Over the last few years a nonfiction author's name I have seen a lot is "David Shields." When I come across his name or his titles, which often appear on many end-of-year "Best" lists, they always sound vaguely interesting. Like his book The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead. Intriguing, right? Also: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Even more intriguing, sometimes, is the jacket copy on these books. Here's how Reality Hunger is described:
"With this landmark book, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields orchestrates a chorus of voices, past and present, to reframe debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience."
If you overlook that "landmark book" stuff, what you have there is a book that it seems like I would be interested in reading. So I checked it out, and then I tried for weeks to get past the first few pages. I couldn't do it. Same problem with another of his titles, How Literature Saved My Life. (Yet another title you'd think I would eat up with a spoon.) But I persist in trying to understand this author's appeal, or even, just being able to finish one of his books.
Well, the good news is that I did make it all the way through his new book, I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The bad news is, I still don't understand why this guy is a bestselling nonfiction author. Perhaps the quickest way to show you how I felt about this book would be to suggest some alternate titles for it that occurred to me while I was reading it:
"Two D-Bags Have the World's Most Boring Conversation"*
"Two Guys Find Yet Another Way to Avoid Housework and Family Obligations While They Take a Four-Day Vacation Together"
"We'll Bill This As an Art Vs. Life Conversation, But Really What We Have Here Is Four Days' Worth of Not Very Interesting Male Digressions"
"People Will Obviously Buy Anything with David Shields's Name On It, So Here You Go"
So what is it about? Literally, author David Shields and his former writing student Caleb Powell, one a bestselling author in his fifties, and the other a house-husband and father of three in his forties, take four days to hang out in a friend's cabin together and discuss "everything they can think of in the name of exploring and debating their central question (life and/or art?)." I really did read the whole thing, because at some point I expected them to actually get at something remotely resembling a debate about "life and/or art," but honestly, they never did. They discussed:
Their teacher/student dynamic; their wives and whether or not said wives read and like their work; the "x-factor" each of them need to enjoy stories or TV programs; sports; Powell's interest in violence and true crime and the nature of suffering; at one point they actually include a several-page transcript of the movie "My Dinner with Andre"; Caleb's experience with a transvestite in Samoa and his desire to explore that experience in fiction; a wide variety of authors (although they manage to take all the fun out of that, even, with David saying things like "It's crucial to me that these books rotate outward toward a metaphor"); how many kids they each have; capitalism; their mothers; Caleb's drinking; and then back to their teacher/student dynamic. So, okay, the conversation is wide-ranging. But nowhere does it actually take on the flesh-and-blood feel to me of a real conversation. It certainly didn't answer (or really even raise, in my opinion) the question of "art vs. life."**
A long time ago I went to a church service with my mother-in-law when their regular pastor was on vacation, and they had this little eighteen-year-old boy who was a counselor at the religious summer camp down the road in to give the homily. I don't remember what he talked about, but I do remember it was borderline annoying and I mainly wanted to pat the clueless little dear on the head, and tell him to get down from the podium so my mother-in-law, a woman then in her late fifties, could get up there and tell us a few things about how life actually is. This book gave me that exact same feeling. I think all of us should get four-day vacations wherein we just chew the fat with someone and then publish the results. I'm pretty sure 90% of those efforts would be accidentally more interesting than this one.***
And please note: this book has been adapted into a film by James Franco. God help us.
*I am aware that this is not very nice. I apologize. I can be nice, or I can be honest about how this book made me feel, but I can't be both.
***Except not this book. Evidently two guys talking and annoying the crap out of me is a new mini-genre of nonfiction.