How David Shields Wrote A Book That Killed Fiction But Saved A Little Kitten’s Life, And Then Blew It At The End

I was so totally, completely in the tank for David Shields. All he had to do was write a book I halfway liked.

David Shields is an author and teacher of creative writing who published in 2010 a collage of thoughts about modern literature called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. He declared that fiction was currently less interesting than non-fiction, openly incorporated unmarked snippets from other writers into his text, and quoted Prodigy of Mobb Deep.

A lot of people loved the book. Stephen Colbert put him on TV. But David Shields’s pronouncements about the death of fiction didn’t go over well with many bloggers and literary critics, nor with many of my own literary friends. A lot of people really, really hated Reality Hunger.

The community of fiction writers seemed to dislike Shields the most — which makes sense, since he was attacking their meager livelihood. A “David Shields says fiction is dead” meme raced like gasoline fire through the litosphere — even though anybody who actually read Reality Hunger would realize that Shields writes in an arch, comically hyperbolic style ( sort of Woody Allen meets Daniel Mendelsohn, if you can picture that) and that his pronouncements about the death of the novel were meant to be taken in a knowingly humorous fashion. For perspective: David Shields has also publicly admitted (without being asked) that when he was in college he secretly pledged to someday “dethrone Shakespeare”. Grandiosity is part of his schtick.

So it was silly for so many writers to take his pronouncement literally (so to speak) and get all up in arms about Reality Hunger. Really, we can all rest easy that Shakespeare will survive the brutal assaults of this mild-mannered University of Washington professor and Knopf author. Literary fiction will survive him too. David Shields is a lively, eclectic writer who loves to reach for big ideas, and this makes him the kind of essayist I like to read. He’s been criticized for writing “a manifesto”, but I wish more literary critics had the brass (hat tip, Bill Clinton) to write a manifesto every once in a while.

I blogged about Reality Hunger a few times in 2010. I went to Johns Hopkins University to hear Shields speak (he was quite impressive). I had a temper tantrum about a snarky Jessa Crispin post at Bookslut. Then everybody forgot about David Shields for a while, and now his new book is out.

It’s called How Literature Saved My Life, and the book is getting pounded even harder by the lit-crit community than Reality Hunger. The book suffered a quick left-right punch in the New York Times when both John Williams in the daily paper and Mark O’Connell in the Book Review smacked it upside the head. It also got pounded in the Daily Beast by Jacob Silverman and in Open Letters Monthly by Steve Donoghue.

Here are some samples from the scene of carnage. First, John Williams makes fun of the author’s artlessly earnest demeanor, and gets in a jab about the author’s age:

Mr. Shields, who’s in his late 50s, indulges an almost teenage impulse simply to attest to the depth of his feelings: “Literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it,” he declares at the end of one section.

Mark O’Connell also dislikes the author’s prose:

When you read David Shields, the first thing you learn is that he takes literature very seriously. The second thing you learn is how seriously he takes his taking seriously of literature. There’s a striking moment in the closing pages of his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life,” when he tells us that he is interested only in literature that obliterates the boundary between life and art. “Acutely aware of our mortal condition,” he writes, “I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it).” If there were such a thing as a quintessentially Shields­ian pronouncement, this may be it, with its odd tonal mixture of the bombastic and the beseeching. Shields wants you to know that he is a writer for whom neither life nor art is a matter to be taken lightly.

Jacob Silverman, meanwhile, objects to David Shields’s message:

That’s because Shields sees little use for narrative anymore. It’s one of fiction’s cynical fabrications that must be abandoned. He can’t open a novel now without seeing its entire superstructure—characters, plot, story, dialogue, the setting of a scene—as an enormous charade. It’s but a reminder of the insufficiency of language itself, of our inability to communicate and say what we really mean. Hence ‘Reality Hunger’, which attempted “to put ‘reality’ within quadruple quotation marks.”

But Shields has hardly found a worthy replacement. The endless succession of quotation marks is its own contrivance, a scrim between Shields and the world. And he’s made the mistake of universalizing from his experiences, as if he doesn’t represent just one strand of current literary thinking, but the wise vanguard that we would do well to follow

Finally, Steve Donoghue goes full-bore on Shields, first faintly praising some of his earlier years (a familiar windup for a crushing book review) and then lets it fly:

… 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’.

With terrible reviews like that, I really wanted to fall madly in love with How Literature Saved My Life.

I did enjoy reading it, and I breezed through it without too many yawns (this is, honestly, more than I can say about any book of literary criticism by James Wood or Daniel Mendelsohn). I like the book’s basic message of urgent acceptance of our most primal impulses as readers. Shields wants us to immerse ourselves in the gooey mess of human literature. He urges us as readers to never waste moments of our valuable reading life straining to read boring books we don’t relate to. He urges us as writers to risk embarrassing ourselves with every sentence, to always reveal as much as we can.

These are great messages; but they are the same message we got in Reality Hunger, and I’m not sure if this sequel does anything new, except turn up the temperature on the needy, nerdy, nudgy tone in the author’s voice. His irksome, unceasingly awkward intensity bothered me some when I read Reality Hunger, and it bothers me more in How Literature Saved My Life. I suppose I have to admit that I like David Shields the message more than David Shields the writer.

I was going to critique the four negative reviews mentioned above, because I really think it’s unseemly for literary critics to pile on like this to a writer who it’s trendy to hate. (It’s especially unseemly when the New York Times delivers the left-right punch, which they only save for the worst books — usually, like a state that always elects one Republican and one Democratic Senator, they try to achieve balance when they go negative).

I even began writing a rather snarky blog post about these four book reviews, but as I worked on the post (yes, dear readers, believe it or not, I do sometimes edit these blog posts) I found myself realizing that the negativity was often on target. O’Connell is right to express annoyance with Shields’s voice, that “odd tonal mixture of the bombastic and the beseeching”. Jacob Silverman use of the term “mawkish” to describe the author’s style is accurate. John Williams is correct that the obsessive writing about sex in this book “more than slakes whatever hunger might exist for that reality”.

I had a big turning point in my thoughts about this book when I suddenly realized which other contemporary writer Shields was reminding me of. As I read How Literature Saved My Life I kept having a nagging sensation that I was hearing a different author’s voice. It helped me realize what I was internally feeling about the book when the other author’s name suddenly flashed into my head: Sheila Heti.

But Shiela Heti’s How Should A Person Be was the worst book I read in 2012. It was so bad that it made me stop blogging for three months. This sudden realization didn’t bode well for my final judgement on David Shields’s new book.

I was totally in the tank for this guy when I opened How Literature Saved My Life. And, well, I still think David Shields is an excellent critic, and I will still recommend Reality Hunger to writers looking for some fresh inspiration. But Shields blew it for me this time by writing a book that simply doesn’t appeal.

Even the cover is lousy — what is this, a 7th grade English textbook?

David Shields is a tough guy, though. I know he’ll bounce back with his next book. I’ll always like his messages, even when I don’t love his prose.

8 Responses

  1. I actually like the book’s
    I actually like the book’s cover. It seems to match well with the title. However, I doubt I’ll ever read his books. Everyone is a critic. Not everyone is a good writer.

  2. Levi, while I have never read
    Levi, while I have never read anything by Shields, what comes to mind here is what Marcel Proust was grappling with when he started work on “The Search for Lost Time”. I am not equating Shields to Proust, I am just saying that Proust faced the same problem: how to use language and the novel form to express his ideas,his feelings and his memories. In Proust’s case he did start out to write a manifesto – “Le Contre Sainte-Boeuve” (“Against Sainte-Boeuve”, Sainte-Boeuve being a noted French literary critic that represented to Proust the exact opposite of his, Marcel’s, aesthetic.)

    Along the way, Proust abandoned the manifesto and wrote a novel that changed the way we look at language and the novel form.

    Every so often, someone comes up against these so-called limits, and finds a way to go beyond.

    It sounds like Shields sees the problem, but cannot transcend.

  3. You’re probably on to
    You’re probably on to something, Michael — interestingly, Shields talks about Proust a lot in this book.

  4. well, we’ve always known that
    well, we’ve always known that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

    and more interesting?

  5. I found Reality Hunger in a
    I found Reality Hunger in a ship’s library and thought it was just an experiment. I really didn’t get its point except that post-postmodernism was a constant re-run of what was before and I know that is not true, e.g., 2007’s Falling Man by Don DeLillo, new graphic novels, Oxford University Press’ Very Short Guide series, new rock & roll, et al.
    I read an excerpt of Shields’ new book on and I still haven’t been won over on why I should read it. What I read above re-enforces my opinion.

  6. Yeah.

    Wait til my book comes out bout how literature tried to car jack me and hit me in the knee with a baseball bat.

    That’ll learn em good.

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