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How Literature Saved This Book

A couple of years ago, David Shields hit something of a nerve with the publication of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. It was made up of 618 short entries, some his own but most collected elsewhere. Only his publisher’s lawyers compelled him to cite the sources, which ranged from Walter Benjamin to Jennifer Jason Leigh. An attempt to stake out a new literary aesthetic, Reality Hunger argued against what Shields sees as pious and parsimonious attitudes about intellectual property, puritanical distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and naïve expectations that memoirs must contain nothing that isn’t literally true. It was hard on the fuddy-duddy in all its forms, but it was hardest of all on the novel. “I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless,” Shields wrote.

That was a provocative opinion because of course there are so many different kinds of long narratives at least purporting to be fictions and because so many millions of readers continue to enjoy and to engage with them. The case for book-length storytelling still seems pretty strong. And yet many fiction and non-fiction writers alike were energized by Reality Hunger’s assertions about the dawning of a new literary era. Shields put a high premium on such things as “deliberate unartiness,” “openness to accident,” “artistic risk,” and “self-reflexivity.”

Let’s just say that Shields’s new volume, How Literature Saved My Life, embodies many of these qualities. And while it is generally speaking a collage, a form that he has employed in his last several books, it also (to cite the categories of Reality Hunger) “eludes easy generic classification,” which is one of the hallmarks of “good work.” Composed of literary anecdotes, bits of memoir, and snippets of criticism, it presents and investigates Shields’s ideas about reading and writing, as the title suggests, through the lens of his own life. The question is whether it succeeds, and it could be answered this way: Notwithstanding the degree to which, and the senses in which, literature might have saved his life, it is David Shields’s intense affinity for literature that saves this little book. His sincerity as an author and his insight into the role of good writing rescues what is otherwise a merely passable pastiche.

Reality Hunger was an interesting, almost elegant artifact. From the beginning, How Literature Saved My Life reads like so many strung-together blog posts. But that wouldn’t bother Shields to hear, since the blog form, he says, is exemplified by “immediacy … comedy, nakedness, raw feeling.” He does more or less expose himself here in segments that range in theme from the sexuality of Spider-Man to the traits he has in common with George W. Bush to the motivations behind reading his college girlfriend’s diary.

For such a clever enemy of the old-fashioned, he also puts on display a surprising tolerance for literary cliché. He says, for example, that he and the writer Ben Lerner, in whom he sees a younger version of himself, share a detachment from their emotions: they are “in agony” as a result. He says that Lerner’s first novel “is born of genuine despair”—“as what serious book is not.” He laments over an idea that is true enough but hardly new: “language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.” But perhaps these are examples of the kind of self-destructing gestures or incidents of “failure” that he later says are crucial to a serious literary project.

You often wonder how much credit to give Shields, but at least the biographical bits seem like they can be taken at face value. Shields describes the way in which the written word really did offer a salvation of sorts from a serious stuttering problem. This was the most important way in which, as the book’s title promises to reveal, literature saved his life. It is easy to see how his obsessive immersion in books, his literary career, and his eventual authority as a critic, could result. (He tells us that he was such an “unfathomably devoted English major” at Brown University, and such a productive and talented one, that he once scratched “I shall dethrone Shakespeare” into the wall above his library carrel.)

For someone like Shields, semiotics was not just a passing college phase. His own early novels contended with, and were about, language. But by the late ’90s, he writes, “I’d stopped writing and reading much if any fiction. I was weary unto death of teaching fiction writing.” His impatience with the outward trappings of the novel, the “devices" and "contrivances” of character, plot, and so on, was later exacerbated by an obsession with mortality—his growing sense that life was just too short for anything but raw reality. Human mortality became the subject of his book The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, and then the basis of a kind of clarion call. “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients,” goes a line from Annie Dillard he borrows here. “That is, after all, the case.”

One problem is that sometimes, despite Shields’s high seriousness and his refusal to waste time with the trivialities and pretenses of fiction, he seems to be playing a bit of a game. He argues for the direct approach in writing—“I live and die for the overt meditation”—but he is also a champion of digression. He believes in the unsaid and in white spaces, but he is also a big believer “in talking about everything until you’re blue in the face.” His book-length collage sometimes feels like a contraption made to protect against every possible sling and arrow. Or is it a device made to include and embrace everything? You find yourself thinking, for example, that Shields’s problems with the form of the novel are really just his problems with the novel, and that it is outrageous for him to frame his personal issues as larger truths—but soon enough he notes the “audacity” of “the collage narrator” in staging “his or her own psychic crisis as emblematic of a larger cultural crux and general human dilemma.”   

In other words, “the collage narrator” doesn’t show much regard for his readers. But he isn’t any easier on writers. In order to gain Shields’s respect and admiration, writers and artists must be willing to get their “teeth bashed in.” And that is not his only demand. He wants writers to “to come grips with” the “marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms.” He wants writing that occupies “a bleeding edge between genres.” He wants a writer to place “himself in harm’s way and reveal the process” by which the work gets made. Most of all, he wants writers to be “wrestling with existence at the most fundamental level.”

It’s when describing the work of those who do at least some of these things, and there are in fact many of them, that Shields’s own writing in turn begins to strike some chords. He describes Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries as “Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, in prose.” One of his very favorite books, Renata Adler’s genre-defying novel Speedboat, gives him a feeling of “being caught between [the] floors of a difficult-to-define department store.”

As the examples accumulate, you start to understand what he loves about books, what he wants from one, and what he’s trying for here (something along the lines of Leonard Michaels’ journal, Shuffle, which “presents itself as mere notes whereas in fact it is a beautifully patterned and organized investigation … ”). You also learn that he never really swore off the novel completely. To what book does he sometimes turn in the middle of the night when he can’t sleep? He turns to The Catcher in the Rye. If literature can’t save your life, he suggests, then it can at least make it easier to survive.

Scrap by scrap, the raw elements of Shields’s collage do begin to come together. The book starts off as a scattering of ideas and anecdotes—some of them old, off-putting, unformed, unconvincing, or inconsistent—and ends up making a connection. In this way, How Literature Saved My Life functions as a kind of ... story. Maybe the form is less important than the writer who inhabits it. And maybe it’s not the novel that needs to be avoided but mediocrity, regardless of form: mediocre works that mean well, mediocre efforts that aren’t in some way immediate and alive, and the easy, mediocre way we make ourselves available to them. Life is much too short for such things.

John Glassie is the author of A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change.