Shields, David 1956–

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SHIELDS, David 1956–

(David Jonathan Shields)


Born July 22, 1956, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Milton (a journalist) and Hannah (a journalist) Shields; married Laurie McCallum, September 1, 1990; children: Natalie McCallum. Education: Brown University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1978; University of Iowa, M.F.A. (with honors), 1980.


Home—Seattle, WA. Office—Department of English, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-4330. Agent—Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner, Literary Agency, 27 West 20th, #1107, New York, NY 10011. E-mail[email protected];[email protected].


Writer and educator. University of Iowa, Iowa City, research assistant, 1978-79, teaching assistant in literature, 1979-80, instructor in creative writing and literature, 1980; researcher and writer for former California governor, Pat Brown, 1984; visiting lecturer in creative writing at University of California, Los Angeles, 1985; St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, visiting assistant professor, 1985-86, 1987-88; University of Washington, Seattle, assistant professor, 1988-92, associate professor, 1992-97, professor of English, 1997—, director of creative writing program, 1999-2000. Faculty member, Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC, 1996—. Guest instructor, Bay Area Writers Conference, 1992, Napa Valley Writers Conference, 1994 and 1995, Third Coast Writers Conference, 1996, Heartland of America Writers Conference, 1996, Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1996 and 1999, University of Idaho, 2000, and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 2001. Juror for numerous fiction competitions, 1989-94, including Drue Heinz Award, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992, and Barnard College undergraduate fiction writing competition, 1993. Has appeared on television and radio, including National Public Radio (NPR) and C-Span.


International PEN, Authors Guild, Writers Guild of America, Modern Language Association of America, Poets and Writers, Associated Writing Programs, Phi Beta Kappa.


James Michener fellowship, Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1980-82; James D. Phelan Award Literary Award, San Francisco Foundation, 1981; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, 1982 and 1991; Residency fellowships at Corporation of Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, Millay Colony, Cummington Community of the Arts, Centrum, 1982-91; Authors League Fund grant, 1983; PEN Writers Fund grant, 1983, 1986, and 1987; Ingram-Merrill Foundation award, 1983; Carnegie Fund for Authors grant, 1984 and 1987; Change Inc. grant, 1985; winner of PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Competition, 1985 and 1988; Faculty Research grant, St. Lawrence University, 1986 and 1988; Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, 1986; William Sloane Fellowship in Prose, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1986; Pushcart Prize nomination, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1993; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1988; Graduate School Research Fund grant, University of Washington, 1989; "Audrey" chosen one of "Ten Best" stories, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project, 1989; Silver Medal, Commonwealth Club of California Book Awards, 1989, and Washington State Governor's Writers Award, 1990, both for Dead Languages; Artist Trust Fellowship for Literature, 1991; PEN/Revson Foundation fellowship, 1992; King County Arts Commission Independent Artist New Works award, 1992; Seattle Arts Commission fellowship, 1992; Distinguished Author's Award, Brandeis University National Women's Committee (Seattle chapter), 1993; Graduate School Research Fund grant, University of Washington, 1994; Royal Research Fund fellowship, University of Washington, 1997; Artist Trust GAP grant, 1997; first prize, Web Del Sol creative nonfiction contest, 1999; finalist, PEN West Award in creative nonfiction, and finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, both 2000; Silver Medal, Canadian National Magazine Award, 2001, for contribution to "Fifteen Ways of Looking at Vince Carter" in Saturday Night Magazine; National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, for Black Planet.


Heroes (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted with a foreword by Ira Berkow, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2004.

Dead Languages (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989, reprinted, Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1998.

A Handbook for Drowning (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Remote, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996, reprinted as Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, foreword by Philip Lopate, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2004.

Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, Crown (New York, NY), 1999.

(Compiler) Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro: An Unauthorized Collection, TNI Books (Seattle, WA), 2001.

Enough about You: Adventures in Autobiography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.

Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to books, including Vital Lines: Contemporary Fiction about Medicine, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990; Listening to Ourselves: More Stories from "The Sound of Writing," As Heard on National Public Radio, Anchor (New York, NY), 1994; Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1994; Listen with Your Heart, Friends Publications, 1998; In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, Norton (New York, NY), 1999; The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999; and Taking Sport Seriously: Social Issues in Canadian Sport, Thomson Educational, 2000; contributor of articles and stories to numerous periodicals, including Harper's, Village Voice, Utne Reader, Threepenny Review, Story, Witness, New York Times Magazine, Details, and Conjunctions. Some works have been translated into Dutch, Japanese, and Spanish.


David Shields has earned a growing reputation as a keen observer of life in a media-saturated society. Shields's fiction is informed by his personal experiences, especially his childhood stuttering. His nonfiction explores contemporary American alienation, racism, and worship of celebrity. In the New York Review of Books, Robert Towers called Shields "an enviably talented writer, a stylist with a strong metaphoric gift and the ability to stage scenes of almost excruciating intensity." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Shields was a "gifted writer capable of surprising perceptions and considerable wit."

The son of two left-wing journalists, Shields grew up in California. Throughout his childhood and youth he struggled with stuttering, finally overcoming the difficulty when he reached his mid-twenties. This painful aspect of his formative years has become a frequent theme in his writing. As Michiko Kakutani put it in the New York Times, stuttering for Shields becomes "a kind of metaphor for the difficulties of communication and the limitations of language itself." Shields himself told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "What makes me a stutterer is what also makes me a writer—I have a violent relationship to language."

In his first novel, Heroes, Shields writes about "those two great American preoccupations, Lost Innocence and Sports," according to James Marcus in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story dramatizes the mid-life crisis and ultimate self-realization of a fictitious Midwestern sportswriter named Al Biederman. A former college basketball star whose career is prematurely ended by an injury sustained on the court, Biederman turns to journalism when he can no longer participate physically in the game. While reporting on basketball for a small-town newspaper in Iowa, he discovers a talented college athlete who reminds the middle-aged Biederman of his now-diminished athletic prowess. Clinging to a romanticized vision of the past, Biederman sees the young transfer student, Belvyn Menkus, as the epitome of everything the unsuccessful sportswriter once hoped to become. Ironically, however, Menkus is entangled in some illegal recruiting practices. The admiring Biederman is torn between exposing the wrongdoing—possibly thereby gaining a more prestigious post on a big city paper—and turning away, thus sacrificing personal attainment for the good of the game. Complicating Biederman's decision-making are several other conflicts, such as resentment for his wife's success, intolerance for his son's frail health, and an affair with an enamored journalism student.

Heroes garnered favorable reviews from a number of critics. In his review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marcus deemed the book a celebration of "the subtler brand of heroism." He added that it "makes a particular virtue of showing how … ideals run aground, but nonetheless survive intact." A Chicago Tribune contributor called Shields "a keen observer of humanity." Diana L. Smith, writing in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, opined that Shields "has an engaging way of incorporating important events … with a pleasant mix of hilarity and pathos." Noting that the clarity of the characters and scenes is "excellent," she added that Heroes "is a thoroughly enjoyable book."

Shields' acclaimed second novel, Dead Languages, concerns young Jeremy Zorn, a stutterer who lives with his domineering mother and manic-depressive father, and his efforts to overcome his disability. Eva Hoffman, writing in the New York Times, observed that much of the novel "consists of inventive, often lyrical reflections on how language can become a diversion from communication rather than a means to it." Boston Review contributor Pagan Kennedy noted: "Dead Languages is a novel-long stutter, hemming and hesitating, titillating with its titubation. The language of the book is not just decoration, it is part of the plot."

Evelyn Toynton in the New York Times Book Review found Dead Languages to be intelligent and humorous. "Mr. Shields's own language is wonderfully fluent—colloquial and elegiac by turns," Toynton wrote, "—and when his sense of the ridiculous comes to the fore, as it does in deadpan descriptions of Jeremy's stint as a teacher's aide in a summer school program for black children and his romance with a cheerful illiterate druggy, his character's dilemma seems both touching and wryly comic." In the Los Angeles Daily News, Danielle Roter admitted that Jeremy "may be a prickly and morbidly self-absorbed character, but he is rooted in truth. And that makes him irresistible." Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe stated: "As he narrates his history, with a wry good humor that belies his constant pain, Jeremy transforms his lifelong antagonism with language into a universal plight: the failure to be understood."

Some reviewers understandably were interested to know how closely Dead Languages corresponded to Shields's own life. The author told the Seattle Weekly that the work was a "huge exaggeration" of his experiences. He added, however: "My passion for the subject is legitimate. That's not to say that good writing should be confessional or weepy of self-absorbed … but it seems to me the great work comes from writers willing to pin themselves to the page." In her New York Times review of the novel, Eva Hoffman declared that stuttering "becomes an analogue for all the collected vulnerability, loneliness and anguish of childhood and adolescence." Hoffman added: "Mr. Shields is a talented writer, and in Dead Languages he explores fertile themes with intelligence and verbal energy. One has confidence that a wider vision will follow."

A Handbook for Drowning, Shields's first story collection, is a work of inter-linked pieces focusing on Walter Jaffe, a young man struggling to come to terms with his family neuroses as well as the complexities of his own life. Like Jeremy Zorn in Dead Languages, Walter grows up under the shadow of a strong, activist mother and an ineffectual father who obsesses about the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani noticed the similarities between the books, stating: "Mr. Shields works a variation on the material in Dead Languages, stripping away the more symbolic aspects of the story to focus on the coming of age of a young man." Kakutani added: "Mr. Shields again demonstrates his ability to conjure up the past using lyrical, rhythmic language to relate ordinary domestic events. He possesses a gift for taking a seemingly mundane moment … and investing it with layers of psychological resonance."

Commenting on A Handbook for Drowning 's unorthodox narrative style, Robert Taylor wrote in the Boston Globe: "A structure of connecting through nonchronological stories dispenses with the yoke of time. It also abolishes the drudgery of detailed exposition and character development in a conventional cause-and-effect manner; instead, juxtaposition provides contrast and sudden flashes of insight reveal an extensive landscape of feeling." "A Handbook for Drowning is sometimes excessively sensitive," remarked Rhoda Koenig in her New York review, "but it does chronicle painfully, accurately the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling."

It was with Remote in 1996 that Shields began to earn a reputation for social commentary. Presented as a series of fifty-two short pieces, the book finds Shields musing on popular culture, from talk show hosts to bumper stickers, as well as on his own adolescent and mid-life angst. Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent Steven Rea commented that, in Remote, Shields "assembles a self-portrait shaped as much by the world around him as anything dredged up from personal history." Rea went on to note: "In Remote, in chapters where the poet Wallace Stevens and the porn star Seka are cited in virtually the same breath, 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 mirror—warped by irony and goofy insight." In the Houston Chronicle, Brad Tyer likewise found Remote "a fractured self-portrait of the artist as some guy who wishes, almost guiltily, but always with a certain detached bemusement, that he were more famous than he is."

Washington Post contributor Carolyn See deemed Remote a "series of postmodern moments." She praised the work as "very funny, and it tells us more than we want to know about the American life." Describing the book as "a species of search in which the seeker, a product of a media society, discovers truths about his own particular identity," Boston Globe reviewer Robert Taylor added that it "approaches contemporary autobiography in an engagingly non-alienated manner, and its wit is welcome." In Gentleman's Quarterly, Thomas Mallon wrote, "Make no mistake: Shields is on to something that's happening in the world," adding: "In its odd, creepy way, Shields's book forces one to feel the insidious power of that 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." Newsday contributor A.O. Scott wrote that Remote "should, in retrospect, be seen as one of the definitive texts of the 1990s."

Shields's social observations continue in Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season. When he did not receive full journalist's credentials to report upon the Seattle Sonics' 1994-95 basketball season, Shields chose to write about basketball from a fan's perspective. What emerges in the book is a rumination about the relationship between professional basketball's white, middle class observers and its black superstars. According to Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times, "instead of another piece of reportage, made bitter or ingratiating by how the reporter was treated, we get serious reflection." Shields assesses the acrimony between players and coaches, the sometimes erotic envy of aging white men for the superbly conditioned black athletes, and the manner in which professional basketball serves as a counterpoint to American society at large, because in basketball the black men wield all the power. As A.O. Scott saw it in his review of Black Planet in Newsday, Shields "approaches his beat not as a reporter but as a literary critic poring over texts and contexts in search of hidden connections and guiding metaphors."

The critical response to Black Planet was once again favorable. Scott declared that Shields "has produced one of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport." In the online magazine Salon, Sallie Tisdale commented: "There is doubling here, tripling and more—layers of identity not only defined by race, gender, class and physical skill but between the lines of the book. These are the layers between all the lines writers write and readers read. They are the layers, disguises and ghosts that form the territory of literature itself." Booklist correspondent Dennis Dodge perhaps put it most succinctly when he characterized Black Planet as "a provocative and thought-provoking treatment of a central issue in American society."

In Enough about You: Adventures in Autobiography, Shields presents a series of autobiographical vignettes, from how he bullied a school newspaper editor to ruminations on his parents to his youthful sports playing that allowed him to forget about his stuttering problem. In addition to the standard autobiographical fare, the author also writes in a free-association style on everything from books that he has read to his thoughts about actors and their work. "Shields succeeds in examining autobiography itself as a genre, sizing it up with an almost scholarly perspective," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews noted: "Shields makes it easy to identify with his confusions and screw-ups and ambivalences, but his insightfulness and careful consideration are his canny talent."

Shields returns to the world of sports with Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. In this collection of essays, the author uses his interest in sports to write about a broad range of topics that not only involve sports, such as the legendary Monday Night Football broadcaster Howard Cosell and sports clichés, but also larger social issues. James Miller, writing in the Library Journal, noted: "At times, his writing is loose, informative, and smooth." Referring to the author as "always stimulating," a Kirkus Reviews contributor called Body Politic "pensive and shrewd." Daniel G. Habib, writing in Sports Illustrated, commented that the author "elucidates superbly the paradox of sports coverage: Although feats of the body seem to defy language, sports is nonetheless 'imprisoned by its prevailing rhetoric.' The ambition in these piercing essays is to discern the reality behind the rhetoric."



Booklist, September 15, 1997, Molly McQuade, "Rewriting Clichés with David Shields," p. 198; September 1, 1999, Dennis Dodge, review of Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, p. 63.

Boston Globe, May 24, 1989, Matthew Gilbert, "The Bittersweet Story of a Young Stutterer"; January 22, 1992, Robert Taylor, "Shields' Fresh Stories of an American Coming of Age"; March 14, 1996, Robert Taylor, "An Autobiography in 52 Tasty Sound Bites."

Boston Review, August, 1989, Pagan Kennedy, review of Dead Languages.

Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1991, Joseph Coates, "Seven Years Later, a First Novel."

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 16, 1984, Diana L. Smith, review of Heroes.

Gentleman's Quarterly, March, 1996, Thomas Mallon, "Distant Replay," pp. 109-110.

Houston Chronicle, July 21, 1996, Brad Tyer, "'Remote' Pursues Cult of Celebrity with Detached Bemusement."

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1995, review of Remote, p. 1756; March 15, 2002, review of Enough about You: Adventures in Autobiography, p. 395; February 15, 2004, review of Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, p. 170.

Library Journal, May 15, 2004, James Miller, review of Body Politic, p. 95.

Los Angeles Daily News, August 20, 1989, Danielle Roter, review of Dead Languages.

Newsday, November 7, 1999, A.O. Scott, "Hoop Daydreams."

New York, January 13, 1992, Rhoda Koenig, review of A Handbook for Drowning, p. 62.

New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989, Robert Towers, "The Raw and the Cooked," p. 30.

New York Times, April 26, 1989, Eva Hoffman, "Long Shadow of Mother's Tongue"; December 27, 1991, Michiko Kakutani, "Tales of a Man Young and Old, Snapshots of a Life"; February 16, 1996, Michiko Kakutani, "Surfing along to Keep Life Distant"; June 6, 1999, Robert Lipsyte, "The Real Knicks Team, and the One That We Fantasize About," p. SP13.

New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1985, Arthur Krystal, review of Heroes, p. 22; June 18, 1989, Evelyn Toynton, review of Dead Languages, p. 22; April 15, 1990, review of Dead Languages, p. 22; January 19, 1992, Suzanne Berne, review of A Handbook for Drowning, p. 14.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 8, 1984, James Marcus, review of Heroes; February 25, 1996, Steven Rea, "Portrait of a Writer Shaped by His Times and by Pop Culture," p. D5.

Publishers Weekly, November 27, 1991, review of A Handbook for Drowning; February 5, 1996, review of Remote, p. 75; March 18, 2002, review of Enough about You, p. 87.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 14, 1992, John Marshall, "Stutter Pushed David Shields toward Writing."

Seattle Weekly, November 1, 1989, Bruce Barcott, "Breaking the Sound Barrier: David Shields Talks about the Lost Language of Pains."

Sports Illustrated, June 7, 2004, Daniel G. Habib, review of Body Politic, p. Z13.

Washington Post, February 23, 1996, Carolyn See, "Snippets on the Folly of Fame."


David Shields Home Page, (May 26, 2006).

Salon, (December 7, 1999), Sallie Tisdale, "Blackballed: A White Sports Fan Wrestles with Basketball's Racial Taboos."

University of Washington, (May 26, 2003), faculty profile of author.