Remarks Are Not Literature or The Very Last Interview

by David Shields

I care about almost nothing except remarks anymore. I read almost nothing anymore except books of aphorisms and epigraphs.

Do you want to dramatize the world’s actions or contemplate the world’s ideas?

It’s not a rhetorical question—which is it?

Are you sure?

What’s “real”? What’s “self”?

Do you prefer quotation marks around such outmoded terms, or no?

Was that sort of your epiphanic moment?

Do you even realize what the etymology of “epiphany” is?

What is memory?

What is knowledge? What is knowledge? Of self? Of another? What’s reality? What can we know?

Okay that no quote marks around these outmoded concepts?

As you see it, what’s the difference between Oprah’s/Trump’s/NYT’s/Fox’s brand of truth and the truth that essayists supposedly seek?

What is knowledge What’s truth? What’s imagination? What’s history?

Still no scare-quotes?

Okay, how has the last century of modernism and postmodernism—relativity, subjectivity, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the contested space of "nonfiction," etc, etc—paved the way for in a way Trump? To what degree are we all complicit in minor ways?

The death of the imagination. No white person can write about a black person, etc. Yet you made a movie about Marshawn Lynch, and I think it may be the best thing you’ve ever done. Is human empathy over, etc? Is this an old white person's stance?

How do we leave with knowledge gained, wisdom gleaned? What chaos have we helped create? What shit have we blown up?

Is your goal in life to become blogger in chief? Disrupter online?

How to do this without becoming incredibly annoying?

Did it not even happen like that?

“Like how” or “And how”? There’s quite a difference, n’est ce-pas?

Doing what exactly?

Wouldn’t you?

Does that make sense?

Do you even have a sense of yourself?

No one can put every relevant fact in; everyone chooses what to put in and what to take out. Is that unfair to the reader? Is every act of writing an action of an autocrat?

Did or did not FDR have polio? Can we not agree on any facts whatsoever? What’s the difference between “facts” and “truth”?

What’s the lifespan anymore of a fact?

Where do we draw the line?

Can we please, please, please—not stop talking, please—but stop thinking about the world in such black-and-white terms?

To what degree are you sympathetic to my framing of the argument, and to what degree do you want or need to push back?

Can a biographer tell a kind of truth?

If so, what kind?

What kind (if any) untruths can biographers engage in?

Another way to put it might be: what are the truths or untruths that biographers can tell?

How is this different from the truths and untruths that autobiographers can tell?

If everything can be disputed, what’s “real,” as they say?

Sure, this is Trump 101, but isn’t it also Post-Modernism 101?

Truth or Dare,  as they say?

You didn’t do too well with that one, did you?

Remember Spin the Bottle?

Is there a more fraught game in the child’s pantheon?
I guess what I’m trying (and failing) to get at is nothing less than: Isn’t the real how we interpret it?

I do think this is so, don’t you?

Your phone battery is dying; should we stop and re-record?

So, really, if the ground is constantly shifting, that’s all that really matters?

That’s your entire project—making sure the elevator stops in between floors of the department store?

That’s a noble intellectual journey, in your view?


How do even begin to function in a life completely drained of meaning?
When you said “entrenched,” what did you mean?

Who truly knows, eh?

“When we are not sure, we are alive”—are you sure this is something that Graham Greene said? Can you prove it?

What does J-Stor stand for—any clue?

What about existence (beyond frogs belling in mud) can you truly affirm?

Does that ring true to you—the archetypal Coetzee gesture?

How do you live life, given the “fact” (lol) that it (life) has no grand meaning?

“Everything is significant, but nothing is meaningful”—that’s your default gesture?

It’s just another quote, ain’t it?

Where to start?

Not entirely sure what "speculative nonfiction" means. I think it means any attempt to write an essay is inherently speculative. I agree with that. Any attempt to understand is, by its very nature, an act of speculation. Wow, when I look up the word, this definition comes up: "the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence." Because, of course, for what is there firm evidence? I, too, am weary of the term "lyric essay"; it justifies a huge amount of indulgent work. But I'm always wary of the traditional capital-E essay; let's all genuflect at the feet of Addison and Steele. That doesn't wildly interest me, either. I do love the essay form with all my heart and soul. I love the book-length essay; I even like it as a term--the "book-length essay." Do seven people know what that means? Probably not. And, of course, when you say "essay" to your in-laws, they think you're writing a paper about flower imagery in Middlemarch.

I wonder if "speculative essay" has to do with "speculum." I like this definition of "speculm": "metal or plastic instrument that is used to dilate an orifice or canal in the body to allow inspection." That is beautiful--what is the essay but the dilation of an orifice of the body to allow inspection." I'm tempted to close up shop right there. That's a description of how I've spent at least the last 30 years and more like the last 40 years. This project in progress: I've tried to remember every question ever asked of me and I've tried to pour these questions into thematic silos (otherwise known as 'chapters'), and I've tried to organize each chapter and each micro-movement of each chapter to within an inch of its life. It's a "real"book; it's really about journalistic investigation and internal investigation and asking questions and wondering if remarks are or are not literature. I've always loved that Gertrude Stein dictum to Hemingway--Remarks are not lit, and yet, of course, I couldn't disagree more. I care about almost nothing except remarks anymore. I read almost nothing anymore except books of aphorisms and epigraphs. What else is there to say. But enough of this speculua, speculae, speculum.


David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty-two books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Other People: Takes & Mistakes (NYTBR Editors’ Choice). The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is forthcoming in 2019. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a senior contributing editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into two dozen languages.