from many centuries ago. And I think collage has
lasted at least 1,000 years. But I think your
point’s really good, that just because, maybe right
now, literary mosaic seems to be having a particular
[AUDIO OUT] reason that as we evolve,
or devolve, or change as people, that [AUDIO OUT]
will speak [AUDIO OUT] perhaps less [AUDIO OUT] 100 years has. That’s certainly possible. Exactly. Maybe the– yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I’m just trying– Yeah, I mean, I’m just trying
to be alive and not bored now, and trying to
shake up my writing life, and readers’ lives,
and fellow writers’ life. And [AUDIO OUT] is sort
of an easy gesture. But I guess everyone’s very
aware of the [AUDIO OUT] election that just past. And I guess there’s
a glib tendency to connect every
little happenstance to [AUDIO OUT] election. But one could argue– I haven’t sort of
thought this through. But one could argue
[AUDIO OUT] that, in a sense, you could argue that Hillary
Clinton was, in a sense, [AUDIO OUT] relatively
conventional 19th-century novel. And it felt a little
old-fashioned. And Trump, for all of his
grotesqueries, kinda got– [AUDIO OUT] could one say that
he kind of [AUDIO OUT] part of his strategy is that he’s
sort of a post-human being. And so– [LAUGHTER] SPEAKER 3: Where I think
Hillary, in a sense, one could argue, was
kind of producing an old fashioned narrative. And he understood that
the culture changes virtually second by second. [AUDIO OUT] I want to
go with [AUDIO OUT]. AUDIENCE: Seemed
to me that Trump– [AUDIO OUT] SPEAKER 3: Well, sure. I mean that, I think most
would agree with that. But we’re also talking about
cut-and-paste methodology. I mean, this is not a
political science seminar. But anyway, your
point is well taken. We could argue about
that or we can agree. But I was just
saying as a mini p.s. that– anyway. I’m not sure if
your point speaks to what I was saying, but– [INTERPOSING VOICES] [AUDIO OUT] SPEAKER 3: That’s fair, Chris. I mean, I think that there
are many works of literature collage which are
indeed novelistic. Whether it’s–
Moby Dick, I think, was essentially a collage work. And in a way, there’s
a slight sense in which I’m of phrasing
it as a slight paper tiger– the conventional
novel, sort of an easy target. And I think still,
if you take a plane and you’re flying
from here to Boston, most people on that
plane are going to be reading a kind
of conventional novel. So I think there are plenty
of amazing works of collage fiction, whether Marguerite
Duras’s “The Lover,” WG Sebald’s “The Immigrants”– many of the books I was going
to talk about blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. And sometimes,
they’re called novels. Sometimes they’re called books. Sometimes they’re
called literature. Sometimes they’re
called nonfiction. And I don’t really care
what they’re called. For instance, Sebald’s
“The Immigrants” was published here
as a novel and was published in Germany and the
UK [AUDIO OUT] as a book. So– [AUDIO OUT] I’m trying to think
of what to say. I mean, I think it’s
a very good point that there’s a sense in which– I’m sorry, Heather, I
didn’t mean to cut you off– AUDIENCE: No, no. I couldn’t find the word– SPEAKER 3: But I think– AUDIENCE: Those of
you who don’t know– [AUDIO OUT] SPEAKER 3: But I think– I think it’s something
I’m trying to work through that, in a sense,
I feel a little bit weary of my own tendency
maybe to [AUDIO OUT] scapegoat the conventional novel. I think it still
holds a huge purchase on contemporary imagination. I think that the writers
from Horace to [AUDIO OUT] have tried to [AUDIO OUT] that
try to push to form forward. And I think there’s a sense
[AUDIO OUT] I probably shout fire in a crowded
theater, a little bit, to try to make sure my
argument gets heard. And I think people said, why
didn’t [AUDIO OUT] that when I published “Reality
Hunger,” why didn’t I just publish this quiet little
book praising the lyric essay? Or why in the back
of the book was he so reluctant to
[AUDIO OUT] citations. Well, you know it’s important
to me that the book be heard. Part of my– there’s
that wonderful line by John Casey who
says, what does it take to make a good writer. And he says, you have
to be willing to tell the absolute truth [AUDIO OUT]
low-vaudeville cunning. And I think, unfortunately,
I do have both. I’m interested in telling
the absolute truth. But I think, for
better or worse, I do have
low-vaudeville cunning. And so, I think I’m trying to
develop an argument that gains traction. [AUDIO OUT] all of
this is bad form. But I’m less interested
in wagging a boring finger at the novel, per se,
and urging myself, and my fellow writers,
and my fellow readers, and my students,
and my colleagues to write work that is
investigative rather than entertaining. And it’s the moment almost you
cling to [AUDIO OUT] of genre, things get really
boring, really quickly. I think– your
point is well taken. Oftentimes, when
I give this talk or some version of the
talk, poets kind of say, where’s the problem? I don’t even see where
the controversy is. In a way, all I’m
trying to are you for, in the realm of nonfiction,
are precisely the liberties that the lyric poem has. For instance, when
we read a poem by Emily Dickinson, or Walt
Whitman, or by Sylvia Plath, we don’t worry if it’s actually
true [AUDIO OUT] of speaker. It’s an [AUDIO OUT]
and I. And we’re talking about how profoundly
has the speaker [AUDIO OUT] their truth. And in a way, so
much of my argument is to try to make claims
[AUDIO OUT] always made. That is to say, there’s
this very odd convention with poetic
nonfiction that one– I don’t if you could tell but,
many of the lines from my talk were purloined
from other people. I didn’t always cite them. So for instance, [AUDIO OUT]
great painting [AUDIO OUT] this had been [AUDIO OUT]
novel, James Joyce’s [AUDIO OUT] nothing but a
tissue, quotes and references. Somehow– [AUDIO OUT]
refine the genre downward toward either [AUDIO OUT]
or journalism. And I’m trying to rescue that
nonfiction frame and break that frame apart, and use the from
[AUDIO OUT] off which to– [AUDIO OUT] topical questions. What’s true? What’s real? What’s the self? How much can one self
know about another self? So, so much of what
I’m interested in is trying to [AUDIO OUT]
make the form of nonfiction reverberate. [LAUGHTER] Well now, this fella
had a question– Oh, SPEAKER 1: Oh, okay. But that was perfect– the contrary nature of it. [APPLAUSE]

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