David Shields

Making Something of It


By Alan Cunningham.

When I read The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh, I read a book that – had I also been born in 1904 – I think I, too, could have written, exactly as it is; a book, however, that if I were to write it now would be a somewhat different book, being much more concise.

I believe in the possibility of exact replication because many of the thoughts expressed by Kavanagh in his autobiographical work – a very good book, by the way, but also a very flawed one – reflect attitudes and modes of behaviour that have changed little in Ireland in the intervening years, irrespective of external changes. I, and others, are evidence of this, as are events that have happened to me in that country.

Drowned in sound


In ‘Re-Joyce’, Darran Anderson talks about how books change as the reader does, how some are best read with wisdom, others in the “full incandescent stupidity of youth”. “The best,” he says, “somehow change continually.” He mentions James Joyce‘s Dubliners, specifically ‘The Dead’, and how much it had changed from how he remembered it, in particular, that last paragraph.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

A dissatisfaction


Tim Parks is trapped inside the novel.

I wonder how many people share the experience described by David Shields in Reality Hunger, of tackling some large novel, a work essentially conventional in its structure and brand of realism, that weaves together the lives of its characters over a number of years, and simply feeling that the whole exercise has become largely irrelevant. Shields doesn’t present his remarks as a criticism of writers — the name he mentions is Jonathan Franzen — pursuing the tradition of the long realistic novel. Rather, he suggests it is a change in himself, something he believes has been brought about by the utterly changed nature of contemporary life. He considers the variety of electronic media — the proliferation and abbreviation of all forms of messages, the circumstances created by the ever more rapid transit and greater abundance of information, the emergence of a powerful virtual world that becomes more real to us all the time — and he concludes that given this way of life it is hard for the traditional kind of novel to hold our attention. He then looks at a variety of texts that, unlike the traditional novel, weld together chunks of “reality,” pieces of documentary taken from elsewhere, quotations, fragments, provocations, moments of lyricism, and melodrama, perhaps from film or television, newspapers or websites, to create an entirely different reading experience.

Reframing art


David Shields on originality (what else) in The White Review.

Originally, feathers evolved to retain heat; later, they were repurposed for a means of flight. No one ever accuses the descendants of ancient birds of plagiarism for taking heat-retaining feathers and modifying them into wings for flight. In our current system, the original feathers would be copyrighted, and upstart birds would get sued for stealing the feathers for a different use. Almost all famous discoveries (by Darwin, Edison, Einstein, et al.) were not lightning-bolt epiphanies but were built slowly over time and heavily dependent on the intellectual superstructure of what had come before them. E.g., the commonplace book was popular among English intellectuals in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries. These notebooks were a depository for thoughts and quotes and were usually categorised by topic. Enquire Within Upon Everything, a commercially successful parody of the commonplace book, was published in London in 1890. There’s no such thing as originality. Invention and innovation grow out of networks of people and ideas. All life on earth (and by extension, technology) is built upon appropriation and reuse of the pre-existing.