My encounter with David Shields’s Reality Hunger continues. Two days ago, Jed Lipinski interviewed me for Salon. He had just read Shields, and I said I was dipping into it. “Well then you know,” Jed said, “that he uses you.” Or maybe Jed said “stole” from me. These are not the hoary words you thought they were, this “use,’ and this “stole.” They’re at the heart of the Shields manifesto. This is because he thinks that there is no such thing as plagiarism and that appropriation is good because “Who owns the words?…We do–all of us.” The idea that no writer owns their work strikes me as the most self-hating pose a writer has ever taken.
But he does. And he hates narrative, and he hates novels. So, his book is a string of numbered paragraphs each containing a morsel of insight, observation, argument. On the back cover Jonathan Raban calls what Shields does “argufying.” I love that coinage, one which he acknowledges he borrowed from William Empson. Should Empson, who is dead, be paid for whenever he is quoted? No, that’s ridiculous, so there’s a scintilla of rightness inherent in Shields’s points.
He didn’t want to, but Knopf’s legal team insisted he footnote the observations, because in the body of the text the paragraphs look as if he came up with them. Exactly ten of Shields’s 618 arguments come from me. I wrote them back in 2002 for The Washington Monthly. The piece was called “Almost Famous: The Rise of the Nobody Memoir,” and whenever you Google me, it is always one of the top five things to show. So today I compared what Shields lifted with what I wrote in the original essay. Number 45 in Shields is the following: “After Freud and Einstein unleashed their discoveries, the novel retreated from narrative, poetry retreated from rhyme, and art retreated from the representational into the abstract.” My essay’s paragraph went on to say, “But today, the novel is capacious; and novelists write narrative, stream of conscience, dreamscapes, magic.” Maybe Shields didn’t want to attribute because he knew he was changing the sense of the original words to suit his argument.