March 14, 2010

Reality bytes

'We live in a completely artificial culture,' says author David Shields, who in 618 short statements posits how 'reality' so often isn't.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)


DAVID SHIELDS, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Robinson Reading Room, Miller Library, Colby College, Waterville.

A: The work I seem to love the most probably takes place between the fictional and the factual. I would be very wary of any too-easy, black-and-white distinction between fact and fiction. The things I seem to like is work that acknowledges the uncertainty principle. The works that I find trustworthy and candid are those works that acknowledge their own subjectivity.

Q: One of the most interesting sentences in your book is this one: "Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any." Does that begin to explain the popularity of reality TV and made-for-tabloid news stories that increasingly pass as legitimate, important news?

A: To me, that's maybe the crucial line of the book. That line gets quoted a lot. That's it. I don't know if I can improve on that. That paradox is very moving to me. We experience hardly any reality, and ironically we are obsessed with reality TV, etc., because we are trying to get to the real. But the way culture is built, it seems like this tragic-comical wild goose chase. We will never get to the real. Watching reality TV is preposterous. People want complete drama, but tell themselves they want something real. There is something heartbreaking and tragic about wanting reality fed through a cathode ray tube. 

Q: You observe that painting isn't dead, nor is the novel. But neither is central to our culture anymore. In your opinion, what has taken their place? What is central to our culture these days?

A: Well, I guess in my fantasies, this book would trigger a revitalized literary aspect. What is central to the culture? Well, it's not the novel. It's not the painting. Not even particularly music, it seems to me. It's probably obvious. I'm just very aware that attention deficit disorder is the form that dominates us. YouTube, Twitter, et al. We live through these little manufactured crises of whose wardrobe just malfunctioned. Obviously, TV, film, Twitter and YouTube seem to have the culture's attention right now.

Q: Am I correct in understanding that you have a book about J.D. Salinger coming out?

A: I do. I signed a confidentiality agreement, so I cannot talk about it. A little bit of information has gotten out about it, so I can say that I have spent much of the last five years writing and researching the book. Information about the book should be out extremely shortly. I hope you allow me to zip my tongue a bit until then. 

Q: How has your current book been received?

A: It's gotten an awful lot of discussion. Some people really love the book, and some people are pushing back against it. I would be naive to expect anything else. It's called a manifesto, which are fighting words. I feel like the galleys for this book have been out a long time, and I feel, "Let the fireworks begin." That's my feeling. This book has generated an awful lot of discussion and a lot of heat, and that is all I could possibly ask for. 

Q: How are your talks going? What is the format?

A: I tend to give a 35- or 40-minute talk and then open it up to questions. I am just starting them, and the first few that I have done are in Seattle, where I live. So they have been relatively friendly. I try to engage people when I give a talk. It's not a dry reading. I open it up for discussion, and people push back, and that's what I want. What's the line? "You never learn anything when you are talking?" So I want to hear what people have to say. I encourage people to bring their best arguments. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:


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