Category Archives: David Shields

Ten 2012 Books I Wish Received More Attention in 2012

I hesitate to say something simpler, like “Ten Overlooked 2012 Books”—these days even the books that dominate chatter about literary fiction generate such little attention in the wider world that even the award winners qualify as overlooked. Why the books books were less noticed or lauded escapes me—roughly a decade of steady book reviewing hasn’t made me any wiser about what catches heat and what doesn’t. But however those levers move, I wish they’d moved in these books’ favor a bit more.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy: OK, I can guess what happened here: Published in January and with a distasteful setup—Anne Frank is alive and decrepit in an the attic of a middle-aged Jew—it was probably easier for everyone to pretend this one didn’t happen by year’s end. But it’s funny all the same, finding its comedy in the way the Holocaust reshapes its characters lives generations on—Auslander is mocking the form of the reshaping, not the proximate cause of it.

Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages: Four short stories about anxiety, the internet, commodification, and sex, to various degrees. The best is “Emission,” about the impossibility connecting your online identity with your real one; the trickiest one is “Sent,” which is about pornography and finds a way to feel nightmarish without being sanctimonious.

Lucy Ferriss, The Lost Daughter: A domestic novel with a brutal opening: A teenage girl recruits her boyfriend to deliver a planned stillbirth, and it’s as painful to witness as you’d expect. But the child, they learn to their surprise 15 years on, has survived, and they have to make sense of that living. There’s a lot of melodrama here, but Ferriss earns most of her twists, and the Polish-immigrant family is treated with a degree of nuance and sensitivity that’s remarkable among a host of novels that treat immigrants as curiosities and sideshows.

Jeff Gomez, Beside Myself: This iPad-app novel is an Paul Auster-ish metafiction told three times over. Its three plot threads follow Gomez as a divorcee, a happily married family man, and husband whose life is going off the rails—each aware of their doppelgangers. The app allows you to jumble the narrative, which deliberately complicates the idea of which character we as readers tend to privilege. (Usually the first one, but there’s no “first one” here.) Smart and, unlike many such apps, disinclined to use every bell and whistle on offer.

Tania James, Aerogrammes: James’ second book is a collection of stories mainly focused on the lives if Indian-Americans, and her imagination is broad: “What to Do With Henry” tracks the strange bond between a chimpanzee and the humans he interacts with, and “Girl Marries Ghosts” is set in a world where dating ghosts is a real possibility. Throughout James gets a lot of mileage showing how much of ourselves we project onto others, human and nonhuman alike.

Lia Purpura, Rough Likeness: I admire Purpura’s range: A color, a word for a color, scavengers, Tuscaloosa. She’s stubbornly dedicated to the lyric essay as a place to experiment with form and topic; few books I read in 2012 had so many well-made sentences.

David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, eds., Fakes: Shields’ ongoing project to smash the support beams of conventional fiction (or maybe just expose them; hard to tell sometimes) clearly led him to help assemble this collection, which is largely made up of parodies of everyday forms of writing. (Jack Pendarvis’ “Our Spring Catalog” brilliantly sends up publishing-speak.) But fiction can’t survive on satire alone—one hopes—and the best stories here thrive on taking their artificial formats and making something sincere from them: Charles Yu’s “Problems for Self-Study,” Charles McLeod’s “National Treasures,” Caron A. Levis’ “Permission Slip.”

Patrick Somerville, This Bright River: The publication of D.T. Max’s biography and the posthumous collection Both Flesh and Not this year gave readers new opportunities to mourn David Foster Wallace anew and anew. Left relatively undiscussed was who might be Wallace’s inheritors. I’m not sure Somerville wants the gig—his first novel, The Cradle, was a trim fable, not an outsize, culture-hoovering epic. But this novel evokes what Wallace’s fans admired: Deep intelligence, a capacity to write in a a variety of modes, a fixation on the nature of compassion, and a recognition of how hard it can be to acquire.

Steve Stern, The Book of Mischief Like Steven Millhauser, Steve Stern enjoys exploring the fuzzy line between reality and fantasy, though Stern’s stories are more informed and inspired by traditional Jewish mysticism. It’s hard to call these often funny stories pious, though: Mostly set in enclaves in New York and Memphis, The Book of Mischief is a kind of extended study of the urge to transcend family and community, and how it’s harder than it looks.

Graham Swift, Wish You Were Here: We’re still a way’s away from a literature that faces the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan head-on—a 2012 novel I admired, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, is interesting mainly because it’s about how hard it is to articulate what happens in a war zone. So if we’re stuck with books about how dumbstruck we all are (or all our novelists are), let it be a novel like this one, about how the ceremonies we’ve devised for mourning soldiers aren’t nearly enough to help the survivors heal.

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham's] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.

Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V

Writing at the Poetry Foundation blog Harriet, Kenneth Goldsmith points out that the recent spate of books that aggressively “borrow” from other texts may have less to do with the death of the novel, the death of the author, or any other such nonsense. It’s just that today it’s a lot easier to copy and paste:

The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.

From there, Goldsmith recalls a conversation with a creative writing student who was flummoxed by an assignment in which she had to write a passage in the style of a particular author—in her case, Jack Kerouac. Goldsmith suggests she might have learned more about writing if she had copied out a passage of On the Road, or, better still, the entire book. “Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her?” he asks. Probably. But understanding style isn’t really the end goal of the copy-and-paste set—David ShieldsReality Hunger or Ander Monson‘s Vanishing Point are more interested in questioning the identity of the author than the quality of writing. (In a way, they’re actually somewhat against the quality of writing, or at least defiantly disinterested in it—Monson’s “assembloirs,” built from snippets of other memoirs, are designed to call out the same-ness in tone that afflicts such books, stripping away whatever pathos or individuality they might have.) That’s not to say that copying and pasting can’t make for some interesting commentary—just that the commentary will inevitably be about authors, not writing.

Links: Boy Meets Tractor

Incoming Paris Review editor Lorin Stein: “Ten years ago I found a book of proletarian erotica in a slush pile. I just asked the author to send me another copy so I could read those stories again.”

Even if Jeffrey Eugenides did teach his own books in class—a practice many students criticize—he says he wouldn’t enjoy much of a windfall from it. “Probably about $10 per semester, if you add it up.”

Reality Hunger‘s “assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s.”

Are vampire novels dead?

Lorrie Moore: “Right now, I’m writing stories about money. I’m very interested in what people will do for money. Money: it’s timeless.”

Debut fiction writer Adam Schuitema rightfully praises his teacher Stuart Dybek‘s The Coast of Chicago: “It’s like a really great album, where the first song makes sense as the first song, the last song makes sense as the last song, and each song gains strength as part of the collection.”

Online excerpts from the new book Letters of Sylvia Beach include the pioneering Paris bookseller’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, and others.

The case for thinking of Walter Mosley as a Jewish author.

How Mark Twain‘s death was covered by the media; and how one Brit spent his time in Hannibal, Missouri, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.

Audio of John Updike reading Frank O’Hara‘s “The Day Lady Died.” (via)

Lionel Shriver: “You’re better off not waiting for inspiration. I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate.”

Renata Adler, David Shields, and the Panic Tone

One of my frustrations with David ShieldsReality Hunger, which I’ve expressed once or twice, is that the book is better at railing against conventional novels than defending unconventional ones. Figuring I might understand Shields better if I read one of the novels that transformed his thinking, I found a used copy of Renata Adler‘s 1976 novel, Speedboat. (It’s out of print.)

Speedboat, Shields writes, “tantalizes by being simultaneously daring and elusive. The book builds: images recur, ideas are interwoven, names reappear. Paragraphs are miniature stories. She’s always present, teasing things apart, but not from a distance. There’s very little that’s abstract.” All true. The novel is brief, less than 200 pages, but it feels weighty, like a collection of a few hundred very brief short stories. In fact, it resembles the writing of Lydia Davis (who specializes in brief, aphoristic storytelling), both in its tone (knowing, sarcastic, melancholy) and its characters (intellectual, worldly). The narrator, Jen Fein, is a longtime journalist who has covered everything from apartment fires to war to the race relations; she lives in New York, where she teaches and occasionally assists on a political campaign. Men enter and exit her life. She goes to parties but doesn’t much enjoy them; she may be an alcoholic. The story shifts wildly from past and present, as she recalls her childhood, old news stories, past lovers, and lousy parties. It’s messy, but not deliberately confusing.

Still, Speedboat insists that it be read slowly; processing its jumbled narrative like you might any other brief novel would be like trying to gulp down Davis’ complete works in one sitting. But though the book requires a little work, Adler makes her protagonist’s motivations clear: She’s a woman who’s in the business of writing conventional narrative but has grown frustrated with its limitations. She complains about the unrealistic plots of the thrillers she reads, and mocks a woman at party who tries keep a conversation meaningful and linear, not “all private bon mots spliced together.” This fails, of course:

A McLuhanite apostle, revered as a physics genius in these circles, spoke. He was in his seventies, extremely hard of hearing. He spoke long and loudly. He continued speaking. “I’m sorry to have to interrupt,” the lady moderator said, after geologic time spans passed. He did not hear her. He went on.

“I’m very sorry to have to interrupt,” she said, more loudly. He heard nothing. He continued speaking. She kept trying.

Throughout the novel, Adler embeds reminders of Jen’s feelings about the absurdity of straight-ahead storytelling, culminating in a phone conversation between Jen and a friend that turns into a farcical party-line mess:

“Jim, I think we better…”

“Is this Washington 225-8462?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Could I speak with Ramon.”

“… but the highest respect for him close quote, paragraph.”

“Iss no here.”

“Jim, I’ll try…”

“… and costly litigation. Moreover, there is nothing…”

“…on hold for twenty-two minutes. I don’t call that stepped out. I call that…”

Those bits might give the impression that Speedboat is a cynical novel, but plenty of emotion thrums through the book. Jen, it becomes clear, is telling the story this way because she’s burying her anxieties, cloaking them them in aphorisms and party anecdotes. The tension in the novel stems from the question of how well she’s going to keep it together. And her anxiety isn’t just an abstracted feeling she gets from living in a world that has a “polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist” or hosts “the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena”; she’s stalked by feelings of violation, a worry about being attacked in her home (she buys a rifle), which may stem in part from her being raped by an ex-boyfriend. (He confesses to having sex with her while she was passed out, which he weirdly describes as “necrophilia.”) Adler makes no big noise about the event, pointing to it as a critical moment in her character’s life, the way another novelist might. The novel is not a story about violation and recovery; it’s a portrait of how one woman’s world reshuffles and upends when she loses a lot of her trust in it.

David Shields nicely summarized what’s going on in Speedboat not in Reality Hunger but in an essay for Salon ten years ago: “the panic tone is beautifully modulated, under complete control, even occasionally mocked.” As a strategy for Speedboat, evoking panic by tangling the narrative thread makes perfect sense, and I can meet Shields halfway and agree that Adler found a way into her story that’s both powerful and unconventional. Adler’s novel is impressive, beguiling, sad, funny, and, in its own peculiar way, coherent. But it’s not a novel that can serve as a model for any other kind of novel. Speedboat is simply the best Speedboat it can possibly be, and it accomplishes that by exemplifying an old-fashioned notion: form follows function.

Links: Plain Dealing

“Let’s keep it simple and clear prose-wise shall we?”: How David Foster Wallace marked up one student’s paper.

A similar point by David Mamet, though in a different context: “IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.” (The aggressive use of all-caps suggests to me that Mamet might actually be on the side of the always-be-closing jerk in Glengarry Glen Ross.)

Jonathan Dee describes how reading the interviews published by his one-time employer, The Paris Review, helped him as a writer: “I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.”

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Levi Asher at David Shieldsreading in D.C. Tuesday night. (He is, in fact, the person who tipped me off to it.) He delivers his own assessment of the reading, along with a defense of Reality Hunger.

Not unrelated to Shields’ comments about the Internet and book length, Charlie Stross offers some insights into the reasons why books are as long as they are, and what the future might mean for the bulky novel. (via The Rumpus)

Brooks Peters revisits Hubert Creekmore‘s 1948 novel, The Welcome, a curious novel about homosexuality that dares not speak the name of its central theme.

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers his list of ten favorite books, which includes Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Junot Diaz‘s Drown. Funny kicker: “I really need to read some books about white people. My canon is culturally biased and reflects the perspective of sheltered African-American who is embarrassingly ignorant of the White Experience.”

The Clifton Fadiman Medal, which goes to an older work of fiction that merits more attention, has been awarded to Jamaica Kincaid‘s 1985 novel, Annie John.

Jim Shepard on writing outlines for stories, even if you don’t trust them: “That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I’d be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that’s evidence that the thing is dead.”

Earlier this month I spoke on a panel hosted by the National Book Critics Circle about the next ten years in book culture, though it quickly became a session on what the next ten years means for book reviewers. Video of that panel is now up; I can’t bear to watch, though HTMLGiant’s summary suggests my points got over well enough. What the video probably doesn’t capture is the sight of the audience collectively fishing for pens when I mentioned the Millions and the Rumpus. There’s work to do.

Narrative Shimmers In

David Shields‘ appearance in D.C. last night didn’t make me more of an admirer of his new book, Reality Hunger, but it did clarify where he’s coming from, and his enthusiasm is palpable—he has the courage of his convictions, which is a big reason why people are so interested in the book.

My issue with Reality Hunger, still, is that Shields is better at explaining why conventional novels let him down than showing why the unconventional ones excite him; it’s clear why he thinks Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections represents literature as a spent force but not as clear why, for him, Renata Adler‘s Speedboat points the way to the future. So I appreciated that he took some time to walk through Maggie Nelson‘s 2009 book, Bluets—one of Shields’ 122 favorite bookscultural works*—and explained how he admired the way it foregrounded its theme instead of buried it. Shields isn’t against narrative; he just dislikes writing that suggests the writer is a slave to it. I wasn’t a very good notetaker, but Nelson herself nicely summarized the strategy in an interview with Bomb: “Narrative often shimmers in as a by-product of working with length and sequence. But mostly it’s a formal interest that pushes me out, an abiding interest in—and bewilderment about—how thoughts hold together, how they push against each other.”

Somebody in the audience asked Shields if he thought that bookstores were conditioning us to adhere to conventional narratives and clear splits between fact and fiction. Shields suggested that it may be more systemic than the publishing or bookselling industries. Perhaps it’s a reflection of “the Ben Franklin part of us that’s always terribly practical,” he said, though when I chatted him up about this a little later he stressed that it wasn’t a uniquely American condition. “We like the slumber,” he said, and approaching art that way is a global condition. (Shields, a fan of romantic comedies, isn’t immune to it.) I don’t agree, though, that all conventional narratives are highways to slumberland—if they’re treated that way, isn’t the flaw more the reader’s than the writer’s?

Update: Thinking on the question above for a bit today, I think I’ve sorted out what strikes me as arrogant in Shields’ assertions. During his talk last night he discussed how literature ought to better respond to the streams of information and media in which we currently swim—the tweets, e-mails, blogs, TV shows, video streams, and all the rest of the things that tend to yank us away from whatever we’re reading. To that end, Shields tends to favor short books. (Just cherry-picking from the novels on his list, Amy Fusselman‘s The Pharmacist’s Mate is 86 pages; Elizabeth Hardwick‘s Sleepless Nights is 144 pages; J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello is a comparatively epic 240 pages.) There’s nothing inherently problematic with short novels—except, perhaps, in leveraging them as models for where we ought to look for ideas because (unlike fat, Corrections-y novels) they’re not so full of—Shields’ word—”furniture.” But if allowing ourselves to be slaves to plot is such a foolish way to behave, allowing ourselves to be slaves to our own impatience isn’t much of an improvement, in terms of a system for reading fiction. Furniture isn’t useless.

The Sway of Forward Progress

David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto is an inspirational book, the kind of extended piece of criticism that is so passionate about its argument and so clever in its execution that it’s hard to resist letting your feelings rise up to match his. Yes, yes, up with mashups! Down with traditional novelistic structures! Away with the notion that fiction can create a reality that substantially differs from the reality of the author who created the fiction in the first place! “The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama,” Shields writes in one of the 600-odd paragraphs that is in fact his and not repurposed from another source*. His argument is that the clearest, most intriguing literary works foreground the author and the things from which he stole—and that the author is now compelled to do this foregrounding thanks to the upheavals in other forms of culture. There’s no better proof that the strategy can succeed than the existence of Reality Hunger itself. After all that talk about the death of the author, it’s nice to see somebody argue for the life of it.

But—and there’s always a but, because if history teaches us anything it’s that it’s best not to reflexively embrace everything with the word “manifesto” in the title—one problem with Reality Hunger is that Shields is better at venting his exasperation with traditional narrative structures than he is at showing why, exactly, they fail. “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting,” he writes, “I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of forward progress.” Even if I resist my instinct to write this behavior as poseurish nonsense, Shields doesn’t address what benefits he might derive from such a backwards reading. And though twice he voices his enthusiasm for Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat as an example of the kind of anti-narrative, anti-”realistic” novel he aches for, he dwells little on what in its structure (or lack of it) inspires him so.

Of course, spending time discussing rules for successful anti-fiction would be programmatic and thus run counter to his intentions—it’s going to have to be enough to say that what works is anything that helps the reader avoid that “sway of forward progress.” Shields knows that this kind of writing is nothing new—his inspirations go back to Borges and encompasses Spalding Gray, Art Spiegelman, Lydia Davis, and more. Wherever memoir and fiction merge is where he wants to be, and whatever rejects the traditional satisfactions of storytelling is where the author can truly be found. “You don’t need a story,” he writes. “The question is How long do you not need a story?

Well, apparently you can’t go on too long before a story is what you want. Speedboat (which I haven’t read) is less than 200 pages long. Davis’ “French Lesson I: La Meurtre,” to pick one of many great stories of hers that dismantle narrative expectations, would wear out its welcome at more than seven pages. Gilbert Sorrentino’s beguiling A Strange Commonplace, works primarily because it bounces brief chapter against brief chapter—were it longer, the reader would be less compelled to do follow that bouncing. Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren’s slim prose poem on his native city is an impressionistic, personalized, mashed-up snapshot that captures a lot of the city but gets in and out quickly—certainly much faster than Mike Royko’s Boss (untrustworthy reportage by Sheilds’ thinking) or, say, Adam Langer’s Crossing California (unlikable formal novelistic narrative that’s chock-full of forward progress.)

The mash-up, the collage, the remix—this is the stuff of the future, and this is the stuff that Shields’ great fiction of the future must embrace. More Davis and Sorrentino, less Langer and Franzen. It will be brief, it won’t pretend to hide the author, and in its formal invention it will resist all efforts to assimiliate it. Yesterday, thinking of a good shorthand for Shields’ preferences, I thought, “Anything that repels parody,” because something needs to have a structure, or at least some obvious working parts, to be parodied. But then last night I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos**, and one of the segments featured a series of “mash-ups”—embarrassing moments over which the same footage of wailing wedding attendees is superimposed. Somebody trips and falls, here come the wailing ladies; a minor picnic mishap, and the wailing ladies return again. If a cultural movement has grown so powerful that the least intellectually challenging show on network television can make something simple of it, it may not be an especially powerful method of experimentation.

That’s not to say that Shields is wrong—better there be more interesting fiction experiments than more hackneyed novels with stale plots. Just that people have a powerful capacity to turn yesterday’s innovations into today’s bad habits, which is something Shields never quite addresses. And as more artists break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” producing more and more of the kind of fiction Shields is agitating for, that kind of fiction might very well become its own cliche.***

* I think he wrote this. An appendix to the book lists all the cases where Shields repurposed text from other sources, but the footnotes seem slightly out of order. At any rate, because one of the tentpoles of the book’s structure is that somebody else’s statements can stand in for your own, it’s not really a problem if I make an attribution error, at least by Shields’ way of thinking.

** Look, my home Internet access is down, OK?

*** The process may be hastening. In April essayist Ander Monson will publish Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an entertaining essay collection that uses strategies similar to Reality Hunger to study memoir at a time when the genre’s factual integrity is increasingly called into question. “Maybe what memoirs offer us is another fiction: that of understanding,” he writes. “By reading memoir we can pretend to comprehend a life.” To show how closely the narrative tools of memoir and fiction merge, Monson fills the book with sections called “assembloirs,” mini-narratives built out of snippets of a few dozen memoirs. In showing how alleged “truth” has an artifice behind it, he ends up constructing small stories that hold together, albeit in oblique ways. Monson and Shields are both skeptical of the Great American Novel (or Memoir), but I don’t think that either would disagree that whatever replaces it is going to have to work very hard to figure out how much or how little it wants to address storytelling’s familiar satisfactions.