Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 13, 2014

David Shields, _How Literature Saved My Life_

IN ONE WAY, this book belongs to that narrow and in some respects self-indulgent genre that includes Jim Bouton's I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life, and Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound--the genre, that is, of books about the fallout of having written a somewhat scandalous bestseller (Ball Four, Fear of Flying, and Carnovsky, the fictional shadow of Portnoy's Complaint).

Shields's previous book, Reality Hunger, was not an enormous bestseller, exactly, but it was much discussed (including here at LLL, December 30, 2010), and was sort of scandalous both in technique (the larger part of it was an assemblage of quotations) and in argument (the novel, for the present, is an exhausted form). Reality Hunger got loads of positive attention (deservedly, I think), but whenever I brought it up in my limited circle of acquaintance, people seemed pissed off about it, especially if they had not read it.

For example, something over a year ago or so Mark Greif gave a lecture here in the town where I live, broadly on the topic of how responsive we are to Traces of the Real and that sort of thing. The argument reminded me of some aspects of Shields's, so in the question period, I asked what he thought of Reality Hunger. I was quite a ways away, almost in the back row, but I swear I saw him wince. He quickly began putting as much distance between himself and Shields as he could, insisting that while their arguments seem similar, they are in fact quite different, principally insofar as he thinks novels are perfectly okay.

So I can understand that Shields now feels obliged--perhaps as, in a different realm, Derrida did--to point out that he is not some rampaging, ravaging Hun putting literary culture to fire and sword and wantonly defaming everything good people value and cherish. Roughly the first half of this book is about how important writing and reading have been to him for virtually his whole life. See? I'm not so scary as all that, he seems to be saying.

In the second half, though, he returns, not-ready-to-make-nice fashion, to the argument that, at the moment, what is going on in non-fiction writing is distinctly more interesting than what is going on in novel writing, even though novel-writing retains its place at the top of the prestige-heap, remains the kind of writing a real writer supposedly ought to be doing. On pp. 141-56 there is even a list of some fifty-five non-novels (or idiosyncratic novels, like Moby-Dick and Á la recherche) to make a kind of case-by-example.

Since I already mostly agreed with Shields, this book did not have a lot of impact on me, but it did have  some pithy provocations ("The novel was invented to access interiority"--wrong, but interesting), the list of "fifty-five works I swear by" had some great tips, and it does praise Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, which I keep trying to get people to read.

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