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I Think You’re
Totally Wrong
A Quarrel

Forthcoming from Knopf in January 2015


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 Review



“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

“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. The book is chock-full of the contingencies of life, which insist on one’s attention and have their own intricate mechanisms of suspense.” — Jonathan Raban

“I greatly admire I Think You’re Totally Wrong. There’s a sense that the reader 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 make the reader question where he or she stands on the choices one might have made, and even continues to make.  Looking back, should I have jettisoned my own work to do X, Y, or Z?  At so many junctures in the book I wrote ‘yes’ in the margins. I couldn’t put it down.” — Susan Daitch

“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 at least several dozen times, and not necessarily at the jokes. The quarrel never turns into false drama because it doesn’t need to. It’s a human text, which is part of what Shields is trying to make clear; he’s one of the most interesting writers anywhere. He refuses to stop pushing boundaries.” — Brian Fawcett

“I stayed up late to read this (entirely sui generis) book in one gulp, since it’s impossible to stop reading. It’s very compelling in a way that is, for me, indescribable. It’s smart as hell; it’s a sort of anatomy of smartness, maybe an object lesson in its pleasures and potential for crisis, even tragedy.” — Robert Clark

“Much of the power of the book comes from the striking way in which Shields and Powell include what would normally be considered extraneous dialogue. 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.  This is a fascinating, fantastic book.” — Melanie Thernstrom

“I like how blunt Shields and Powell are with each other; sometimes I’m even a bit shocked by their comments. A riveting, discomfiting, always smart, sometimes really funny book that I enjoyed in a complicated and sometimes conflicted way. I think I’m a combination of the two of them, and I love the book for that reason; it so clearly helps me define what’s important to me. I try to mix my enjoyment of life with my dedication to art. The book is a tonic for me, and an important work for all writers, as it so clearly delineates the conflicts we all have between family and art, even if these two realms needn’t be mutually exclusive. I love this book.” — Robin Hemley

“Really hard to put down and a really brilliant idea and rendering: recording a weekend of intellectual dissonance between Shields and Powell. I think of it as a mode of performance art: Spalding Gray, only existentially bifurcated; a twelve-tone dialogue of unconcealment and contestation; the enactment of a perpetual state of not-being-at-home.” — Lance Olsen

“I loved this book and devoured it in one sitting; it’s an intriguing premise and a fascinating read.” — Matthew Vollmer


Readers’ Guide

A debate, nearly to the death, about life and art, cocktails 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 has overcommitted to art.

Shields and Powell spend four days together in a cabin in the Cascade Mountains, playing chess, shooting hoops, hiking to lakes and an abandoned mine; they rewatch My Dinner with André, Sideways, 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).

The relationship—and 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 demolish the Q&A format; it also seeks to confound, as much as possible, the divisions between “reality” and “fiction,” between “life” and “art.”  There are no teachers or students, no interviewers or interviewees, no masters in the universe, only a chasm of uncertainty.

In December 2013, the actor/director/writer James Franco directed a film version of the book, with Shields and Powell striving mightily to play themselves. The film will be released at the same time as the book.