Presskit for Remote
Foreword | Reviews | Quotes from writers | Author's photo | Author's bio | Cover image
Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity
New foreword by Phillip Lopate
Winner of the PEN / Revson Award
The recent memoir craze in publishing had not gone on long beforeit began to provoke a backlash and a crisis. The backlash, from various fastidious literary critics, expressed disgust at the narcissism of nobodies ("How dare these neophyte authors think we care about them and their problems?"), and a drawing of the skirts up from the muck of "untransformed" experience, as well as a certain commercial envy. Such principled or resentful disdain alone would not have been sufficient to provoke a crisis, but sales began to diminish,indicating that the public itself, having sampled the lives and traumas of several dozen representative strangers, was experiencing some satiety with the form. Of course, historically speaking, autobiographical writing is too established a literary practice ever to peak and ebb; but the "new memoir" has, for the moment at least, been put on the defensive. It needs some fresh thinking and formal innovation.
Along comes David Shields to take up the job. Refusing to casthis life in the pious scenarios of the recovery movement, with its convenient narrative arc of victimization, addiction, denial, revelation and faith, he insists on trying to convey the unredeemed flotsam and jetsam of daily American experience. Rather than evading the charge of self-absorption with a show of false humility, or self-justifying claims of acute suffering leading to triumph, he dives right into the comedy of narcissism, unraveling its extraordinary pettiness and insecurity. The reader is free to identify (squeamishly, of course) or feel superior. But either way, you had better be awarethat Shields knows full well what he is doing: a part of him wants naturally to be loved, another part wants to provoke and irritate. He shows courage and sophistication in playing at the borders of acceptance, as well as in interrogating the autobiographical tradition (note the references to Rousseau, Nabokov, Trow). In the end,Remote is not so much a memoir as a meditation on memoirs, on the pleasures and pitfalls of autobiographical writing.
Remote is both a book very much of its time, and ahead of its
time. It is clearly topical in focusing on America's fascination with celebrity, and the fear that one is not really alive unless the media had fastened on oneself. We are shown in these pages the humiliation that people will put themselves through to be used by the media. Beyond that, we are brought face to face with the underlying anxiety of identity. What is the nature of the individual self in the today's consumer culture? Are our thoughts even our own, or are we merely channeling messages from the mass media, which function as a kind of exoskeleton. Martin Buber wrote: "The perception of one's fellow man as a whole, as a unity, and as uniqueeven if his wholeness, unity, and uniqueness are only partly developed, as is usually the caseis opposed in our time by almost everything that is commonly understood as specifically modern." Shields scrupulously gives appropriate weight to the colonized self, brainwashed by tribal inputs, while at the same time insisting that yes, we are individuals, in the old, humanist sense of the term, if only by virtue of our petty spite, our unresolvable desires, and our inexplicable tenderness for the world's detritus.
Shields is a master of the fragment, which allows him to spotlight the isolated geekiness of a particular subject, while also weavingthematic links between the pieces. Each fragment can be a mini-essay, a prose poem, a list (see his brilliant catchment of clichés in "Always"), a vignette, or some other framing device. The white space between sections permits easy jumps from the personal to the impersonal, the trivial to the lofty. By employing this mosaic technique, Shields operates here in an essayistic line that includes Joan Didion and Richard Rodriguez, and which can be traced back to the seminal Walter Benjamin, with his "One Way Street" and "A Berlin Childhood" suites that collaged recollections with speculative analyses about modern forms of advertising and coping. In this modernist tradition, the fragment underscores the lack of coherence and causality in contemporary experience, and in the individual self.
One might also try to place Shields in the literary generation of such hyperventilating, hyper-footnoting, "voice" writers as David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Nicholson Baker, and Dave Eggers.All of these experimental stylists have camped out at the intersection between high and low culture, fiction and nonfiction, reliable witnessing and hypertrophied rationalization, or obsessive logorrhea. They reflect the postmodernist fascination with the undecidability
of any one truth.
Shields, too, questions his reliability as a mature witness by worrying the perspectival flaw alluded to in the title: remoteness, remote control, detachment, an inability to engage with life, etc. He provides us with a set of alternate lenses, such as friends who criticize his character, or "almost famous" alter egos, such as David Milch, Bob Balaban, "Stuttering John" Melendez, and Joseph Schildkraut, who enact career trajectories that suggestively aggrandize
or diminish his own sense of self. Having said all that, I would
add that Shields's persona is more grounded, attractive, warm, cohesive and optimistic than his use of fragments and self-disclaimers would suggest. Overall, he comes off as a mensch.
In Remote, as in Shields's successive forays into autobiographical writing, Black Planet and Enough About You, we become extremely familiar with certain elements of the "I"-character: his stuttering, his liberal journalist parents, his Jewishness, his obsession with sports and movies, his awkward adolescence, his graduate school apprenticeship
as a writer, his identification with Seattle, and so on. We
also become privy to more minute details, preferences, habits, tics, of such particularity that you almost have to go back to the great Montaigne to find an equivalently miniscule self-scrutiny. He confides, for instance: "I prefer previews to the movie, the 'about the author' notes in the back of literary magazines to the contents of the magazine, the pregame hype to the game. . . . I'm drawn to affectless people whose emptiness is a kind of frozen pond on which I excitedly skate. . . . In social situations in which it would be to my disadvantage to appear heterosexual, I attempt to give the impression that it's not beyond my ken to be bisexual." Shields shares with Montaigne the conviction that it is precisely these secret little peculiarities, barely cknowledged by oneself, that make a person discretely individual and human.
Along with Wayne Koestenbaum and Daniel Harris, Shields has gone the farthest of his generation, I think, in taking risks with autobiographical writing. He mocks naked self-absorption until it turns into its obverse, the dissolution of the ego. That is why I said earlier that this book might have been ahead of its time: when Remote first appeared, in 1996, it was met with delight by thecognoscenti, and incomprehension by the squares. Now we have a second chance to savor what Shields has been up to.
"The talented Mr. Shields gives us . . . a clever collection of vignettes, descriptions, commentaries, and aperçus held together by the author's voice and a finely tuned sense of the absurd . . . Remote is elliptical, funny, and ironic . . . amusing . . . entertaining . . ."Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"In the current craze of personal and family memoirs, David Shields's Remote is unique. It's a mishmash, a potpourri; it's impersonal, it's embarrassingly revealing. It's very funny, and it tells us more than we want to know about American life. . . . Without stooping to anything like characterization or chronology, Shields gives us his life, an American life, perilously close to the ones we ourselves live."
Carolyn See, Washington Post
"One of 1996's slept-on gems, Remote is an extended, collage-style meditation on media, fame, distance, the nature of observation, and the location of one's self in all of these. As much reflexive autobio broken into tiny chunks as pop cultural commentary, Remote is sharp, funny, poignant, and exceptionally media-savvy, featuring a David Shields who can pull apart complicated relationships between observer and observed with poetic ease."
Joe Gross, Austin American-Statesman
"Remote should, in retrospect, be seen as one of the definitive texts of the 1990sa trim, elegant, nonfiction answer to Infinite Jest, footnotes and all. Like David Foster Wallace's gigantic novel (or at least like six or seven hundred pages of it), Remote is a mordant meditation on the odd way we live nowin the thrall of celebrity, at the mercy of the media, at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice. It's a kind of anti-memoir, gathering data from bumper stickers, personal correspondence, and fugitive observations on a variety of subjects, most of them defiantly banal. His most memorable passages turn over the smoothest stones in the cultural stream to expose the psychic muck and squirm underneath them."
A.O. Scott, Newsday
". . . [a] brilliant mix of scrapbook, cultural criticism, autobiography, travelogue, and found poetry . . . Shields holds a mirror to society and sees himself. He holds a mirror to himself and sees society. And it is always a fun-house mirrorwarped by irony and goofy insight. There are sections of this amazing, funny little book composed (beautifully) of nothing more than bumper-sticker slogans; there are pages of bold pronouncements, many of which are lacerating in their acuity."
Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
"A colorful gallery of cultural significance. . . . a lively and inventive collection of 52 short takes on contemporary American life . . . What Shields reveals about himself and others is often wise, frequently hilarious, but not always comforting to hear. His deadpan wisecracks hang precipitously over despairlike a cross between Fran Lebowitz and Milan Kundera."
John Hawley, San Francisco Chronicle
"A witty and original cultural scribe and voice of his generation."
Irene Lacher, Los Angeles Times
"David Shields's Remote, a smart and disturbing collection of fifty-two short essays, dissects our obsession with image and television celebrity and, in the process, dissects the author himself. . . . Remote is as hip a book as will be published this season . . . Shields's book forces one to feel the insidious power of [the] desire to be connected to what everyone else is doing. He forces thought about the absurd little kinks in one's own responses to mass entertainment."
Thomas Mallon, GQ
"A funny, fizzy book . . . a book for a society sick of books. . . . Remote makes plenty of charmingly fish-eyed points about our strange desires."
Jeff Giles, Newsweek
"Shields's new book is the latest in literary fashion. . . . A guilt-free, bite-size head treat. . . . Shields's dictionary of received ideas is sharp and incontestable."
Walter Kirn, New York
"In a series of vivid verbal snapshots, David Shields's Remote captures an all too familiar America frighteningly obsessed with fame. Shields's postmodern memoir provides an ironic conduit to a media-mad society. In fifty-two short takes, Shields brilliantly takes the measure of America."
Janice Lee, Elle
"Self-consciousness can be a genuine, life-depleting curse. But without it, Shields never could have written a book as funny, complicated, and accurate as this one."
James Marcus, Village Voice
"Shields is a shrewd cultural critic . . . very funny . . . Remote approaches contemporary autobiography in an engagingly non-alienated manner, and its wit is welcome."
Robert Taylor, Boston Globe
"An idiosyncratic, droll, . . . ravishing assemblage that both investigates and replicates the fragmented, irony-poisoned, celebrity-obsessed consciousness of fin-de-siecle America. . . . Shields . . . communicates with crackling elegance . . . A winning combination of humor and insightSeinLanguage for highbrows."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Entertaining and original, this is highly recommended for general consumption."
"What makes Shields's perspective on popular culture so interesting is its highly personal, even confessional nature: his essays often examine the private connections he feels to public figures and events. . . . Shields is a gifted writer capable of surprising perceptions and considerable wit, and his idiosyncratic book offers intriguing insights into the ways the media can shape both the identities and the perceptions of its viewers."
"Breathtakingly intelligent . . . electric insights . . . cool, dry, arch irony . . . addictive . . ."
Review of Contemporary Fiction
"A shrewd, funny investigation of the nature of modern celebrity and our hunger for it. Shields is a wonderful guide -- funny, sardonic, acerbic . . . into the swamp of popular culture. . . . Remote is part-memoir, part-journalism, part-essay, part-invention. It is intriguing throughout."
Terry McDermott, Seattle Times
"Shields's ruminations on life and culture are not just a diary of experience, a chronicle of his willing embrace of our culture. Rather, this strange little book -- just over 200 small pages, with loads of white space and family photos -- achieves a kind of hypnotic power by Shields's standing apart from his subjects. He is a trenchant observer, a talent no doubt honed through learning to manage the stuttering that marked his childhood and youth (and that became the subject of his second novel, Dead Languages, in 1989). . . . Remote is an iconoclastic and unclassifiable, quirky and irreverent meditation on the cluttered surface of late twentieth-century American life."
Donn Fry, Seattle Times
"An arch set of tall tales that raises provocative questions about celebrity worship, self-worth, and detachment from society."
Jeff Baker, Portland Oregonian
"Remote inspires thought and self-examination. Shields is a talented writer and his view of the media culture is astute."
Patricia Ricks, Austin American-Statesman
"He is, bless his heart, himself a camera lens, nonjudgmental, realistic about our slavery to image."
Susan Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
"Shields makes a lot of good . . . points about the distance between life and celebrity. . . . Remote has picked up a lot of hip cachet . . ."
"His hip, witty voice and acerbic insights make this a fast-paced read."
Faris Cassell, Eugene Register-Guard
"Interesting, inspired, and very, very funny, Remote is the most fun you can have reading. The perfect book to read aloud to friends or enjoy by yourself. Remote is impossible to categorize; there has never been a book like this."
J.A. Chandler, Point No Point
"Remote cleverly explores the distance between celebrities and everyday people."
Paul Sternman, San Mateo County Times
"He's written an unclassifiable book (social commentary? selective autobiography?) that lays bare our media-driven culture even as it threatens to make a celebrity of its author."
Rebecca Gleason, Seattle Weekly
"A savvy, splintered memoir."
Emily Baillargeon, Seattle Weekly
"Shields's obsession with remoteness becomes a densely layered, exquisitely ironic exploration of that which alienates us from ourselves and from each other. . . . As the reader's eye weaves between text and title and photographic image, a net of delicate connections is created. Like the medium which it critiques, Remote works directly on the reptile brain."
Paul Bravmann, The Stranger
"A pretty-damn-good memoir in the form of essays on pop-culture."
"Remote has the eagle-eyed riffs of Nicholson Baker, the mania of Mark Leyner, and most importantly, Shields's own trademarked brand of savage introspection that made his three earlier books of fiction so captivating."
Aaron Greenleaf, Elliott Bay Booknotes
"A series of 52 short pieces, each examining the book's subject from a different angle -- a slight zoom out, a shift in focus, a change of scene -- giving us, by the last page, a visual map of a fully three-dimensional idea, an idea explored systematically enough to be taken with us whole and examined on our own."
University of Washington Daily
". . . the self-celebrity pathology of the cinema age. . . David Shields has a fine diagnostic eye for the absurdities that are its symptoms. . . . If distance is Shields's theme, self-consciousness is the glue that binds it together into a brief and very funny intellectual excursion. Generating small, empathetic epiphanies, Shields seems like a clever man. He is at least a clever writer."
"A droll, sometimes hilarious, and consistently important factual fiction about our pathological passion for celebrity. . . . But unlike elitist social critics, Shields has had the courage to examine his own fascination with fame, instead of pointing an accusing finger at `them,' whoever `they' might be."
Jonathan Kochmer, Amazon.com Books
"Loaded with stinging wit and offbeat observations. . . . Daring in conception, sometimes self-indulgent, often funny, Remote ultimately emerges as a compelling counterforce to remoteness."
Rick Schulz, Mr. Showbiz
"In Remote, David Shields examines the role of mass culture in the formation of mass 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."
Jesse Garon, Beatrice
"Brutally frank, witty to the extreme, sometimes hilarious, and always scary, Shields has hold of life as we live it. Ironic, dead honest, and so close to true it's a physical hurt, Remote is exactly what we arealone in our rooms, bathed in the blue light of TV's halo, clicker in hand."
Nancy Walbeck, Anacortes American
"One thing I've noticed: the category of nonfiction has had its walls blown off; you can write almost about anything. I read this book, Remote, by David Shields. I had a wonderful time reading this book. It took me a day and a half of picking it up, putting it down, picking it up; I was traveling a lot. I really love this book. I said to someone, `You should read this book.' And they said, `What's it about?' And I said, `I don't know exactly.' It's just an experience that you have with this object the book over the course of a couple of days. There is a person for whom this book is meant, and when they come into a bookstore, they may not know that they're that person."
Ray Suarez, host, Talk of the Nation, NPR
"An intoxicating report on the cult of celebrity, media, and beauty worship."
Neal Turnage, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
"A juicy, unusual little assemblage of memories, slogans, anecdotes, letter excerpts, and deadpan observations born of way too much time spent in front of actors on screens."
Georgia Straight (Vancouver, B.C.)
"Shields is concerned with how modern culture shapes and constricts people's identities. . . . How, asks Shields, can we criticize a lowest common denominator world while still liking things our education tells us we're not supposed to like? . . . The appeal of Remote lies in its wide-ranging investigation of North America's cultural deserts. . . . Remote is a complex, funny read deserving wide exposure. Its pointed observations are far more insightful than Douglas Coupland's vacuous depictions of contemporary culture."
Christopher Brayshaw, Vancouver Courier
"At a time when the phenomenon of memoir writing and the very literal telling of personal histories seem to be at odds with the promotion or even preservation of the American imagination, Remote escapes such categorization for several reasons. First, Shields never takes himself too seriously, even when he's being serious. He also resists drifting into his own small world by chronicling the minute details of his childhood in a way which alienates the reader; each anecdote, each observation embodies issues which most members of the culture deal with on a daily basis. Finally, his intentions do not include elevating himself to the ranks of celebrity/royalty, casting himself as an equal among the `stars.' . . . Perhaps the only similarity between Dead Languages and Remote (aside from the fact that they're both damn good) is their ability to evoke laughter from us at moments when weaker defense moments would allow tears to well up in our eyes. In the case of Dead Languages, such tears would be shed for the narrator and his family; with Remote, they'd be shed for ourselves. . . ."
Lorelei Sharkey, Stuff Magazine
"The terrain of celebrity culture is constantly shifting ground, and what Shields has invented is, at least, a new way to map the landscape."
Brad Tyer, Houston Chronicle
"Shields takes part in mass culture, while actively questioning it and his own role in it, never accepting what is seen or heard at face value. By making himself so relentlessly ordinary, Shields ultimately suggests that this self-interrogation is possible for all of us."
Ron Hogan, Urban Desires
"A quirky and highly original look at the nature of identity in this media-saturated age. This often startling memoir more an anti-memoir somehow manages to encompass everything from family photos to a taping of the Oprah show to fans' dreams of the late rock star Kurt Cobain."
John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"Remote offers [students] ways to rethink their own daily lives. It's equipment for living."
U. of Texas (at Dallas) Mercury
Editors' recommended list
In fifty-two short takes, David Shields shows pop culture affecting even the most intimate workings of an everyday character. Is it fiction? It is autobiography? Is it humor? What appears to be merely a string of bumper stickers might just be the discovery of society's secret code."
MSNBC Mondo Guide
"A wonderful, wildly original, illuminating book about the perils of being a citizen in a celebrity culture."
"An astonishing trick mirror, rich with autobiography, cultural history, catalogs of our sins, reportage, traveloguein sum, a wonderfully funny and often heartbreaking report on the party and the guests. A dead-on document for the nineties."
"Frightening and funny and courageous. David Shields breaks every rule with perfect elegance. Then he tells the truth of an age."
"Unclassifiable, wayward, inspired, and very funny, Remote is one of the most intelligently self-exposing books I've encountered in a long time. By documenting his own sensibility without insisting that it be representative, David Shields strikes wild chords in this reader."
"An extraordinary bookwholly absorbing, brilliant, and utterly Shields's own. Early on, I thought of the word `extrospective' to describe its wonderfully paradoxical method: one follows a character who is built out of the transient material of American popular culture but who turns into as singular a voice and (all irony intended) `personality' as anyone now writing in America."
"Remote is wonderfully evocative of Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, if Mailer had seen the likes of Oprah Winfrey in his formative years. Where Mailer suffered gentle megalomania, Shields has megabitis. This is an interesting book."
"I read Remote with enormous pleasure. By turns sardonic and tender, elegiac and satirical, this really quite brilliant book crafts fragments of the cultural landscape into a telling commentary on the American obsession with confession, personality, celebrity, image, simulacrum."
"What an enormous pleasure it is to enter Shields's truly original mind. An amazing booksuch smart, funny takes on things."
"Provocative, resonant, remarkable. A wonderful book. I will never watch television the same again, and I watch a lot of television. Shields has captured something essential about what American life has become, and he's done it in a way that is all his own."
"With disarming honesty and humor, David Shields ponders our cultural stewslogans, images, celebrity, hopes and fears. Remote is like a mirror in which we each will find a familiar face."
"Remote is an elegant and beautiful and admirable undertaking."
"I very much admire Shields's work. Remote is audacious."
"Remote is a brilliant achievement. It's a step toward a new kind of autobiography, which merges pictures and prose and combines personal and historical elements. It's also hilarious; again and again, while reading the book, I laughed aloud."
"I am tempted to say that Remote is an interesting book, but I have to admit that in many ways it is a brilliant one. I like best the relation between an overall sense of entrapmentnot just in movie culture but in photos and bodies and the persona of a distant author and the ways of making the trope poignant and compelling."
"I've been reading Remote every night. I've not been able to put it down. It's very provocative, very funny, very disturbing. It deserves a wide readership and generous praise, which it may not get because it's so honest."
"I loved reading Remote. I find the ironies brilliantly, painfully crushing."
"I am a fan of both Dead Languages and Remote. I'm even considering smuggling a bit of the latter into my anthology of Best Essays of the Year."
"I loved Remote. I was swept away by the thrilling prose and the ever-deepening subtext."
"Shields seems to come at things we all feel from the odd angle. He has such a light touch, and yet the book gathers an unexpected and satisfying weight as it goes along."
"A strange, true book, unsettling in many ways, and certainly unique. A good idea well-executed."
"What a fine book. I found it funny, brave, smart, at important moments quite moving."
David Shields is the author of three other nonfiction books, Black Planet (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), Enough About You, and Baseball Is Just Baseball; two novels, Dead Languages and Heroes; and a collection of connected stories, A Handbook for Drowning. His essays and stories have appeared in dozens of periodicals, including the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Utne Reader. He lives in Seattle, where he is professor of English at the University of Washington.
David Shields belongs to MLA, PEN, AWP, Poets and Writers, Authors League, and the Writers Guild of America.
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