"So many contemporary novels are fundamentally un-serious. They start off with truly interesting narratives, but end up with all their attention on cranking out pre-formatted narratives," said David Shields '78, who spoke on Wednesday night as the third writer in the Great Brown Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series.
Shields, a bestselling author of ten books and an English professor at the University of Washington, spoke about his new book, "Reality Hunger: a Manifesto" to an audience of about 30 in Salomon 001. The nonfiction work, which advocates new forms of nonfiction narrative in place of conventional fiction, has been met with both praise and criticism since its publication in February.
Shields began by describing two forces that have shaped his aesthetic: his childhood stuttering and journalist parents. "I have always been fascinated by the nature of reality," he said, describing how his career is informed by the conflict between a stutterer's and a journalist's view of language.
Shields said that many major works of nonfiction literature contain fictional elements, such as George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys."
"Composition is a fiction-making operation," Shields said.
Shields then turned his attention to fiction. "I'm deeply bored by the contemporary novel," he said. Shields singled out Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections" as an example of a mainstream work that is "predictable, formulaic and middle-brow."
"Nonfiction strikes me as endlessly more interesting and holds more possibilities in writing in the 21st century," he said.
"The best nonfiction shows the contours of the writer's consciousness," Shields said, echoing his argument in "Reality Hunger." According to Shields, although nonfiction "is capable of the highest reaches of literary art," it is still being treated as "a subset of journalism" and subject to factual vetting that removes it of its literary potential.
Shields offered collage as an antidote. "Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally challenged," he said, and described how a mix of voices without a linear narrative inspires the reader to reflect.
"I want the reader to be productively unsure as to who the speaker was," Shields said.
Luke Epplin GS challenged Shields by pointing out that there are several contemporary novelists whose works blur the dichotomy between fiction and nonfiction, such as David Foster Wallace. Shields agreed, but argued that "most contemporary writers give too much ground to narrative and sacrifice everything on the altar of plot." He also countered that Wallace's best works were in fact nonfiction.
In an interview with The Herald, Shields said that Brown's interdisciplinary nature left an indelible mark on him as a fledging writer. "Brown urges you to undermine the orthodox and think against the grain," he said.
When asked what advice he had for aspiring writers at Brown, Shields said, "Find a form that releases your best intelligences. Don't be afraid of your own material, and be willing to exist in your own voice."