The Beatrice Interview

David Shields

You Know How Far Away You Are

interviewed by Ron Hogan

In Remote , author David Shields examines the role of mass culture in the formation of identity...well, that makes it sound like a dry academic work, and it's anything but that. Although its insights hold their own against any theoretical work from the cultural studies department, they do so in prose that is thoroughly embedded in the literary and the personal. Or at least something like the personal; it's not always clear whether the "David Shields" of Remote is the same David Shields that wrote the book, even if they do share much of the same history.

I spoke with Shields in his hotel room in San Francisco, somewhere in the middle of his national press tour, where he talked to television, newspaper, and magazine reporters about how people are turned into media figures. The irony is inescapable, but suits his purposes quite well...

RH: How does it feel to go on a media tour talking about the remoteness of media?

DS: The author tour is really a sort of weird epilogue to Remote. I think the main thing that's interesting for me is that I feel a lot of the book is trying to do is to jam the wires in some way, fuck up the whole operation. So for me, it's not a contradiction to be doing a media tour because I'm just trying to throw a monkey wrench into the whole process. I was doing a TV interview, for example, and I put my hand over the camera lens. I'm having that kind of fun with trying to break our reverential view towards media culture. We can enjoy it for its weird playground, but it's not to be taken too seriously, or it can be enslaving.

RH: Some of the celebrities you choose to write about (Bob Balaban, "Stuttering John" Melendez) exemplify that sense of being in the middle of things, but alienated from them at the same time.

DS: Those two sections are essential to the book. I view them in a way as bookends, alter egos to my own identity that I identify with them -- or at least I pretend to identify with them -- enormously as crucial scapegoats within media culture. It's important how flawed they are: Melendez through his stutter and generally ungainly manner; Balaban through his whiny tone, passive-aggressiveness. The viewer identifies with the hero who's handsome and mythic in part by NOT identifying with somebody like Balaban, trying to cast off the human qualities that he displays. We excise out our human fallibility to imagine ourselves as being one with Michael Douglas or whoever. And if those actors are willing to play those kind of roles, it's a very difficult bargain that they've made in the triangle between hero, audience, and reviled character.

RH: It's an odd sort of self-identification, as well.

DS: A lot of the book is about the masochism of the viewing experience. Much of it is about voyeurism and vicariousness and the ecstacy of the vicarious experience. Part of that experience is quite passive, humiliating, and in that way rather masochistic. I think there's a kind of masochism in Melendez's performing relationship to Howard Stern, but there's a similar masochism in the way that I'm presenting myself in this book and on this tour as a weird stalker of the celebrity gods. I'm using myself as a representative of American obsession with beauty, celebrity, and image. I think that at his best, Melendez does a brilliant job of emptying out the starmaking machinery, undermining the whole process of stardom. Balaban, I think, is less consciously subversive, but there's still something brave about his willingness to always play that type of character. Part of it is that he's simply making a living and has been typecast.

RH: One of the interesting scenarios of revulsion and attraction in our relationship to celebrities is when the hero and the reviled character get collapsed into the same person. Like Oprah.

DS: Oprah's interesting. I don't know how conscious her strategy is, but she is admired for raising herself up by her bootstraps to become an articulate host who tries to address, for the most part, serious questions on domestic issues. At the same time, she deconstructs that celebrity and makes herself a star who can't be touched, but also a human being who's extremely vulnerable, particularly in an area that is of concern to many of the women who watch her: her weight. You think of other talk show hosts, and they don't have that combination to the degree that she has, and it's something that has developed over years as well, through her own revelations and endless discussion in the tabloids.

RH: And every crisis that comes up around her -- the weight, the childhood abuse, the drug use in the 1970s -- ultimately becomes an issue of self- esteem, which mirrors our own self-loathing in watching famous people on TV. So we're back to our own reflections in the media...but what makes your book different from other critiques of mass culture?

DS: I was reading this column in the paper yesterday where this guy was writing a diatribe about JFK, Jr. and his latest fight with his girlfriend. How we shouldn't keep pursuing him in the tabloids, what our fascination with celebrities says about us, and so on. And I was trying to figure out what made my book more than just a two-hundred page version of that column. What was finally unsatisfying about that column is that the author took on a tone in which he tried to pretend that he was outside of the emotional maelstrom of the story. If I were to do that story, I'd talk about what watching JFK, Jr. meant to me: how I might wish that I was as handsome as he is, or as rich, or that I know people who were at Brown when he was. But it's not adequate for media people to sit outside of the circus and judge it. I hope that the appeal of my book is that I actually am inside the tent, rooting through the elephant shit, as seduced and beguiled and depressed as everybody else watching.

RH: There are a lot of passages where you put yourself through the wringer, especially in revisiting your teenage and college angst, where you hold up that self-loathing as well.

DS: I'm interested in art that has a strongly self- reflexive quality. Writer/performers like Spalding Gray, Dennis Leary, or Sandra Bernhard. Documentary filmmakers like Ross McElwee and Errol Morris. People who know that they are participating in the media process, and don't shy away from that. I like work that has an autobiographical element, a memoir element in which you're telling some kind of confesional story, but is married to huge cultural history, like McElwee in Sherman's March, or Gray in Swimming to Cambodia. Quite personal, but weirdly large and national at the same time.

I don't know if you're familiar with my previous novel, Dead Languages, about a kid growing up with a stutter. I grew up with a stuttering problem myself, and so a recent interviewer was asking me how the issues raised there tie into this book. I'm not sure I can encapsulate it...but growing up, that woundedness, that vulnerability and imperfection, made me want to exist in the perfect world of media culture. The depth of that stutter made the fluid, glib world of mass culture seductive and alluring. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, getting back to your point about self-loathing; somehow there's a human lack, from which we turn to mass culture as a refuge, but even as it offers us refuge, it punishes us with deeper realms of self-loathing, as we realize that we aren't like the stars.

RH: That's why authors and directors appeal to me so much, because they exist at a weird halfway point. Their names are famous, but unlike film and sports stars, they can walk down the street unnoticed. We imprint on their work, not on their face or body.

DS: If you can eat dinner at a good restaurant in Cleveland without being recognized, you're probably not famous. A lot of people who think of themselves as 'famous' just aren't, not on that scale. People can be well-known within their field, but being famous involved being known outside that. If I'm at a writer's conference, I can be famous sometimes within that tiny world, but I don't deal with that all the time. In my tiny glimpses of what fame can be like, though, I see how there's a private self that can be very different from what the public is imprinting on your face, your image.

At the end of this century, we as Americans seem to be channeling many of our desires through celebrity and mass culture. This book is a series of sketches based on that idea. I don't have any sort of thesis as to why that is, but I have some tentative thoughts, based on my own experiences. Without being too self-helpish about it, I think that Remote can be seen as a toolkit, where the reader can fashion his or her own weird scrapbook of their relationship to popular culture.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
David Denby | Gish Jen

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan