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 characteristic themes of his writing: the fundamental incompleteness of David Shields. He obsessively compares himself to others not in order to differentiate but to collapse the distinctions between observer and observed, celebrity and nobody. In the prologue to The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008), he writes that the book is “an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together.” The story of any body, Shields seems to tell us, must also include its origin, which is ultimately someone else’s body. In the same way that the “thing” about life is its opposite, death, Shields’s tellings and retellings of episodes in his life (often whole chunks of earlier writing reappear in later books) seem designed to undermine the idea that his life is truly unique. After all, none of his later books are unique, as they consciously strive to do away with the very idea of originality and uniqueness.
If Shields wants “the reader to experience the dubiety of the first person pronoun,” as he puts it in How Literature Saved My Life, he achieves his effect through channeling himself through something other than himself — a celebrity, another book, a film, whatever’s at hand. The book is divided into chapters, and, within those, smaller subsections that last anywhere from a sentence to several pages. We get a quote from Schopenhauer followed by a brief review of a memoir followed by a story about Shields’s daughter followed by some rather aimless rambling about Brown University’s reputation. In one of the subsections, Shields looks back on his image of George W. Bush, listing off pages of Bush’s least-admirable qualities — lack of intellectual curiosity, fixations on petty self-improvements even in the face of the Iraq War, cowardice, jockish boneheadedness, general shallowness, ad infinitum — and finds he possesses each one: “Every quality I despise in George Bush is a quality I despise in myself. He is my worst self realized.” In Shields’s hands, self-diminishment becomes a form of self-aggrandizement, as though he were saying, “I’m not just bad, I’m as bad as the worst president in modern history.” Seeing himself in Bush, Shields somehow assumes responsibility for all of his shortcomings. His college-age fixation on Prometheus Bound, whose hero spends his days being made literally incomplete by a perpetually hungry eagle, gives much the same impression. Prometheus is both heroic and pathetic — heroic because of the pathetic state to which he is ever reduced.
In one of the book’s confessional passages, Shields recounts losing his virginity to the girl in the next dorm room after having spent weeks secretly reading her journal. Eventually, after their relationship gets more serious, he breaks down and writes her a letter admitting his malfeasance. She forgives him but the relationship sputters and dies, and Shields comes to the conclusion that “the language of the events 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 Rebecca. This is what is known as a tragic flaw.” In other words the journal, the literature of the experience, came to supersede the experience itself. Shields can only love Rebecca while she is writing their relationship into existence, just as he can hate George Bush only when the former president becomes the screen for Shields’s own self-loathing. About the troubled musician Daniel Johnston, Shields writes admiringly, “It’s as if Johnston has found a way to hot-wire his feelings directly into his tape recorder. He presents no façade, only the inscape of his tortured self.” Where Shields needs the self-reflexive gesture, Johnston only requires his mental illness. And all of this, the necessity of some other person, some image or text, to supplement Shields’s life is what constitutes his tragedy. Literature, as he tells us, doesn’t save his life, but its virtue is that “it doesn’t lie about this.”
The confession of sins past and their redemption through the act of writing is a common enough trope in memoir, and the classical themes that weave through the book (Prometheus, Oedipus, “the tragic flaw,” not to mention Shields’s skill at turning everything from Spiderman to Renata Adler’s experimental novel Speedboat into a tragic allegory) raise the question of how the formal innovation that Shields calls for lines up with his invocation of some of the oldest stories of Western culture. As he tells us, “The key thing for an intellectually rigorous writer to come to grips with is the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms.” But what makes technological sophistication equivalent to visceral experience? And what makes technological sophistication and literature mutually exclusive? It’s a strange set of equations at best, and they introduce a little nervousness about whether the formal revolution Shields is encouraging might actually happen.
Throughout his 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life, Shields continually refers to his work as a “mash-up” or “remix” or “collage,” forms that view rearrangement and juxtaposition as acts of invention. That Shields’s “adapt or die” message to literature at large is oriented toward form rather than content — toward the idea that books ought to mimic the imperatives and principles he sees at work in the shifting norms that guide critiques of intellectual property and the valorization of identities rooted in social networks — suggests something about the relationship between his particular form and his particular content. Collage not only allows Shields certain artistic liberties that more traditional forms forbid (try dropping a few paragraphs from your first novel into the middle of your fifth one and see what people say), it allows him to hold up his need to refract himself through ex-presidents and old girlfriends and ancient myths as a principle of literary innovation. New forms become ways of housing old content, of retrofitting the past to resemble literature’s future.
A comforting thought, that: formal innovation becomes a way to preserve the past rather than abandoning it, to pass on the selfish genes of Western culture in a more viable host body. Comforting especially if you’re a writer, a former novelist, like David Shields, with an Iowa MFA in fiction and a sense, like everyone else his age and all of us eventually, that the project of technological innovation is to render a valuable degree and skillset obsolete. How Literature Saved My Life is not only an attempt “to come to grips with the marginalization of literature.” It’s also a memorial to our particular moment of late capitalism. The pervasive sense of uncertainty that haunts conversations about the future of the global economy emerges as a meditation on, essentially, the job security of the writer. His ability to adapt, to find a form that serves the culture, to save his job, Shields seems to say, will determine which fragments of the past move on and which dry up and die. Read this way, How Literature Saved My Life is, in the most basic sense, a conservative book, one that attempts to preserve both a vision of literature as Promethean fire and the possibility of its flickering out.