David Shields takes up too much goddamned space.
It's not that he's a bad writer, although he has written some very bad books (about which more soon). It's just that he's everywhere. Shields looms large over the University of Washington's MFA writing program as its Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, and his back-flap biography is stuffed full of accomplishment. He's published 16 books, been translated into 20 languages, won the Guggenheim and two NEA fellowships. (And he shows no sign of stopping: The dust jacket for his newest book announces Shields has "five books coming out in the next year and a half.") His work has been published in every mainstream literary-minded journal this side of the New Yorker. He's well-regarded in the literary world, and his connections appear to be positively boundless. You seemingly can't attend a reading in Seattle without sitting next to someone who's attended one of Shields's classes; if you prod them into reminiscences, a handful will swoon over his genius, but more likely you'll hear a rant about his endless lectures, which by many accounts are packed with self-promotion, name-dropping, and smug proclamations.
Some of Shields's books are interesting enough, in a safe, academic sort of way. Black Planet is still probably the best thing he's ever written. Reality Hunger, his self-described "manifesto" about a need for new narratives, the failure of modern fiction, and other riffs on the work of David Markson, is probably his most notorious work, but it's not like anything serious is at stake in it. Shields is not so much a bomb-thrower as a giggling pillow-tosser.
Since Reality Hunger, Shields has been on the decline. Last year saw the publication of Salinger, a biography of J.D. Salinger coauthored with Shane Salerno. It was supposed to be one of the biggest books of the year—a multimedia assault, even, with a documentary film released in tandem with the book—but it turned out to be more of a fart in an elevator. Shields wrote at obsessive lengths on the fact that Salinger was born with one testicle, which he envisioned as informing most of the author's work in one way or another. His facile readings of Salinger's fiction helped drag the book into pointlessness. You had the sense on reading Salinger, as many did when reading Reality Hunger, that it was printed on tissue paper; it would not survive even a decade before slaloming into obscurity. And now—too soon!—Shields is back with another coauthored book. It's titled I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, and it's a transcription of a weekend Shields spent in a Skykomish cabin arguing with a former student of his named Caleb Powell. Like Salinger, this book, too, is part of a cross-platform branding campaign. The back flap promises (warns?):
James Franco's adaptation of I Think You're Totally Wrong into a film, with Shields and Powell striving mightily to play themselves and Franco in a supporting role, will be released later this year.
The most unbelievable aspect of I Think You're Totally Wrong is that everyone involved in its publication somehow thought it was worthy of publication. Shields and Powell simply talk for a little over 250 pages. One man is the closest thing to a celebrity you'll find in academic circles; the other is a failed writer. Powell says at family gatherings he comes across as "a moronic dude who likes to drink beer"; it's obvious he's supposed to be the abrasive truth-teller in this relationship. He calls Shields out for being pretentious. ("Well, sure," Shields replies. "I'm very pretentious, but I'm not a snob." Okay.) They argue about Dostoyevsky and the meaning of art, they gossip about Toni Morrison, but mostly they talk about themselves. They compare their discussion ("two white guys bullshitting," Shields says) with My Dinner with Andre, Plato and Socrates, and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the film The Trip, but it's far less entertaining than any of those, and not nearly as intelligent as it believes it is.
The problem is that Shields and Powell are basically the same person. In between listing the tiny ways they believe their wives have slighted them and grandiloquently pointing out their own flaws, the two gloss over topics with a dilettante's glee. Shields says he "supports reparations for African Americans," but he admits to being "somewhat ambivalent about affirmative action." He wonders why "so many African Americans [are] still poor" and muses over the idea of "post-slavery stress disorder" before skipping off into gossip about the Ted Turner/Elizabeth Dewberry/Robert Olen Butler love triangle. (He also admits to making $200,000 a year from all his various writing pursuits, which is probably just enough information to give tuition-paying parents of UW students a stroke.) Maybe the intent is to celebrate the rhythms of real-world conversations—skimming across the surface of consciousness, without ever really settling on anything substantial. But why bother reproducing human discussion in a painstaking 1:1 model, when you can find mundane discussions like this anywhere?
And for all Shields's love of transparency in narrative, Wrong lacks clarity. Presumably, the transcript is riddled with edits, excisions, and clarifications, but the editing process is undocumented, which obfuscates the point even further. If all this mundane chatter landed on the page, what could possibly have gotten cut? Why did the surviving pieces of dialogue survive? Why even bother?
In the end, I Think You're Totally Wrong serves as a blooper reel of 21st century literature's failings, with its elevation of two privileged white dudes talking about beer and pop culture, its mistaken belief that a postmodern acceptance of your own flaws somehow serves as absolution for them, and its refusal to adopt any responsibility for its own narrative failure. But its greatest failure, measured by Shields's own favorite metric, is that it's bone-crushingly dull.
This is a book that would not exist without a famous name on the cover. It has grandstanded its way to a place on the Knopf publishing schedule that some other, worthier book could have used. Who can hear anything, really, over the roar of all that white noise?