How Literature Saved My Life

“How Literature Saved My Life,” by David Shields

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Two nights ago, I, a freelance writer, dreamt about an editor who paid me $500 in advance for a new piece, sight unseen, topic my choice. I was fresh out of ideas, so I asked him for one. Write, he said, about why the subject you examine resists your examining it. That verb, resists, filled my 7 a.m. waking. Right off, I knew this meant a tug-of-war between the recalcitrance in me and the recalcitrance in the subject.

Next day, the stork brought the baby in the form of Stephen Kessler’s film, Paul Williams: Still Alive. A wayward sort like me, Kessler spends the first third of the 87-minute movie searching for Williams (that little big man from the 1970s, sad troubadour, TV actor, mop-top blonde, orange-tint glasses), the second third finding the faded star still adored in a few world outposts and Kessler’s relishing the contact, and the final third feeling disenthralled with the 70-year-old, who’s gone beyond the silliness of “Hollywood Squares” and now mimics himself in one on-the-way-to (but-not-quite-there) Las Vegas venue.

Traversing desire and doubt, Kessler becomes the focus of his film about Williams. Questions overtake him: why even make this film? Not only will it have limited popularity (who’s that shrimp?) but what was Kessler thinking he’d accomplish by hunting down and interviewing Williams other than retrieving something of his, Kessler’s, lost youth?

Marvelous country to explore for the nonfictionist, no?

Why are we told to kill the Buddha when we meet him on the road? Because here he comes to badger us yet again that we need to doubt why we want what we want so we won’t want it so damn much.

In my dream I also befriended several under-thirties who I hoped would clue me in on what I should be writing, as if what they liked I would like. A few countered (that is, if they spoke; they usually ignored me for their devices), why are you asking me? Ask yourself. Like Kessler’s Paul Williams who from first contact said, why do you want to make a movie about me? Because I want to know what happened after all that success? (Can you hear how biased Kessler is? Which Williams calls him on. “You want the failure story,” he says. “I’m not the failure story you’re seeking.” Williams’ quizzical camera-ogle is one of the film’s sweetest moments.)

It struck me then. The praxis of the contemporary artist is to project his desire onto his subject, pull it back, and examine why he has projected it, as Kessler does. The artist makes the work (book, film, performance) relational by turning the subject back on the self where he can indulge and oppose his bias.

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Something similar about desire and resistance to desire is going on with David Shields, a core theme begun in Reality Hunger and now extended with How Literature Saved My Life. Dramatizing uncertainty, in authors Shields devours and lauds (think Geoff Dyer on D. H. Lawrence), is a new, largely nonfictional form, doggedly essayistic, bleedingly memoiristic. This genre amalgam is displacing traditional literary categories, especially the novel, “an artifact,” Shields writes, “which is why antiquarians cling to it so fervently.” An ex-novelist himself who, in his 50s, has been reconstituted as a critic, anthologist, and collagist, Shields is opening his circuitry to fresh writing—via practice and criticism—that challenges literature’s biases, hallowed into place by our reverence for writers of the nineteenth century.

David Shields

David Shields

All of us are undergoing this great awakening into what many are calling transliteracy—using multiple platforms, from print to Twitter, for communication and for self-expression with our digital brethren. One idea is to rewire bookish certitude, ingrained notions about plot and character, moral and social inquiry, by which fiction and biography have ruled the waves. The transliterate cosmos is not about making stuff up. It’s about stumbling, blurring, hopscotching from form to form with a concentration on usefulness and accessibility. We’re unwise to put our trust in any one perspective. We explore the electronic continent via a multi-mastery of views.

How Literature Saved My Life peacocks Shields’ love of reading. It’s all about the books he likes, wishes he’d written, is bespelled by. He’s aflutter with praise. At least half the book snatch-analyzes novel plots and essay collections, the enigmas of memoir and nonfiction/documentary film, not to mention mash-ups like the Seattle-based radio program Delilah or anti-lit bonbons like Tiger Woods’ porno texts; mid-cult and low-art Baudrillard taught us can be cooked as thoroughly as high art can.

Shields casts the same existential dilemma for each piece he reports on. I find much elbow-rubbing between his attraction to David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel (“Markson constantly toggles back and forth between celebrating the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity.”); Jonathan Raban’s For Love & Money (Raban “comes out of what is to me a distinctly British tradition of showing respect for the conversation by questioning your assertion rather than blandly agreeing with it.”); and Spider-Man (which “is about the concomitance of your ordinary self, which is asexual, and your Big Boy self, which is sex-driven.”).

What’s the similarity? For Shields, worthy contemporaries are strictly postmodern, writers who “tend to present the ambiguities of genre as an analogue to the ambiguities of existence.” Shields-ilk authors dramatize the search for literary meaning as their failure to find literary meaning. The only good novel, he notes, is one that ambiguates the novel. The only decent film is one that emphasizes doubts the filmmaker has with his own point-of-view. Like Stephen Kessler on Paul Williams. (Here, then, is one of the most arresting developments in current nonfiction: books about the pitfalls of literary or celebrity enthrallment. Again, Geoff Dyer on Lawrence is king but there are others just as commendable: Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov and Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, which has the novelist imagining a life for the media-shy Pat, Vita-mixed through Beattie’s wild mind.)

The wind in Shields’ sail remains Barthes’ great insight: “the death of the author is the birth of the reader.” Add a passenger to Shields’ boat: the death of the author is the birth of the writer as reader—that is, if the writer’s insecurity about his motives and failings becomes the story he tells. On this sea, Shields’ highest value is to be author of and participant in his work.

For Shields, not enough people recognize that literature—a cultural monolith, gate-kept by Knopf and Viking-Penguin, the Texas State Board of Education, and the Academy—is both a tomb and the entombing of writing. It’s true that the majority of Americans are “literate” because of three books—To Kill a Mockingbird, A Catcher in the Rye, and Huckleberry Finn—which, as required high-school texts, make and melt the national heart. But aside from those adolescent tales, literature’s cultural centrality is passé, eclipsed by film and TV decades ago. Like religion, the novel has lost its moral authority. Did it ever hold sway or is that just the literate’s fantasy?

Instead, like most artists in our culture, authors are formally adrift. Adrift, I think, for good, not ill, adrift on purpose—a technological cause célèbre that eludes Shields. Authors are exploring the decentering of their art as it is reborn via media-platform necessity. Many, and not just the muddled sorts that Shields evokes, also ply fragmented and multimedia forms, hoping to be heard in the clamorous spectacle of our on-screen life as we live it now.

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I warm to Shields’ muddles and am intrigued by two questions. First, do the objects of his pomo confections really induce aesthetic experience? I mean, is literature even capable of such frisson? Are books sublime in the way the Sistine Chapel or the Grand Canyon are? I think of books as discursive, value tied to their logic, their temporality, their relativism. The book is quotidian, slow, a time-limper. The book is not on your wrist or in your fanny pack. Books and their authors have to catch up with the real. Today, the call is to keep pace with the simulacrum in which fake, staged, virtual, and mediated reality is our reality. The book (though not the blog) barely responds to events like the Newtown massacre and its aftermath as real and mediated as it is. Books seem to be resigned to their limitations. I wonder why Shields believes in literature’s importance in a world where literary writing, despite its sublimity, seldom matters.

Which launches the second question: why does he care so much about literature? For Shields, it’s his lengthy history with the pen, one that pulses throughout How Literature Saved My Life. Much here is autobiographical: the word-besotted youngster (junior high and high school newspaper editor); the Brown University English major (“almost unfathomably devoted”) and the slow-blossoming grad at the Iowa workshop (“I remember admiring how some of my classmates. . . had figured out how to get their own personality onto the page”); the stutterer (he got laid in college using his “irresistible speech impediment”); the father of a literate daughter (on whom Dad dotes and who finds him amusing); the college prof (Shields is devoted to his students during and beyond their face-time with him); and the inventive editor of anti-lit mash-ups like Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (which is a book I don’t know whether to read or paper my bathroom walls with).

But isn’t all this fact-sheet obvious for the literary critic, that reading and writing suffuses the life? There’s a troubling post hoc here: just because he’s lived literarily doesn’t necessarily cause his present ambiguity with his calling. I wanted more cause and effect. To underscore the personal, Shields includes a few sexual conquests; these are clever and fun to read. The story about a woman who loves him crazily and keeps a journal, which he reads against her wishes then tells her he has, is marvelous. But the insight—“the language of the events [in the journal] was at least as erotic to me as the events themselves, and when I was no longer reading her words, I was no longer very adamantly in love with [her]”—ends there, missing a chance to unpack his own “erotics of reading.”

Shields is best—his voice, muscular, unsentimental—when he worries his critical passions autobiographically: “Because language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite. It never fails to fail us, never doesn’t defeat us, is bottomlessly . . . —But here I am, trying to paper over the gaps with dried-up glue.” This ping-ponging between language’s aesthetic attraction (it should be more important than it is) and its waning cultural relevance (it’s not more important than it is) is Shields’ elusive target. Getting readers to see that such paradoxes are the soul of contemporary writing is his point. One he mostly achieves, though there are a few bumps.

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I was stopped short by the title. The reverse—How My Life Saved Literature—might be more in keeping with Shields’ message that we renew the citadel, not it, us. Plus, if anything in an age of a non-book-reading public needs saving, it’s the long stuff writers write.

Second, also owing its thorn to the title, the last thing Shields wants to write is literature. As a collagist and “wayward” nonfictionist, he sounds like no one in or of that tradition, having, so he says, dropped his youthful reverence for Hemingway and Thomas Hardy. (In many ways, Shields is over all that as is most of his generation.) I much prefer the few spots where Shields is post-literary, attentive to technology’s turbulent new forms in which video/spoken/aural delivery modes from uncaged authors are appearing faster than we can count. Again, probes like this—“I am not [a] computer programmer. How, then, do I continue to write? And why do I want to?”—are too infrequent.

Finally, with three of his last four books, Shields is repeating himself. In his 2002 Enough About You, he discusses Butterfly Stories by William Vollman, part of which is repeated word for word in this book. Plus, broken-recordly, Shields again trumpets Renata Adler’s Speedboat, his favorite book of all time, and one I guess I need to read since he loves it so recursively.

What to make of all this? Self-plagiarism? Not exactly. Writerly OCD? I guess we should believe him that books (“I have trouble living anywhere other than in language”) offer meaning as one of his life’s core pursuits, and that his life, such as it is, remains devoted to discovering the Shields-worthy texts. But why, and now over a decade and a half, keep repeating this?

Shields’ recycling reminds me of Apple’s “revolutionary” products: iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, and, no doubt soon, the iGlass. It’s a lot of repackaging of information-bearing devices—different-sized hammers to hit the same nail. I suppose such gizmos bear remaking for the good of the market. Repackaging any work means the creator is wheel-spinning a kind of permanently alterable sameness.

It seems that art’s chief purpose for post-religious, post-corporate, and postwar peoples is to simulate our fast-expanding, ever-frightening uncertainty about the artistic forms we were, only yesterday, brought up with and still can’t let go of. That is in addition to the art reinventing itself for, and catching up to, the digital age. Re-collaging the same book, Shields is paying homage to Pound’s dictum—making it new by making it repeat what’s new.


Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." His previous book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, is in its third printing. He's also a journalist for The San Diego Reader. More from this author →