I'm finally ready to be done with David Shields. As I reported in my last post about this (here), I had read Shields' essay "What We're All Looking For" in The Normal School 3.1, but I was holding off on commenting until I'd read the follow up article, by Bob Shacochis. Dear Readers, I started Shacochis' essay "What Everybody in the Room Knows" two hours ago and after a trip to the library to get Shields' book Reality Hunger again, I couldn't even finish the essay.
Here's the backstory: I read an excerpt of Shields' book in PEN America and loved it, but then found through the notes at the end that most of the words Shields presented as his own weren't, in fact, his own. This caused me to check the book out from my local library (go libraries!), where I discovered that Shields presented an argument for blatant plagiarism in the name of collage-texts. I've been trying to process this for months, and then I stumbled across the two above mentioned essays in The Normal School.
First, my notes on Shields' essay "What We're All Looking For." In this essay, he clarifies for me that the book, Reality Hunger, is an argument for the lyric essay and against the novel. (I hadn't read more of the book after I read the "I'm plagiarizing on purpose" statement.) In this argument, he claims, "I and like-minded writers and other artists want the veil of 'let's pretend' out." My notes say, "But he pretends to author giant chunks of RH...it's all let's pretend." In his essay, Shields praises Georges Braque because in his works "you don't have to think about literary allusions, but your experience itself." Shields goes on to write, "That's what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice." My notes ask, "Isn't RH entirely artifice if he's alluding to other writers' thoughts, ideas, and actual words without attribution?"
The next bit might have touched a personal nerve. Shields says of lyric poetry, "When a lyric poet uses, characteristically, the first-person voice, we don't say accusingly, 'But did this really happen the way you say it did?'" I beg to differ! I get asked this question quite often, and not just by students or beginning readers of poetry.
The rest of the essay goes on to defend Shields' collage technique without directly discussing the appropriation of other writers' words. My notes go on as well, at length.
Next, I turned the page to Shacochis' essay and was heartened because it seems that Shields had sent Shacochis the manuscript not knowing how he might react. Here would be an essay that questions as I question. It does, and Shacochis makes very clear when he is quoting or paraphrasing another writer. I immediately felt comfortable with Shacochis' authority. Shacochis engages in a give and take, a conversation with the text of Reality Hunger, and therein lies my problem, the reason why I didn't finish his essay. In section 3, Shacochis writes, "He [Shields] writes in section 371: 'Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.'" My notes read, "Really? Did Shields write this or take it from someone else?" I continued on, and each time I came upon a quote from Shields, especially those introduced with a "he writes" phrase, I stumbled because I was pretty sure the words weren't Shields' at all, that he had lifted them whole from someone else and placed them in his book, with a publisher-forced appendix that supposedly listed sources but often just contained a last name.
This led me to the library to check out Reality Hunger again so I could find out who had said the things Shacochis was quoting from Shields. What I discovered was that the manuscript Shacochis quotes from does not match the published book. Luckily, with a little Google finessing, I was able to figure out that the numbering of sections was off by about 30 and could quickly find that the section 371 Shacochis mentions is section 405 in the published book. Then, through use of that appendix Shields didn't want to include, I discovered that the quote above belongs to "Auden, paraphrased and altered by Edward Hoagland."
I checked through the first two pages of the essay, and in fact, all of the quotes Shacochis presents as Shields' belong to others. This might have been fine if Shacochis had begun his article with an explanation of Shields' technique, if he had alerted the reader of his article that it isn't really Shields writing anything, it is Shields copying texts. However, Shacochis doesn't do this. His essay is concerned with Shields' attack on the novel as a form, not with Shields' techniques.
I confess that I teach research techniques to college students; however, I also teach them that they each have a voice and something to say that matters. What happens when we stop attributing quotes to their original authors? What happens when someone who doesn't know that Shields is quoting someone else in those quotes that Shacocis passes along? Yes, some of my discomfort is as a writer who wants credit for the work she's done, but some of my discomfort resides in a world that more than ever rewards lying, cheating, and stealing in the name of religion, politics, and even art.
I must seem like a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist, a librarian with her button-down Oxford shirt buttoned all the way up, a militant English instructor ruining students right and left by my insistence that attribution matters. Some claim that what Shields is doing is avant-garde or cutting edge. If it is, I'll stay here in the backwater and give proper credit where credit is due.
Sean O'Hagan in The Observer
Laura Millier on Salon.com
David Shields on The Huffington Post explaining his views
Herein lies the end of my wrestlemania with David Shields' book Reality Hunger.