March 2013

Guy Cunningham


Close, but Only Close: David Shields and Literature's Redemptive Ambivalence

"All criticism is a form of autobiography." -- Oscar Wilde, as borrowed by David Shields

1. I find David Shields unavoidable. A lot of that is a matter of style -- I enjoy fragmentary writing, and few are more adept at it than he is. Rather than telling a linear story, fragmentary writing works by accumulation. A story or argument or idea emerges over time, as more and more fragments of text build up. These fragments might all touch upon a common theme, or they might look at different aspects of the same event. Perhaps no recent work better embodies this approach than Shields's Reality Hunger, a collage-style "manifesto" constructed out of uncited quotations and short bursts of text. His latest book, a memoir-cum-critical-essay called How Literature Saved My Life is a bit less radical, in the sense that the personal stories that form the backbone of the work are pretty accessible, even if they're not organized in a conventional A-then-B-then-C format, but it still conveys meaning through fragmentation, redirection, and the careful use of quotations. He often juxtaposes a short autobiographical passage with a brief consideration of another writer's work, never settling in one direction for too long.

2. Fragmentary writing is not new to nonfiction, or even to cultural criticism. Works like Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse or Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster utilized fragments decades ago. One of the most influential American essays of the last few decades, Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," presents itself as a series of fifty-eight numbered paragraphs. But Shields makes the technique feel incredibly contemporary, not least because of how he uses it to explore how we interact with technology. Even if I don't entirely agree with Shields's belief that "new artists... have to learn the mechanics of computing/programming and -- possessing a vision unhumbled by technology -- use them to disassemble/recreate the web," I do believe that writers today need to be aware of the way contemporary technology shapes the way we read, write, live, and think. But more important even than his ability to mimic the anarchic media environment of the web is the way Shields uses the inherent ambivalence of the fragmentary style -- a technique that refuses to settle into one clean, easy-to-digest line of thought -- to explore the ambivalence he feels about literature itself.

3. Shields links his love of the written word to his experiences as a stutterer, saying, "because I stutter, I became a writer." So literature became an alternate form of expression. Unfortunately, it proved to be a fallible one: "As a writer, I love language as much as any element in the universe, but I also have trouble living anywhere other than in language. If I'm not writing it down, experience doesn't really register. Language has gone from prison to refuge back to prison." Shields is talking about writing, but it's just as easy for a reader to get "trapped" in the same way. Literature happens when the imagination is applied to language. Without language, it can't exist. But when a piece of writing really works, when you really find yourself lost in it, it produces something outside of language -- namely, an emotional response. And that emotional response can be every bit as powerful as something that happens in "real life." People who cry when Cordelia dies at the end of King Lear cry whether Cordelia exists or not. Some of the strongest, most memorable experiences of my own life came from books. And, like Shields, that worries me sometimes.

4. In the midst of Philip Roth's novel My Life as a Man, the narrator has a moment of frustration, where he breaks down and complains, "Maybe all I'm saying is that words, being words, only approximate the real thing, and so no matter how close I come, I only come close." He can't share his experience with us -- the story can only approximate it. But he keeps telling it anyway. There's something appealing about that ambivalence, the way Roth's narrator (or maybe Roth himself, depending on how you interpret the book's metafictional games) both doubts his ability to tell his story yet still feels compelled to tell it. Sometimes Roth's narrator seems to be right. Literature, fiction, stories, whatever you want to call them, are, in the end only words, and while they may come close to conjuring another mind, they only come close. When you shut the book, you're still yourself, and you're still alone.

5. The tension between these two possibilities -- literature as a redemptive salve against loneliness and literature as an inherently fallible project, doomed to always just miss capturing real experience -- echoes through any number of contemporary books. A few years back, the editors of n+1 tried unraveling why W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaņo have managed to become so popular in the US, while so many other great international writers remain ignored. One intriguing possibility is the fact that "neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction." Sebald peppers his "novels" with photographs, architecture criticism, and archival research. Bolaņo, meanwhile, goes even further. As n+1 observes:

Nothing is so consistent across Bolaņo's work as the suspicion that literature is chiefly bullshit, rationalizing the misery, delusions, and/or narcissism of various careerists, flakes, and losers. Yet, Bolaņo also somehow treats literature as his and his characters' sole excuse for existing.

6. Modernist and postmodernist writers deal with this ambivalence by creating distance between the reader and the text. Sometimes this means writing prose that needs to be reread to be understood, such as in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, a novel with language so dense that T.S. Elliot compared it to poetry. At other times, it means seeding a story with allusions to other works, whether literary or popular -- Donald Barthelme went so far as rewriting Snow White as a bohemian fantasia nightmare -- forcing the reader to look outside the text to appreciate the full meaning of the work. Sometimes it means embracing the absurd, and forsaking any claim on representing the real world accurately.

7. I think that ambivalence is a major reason I keep finding myself drawn to Shields. He is not as profound as Roth or Sebald or Bolaņo or Barnes, but he addresses the ambivalence at the heart of literature far more explicitly then they do. I can't think of any contemporary writer more committed to exploring the spit between literature's sacredness and its fallibility. This is most obvious in his treatment of fiction. Reality Hunger famously wrote off traditional storytelling, attempting to elevate the lyric essay to the central role once held by the novel. But, if the fragments of How Literature Saved My Life really do offer a window into how Shields thinks, it's clear that his mind carries around quite a bit of fiction. The book is full of reflections on novelists, ranging from Herman Melville, to Denis Johnson, to J.D. Salinger, to Sarah Manguso, and others.

8. He seems sincere in his taste for the essay, but he is perfectly willing to stretch his definition of "essay" to encompass any writing he enjoys. It also means he's essentially cutting up Moby-Dick in his mind to turn it into a collection of odd "nonfiction" pieces on whales, whaling, and the sea, with occasional asides about a guy on a boat obsessed with some white whale. I like that because it shows exactly how Shields reads -- selfishly. Which is how I read. To be honest, it's the only way I can imagine anyone reading. Selfish reading is the reader's equivalent of a writer's ambivalence about language. When we read selfishly, we disregard whatever on the page doesn't suit us, chopping the story into something else, something more in line with our own needs. When I read Reality Hunger, I copied down dozens of its most interesting quotations and put them together in a notebook. Now I have a hard time remembering parts of the book that don't appear in "my" version.

9. One of the many writers peeking around the corners of How Literature Saved My Life is the late David Foster Wallace. This isn't all that surprising, since Wallace seems to peek around the corner of a lot of books (I'm looking at you, Freedom and The Marriage Plot and a whole lot of others). He isn't one of Shields's central writers, the way Sarah Manguso or J.D. Salinger are, but Shields writes approvingly of his nonfiction, and addresses his work in various places throughout the texts. Most importantly, though, Shields notes Wallace oft-quoted belief that literature makes us feel "less alone." But he doesn't agree with it. Echoing Roth, he observes, "language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn't, not quite." But he keeps reading -- and writing -- anyway. In fact, when a friend tells Shields, "Literature never saved anybody's life," he reflects, "It has saved mine -- just barely, I think." I don't know if it's saved my life -- probably not, at least not yet -- but it's certainly made my life richer and more rewarding. And I think it's precisely because it offers me a place to be alone without feeling alone.

"Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this -- which is what makes it essential." -- David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life

10. The most interesting thing about reading is the way the reader must recreate the writer's stories, characters, and ideas in his or her own mind. You are letting someone else's words enter your head. It's a very intimate process, when you think about it. But precisely because it is "close but only close," because I am reading those words through my own eyes and not the writer's, I am also very much alone. In a lot of ways, this process, of wrestling with someone else's words and coming close (but only close) to understanding the writer, helps me defines the contours of myself. By selfishly picking through a book, finding the parts that work for me and discarding the ones I don't, I manage to arrive at an idea of who I am, or at least what I think is important. You could even say that reading selfishly -- by embracing the ambivalence inherent in an experienced derived through someone else's words and thoughts -- helps me be myself.