Thursday, May 27, 2010

Update: Reality Hunger by David Shields

73 deg - sunny, sloppy heat with afternoon thunderstorms building into a daily pattern

Well, the good news is that I had my first physical therapy appt yesterday and I'm on the mend.  Most of my back pain is gone or nearly gone.  The bad news is that I'm completely out of alignment.  I'm torqued to the left from my ankle to my knee to my hip to my shoulder (all the weight bearing joints).  So, this injury was going to happen one day or another.  Last night I re-learned how to sleep in a better posture.  It was difficult, but I have to say, I woke up feeling the best I've felt in a long time.  Tomorrow, I learn how to sit (obedience training anyone?)

Through the injury, I was on some pretty heavy muscle relaxers and couldn't really read until the last day or so, which I devoted to poetry.  However, I still have David Shields' Reality Hunger on my desk, and since it's a new book, it's due back at the library pretty soon.  Here's a link to my route to Shields' book.  Last night, I sat down and took a closer look at the book, particularly curious about what Shields had to say about permissions, given that the entire book is a collection of numbered sections, almost entirely authored by others and without acknowledgments within the text.  Here is a small example from chapter "d: trials by google."

Identity has always been a fragile phenomenon.

I mean, I knew I'd never be the football star or the student council president, and, you know, once people started saying I was the bad kid, I was like, "All right, they think I'm the bad kid.  I'll show them how bad I can be."

No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it's a package made to travel.  Not everything that happened is in my story--how could it be?  Memory is selective; storytelling insists on itself.  There is nothing in my story that did not happen.  In its essence it is true, or a shade of true.

So, the whole book is composed of these numbered sections, divided into 26 chapters given a letter and a title.  The whole of the book calls into question the idea of "reality" and the possession of ideas, as I explained in my earlier post.  When I learned that Shields had in fact written very little of these words, but had collected them, I grew confused and concerned.  Everything that I've been taught about scholarship necessitates the correct attribution of ideas to their original thinker.  Of course there are universal ideas, but certainly #85 and #86 above have unique voices, and they are not the same. 

So, I looked to the front matter of the book for any issues with permissions or acknowledgments.  I found only a gratitude list to the Guggenheim Foundation, Artist Trust, and the Simpson Center for the Humanities.  Now, I was really intrigued.  Someone funded Shields to collect these words and arrange them.

Flipping to the back matter, I found the appendix and much of the explanation that Shields provided in the earlier piece I referenced, but it goes on.  After admitting that the quotations are not acknowledged, Shields says, "I'm trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.  Your uncertainty abot whose words you've just read is not a bug but a feature."  He then claims that he can't engage in the terms "appropriation and plagiarism" unless he actually does them.  And then there is this, what I'd been waiting for:  "However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn't find or forgot along the way)."  That's one heck of a parenthetical.  The students I teach certainly aren't allowed to "forget" a source in scholarly research.

Shields goes on to point out that there are dotted lines along the margin of the entire index and to restore it to its original form, we should cut out the index.  He ends with: "Who owns the words?  Who owns the music and the rest of our culture?  We do--all of us--though not all of us know it yet.  Reality cannot be copyrighted.  // Stop; don't read any farther."

Of course I did read farther, and will report the proper acknowledgments to the above sections.
#84:  Slater, quoted in David D. Kirkpatrick, "Questionable Letter for a Liar's Memoir," New York Times
#85: James Frey
#86: Dorothy Gallagher, "Recognizing the Book That Needs to be Written," New York Times

While I tried to keep an open mind about Shields' thesis, I simply can't agree.  Even when I keep quotes in my journal, I'm always careful to take down the writer's name and where the quote appeared.  Often, this is simply useful when I want to revisit the entire article, poem, book, etc.  Obviously, when I'm writing for scholarly reasons or simply professional ones, I'm aware of proper citations and acknowledgment.  However, it is as a writer that I'm most stricken by Shields' ideas.  Sure, I love for people to share my work, but I'd prefer to be acknowledged as the author; after all, as I tell my students the word author is the root of authority, and I am the authority of my own mind and creations, am I not?  I certainly wouldn't want someone to pick up a book like Shields' and think that the person whose name was on the cover was the writer of my words.  Yes, I'm greedy that way.  No, I don't think my words belong to everyone, not in the way that Shields implies.

This conversation has actually been going on with several of my friends of late, especially fellow poets who discover one of their poems has made an appearance on someone else's blog or listserv or whathaveyou in the electronic realm.  Again, I'm all for that sharing, with proper credit being given.  Another couple of friends and I got into a great long discussion about if there is a line in the sand beyond which an artist should not lie (a la James Frey and JT Leroy...both of whom make frequent appearances in Shields' book) and whether there is really a line between fiction and memoir as art forms.  Finally, I was struck by this notice at the front of a poetry book I recently reviewed here at the Kangaroo:  "No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of both the publisher and the copyright owner."  I have to admit that I've never really worried about that before in terms of reviewing material here.  I'm always careful to give credit and links to the original work, and I promote the purchase or library borrowing of the book.  I also have to admit that I stumbled on that disclaimer by accident and it may appear in more books that I've reviewed without me noticing it.  Having Shields' book on my desk, I did my due diligence and emailed the author who gave me the go-ahead and sent her permission on to the publisher to cover all the bases.  I'm happy to do that.  After all, I want to celebrate the mind that created this particular combination of words.  Someone copying them down is not the same thing at all. 

Final thoughts:  Even if Shields' point is to put his collection of quotes into conversation with one another, isn't that conversation deepened if we know with whom the words originated?  I'm all for juxtaposing Nirvana and Virginia Woolf, but knowing the context of their realities is what intrigues me about what they have to say.


Kristin said...

I'm with you--give credit to the original source. I don't mind when people quote me, quote my poems, quote my other kind of writing, but I want credit. I don't believe we all own the words, the music, the culture. Some of us are more invested than others.

I'm impressed if you can sing a song or play it on an instrument. I'm more impressed if you can write a song. Plenty of singers can't do that.

My words are my words. They come from a unique person at a juxtaposition of time, location, past experiences. If those features had changed, had I been born in 1945, say, or born in an African country, I'd be writing very different words.

I feel my own manifesto coming on, so let me stop before I go into full rant mode.

But one last thought: I wonder if people from scholarly/academic backgrounds react differently to his ideas than people from backgrounds that lend themselves more effortlessly to collage. Hmmm.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, K. I agree with you!

Talking to a friend about this yesterday, she, too, wondered about the difference between artistic work and scholarly work and where the lines blurred. Something more to think about!