Silliness Seen as Brilliant
That semi-talented professor David Shields is certainly enjoying unprecedented acclaim for his new book, “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” released recently from Knopf.
Just the other day on the “Today” show, Matt Lauer confirmed that the book is such a mixture — so brilliant and so offensive at the same time — that no one can read it without vomiting.
Lauer himself admired the book yet succumbed when he said, “My favorite part was when Scrotie McBoogerballs slid his head up into the horse’s — bleagh! awwwrrflgh!! ptui! pppt. ppt.”
As soon as he recovered, Lauer asked about the deeper significance of the book: “Was that chapter a slam on healthcare reform, as people have suggested?” he asked the author.
Answering from his home, where his parents have grounded him for using dirty words in print, author Butters Stotch said, “Yes, I pretty much think so.”
Respected Blogger “Remixes” Books in Search of Literary Excellence
Oh, wait a minute. I have just “remixed” two very similar books. This is a remarkable achievement on my part that might be called a “literary wake-up call,” very much as the Shields’ book itself has been labeled, except for the fact that I feel my own lunch going into a state of reflux while trying to introduce the two:
1) The first as mentioned above is “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” a fictional novel by the fine young character named Butters Stotch in the epic TV series, “South Park.” While critically acclaimed, the book is so gross that a new game show has been invented in which contestants wearing headphones listen to the text in an isolation booth until they can’t stand it any longer and throw up all over the glass.
2) That act naturally reminded me of “Reality Hunger,” a “real” book consisting of 618 short pieces, mostly quotations by very good authors (Emerson, Goethe, Yeats, Gornick, Thoreau) that in many cases the real author, David Shields, has “remixed” with generally lousy quotations of his own.
I say “Reality Hunger” is “real” because you can hold it in your hands or read on a screen. It costs an obscene $24.95, which can also stick in your gorge, but that more systemic assault comes later.
“Remix” v. Original
The basis of “Reality Hunger,” according to Shields, is that we children of the Internet have been bombarded with words and ideas from so many sources in one giant “mash-up” of information that any integrated thought of more than a few paragraphs is meaningless.
Let’s, instead, pull some statements out of this hodgepodge of reality and see if they makes sense. Here for example is #200:
“Art is real.
I make it real by putting it into words.”
That statement seems obvious, but Shields, of course, has a larger message. He wants to say that when we don’t know who’s talking, in the context of the other 617 statements he provides, each one may take on a different meaning according to our own subjective interpretation. This itself is a comment on the way people live in the reality of hodgepodge (although really, a list of 618 statements can be so sterile and boring that you find yourself dozing off half the time, but more about that later.)
Anyway, if you do want to know who made that statement — since Shields could never say anything so succinct and to the point — an Appendix is offered in the back where you can look up the attributions of all 618 statements.
The problem here is that when we find #200, the line reads: “Picasso; Virginia Woolf.” This must mean that Picasso said the first line and Woolf said the second. Fine. But when Woolf said, “I make it real,” does the “it” mean art, which one would think because Shields has put the Picasso statement about art above, or does “it” mean, when she said or wrote it, a color or a feeling or the sound of thunder or the thought she just had?
I’d like to know because Virginia Woolf was a genius and David Shields is not. Scrotie McBoogerballs comes closer to being an authentic source because even as a fictional character in a fake novel, he levels with the reader. Shields is messing with us and calling it art.
Losing the Reader’s Trust
Oh, well, maybe I’m being too picky (not). Let’s look at #300, a comparatively lengthy statement credited to science fiction writer William Gibson. It begins:
“The recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.”
That’s the first sentence of #300 that — oh, but wait. Shields seems to have written this sentence, which I assume because I found the original quote by Gibson via Google, and the above sentence isn’t in it.
The rest of the quote is correctly attributed to Gibson, but a closer look at the original shows that Shields has “remixed” Gibson’s words by deciding to:
— update Gibson (for example, the word “record” is replaced with “CD”),
— edit Gibson (“But” replaces “though”),
— trim Gibson (“the whole metastasized library of” is cut from the reference to “Dean Scream remixes”),
— and disagree with Gibson (the game “Doom” is out while “World of Warcraft” has been added in).
Well, the first three these changes could be seen as harmless enough — although I hate them, hate them: Gibson was a visionary writer who lived in his own time and said what he considered the truth for that time. It’s not fair to Gibson or the reader to mix up Gibson’s words to such an extent that we don’t know who is talking.
But for Shields to barge in and cut some of Gibson’s examples out while putting his own in is just unconscionable. In the end, we no longer trust either writer. This may be exactly what Shields is going for — your confusion at each moment is your art — but hell, we learned that years ago from reading classified ads.
Now maybe Gibson rewrote this paragraph himself in an essay that one can’t find through Google, but even if that were the case, it doesn’t change Shields’ responsibility to his readers. Unlike Scrotie, Shields doesn’t tell us where we’re going when he sticks our head up the horse’s bleagh! arrrrrwwwwwgggh! pppt! ppt.
Svengali vs. McBoogerballs
But Shields doesn’t care about the reader. It’s more authentic, he believes, to take pithy snippets written by real authors out of context and “remix” them with his own thoughts or those of others. For one thing, he can take more of the credit than he deserves because he’s riding on the coattails of smarter people.
For another, simply holding up a mirror to reflect the blurring of gobbledygook vs. art is enough, he believes. As expressed in #156, “I want books to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir).”
Yeah, but how? By lying? By playing Svengali? However he’s set it up, the format allows Shields to steal without impunity — “Plagiarism is art,” he says, or is it Picasso — since Knopf and its parent, Random House, have brought in the lawyers who’ve insisted on attribution in the lengthy appendix. The problem as we’ve seen in #300 is that the attributions can’t be trusted, either.
Reading It Anyway
I’d suggest that you read the unbelievably excited praises from a wide range of contemporary authors that Shields and his publisher have plastered across the jacket, but most of those authors are quoted inside the book, so their credibility is strained, too.
However, I do find that their excitement in many cases parallels my own. Believe it or not, there’s a lot to learn from this book, even a lot to … pardon me, here it comes again … to lo …. oh dear, gotta go, bleagh … to love.
More next time.