David Shields

By Derbyshire, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), March 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

David Shields


Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


Were you surprised by how much attention Reality Hunger, your previous book, received?

I was gratified and, on some level, bedazzled by the attention the book got. It was a relatively small academic book and I was surprised that trade publishers published it. My agent thought it would be published by a university press.

It generated some proper discussion, but the reason it did so was that the book got completely cartoonised as representing two positions, neither of which I hold--"the novel is dead" and "it's OK to steal stuff". That's not even the heart of the book. All the reviewers said, "This is all about him killing off the novel." I mentioned it five times.

This will sound terribly self-glorifying, but the line I quote to myself is Flaubert's--approximately: "The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it." This book was very threatening to a lot of people, which I took as extraordinarily high praise.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Reality Hunger raised interesting questions about genre-busting. Where would you place your new book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead?

So many of the things I talk about in Reality Hunger seem to be the things that The Thing About Life does--things like risk, contradiction, compression, mixing modes of attack from the memoristic gesture to data-crunching.

Why did these books come out in the reverse order in the US?

Someone pointed out that the order in which they came out here in the UK makes more sense. I argued strongly to the American publisher that Reality Hunger should come out first. They thought that The Thing About Life would have more appeal because it's on a broader topic; it's about mortality, rather than art. In fact, it makes sense the other way round: theory first and practice second.

You've said that the novels you like are those that almost cease to be novels.

Your basic well-made novel by Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen just bores me silly. They start with some notion that they're supposedly exploring--say, freedom, or the idea of overcorrection--to give the work a kind of literary glamour or intellectual prestige. I find that such works pay the merest lip-service to exploring ideas. …

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