Literature stops saving your life when self-interest replaces curiosity about other people
David Shields's latest book, How Literature Saved My Life, does not recount how the author eluded a moat of crocodiles aboard a raft made of lesser Trollope. It is bereft of a scene in which he discovers an acrostic tucked into the Pensées that enables him to defuse a bomb that’s been strapped to his chest. He fails to use an unexpurgated copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to clobber, say, a golem brought to life to defend linear fiction. Alas. Rather, the title returns us to the googly, mile-a-minute persona that 2010’s Reality Hunger distilled from over 500 passages by other writers, most of them repurposed to make Shields’s point that reality-based art (in particular the “lyric essay”), not fiction, is the optimal prism through which to confront the 21st century. In How Literature Saved My Life, an even more nebulous frolic with the autobiographical impulse, statements of intent devour each other like a line of successively fatter guppies. Shields is more content to speak for himself this time around, but there’s a lingering hint of stenotype, as if you might peel off the dust jacket to discover a pair of quotation marks encasing the text. Actually we hear enough early on about Shields’s horoscope (“That’s me. It just is.”) and how cosmic it is that his wife is named Laurie — just like the former first lady! — that you start to picture the whole book being frantically transcribed by a cornered dinner party guest. You at least want to append a “man” to the title.
This isn’t quite fair, of course, especially bearing in mind Shields’s opening salvo that “all criticism is a form of autobiography.” And yet, if his approach to the readings that have informed (or saved) his life is too nervily scattershot to be straight critique, it’s too carefully modulated (or, begging your pardon, ‘shielded’) to be autobiography either. Many sections resemble a six-page stretch jocosely titled Our ground time here will be brief, which relays quotes and anecdotes on the incoherence of death from Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy, Pynchon, Geoff Dyer, and J.M. Coetzee, only for Shields to weigh in pithily at the conclusion, “What do I push back with? Maybe art, and if so, barely.” Elsewhere, he asks “what was — what is — the matter with me? Do I just have a bigger self-destruct button, and like to push it harder and more incessantly, than everyone else?” A portrait of the artist as button pusher: Why the hell not? I suppose every writer has to make his bid for or against scholastic relevance in light of the speed of 21st century screens, and Shields is often an eloquent annalist of the literary novel’s slide into antiquity. If only it wasn’t so hard to escape the sense that Shields does indeed believe his to be the bigger button. And if only he were pushing it as hard as he seems to think he is.
Reality Hunger was absurdly subtitled A Manifesto; in HLSML, Shields is pretty upfront that we’re witnessing a crisis of aesthetic conscience. Keeping in mind his model of “art as pathology lab,” it might even be germane to rank it beside Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness or Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain as a startlingly frank self-diagnosis. “I’ve come to think of emotions,” we’re told, “as belonging to other people…not mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.” Some of these circumlocutions come in the form of wagon-hitchings to the genredefying books of Nicholson Baker and David Markson, models that Shields sees as trying to “make me feel something, feel anything, do whatever [they] can to vanquish the numbness”; other names, culled from the latest crop of bright young things, are dropped with nothing like discretion. Liberally sprinkled quotes define Shield’s disease. Here’s E.M. Cioran from Tears and Saints: “The universe is a solitary space, and all its creatures do nothing but reinforce its solitude. In it, I have never met anyone, I have only stumbled across ghosts.” Shield’s faith that “appropriated and remixed words [embody] my argument” doesn’t always serve him; Cioran sounds on the mark, but Shields’s ventriloquizing Pierre Menard sounds a tad shrill. He’s clearly met someone, or his book wouldn’t be so saturated with sentences curbed from former students or letters to and from famous friends.
On the other hand, Shields’s advertisements for sui generis works of radical nonfiction like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, reissued this month by NYRB Classics, and Maps to Anywhere by Bernard Cooper are crisp readings of works that deserve the recognition a writer with Shields’s visibility is likely to bring them. He could be for the blossoming field of the anti- or extraliterary novel what Susan Sontag once was for the Francophile avant-garde, a strategically positioned cheerleader who doubles as linebacker. But sustained critique, like anything sustained, isn’t Shields’s M.O. We’re always coming back to doomy soothsayings on the condition of 21st century schizoid mankind, of which he imagines himself the archetype: “We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb.” The parenthetical is key. It’s not just the line between fiction and memoir that boggles this writer. It’s much more fundamentally the unsolved mystery of where he ends and other people begin.
How Literature Saved My Life is divided into eight chapters, each composed of a variable number of sketches from life and/or art, though Shields might object to the distinction. His preferred method is collage, which translates, in one instance, to transcribing a handwritten note from the back of a library book, followed by an exhibitionist account of some dorm-room boning, with Shields’s only postscript the thudding “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” I guess not! There is also a distracting amount of repetition. We can never hear enough about how Shields took to writing novels because of a persistent stutter, and positively moldy meditations on the first Spider-Man movie and the last line of Joyce’s “The Dead” reappear here, as does a lovely 2003 Times profile of the radio host Delilah, with minimal revision. This is a weird bit of scrapbooking for a new hardcover that isn’t billed as a collection. Oddest of all is a discussion (actually a discussion of a discussion) of Prometheus Bound that is lifted largely verbatim from the 1992 novel A Handbook for Drowning, Shields’s last completed book of fiction before he forsook it for “wayward nonfiction.” If Reality Hunger made its point on the back of other people’s words (Shields is still grousing about his publisher’s insistence that he cite them), is HLSML some Oulipo-like exercise in which the author shalt say nothing he hath not said before, better, elsewhere?
Shields asks some excellent, if well-aired, questions about form and the artist’s right to appropriation, while others (“Are we all just characters in one another’s novels?”) strike me as akin to wondering what Ms. Pac-Man does when nobody’s at the joystick. My question is this: When did collage become a blank check for regurgitation? I agree — who wouldn’t? — that “if you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.” I’ll even hearken, reluctantly, to the permission-toinfringe-freely that many, many white writers have seen as bestowed on them by the prominence of sampling (what Marco Roth, reviewing Reality Hunger in n1br, called “the fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ”). But is the ‘Hey Soul Classics’ package HLSMY resembles really a form? Or just salesmanship, a victory-lap after the raucous reception of Reality Hunger?
Less a book than a spectacle, that volume justified its excesses by provoking a fascinating torrent of appreciations and abuse from Roth, Luc Sante, and James Wood, among many others. In The Rumpus, Lincoln Michel made the salient point that many of the boundary-blurring memoirs that Shields defended (A Million Little Pieces for one) are as much an instance of fiction trumping reality as they are of nonfiction’s mainstream viability, while Wood noticed that the pieces Shields assembled could just as easily be coaxed into “a passionate defense of fiction and fiction-making.” The intervening years appeared to vindicate all sides, with a flood of near-memoirs calling themselves novels and book-length transmogrifications of the essay-form, often with Shields’s blurbs adorning the cover. Readers looking for similar prescient conversationstarters in How Literature Saved My Life will find no such comfort. Even picking a fight using its frustrating, contradictory entries as ammunition — as I have been doing — offers little sport. I doubt there is any dagger as serrated as the one Shields presses into our hands when he writes of Gone, Renata Adler’s pilloried follow-up to Speedboat:
Surely, though, the difference…derives from the fact that in the earlier book the panic tone is beautifully modulated and under complete control and often even mocked, whereas in the later book it’s been given, somewhat alarmingly, absolute free reign. Success breeds self-indulgence. What was effectively bittersweet turns toxic.
This is just one in a series of eerily on-the-nose lapses in Shields’s ubiquitous self-consciousness. Or is it? David Shields clearly set out less to write a book than to be a book, and to point out the work’s hypocrisy, self-indulgence, or irritating tics might only serve to endow it with the totally transparent humanity he longs for. There’s finally little defense against the pleasantly lulling roll call of favorite films and books, never mind that few them are given anything more than a surface appraisal (if that) and a pull-quote. The entirety of his gloss on Schopenhauer’s “The world is my idea” goes, “We don’t see the world. We make it up.” Well, thanks anyway. But here’s where the pride Shields takes in his solipsism gets a little creepy. After all, you can try making up the world, but the world is under no obligation to extend you the same courtesy. Perhaps the reason so many writers stick to fiction, despite being “less immediate and raw” than blogs, is that they are less willing to take their inner weather report to mean that it’s snowing everywhere.
If holding a book makes Shields feel as if he’s “in the old West in ersatz Tombstone,” then, as Val Kilmer said, “I’m your huckleberry.” But he extrapolates that “books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze…that cutto-the-quick quality: this is how to write and read now, or at least this is the only way I can write and read now.” The anxiousness of this sentiment, which would seem to posit the artist’s vocation as so much apple-polishing, is a nightmare to contemplate. Fortunately, real life is better than Shields supposes: There is actually more than one way to write, some modes at odds with contemporary culture, others deeply informed by it. Actually, it remains totally unclear which books Shields objects to when he writes that, “acutely aware of our mortal condition, I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)” Other than Gabriel García Márquez and Balzac — take that, perennial American novel! — I couldn’t find an example of what he’s hoping to deliver us from. Passing strange that our martyr should be so vague about his mortifiers. A suspicion quickly takes hold that the scourge of “entropy and chaos” that HLSML calls “most novels” amounts to a straw man, in a field, pointing both ways. Is the market suffocated by novels of “tidy coherence?” For me, at least, the real glut is of books like Shields’s: barmy faux-confessional love letters to the writer’s implacable isolation. That, and light critical analyses by junior Barthesians eager to trot out the theorists who once speckled a thousand grad-school syllabi in order to annotate whatever glowering pillar of pop culture strikes their fancy.
For Fredric Jameson, “nostalgia for the present” meant a crafty historicization that intervenes in our relationship to immediacy and makes of it a thing studded with stereotypes and “ideas of facts.” All the better to situate ourselves above the moment or apart from it or riding its crest. In this way, we can be constantly reminded of ourselves while averting any confrontation with our own blindness as to what the present is making of us. Jameson also wondered if the future would herald “a lack of just such strong self-consciousness.” Instead we found ourselves in quite possibly the most restlessly interpreted era in history. An overblown tone of ‘the way we live now’ is a compulsory ornament to Shields’ school of evangelistic nonfiction. We are so certain that the Internet has fractured our relationship with reality that we’ll walk over a dozen works of speculative or make-believe art for one novel-in-tweets that flatters our weird hyperawareness of this decade’s governing tropes. Meanwhile, we carefully prune an agreed-upon past for recognizable fashions ripe for reappraisal, if not recomposition.
In his 2011 book Retromania, the music journalist Simon Reynolds complained of “today’s delirium of documentation,” but I say God bless it. How else can I watch the Angry Video Game Nerd hurl profanities at his collection of glitchy 8-bit video games? Or find out what the Nostalgia Chick thinks of the films of Nora Ephron? As for the novel, I have a hard time picturing the staid beachbook that Shields seems to think is the literary norm. If we’re talking perennial novel, I see a lot of folks reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell — at least exemplary enough to merit a movie — whose pleasures admittedly have a lot to do with recognition of the genres being sourced, what Jameson referred to as pastiche. Mitchell’s books specialize in a kind of nostalgic simulation of a more clear-cut period in reading history, books whose virtuosic prose elicit a response along the lines of “Wow, this is just like a book!” It’s is all in good fun, but if every novel was so removed from life maybe I’d be making Shields’s point for him. Yet the newfangled power to pick and choose from thousands of years of literary backlog has also given us objects as seemingly opposite as Jeffrey Eugenides’ nominally realist varsity novel The Marriage Plot and Ben Marcus’ swirling dystopic The Flame Alphabet, both original in their arrived-at cadence and both ultimately concerned with literature’s one-time imperative: connecting us to those peripherals known as other people. Shields all but admits that this is what really turns him off. If he can’t identify with a narrator-character or incorporate a book’s wisdom into his maelstrom of epigraphs, it means “the novel is an artifact… Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason.” He goes on to say, I swear to God, “or so I have to believe, the novel having long since gone dark for me…”
Shields’s brand of nostalgia proceeds by reducing the present to a symptom of his own estrangement. Despite the silliness with which he sometimes articulates his version — he caps his Delilah bit with “Once, a long time ago, something happened. It’s never been the same since. It was Dad’s fault” — nothing could be more natural for a writer than believing himself representative, his voice a “symbolic persona,” especially if that writer is an essayist in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne mined himself for content too, of course, but he also made of his life-in-books the mainframe for centuries of writing, an Internet unto himself. The selectively perceptive David Shields, for all his learning, is not nearly such a vessel of multitudes. Worse, he thinks nothing of narrowing the world to suit his selfpitying schema. Texting is “proof that we’re solitary animals who like being left alone as we go through life, commenting on it.” When an ex-student shows him her notes for the book she’s writing, he tells her, “The notes are the book.” Is it regressive of me to think that the book is the book? Collage is no more the only way to write than the novel is, and just because you arrange pieces on the page doesn’t mean they necessarily connect, or that the fragments you’ve rescued from the “Bubble Wrap” called narrative are the bleeding heart of the world. Different husks of detritus wash up on all our shores, but Shields puts me in mind of a certain Tennessee cow town where everybody speaks in anomalous British accents because some Blur records washed up at the five and dime a generation ago. Which is to say: something random and isolated.
My conclusion is that literature ceases to save your life when self-interest replaces curiosity about other people. When you stop learning, you curtail your ability to generate (or “artfully arrange”) and surrender your authority to testify on behalf of your era. We can, however, still learn something from Shields: Hunger for reality will never be sated if you insist too exclusively your own version of it. HLSML is a document of what happens when nostalgia for the purely recognizable and selfreferential overruns the present: Time stands still. Qualities particular to any given cultural production are replaced by the noise they generate and coating trumps content. Literature, expanded to include any piece of information or entertainment that exists for our consumption, becomes something to blithely note or condescend to, never something to think about. Such a world has no writing, only commentary. If the novel were to become extinct, mankind would get along just fine. What we can’t get along without is sympathy for other people, the desire, not just to see ourselves in strangers and wonder what they can do for us, but to hear a foreign voice in our heads and dwell awhile with the alien. Books are just one time-tested and usually reliable technology for saving each other’s lives. If David Shields ever writes one, I’d like to read it.