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Thursday, June 13, 2024 — Houston, TX

Words on the Street: Stutter aside, Shields sparks discussion

By Johanna Ohm     4/12/12 7:00pm

David Shields is a novelist, though some would prefer to say he writes manifestos or nonfiction. In his own words, his writing is described as "meditations on reality." Shields seems to fit into a genre of his own. His works include the New York Times best-seller The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography and Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories. Frequently piecing together worldly observations with personal memories and life experiences, his work is redefining the way people think about and ?view nonfiction.

Shields' essays, novels, books and short stories are fun, fragmented and anything but traditional. His reading and question and answer session at Brazos Bookstore on Bissonnet Street last Tuesday was similar to his work: startling, eye-opening and sincere. Shields discussed the inspiration behind his works, his motivation to become a writer and shared excerpts from his forthcoming novel How Literature Saved My Life, which is projected to appear on bookshelves ?in 2013.

The reading also revealed something deeply human about Shields: his vulnerability in public speaking. Shields suffers from a speech disorder and has a noticeable stutter that worsens under pressure. He warns his audience of his stutter before beginning his reading. The stutter has handicapped him in many ways, adding to his insecurities, preventing him from seeking a career in journalism out of fear of the public spotlight and undermining his ability to find comfort in front of a crowd.    

The stutter has also motivated him to become a writer, to find mastery in language that may not be revealed in conversation. As a child, he recalls how his frustration in speaking drew him to fiction rather than journalism, the field in which his parents both worked, because he sought a more "hermetic" existence.

The reading consisted mostly of Shields reading from "How Literature Saved My Life," offering a glimpse of the manuscript before its publication next year. The excerpts were memories, present realities, past relationships, a montage of bizarre thoughts and real experiences.

We heard about his college romance and his secret delvings into this first love's private diary. His excerpts also included comparisons between himself and George W. Bush, which included some very self-deprecating humor and witty commentary. His writings are part news, part story, part something in between. We learn about his family: his mother and father, who both held impossibly high standards and found fault with his writing and aspirations to be a novelist.

Throughout the reading, we see a strange and inspiring dichotomy between the voice of the speaker reading and the voice of the speaker on the page. On the page, Shields is confident, sarcastic, amusing; in person, his personality is still seen looking at us through his bifocals, but the confidence is somewhat diminished: We see someone with a speech impediment who struggles with the same words that he obviously masters in ?his writing.

After the reading, a Q-and-A session was moderated by Rice professor of English Ian Schimmel. Questions ranged from asking Shields about his perspective on modern society and technology to how he defines his genre of work to the future of writing and literature to his motivation to become a writer. The questions started off narrow and personal, and evolved to discuss the meaning of life, the morality of telling lies or committing murder and even thoughts on religion. Shields said his approach to writing is similar to that of writing a novel, but he seeks to do something more.

"In writing Remote, I was trying to write a novel and all the things that a novel does, but I knew what I really wanted to do was discuss my hatred for mass culture," Shields said. "I'm fascinated by pop culture and social movements; I'm repulsed, yet hugely drawn to this."

Shields describes his process of writing Remote: A Reflection of Life in the Shadow of Celebrity as the work that most shaped the writer he is today.

"In Remote, I found a metier," Shields said. "I write in the form of observations and meditations. It is nonfiction that is collage-like and fragmented. I think of it as a documentary canvas. It is quite serious, but also funny."

Shields also responded to questions of how he defined his class of work by comparing it to what most people define as nonfiction. "Nonfiction is not a very noble term," he said. "It is defined by what it is not. It is like calling a desk drawer 'non-socks.'"

Schimmel then asked Shields about his stance on lying in literature.

"Is lying ever moral? Is it OK to lie in nonfiction?" Schimmel said.

Tony Hoagland, an audience member and well-known poet and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, was quick to interrupt with "Is killing ever moral?" The discussion ?became heated.

Shields responded with the opinion that, despite some viewing morals as morals in a strict sense, truth is more difficult to define than the morality related to Hoagland's counterargument.

"Almost every canonical book has taken significant liberties on what is so-called 'truth,'" ?Shields said.

Shields continued to recount a story in which he and his wife both witnessed the same car accident on a road they happened to be walking by.  Their accounts varied wildly, but both witnessed the same event; both, however, "knew" what happened.

"[The problem with reality is that] the perceiver, by his presence, alters what is perceived," Shields said.

Shields is leading a new movement in nonfiction to make this form of literature entertaining, compressed and new. In one final piece of advice, Shields said: "A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it. Almost all novels do the former; I want the latter." David Shields, you genius.

Johanna Ohm is a Duncan College junior and Thresher Copy Editor. Words on the Street is a column exploring literary events in Houston.

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