on I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, by David Shields and Caleb Powell (Knopf)

In 2011, David Shields and Caleb Powell spent four days together at a cabin in the Cascade Mountains to record a conversation. “You can go all the way back to Plato’s dialogues with Socrates,” says Shields. “It’s an ancient form: two white guys bullshitting.” With the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre in mind, they planned to shape a contentiously collegial dialogue about the sources and motives for literary art: Powell advocating a richness of experience and prose fiction that entails moral choices, and Shields preferring book-length essays and unconventional narratives that express the density of reality and the mind at work.

TotallyCover.jpgI Think You’re Totally Wrong spells out and returns to their respective positions, but as a record of what straight male writers talk about when they talk about writing, the transcript shows that most of the time they turn to other topics -- baldness, suffering versus pain, their wives, LSD, transsexuals, sports radio, vegetarianism, abortion, Bush and Cheney, Jewish identity, cultural inequality, sex writing, and the damages of childhood. In one of several remarks on writers, Shields says of Kapuściński’s The Soccer War, “Kitchen-sink is not a writing category” – but spontaneous variety is the entertaining substance of I Think You’re Totally Wrong.

From 1988 to 1991, Powell was Shields’ student in a graduate writing program where Powell’s novel-in-progress was incisively critiqued. The author of several books and writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, Shields is twelve years older than his unpublished 43-year old ephebe, now invited to get even. They establish their positions as follows:

CALEB: If you’re a writer, you can’t focus only on life as depicted through art. Externally, you have to live, then internally create your art.

DAVID: It doesn’t work like that. It’s the Yeats line: perfection of the life or perfection of the work, but not both. You’ve got to choose. It’s the only way to get anything done. Most people live through life. Not that many people live through art.

* * *

CALEB: In your writing, you have a hesitancy to judge – a moral relativism that allows anything into play, and it comes across as amoral. You’re so hesitant.

DAVID: You have a much more public and political imagination than I do … You probably think of me as – I don’t know – neurotic, overly interior, solipsistic, whatever. But I find you extremely didactic, moralistic, polemical, self-righteous, preachy.

ShieldsBW.jpgI approached this book looking for David Shields whose Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) clarified the causes of my dissatisfaction with and mistrust of conventional novels. The gavel slammed down with statements like “One gets so weary watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.” His preferred alternative is writing that enacts “consciousness contending with experience.” As it turns out, Caleb Powell is the more substantial speaker in I Think You’re Totally Wrong -- or perhaps may simply seem so to me because this is my first encounter with him, and Shields adds little to his established perspective. If this is your first exposure to Shields and you are a Franzen fan, you may find his views provocative. But here, Powell is the one who gropes; Shields takes on a shade of didacticism. It’s a neat switch.

CALEB: I’m trying to get at suffering, why people suffer, and how they can stop suffering. Maybe I haven’t perfected my draft, but that’s my goal – not an endlessly self-reflexive questioning of self.

DAVID: And that’s why your work still feels to me pretty generic: because you haven’t learned how to wire the investigation through the central intelligence agency of your own sensibility.

Nevertheless, the form, range, unpredictability, and messy actuality of yakking make this Shields’ book. Powell’s “experience of living” as source material for fiction yields to the immediate impact of the experience of conversation. There’s no plot – yet the reader keeps going to see what happens next, or rather, what will be claimed, who will be indicted, what intimacy will be shared. Two men contend with experience.

In My Dinner With Andre, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play fictional characters. Several sections of dialogue were edited from the final cut. By the film’s end, the respective positions of the characters become somewhat wobbly – and the audience is less encouraged to judge or take sides than to drift in the muzzy aftereffects of what had seemed to be a clash of views. I Think You’re Totally Wrong is staged and edited as well – and its closing effects are equally indeterminate. Were their positions even valid to begin with? Is the dividing line between living-for-experience and living-for-art a false dichotomy? Shouldn’t they have been talking instead about the qualities of language in different sorts of prose fiction? What about poetry?

Shields_0.jpgI Think You’re Totally Wrong bristles with Shield’s ever unsatisfied hunger for reality – abetted by Powell’s own misgivings. “My beefs are not so much with you as with artists in general,” Powell says. “Writers today don’t concern themselves with powerful and important topics.” That hardly seems true as a fact, but it sounds authentic within the context and sound-shape of the book. With slyness, this engineered conversation, brimming with topics, nods silently at the secondary importance of topics themselves in fiction and creative non-fiction.

Shields likes to quote a line from Picasso to illuminate his biases: “A great painting comes together, just barely.” I Think You’re Totally Wrong is a lively, intriguing and ultimately comic flow of freewheeling talk between companionable rivals. Their assertions and insights combine to make a singular case for the writing life in the end, just barely.

[Published January 8, 2015. 261 pages, @$25.95 hardcover]

Note: Photos above are of David Shields ... James Franco, another of Shield’s former writing students, has directed (and plays a part in) a film version of this book, to be released later this year.

Vs Realism?

Tom McCarthy mentions Reality Hunger in his fine LRB piece of 18 December 2014. I recommend it to those who are interested in this dialogue about what constitutes "reality" in fiction. McCarthy doesn't like the "simplistic oppositions" that have been erected and peers deeply at the conventions of realism. In the second half of his essay, he points to a "sudden intercession of the catastrophic real" and "the point at which the writing's entire project crumples and implodes" as signals of "the real." Maybe Shields, in quoting Picasso, is indicating the same thing: art that works just barely.

Shields and Powell

David Shields' writing is a tonic and antidote to the dispiriting jetsam issuing out of the fiction departments of major publishers. I loved How Literature Saved My Life. Also disturbing is how flat the material is even from small publishers like Tin House. Conventional as ever but aimed at younger audiences & their concerns.

the Shields convo

Downloaded last night (after reading yr piece) & read it in two hours. Lively it is, probably a set up, as you may be suggesting, but real emotions, fears, outrages etc come through. Some very funny stuff too. But taking a shot at poor old David Wagoner rummaging through the woods? That's harsh. Taking shots at Franzen and James Wood, however, is a good use of ammo. Agreed, the experience versus art duality is an hyperbole. The guys turn themselves into fundamentalists for the sake of argument. But it sounds real. I expected things to get more nuanced as they proceeded, but wrecking that expectation seems to have been one of their goals. So yeah, I'll go see the Franco thing later.