I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel

I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel

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by David Shields, Caleb Powell

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An impassioned, funny, probing, fiercely inconclusive, nearly-to-the-death debate about life and art—beers included.Caleb Powell always wanted to become an artist, but he overcommitted to life (he’s a stay-at-home dad to three young girls), whereas his former professor David Shields always wanted to become a human being, but he overcommitted to art (he


An impassioned, funny, probing, fiercely inconclusive, nearly-to-the-death debate about life and art—beers included.Caleb Powell always wanted to become an artist, but he overcommitted to life (he’s a stay-at-home dad to three young girls), whereas his former professor David Shields always wanted to become a human being, but he overcommitted to art (he has five books coming out in the next year and a half). Shields and Powell spend four days together at a cabin in the Cascade Mountains, playing chess, shooting hoops, hiking to lakes and an abandoned mine; they rewatch My Dinner with André and The Trip, relax in a hot tub, and talk about everything they can think of in the name of exploring and debating their central question (life and/or art?): marriage, family, sports, sex, happiness, drugs, death, betrayal—and, of course, writers and writing.The relationship—the balance of power—between Shields and Powell is in constant flux, as two egos try to undermine each other, two personalities overlap and collapse. This book seeks to deconstruct the Q&A format, which has roots as deep as Plato and Socrates and as wide as Laurel and Hardy, Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, and Car Talk’s Magliozzi brothers. I Think You’re Totally Wrong also seeks to confound, as much as possible, the divisions between “reality” and “fiction,” between “life” and “art.” There are no teachers or students here, no interviewers or interviewees, no masters in the universe—only a chasm of uncertainty, in a dialogue that remains dazzlingly provocative and entertaining from start to finish.James Franco's adaptation of I Think You're Totally Wrong into a film, with Shields and Powell striving mightily to play themselves and Franco in a supporting role, will be released later this year.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Shields, whose Reality Hunger was named a best book by more than 30 publications, loves his art but wishes he had a life. Friend Powell has published stories and essays, but with life intervening—he's now a stay-at-home dad to three girls—he can't commit to art. Here, they capture an art-vs.-life dialog they had on a retreat to a Cascade Mountains cabin. Look for the James Franco film.

Publishers Weekly
Critic and writer Shields (Reality Hunger) and his former student Powell, once an aspiring artist, now a stay-at-home dad, spent four days together in 2011, conversing on a wide range of issues related to the artistic life. At the center of their quarrel is the push-and-pull between which is the best path: devotion to art or life experience? Shields concedes that Powell has traveled more, had more adventures, and raised more children, but Shields’s devotion to writing paid off in the form of published books, prestigious teaching positions, and engagement with the literary world. As a book-in-dialogue, the two freely discuss and dissect their debts to My Dinner with Andre and David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010). Shields and Powell keep waiting for “the flip,” or the moment when their roles in the interview will reverse, or one will convince the other he is right, but each is so full of complexity and contradictions that it’s difficult to imagine if such a flip is possible. Like any good belletristic conversation, the authors discuss dozens of literary figures, books, and movies, from novelists David Markson and Renata Adler to the movies Sideways and The Crying Game. And, like a true teacher, Shields is always pressing for the larger issue, questioning why art matters or how can suffering be alleviated. A worthy and important addition to the genre, this casual conversation pushes readers to rethink fundamental questions of life and art. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"The premise of the book could easily play as straight farce: two self-involved and argumentative men argue with each other about … themselves. Often in a hot tub. (“You said you wanted homoerotic tension,” Powell says to Shields. “Were you hitting on me?”) But what unfolds is actually quite gripping, and they’re well aware of the farcical qualities. Not only do we witness personal experiences conscripted into intellectual work; we witness these disclosures getting heard and processed. In the end, the form of the book is more illuminating than any resolution the authors find to their central conflict. Shields and Powell offer a different vision of how the confessional might play out: rather than baring their psychic flesh for the sake of exposure and intimacy (“You said you wanted homoerotic tension”), they are excavating complexities inside their experiences….Shields and Powell have generated a “lived” creative inquiry with its roots in the conflict between living and creating. “Art can serve people,” Shields declares. “Basically, the royal road to salvation, for me, lies through an artist saying very uncompromising things about himself. And through reading that relentless investigation, the reader will understand something surprising about himself.” This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession. Its goal isn’t sympathy or forgiveness. Life is not personal. Life is evidence. It’s fodder for argument. To put the “I” to work this way invites a different intimacy—not voyeuristic communion but collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives."—Leslie Jamison, The Atlantic

"Hugely entertaining”—John Murawski, Raleigh News & Observer

“Outrageously entertaining . . . a warm, funny, and charming book that questions not only what it means to live for art, but what it means to live.”—Saul Austerlitz, Boston Globe 

  “Start reading I Think You’re Totally Wrong, then try to stop; I dare you. It screws with your head in a way you can’t shake off, and it’s moving—weirdly moving. It ruined my work day. I loved it. Shields is opening up new ways to be a writer.”—Walter Kirn

I Think You’re Totally Wrong helped make sense of the strange rigors of life as I know it—the balancing of art, work, motherhood, along with enough time to have those moments of adventure or inspiration so that the pleasure of art still feels filled with life, a sort of Proust versus Conrad question many writers or artists know. The book’s arc is seamless, deceptive, effective: by its close, the reader feels an antinarrative resolution, a sense that everyone leaves a bit more alive from the exchange.”—Edie Meidav, The Rumpus

“Provocative . . . entertaining . . . diverting.”—Kurt Rabin, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

“The two longtime pals disagree on marriage, religion, sex, politics, happiness, film—and everything else—with passion, insight, and panache.”—Lisa Shea, Elle
“A fascinating reality-show romp of a new book.”—Davis Schneiderman, Huffington Post
“The edited record of [a] daring descent into the ‘chasm of uncertainty.’”—Matt Seidel, Los Angeles Review of Books
"A provocative, two-sided story.”—TimeOut New York
“Impassioned, funny, probing.—BookForum
“Intelligent and erudite.”—Kevin O’Kelly, Christian Science Monitor
“Raw, unflinching honesty. Seemingly no subject is taboo here.”—Philip Eil, Jewish Daily Forward
“A celebrated new book.”—Jewish Journal
“By turns funny, philosophically engaging, and emotionally revealing.”—Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A worthy and important addition to the genre [book-in-dialogue], this casual conversation pushes readers to rethink fundamental questions about life and art.”—Publishers Weekly
“A stimulating intellectual interaction with lots of heart.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Shields and Powell approach their topics with clarity and wit, they poke and prod, they agree and disagree . . . an often contentious and always intelligent dialogue.”—Mark Levine, Booklist
“How cool is this?”—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“A fierce and funny debate about life and art.”—Type Books
“An impassioned, contentious, and ultimately contentious yet entertaining look at age-old debates about the life of the artist.”—Kevin Larimer, Poets & Writers
“I read this book at compulsive speed, thoroughly engaged by the weekend and the argument—its unbuttoned fluency and candor. I’m envious of the sheer loquaciousness of the conversation and its no-holds-barred freedom (of speech). Both Shields and Powell have their own style of eloquence. The Art v. Life theme may have been the essential trigger for the book, but it becomes engrossing on a score of other fronts.” —Jonathan Raban
“There’s a sense that we can actually see David and Caleb talking, even though, obviously, we can’t. It’s like eavesdropping on a riveting debate/conversation, and sometimes one takes one side, sometimes the other. One of the things I love most about the book is the tennis-match-in-slow-motion quality of the arguments, which made me question where I stand on the choices I might have made, and even continue to make.” —Susan Daitch
“This deeply personal book is a success. It’s quite daring in its confessional parts. Confession makes sense only when it costs something, when it’s courting disaster; I found that risk-taking in this book, and it’s bracing.” —Peter Brooks
“Most writers editing a taped conversation would cut all the stuff around the ‘point’—in this case, an argument about life and art—but it’s the way in which the conversation about life and art is entwined with the details of the two men’s lives and personalities that makes I Think You’re Totally Wrong so artful. A fascinating, fantastic book.” —Melanie Thernstrom
“I don’t think there’s anything quite like this book, which is way more authentic than fiction or structured argument. It held my attention from start to finish, the narrative line is strong, the characters are developed in an intriguing way, it made me laugh hard dozens of times, and not necessarily at the jokes. The quarrel never turns into false drama because it doesn’t need to.”––Brian Fawcett

Kirkus Reviews
Two writers—one successful, the other still working on it—venture into the woods over the course of four days with one objective in mind: Argue so well that people will want to read about it.Years ago, before traveling the world and teaching ESL, Powell was a scruffy kid with long hair and a mustache sitting in Shields' writing class, mulling over a life of letters. Flash forward to today, and the same intellectual writer has become a stay-at-home father, but one who still earnestly cultivates his art. The older man, meanwhile, has quietly spent the intervening years maintaining a steady, successful course in academia. So, which one has suffered and sacrificed more for the written word, and which one is the more successful human, effectively managing to keep himself directly involved in the flow of life? The answer to that question represents the heart of the writers' multifaceted dialogue. Getting there, however, is just as interesting as the two men discuss everything from My Dinner with Andre to sports radio to George W. Bush. They also pepper their discussion with ruthless critiques of each other's works. While the intellectual discourse is largely dispassionate, it never comes across as bloodless, with both men subtly revealing profound aspects of their souls during the course of their galloping discourse. Of course, they delve deeply into stuffy literary criticism, as well, but that's balanced by a deep sense of how each man feels about fatherhood, friendship, mortality and women. Powell, however, is clearly the engine behind the endeavor, driven in part by the enduring desire for both a mentor's approval and his further instruction. He also reveals more about his past exploits, which include a harrowing life-and-death episode and an eye-opening adventure with two different amorous "transvestites," on more than one occasion. A stimulating intellectual interaction with lots of heart.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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2 MB

Meet the Author

DAVID SHIELDS is the author of sixteen 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 (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award). He has published essays and stories in numerous periodicals, including  the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and  Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages. CALEB POWELL, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, has played bass in a band, worked construction, and spent ten years teaching ESL and studying foreign languages on six continents. Now a stay-at-home father in Seattle, he has published stories and essays in descant, Post Road, and ZYZZYVA.

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I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
groucho42 More than 1 year ago
Two self-involved academics tape their precious conversations and think others should care. Saw it on the new books shelf, tried it, read a quarter of it and returned it. Even when I agreed with some points, I thought they were presented so badly that the person I agreed with still annoyed me. There's a bit of humor and a lot of ignorance with nothing to hold it together.