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Moving literature forward

David Shields on how to break the boundaries of art

David Shields is a radical.

When his book “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” hit shelves in 2010, it didn’t so much mean to contribute to the literary world as to destroy it. The book is a collage of quotes and ideas that amount to an argument for the death of traditional literature and for a new form, without genre and better suited for the changes of the 21st century.

“Reality Hunger” is fiercely intellectual and uncompromising, but in real life, Shields is friendly, talkative and modest about his success.

Shields’ 8 p.m. lecture on Feb. 19 was the opening event for the Spring Reader’s Series sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers. The series runs in conjunction with a mini-course, “Writers and Other Artists,” where students can meet with writers in informal settings to discuss their work and lives. Visiting from the University of Washington, where he is a Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, Shields spoke about his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life,” and how it takes the abstract theories of “Reality Hunger” and puts them into practice, breaking a few genres along the way.

“If you want to be a serious artist, you have to be willing to break the form. All great forms of literature either dissolve a genre or reinvent it,” Shields said. He’s particularly interested in using nonfiction not as a tight, uncompromising genre such as journalism, but as a promontory from which we can jump into existential, veridical and epistemological questions.

Shields read two chapters from “How Literature Saved My Life.” In one chapter he compares himself to George Bush, finding disturbing echoes in personality that lead him to conclude that Bush is his “worst self realized.” The other chapter is about a romance with his dorm neighbor at Brown University, enabled by his surreptitious reading of her journal and broken by his revealing of that fact.

In a conversation I had with Shields Tuesday afternoon, he spoke about films that influenced him, ranging from Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” to the works of Steven Soderbergh. Two films in particular are important to him.

The first is “Sherman’s March,” the 1986 film by Ross McElwee. The documentary was intended to be an exploration of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a pivotal movement by Union General Sherman in the Civil War, but the story gets sidetracked by different plotlines, until those seemingly unrelated subjects finally converge in a scene that changes the meaning of the entire film.

The other is “The Clock,” a 24-hour movie by Christian Marclay, which was released the same year as “Reality Hunger.” The film, shown in museum exhibits, compiles time-telling moments from tens of thousands of different movies and is synchronized to tell the time perfectly and, because of the way scenes are edited are recontextualized, the camera’s objectivity is disturbed.

Both of those movies exemplify David Shields’ theories; a presumed nonfictional or objective subject is channeled through an artist to create something novel from its source. Shields is interested in blurring reality, fiction and identity into a messy cacophony — or, in his words, “getting the frame to wobble.”

For Shields, 21st century writing needs to address a crucial issue: moving the art form forward so that the stories of the past are not just endlessly retold.

“It’s my view that if contemporary writing is going to reflect how life is now, it has to be searching for what the filmmaker Steven Soderbergh calls ‘a new grammar,’” Shields said.

While he describes “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” as a book that “burned literature to the ground,” Shields sees himself as part of a tradition of constant change. His next book, yet untitled, is in the form of a dialogue between him and his student of over 20 years, with whom he always disagrees, Caleb. To the suspicion of his wife, they spent five days in what he described as a “meth lab cabin” and recorded their conversations, which are being edited down to a reasonable size. Shields called me up in the middle of the lecture to read Caleb’s line in his upcoming book, which is targeted for a 2014 release. Having a book in a conversational format is a tradition that goes as far back as Plato and Aristotle and is as modern as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s “The Trip,” two comparisons he used to illustrate the expanse of genre.

“The audience at the Tuesday evening reading, and the class members at Wednesday morning’s conversation, were attentive and engaged with the provocative issues David raised about the nature of genre and authorship in the 21st century,” said Christine Gelineau, associate director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and instructor of “Writers and Other Artists.”

For young writers, Shields’ advice is to harness our generation’s trend of digital manipulation to push art forward in new and interesting directions, just like Marclay did.

“Find a form that releases your best intelligence,” Shields said. “The fundamental thing is to be searching for that new grammar. That is the most exciting thing to me right now.” The best literature, in Shields’ opinion, is so novel that it evokes in a reader the feeling of “stumbling around in a dark room, not really quite sure where they are.”

Fully aware of the skepticism that his critics express toward his enthusiasm for a radically new literature, Shields refers to a paraphrasing of Jay-Z: “I’m not looking at you; I’m looking past you.”