DAVID SHIELDS ENTERED the literary world from the womb of the Iowa Writers Workshop as a young novelist in the 1980s. He’s been trying to undo the damage ever since. After publishing the novels Heroes (1984) and Dead Languages (1989) and the “novel in stories” Handbook for Drowning (1992), Shields backed away from the novel, writing a series of sui generis nonfiction books, beginning with Remote (1996). With the publication of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) and now How Literature Saved My Life he hasn’t so much maintained his distance from fiction as argued that there is no meaningful distinction between fictional and nonfictional writing. We’ve heard this song before, and it was mostly sung by poststructuralist literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s. Shields isn’t quite a theorist, but he does have some ideas about how we ought to reconceptualize literature in an age where technological and economic crises have provoked a corresponding anxiety about the usefulness of our traditional literary forms.
Here’s Shields on the current state of the novel: “The novel is an artifact, which is why antiquarians cling to it so fervently. Art, like science, progresses. Forms evolve. Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason.” Regardless of what you think of the analogies between Darwinian evolution, scientific progress, and literary innovation, that last sentence raises some questions. When a form dies “for a good reason,” does it die like a slug in the desert, unable to adapt to its new surroundings? Or does it die the way a hunted animal does — not because it can no longer function in the world, but because it is part of a larger system of predators and prey? Not to put undue pressure on what is, in the scheme of How Literature Saved My Life, a throwaway metaphor, but I’d like to get at the relationship between the salvation narrative the title promises and the formal evolution it claims to exemplify.
The abandonment of the novel form serves as a kind of origin story for Shields. In How Literature Saved My Life, he writes, “everything I’ve written [since Remote] has been collage (from the French coller, ‘to glue’),” though this is true only if you loosen up your definition of collage a little. We might think of Tristan Tzara’s tongue-in-cheek instructions for writing a Dadaist poem: cut up a newspaper article, shake up the individual words in a bag, take them out in random order, copy it down, “And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.” Even in 1920, Tzara understood the radical allure of the collage form well enough to know how quickly it could become domesticated. Shields, too, seems aware of this — one of Remote’s best chapters consists solely of a list of bumper-sticker clichés: “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever. I may grow old, but I’ll never grow up. Too fast to love, too young to die. Life’s a beach.” Gathered together, they resemble a collection of insects pinned under glass.
While Remote might have served as Shields’s formal conversion experience, its subtitle, Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, gestures to one of the cha...read more