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James Franco’s film adaptation of David Shields’ I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, which Shields co-wrote and co-stars in, was released in 2017. Shields wrote, produced, and directed Lynch: A History, a 2019 documentary about Marshawn Lynch’s use of silence, echo, and mimicry as key tools of resistance. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a senior contributing editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published fiction and nonfiction in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, Tin House, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Believer, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Best American Essays. His work has been translated into two dozen languages, and he is the internationally bestselling author of 22 books, including Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (recently named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade by LitHub), Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Other People: Takes & Mistakes (NYTBR Editors’ Choice). Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention was published in 2018; The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power appeared in 2019.
An excerpt from The Very Last Interview
From WTP Vol. IX #8
“All criticism is a form of autobiography.”
Shields decided to gather every interview to which he’s ever been subjected, going back nearly 40 years. If it was a radio or TV interview, he transcribed it. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he knew he wasn’t interested in any of his own answers. The questions interested him, however—approximately 2,700, which he collated and curated and edited down into 22 tightly focused chapters. Then, according to Shields, “the real work began: remixing, rewriting, reimagining, reinventing the questions, and finding a through-line.”
During the pandemic, an interviewer pummels Shields (who never answers). What do interviewer and interviewee believe in? What—at the edge of the apocalypse—does the reader believe in, with absolute conviction? If nothing, then what sustains us? If something specific—love, family, art, civic engagement, “god”—to what degree are any such consolations actually quite illusory?
Shields burns himself and his own work down to the ground. Is he conducting a mad lab experiment or trying to open up a new space for himself or, weirdly, agreeing with his most benighted critics?
A writer is supposed to try to “tell the truth” about everything. What if he were to try to tell the truth about his own work? What if he were to “read against” the affirmations offered by his previous books? Could he survive such a self-dismantling? Would he be left all alone? The increasingly loud threat of suicide begins to echo.
Convulsive, urgent, lacerating, sui generis, The Very Last Interview is a major new book from Shields, a major new artistic statement, and a contribution to the centuries-old tradition in which a writer, in late middle age or early old age, confronting his own spiritual exhaustion and impending mortality, ruthlessly interrogates himself.
Is that something you still do—read all your reviews?
Every last word of every one?
Both positive and negative?
Are you unusual in that regard?
Didn’t you once look up every bad review of your first several books and quote the meanest lines?
What was up with that?
Do you see that as a not very subtle form of masochism?
I guess what I’m asking is, how much do you hate yourself?
Do you see a way going forward to mitigate and finally empty out that emotion?
Is the relationship between every critic and every writer sadomasochistic in essence?
What is that Conrad story called, “The Secret Sharer”?
Is that not every critic and every writer?
Is there a sense in which most critics try to use most writers as a way to “get well,” pretending to be healthier than the putatively ill human who committed the crime of writing the book?
Who was it who said, on the basis of one of your books, that your then wife should divorce you?
How could that not lodge indelibly in her psyche?
Karinsky’s one reservation about your second novel was that it was too nakedly autobiographical. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
He also wanted less contemplation and more narrative, more scene. You more or less concur, don’t you?
You haven’t published any reviews in a very long time. Why not?
Are you too much of a “loose cannon”—a man without a country, so to speak?
Do the best reviews alter your understanding of what you’ve written?
What’s the smartest review you’ve ever received?
Did you write her to thank her?
What’s the stupidest review you’ve ever received?
What do you mean, how much time do I have?
What’s the most vitriolic review you’ve ever received?
Perhaps you can file a lawsuit when someone says something like that?
What do you do when people get basic information wrong?
Do you write a letter to the editor?
Do these ever appear in print?
Is there a sense in which nearly every book you’ve written over the last twenty years can best be understood as a poison dart aimed directly at the “literary establishment”?
Does such a thing still even exist?
Is there another sense in which nearly every book you’ve written over the last forty years can be best understood as a poison dart aimed directly at yourself?
Do you ever take your books-in-progress, show them to other writers for “feedback,” and then revise the work based on their suggestions?
Who has been your most useful “first responder” in this sense?
The most unhelpful?
What’s the worst thing a reviewer can do?
Have you ever imagined killing a critic?
Isn’t there a Stoppard play that does that?
Doesn’t he get mainly good reviews, though?
Is one reason you love Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries so much because he can’t stop worrying the sore tooth of bad reviews?
What are the kinds of reviews that infuriate him?
Did you ever meet him?
Didn’t you briefly get to know his widow?
Do you know anyone who knows her?
Could I trouble you for her email?
Is it true that you once outlined a book about Michiko Kakutani that was going to be called Limning the Chiaroscuro and was going to remix every review she’d ever written?
Oh, I see—those were her two favorite words, and she used them over and over?
Well, we all have our go-to vocab, don’t we?
For instance, for you, the following words: “candor,” “brave,” “meditation,” “rigorous,” “excavation,” “examination,” “exploration,” “investigation,” “relentlessly,” “bottomlessly,” “powerfully,” “enormously,” “human,” “animal,” “text,” “intimacy,” “urgency,” “existence,” “sex,” “violence,” “metaphysical,” etc., etc. Pot/kettle/black, mister?
Is that the point, for you, of Markson’s compendia of ludicrously “wrong” reviews of books now worshipped?
When I google you, thumbnail photos of other writers come up I’ve never heard of, like Thomas Ligotti. Any clue why?
Has the praise so far, in your 40-year career, reached the level of your expectations?
Nothing could ever fill the void, could it?
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