DAVID SHIELDS' career-defining book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, called for a new form of literature pushing the boundaries of creative nonfiction and blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. His newest book puts this call into action. In I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, Shields goes on a four-day trip with a fellow writer (and his former student), Caleb Powell, where the two document the trip on a handheld digital recorder, then transcribe parts of it for print.
Ostensibly, it's a book about life versus art, with Powell arguing for lived experience, and Shields for fully engaging with one's creative work. But often, Powell and Shields simply appear to be defending the choices they've made as well as their own beliefs, regardless of the subject at hand. While the book could easily be seen as just an exhaustive and mildly entertaining sparring match between two extremely opinionated men, elements of artifice and comedy seep in, calling into question the book's intention.
Along the way, the authors consider sculpting themselves into more defined characters, actively discuss what parts of the conversation to leave in and what to take out, and try in some way to force an ending. It's purposefully unclear how much these elements are implemented, or if these conversations are just there to make the reader question where the discussion ends and a performance begins.
To further complicate the issue, James Franco has directed a film adaptation of I Think You're Totally Wrong that will premiere at Sundance later this month. Franco, another one of Shields' former students, read the book and suggested making a film based on its prevailing arguments. The authors supposedly wrote a script for the film, but threw it out when a "real-life" argument erupted on camera.
Almost more than Shields' and Powell's discussions, their project is defined by its own ambiguities. Whether it's self-aware comedy about writerly self-importance or a frustrating vehicle for intellectual muscle-flexing is never totally clear. And that's what makes it fun.