Essays and Notable Articles

Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps

By posted at 6:14 am on May 17, 2010 68

Both of my parents were journalists. My mini-rebellion was to become a fiction writer. I wrote three novels, but trying to write my fourth, I couldn’t commit the requisite resources to character and scene and plot—apparently, pretty important elements of a novel. This book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, became a literary collage, and that was my Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. I’ve never touched terra firma again. All of my books since have been literary collage.

I love literature, but I don’t love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition.

We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent.

Twenty years ago I was hired by the University of Washington creative writing program to teach fiction. However, by the mid-1990s I had stopped writing or reading much if any fiction. I felt after a while as if I were taking money under slightly false pretenses, so in order to justify my existence to myself, my colleagues, and my students, about ten years ago I developed a course in the self-reflexive gesture in 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 course packet was my life raft: it was teaching me what it was I was trying to write.

coverEach year, the course packet became less unwieldy, less full of repetitions and typographical errors, contained more and more of my own writing, and I saw how I could push the statements—by me and by others—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. Twenty-six chapters; 618 mini-sections. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has created quite a lot of controversy, so this may sound disingenuous on my part, or falsely ingenuous, but all the book really ever was to me was that blue-binder life-raft: it was a book in which I was articulating for myself, and my students, and my peers, and any fellow-travelers who might want to come along for the ride, the aesthetic tradition out of which I was writing. It wasn’t the novel. And it wasn’t memoir. It was something else. Hard to define, but it had to do with 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?

And here was the big break: I realized how perfectly the appropriated and remixed words embodied my argument: just as I was arguing for work that occupied a liminal space 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 able to tell who was talking—was it me or Sonny Rollins or Emerson or Nietzsche or Frank Rich or, weirdly, none of us or all of us at the same time?

Until that point, I never 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 Prince, Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol. And I’ve been listening to rap for thirty years. Why in the world would contemporary writing not be able to keep pace with the other arts? My publisher, Knopf, which is a division of Random House, which is a subset of Bertelsmann, a multinational, mutli-billion-dollar corporation, didn’t quite see it the same way. I consulted numerous copyright attorneys, and I wrote many impassioned memos to my editor and the Random House legal department. At one point, I considered publishing the book on my own. Random House and I worked out a compromise whereby there would be no citations throughout the text, but there would be an appendix in the back with citations in very, very small type (if you’re over fifty, good luck reading it). I received permissions from everyone I quoted, including many whose work fell well within fair use.  Quite a few of the citations are of the “I can’t quite remember where this is from, though it sounds like fourth-generation Sartre; endless is the search for truth” variety. The appendix is prefaced by a disclaimer in which I explain that “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 “grab a sharp pair of scissors and remove the appendix along the dotted vertical line. . . . Stop; don’t read any farther.”

Numerous bloggers appear to think I’m the anti-Christ because I don’t genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property (there’s a misnomer if ever there was one).  I’ve become 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. However, when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.”

My literary sea was frozen, and this book was my axe.

Art, like science, progresses.

Forms evolve.

Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason.

The novel is dead.

Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps.

See Also: All Great Works of Literature Either Dissolve a Genre or Invent One: A Reading List

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68 Responses to “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps”

  1. Joe Woodward
    at 9:25 am on May 20, 2010

    Isn’t it funny to proclaim narrative is dead, that we live in a “post-narrative” world, by writing one–one with a beginning, middle, and end. This essay is a biography, a memoir, a narrative of ideas with which David Shields wishes to garner a reader’s attention, empathy, anger. He wants to reach across a divide. He wants to speak. He wants someone else to listen. This isn’t post–anything. Even if you took everyone of my sentences here and scrambled their order, nothing substantial would change. Wallpaper, doesn’t make a house, and so on. We should all be happy (and maybe a bit amazed) that one of the best to get attention for the novel is to announce someone, somewhere is killing it! Aren’t we so….Aren’t we?

  2. Trevor Richardson
    at 4:37 pm on May 20, 2010

    Is the novel dead or is this just an excuse for not being able to write one? He says art forms evolve. But isn’t that a slight contradiction to the overall thesis of his argument? Is the novel dead or has it evolved? Evolution is something adapting to survive the times. Death is something ceasing to evolve because it cannot survive the times. So, either the novel is dead or extinct because it is not one of the “fit” in the Darwinian sense of the word, or it is evolving into something else.

    Gotta ask, which one is it, DAVE?

    The novel has already evolved more times than any of us care to count. It isn’t dead, it is just in need of a new evolution. Perhaps we should take Mr. Shields’ argument as a call to arms, a challenge to break with cliche and start something fresh.

    Writing has become a formulaic system. It isn’t the novel’s fault, it is the fault of what is being published and read. As we do in so many facets of life, we create patterns in order to ensure success. But art and formulas have never been polite bedfellows.

    It comes down to a choice, either we fabricate what can be made swiftly, cheaply with the greatest assurance of what sells or we make something fresh, evolved, unusual and risky. This is the essential difference between the manufactured homes on every carbon-copied street of Suburbia versus the crafted architecture of uniquely modeled houses that make the cover of art and architectural magazines. This is also the paramount difference between the manufactured novel and a work of genius.

    Maybe we just need to say that the old, trite, cliche novel is dead?

  3. Nathaniel Myer
    at 9:53 pm on May 20, 2010

    I have to say, that while my agreement with Shields is partial at best, the shrill–at times, hysterical–tone of some of these comments go a long way towards proving the guy’s salience. Not for an instant is Shields suggesting what he’s doing is “new” (he’s well aware of working out of a tradition, and many of the excellent books noted by Emily Wilkinson above are cited–or I suppose, “referred to”–by Mr. Shields in Reality Hunger and elsewhere.) You can quibble with the not-very-interesting proclamation that ‘the novel is dead,’ but it seems to me Shields has written a book that’s far more slippery than that, and to say, for example, that “Shields is not a genius” is to miss the whole point by a significant margin. Likewise, the question of whether the novel’s moribundity belongs to Shields himself or to the form: I don’t think it’s all that arguable that the novel’s cultural currency has decreased. Likewise, I don’t think it’s arguable that there are a significant number of people–us lot, who read The Millions–who care passionately about the form, past present and future. It seems to me that beyond a certain penchant for rhetorical overstatement, Shields is merely collating and arranging some ideas that worth considering: that ‘narrative’ alone isn’t necessarily the paramount virtue, that forms can still be exploded, and that what Shields calls “novelly novels” (we can define this by our own respective lights, but I take it to refer to a certain mandarin tendency, a wrought narrative caution–I won’t name names here) might frequently be just a tiny bit…boring?

    Not new ideas, and nowhere does Shields suggest they are: they’re merely considerations, or even provocations, that prompt comparisons to Sarah Palin, accusations of being a “con artist” or a “hack,” and even the disingenuous intimation that the book “isn’t dangerous.” (Really, an astonishing rhetorical fillip, if you think of it.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was a student of Shields’ at one point. We disagreed heartily, about all kinds of stuff, but I found him–as I find this book–exceedingly generous, argumentative only in the most stimulating and encouraging ways, and delightful through and through.

    To each their own, though.

  4. James Brown
    at 11:33 pm on May 20, 2010


    The juxtaposition of the statements at the end of this little diatribe…science progressing, the novel is dead, etc… all carry the clear inference that something new is emerging out of Shield’s work…in fact, I’d say, by specifically invoking, more or less, “the king is dead, long live the king” (ever so slightly modified) Shields is specifically trying to argue his new form of the novel is THE new form.

    This however, is all pedantic, and I agree entirely that it’s beside the point (except to note that the ideas he’s collating have all been collated before–Shields apparently has some value as an educator…but that doesn’t mean he concomitantly has any value as a writer…the book should probably never have been compiled from seminar form).

    But the objectionable part of the book is not the form. It’s the process. Shield’s form is fine…the novel has no form (which is why this work is nothing new). He can run around all day and proclaim the novel dead all he wants…the next JK Rowling will come along with intellectually questionable and easily digestible and will make far more money than Shields can imagine. It’s his process that’s flawed. (And, to make matter’s worse, his process isn’t new either). Compiling quotes isn’t writing…arguing that the quotes needn’t be cited or acknowledged, even worse…

    Out of curiosity, do you think Shield’s would have been OK with it if you had carved out portions of his own books and handed those extractions in as an academic paper? What about all the online students that purchase papers off of the internet and copy and paste whole term papers? I don’t think this is the right direction for humanity. If I’ve learned anything from the artwork of Richard Prince it’s that when the rules don’t apply (Richard’s use of the cowboy photos don’t violate the artists’ original copyright and he apparently settled a suit with Phillip Morris), there is no more incentive to actually come up with new ideas–Prince just made copies of other shots (and then borrowed Barabar Krugers theory of media to justify the theft). Shields isn’t killing the novel, he’s killing creativity and imagination…it’s potentially predatory and is not a whorthwhile idea…this is happening all over the country already…it doesn’t need to be encouraged.

    it makes me wonder how Shields runs his classroom.

  5. Nathaniel Myer
    at 1:17 am on May 21, 2010


    (Nice name, by the way. And entirely germane to any discussion of sampling.)

    Having a legitimate philosophical beef with appropriation is one thing. (I don’t, but only because I think it merely makes explicit something that’s implicit in every piece of writing ever committed.) But well over half of Reality Hunger (I think–I haven’t kept count, but approximately half at a bare minimum) consists of Shields’ own writing. I feel that to say so is both to violate the spirit of the book (“Shields'” “own” both become misnomers, in this context) and a form of nitpicking, but it’s not as if RH is some pure exercise in sampling. It’s thinking, in a way that interpolates the thinking of others, and it’s worth wondering to what extent attribution matters. Does an idea ‘mean’ more for originating (allegedly, ‘originating’) with Stendhal than if it does with Shields? I hate this argument–it feels legal, whereas obviously the test of the book rests with how it sits with the reader. Some, obviously, attribute to Shields a set of cynical motives I’m confident are not there. And I’ll stop on that point, because a personal defense really isn’t useful, or mine to offer. But I’ll remain uncertain as to how Shields’ gestures amount to “killing” anything at all. I’m a novelist, and my own works are very much in (non-pseudonymous) print. The idea of being–not straight plagiarized (which really would only bother me as exhibiting a failure of imagination) but plundered, expropriated and redistributed is really rather a pleasant one. It doesn’t cause me anxiety in the slightest. Perhaps–ahem–I would feel otherwise if it had happened more extensively than it already has, but I rather doubt it.

    In any case, there’s a world of difference between Sheilds’ project and straight plagiarism; about as much, in fact, as there is between lived experience and fiction making. So it seems to me.

  6. James Brown
    at 3:36 am on May 21, 2010


    I think the problem is, without the original material in front of you, how do you tell what’s been appropriated versus what’s original thought in front of you. Certainly, people inadvertently paraphrase others, but in that transcription something may be gained or lost…and those subtle changes can impact both the text and subtext profoundly. But, this is a very slippery slope. At the end of the day, I’ve got very little problem with appropriation (though, as stated, using appropriated material is an old, old practice…I don’t consider this the next step in evolution for literature…)…my problem is the step further saying that there needn’t be attribution. From what I’ve read of Shields I’m not all that impressed…he’s interesting, but not that interesting. I sympathize with exploring new processes and strategies to compose text…but I’m not keen on this non-attribution issue. The kids purchasing their papers online and submitting without alterations are a clear problem…but what about the kids that download a paper and re-write half of it…should they still receive academic credit for the other half? …Now extend that to a novel. Now remove attribution. How do you tell how much a novel is really the product of the author? The legal side of things is what keeps people in line…look at Napster. I know any number of people who still think they’re being ripped off for having to buy music…but I also know musicians and have hung out in studios for hours listening to people laying down tracks. Appropriation is a lazy process and if there’s no oversight I just don’t think literature will benefit.

    In a certain sense, editors also muck this up (sometimes), and I’m not wild about that either, but there you go–consider them the producers of the art world and the best of them work with authors to hone their craft without loosing the essential verve…it’s different..

    I’m glad you don’t feel apprehensive about this, but you’re also an established author. The reality, though, is I’m not so concerned about you–I’m much more concerned about the generation of writers that emerge ten years from now. I know it’s a “legal” argument but as with so many thing in life involving money, it has to be. Shields has made some very grandiose statements (and therefore elicited vehement responses)…I don’t think the novel is dead, I don’t see this as progress (Burroughs “Ghost of Chance” wasn’t published all that long ago), and I don’t think Shields is really adding anything to the dialogue other than adding his voice to the anti-copyright contingency. I can’t see any reason for him to do so except he thinks it’s “cool” and he’s promoting his book…which more or less undermines the message he’s promoting (since, if there is no copyright, how do you sell books or published materials…the technology to copy and reproduce is ubiquitous)…

  7. bark » will the prize money be adjusted for inflation?
    at 8:39 am on May 21, 2010

    […] by most accounts, it seems that jg farrell’s “troubles” was/is a worthy choice for the booker prize—of 1970.  who exactly was clamoring that mr. farrell, or anyone for that matter, be retroactively awarded this prize is something of a mystery to me.  are we really so obsessed with lists and rankings of art that we’re actively looking for even more reasons to give out awards that we already have?  you know, because what we really need, in addition to the booker prize, and national book award, and pen/faulkner award, and nobel prize, and newberry medal, and the pulitzer, and the who knows what else, is the 19th century version of all those awards.  i’m just dying to know which had more literary merit in 1846: poe’s “tales” or melville’s “typee: a peep at polynesian life.“  if 1970 is seriously the best place we can focus our critical faculties right now in regards to novels, maybe david shields is right. […]

  8. jay reyes
    at 6:36 pm on May 21, 2010

    in a poem in Angle of Yaw, ben lerner writes something along the lines of “i’ll concede that the world doesn’t need another novel if you concede that the novel doesn’t need another world”.

  9. stephen
    at 2:16 pm on May 26, 2010

    Pop Serial magazine, free download (, features Tao Lin, Brandon Scott Gorrell, Zachary German, Joshua Cohen, and others. Includes a piece entitled “Some Trembling Melody” that “samples” David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and appears to be ambiguous re: “literary genre.”

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    at 4:03 pm on February 9, 2012

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