Book Review: How Literature Saved My Life
by David Shields
The most pressing question raised by David Shields’ latest vapid screed, How Literature Saved My Life, is why anybody continues to read David Shields. Over twenty years ago, he earned a great deal of reader goodwill with two very strong fictional outings, Dead Languages and Handbook for Drowning, and virtually everything he’s written since then – and certainly everything he’s written in the last few years, perhaps most abjectly typified by his 2010 ‘manifesto’ Reality Hunger – has been one long ragged whining narcissistic condemnation of the trick that got him in the door.
Shields no longer derives any satisfaction from reading conventional novels. And in true egomaniac fashion, he assigns the blame for this fact not to himself but to conventional novels. Their structure and tradition no longer speak to our modern, fractured age, Shields claims. The demands they make – on our time, our sympathies, and most of all our powers of sustained concentration – can no longer be met, should no longer be met. This is a faster-paced time, more multi-faceted, more advanced. We no longer need Middlemarch – we need Shit My Dad Says.
Justin Halpern’s disgraceful New York Times bestseller (a loose collection of blurtings made by his emotionally abusive father) gets a moment in the spotlight of How Literature Saved My Life, unbelievably. Shields – who, it should be repeated, once wrote actual books – is clearly including it under the heading of ‘literature,’ and as far as he’s concerned, Halpern’s book has the key ingredient:
It’s not great or even good, probably, really, finally, but above all it’s not boring. Which is everything to me. I don’t want to read out of duty. There are hundreds of books in the history of the world that I love to death. I’m trying to stay awake and not bored and not rote. I’m trying to save my life.
(“What I love about Shit My Dad Says,” he elaborates, “is the absence of space between the articulation and the embodiment of the articulation” – which isn’t the first thing in this book that will make even a well-disposed reader suspect that Shields isn’t profound or provocative or even counter-intuitive but rather simply an idiot)
The point – to the almost invisible extent that there is one here (How Literature Saved My Life is about as coherent – or as interesting – as a game of ping-pong played by toddlers) – concerns cohesion: the more complicated a work of prose is, the harder it is to read, and the harder something is to do, the less worthwhile it is. Shit My Dad Says is a collection of very quick snippets and one-liners; it requires no concentration – it barely requires paid attention – and so it gets a mention from Shields, who values collage above all other artistic expressions. And where “collage” is, literary fraud David Markson can’t be far away – Shields is a big fan of the cut-and-paste master, pausing in How Literature Saved My Life to praise one of Markson’s brainless scrapbooks, This Is Not a Novel:
One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile’s wet dream, but it’s no mere collection of quotes. It’s a sustained meditation on a single question: Against death, what consolation, if any, is art? Against the dark night of death, what solace is it that I still read Sophocles?
This Is Not a Novel is, in fact, a mere collection of quotes; it’s no more a ‘meditation’ about death-defying art than it is a recipe for lemon meringue pie – not that it matters much, since Shields would rather read a recipe for lemon meringue pie than Mrs Dalloway. (“Am I uniquely horrible?” he asks at one point, to which the reader will want to respond, “No, but you’re sure horrible enough”)
The scattered scraps of autobiography that are clearly intended to give How Literature Saved My Life added poignancy only increase its ridiculous, braying pomposity – specifically because this is an author who’s proudly proclaiming that his inability to swim is the water’s fault.
All of which points at a provisional answer to that opening question, why we continue to read David Shields. Turns out it’s the same reason he claims we still cling to the outmoded form of the traditional novel: unthinking momentum. And if he’s daring enough to cut his ties with such momentum, can we really do less?