categories: Cocktail Hour
Not long ago I sent an essay to a magazine where the cool kids hang out. To be fair, the cool kids were very nice when they rejected me, but they did say something that confused me a little. “Too much like David Shields,” they said. Hmmm, I wondered, who is this Shields of whom they speak? The ideas in my essay—Against a Literature of Fact—were ones I had chewed over for a couple decades, ideas that had obsessed me as a writer, teacher and human being. But apparently I was behind the curve. So, I figured, if I sound like David Shields, I had better read him.
I read the book, Reality Hunger, in two short bursts. In between those bursts I met Shields very briefly at AWP (see if you can pick him out in this picture from Talking to ghosts 2) and he seemed like a nice enough guy. Now I’ve finished and while I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it later, for the moment I’m just going to jot down ten random reactions. Shields claims that his main desire is to provoke, and he has certainly done that. As for the “manifesto” aspect I’m not so sure.
1. The very best thing about this book is the sheer exhilaration that comes when you give the world the finger and decide to be completely yourself. (It just so happens that in Shields’ case being yourself means quoting other people a lot.) It is the most important lesson here. In this time when publishing is completely geared toward e-books about vampires (no offense, Justin), we can’t hear often enough that there are still pleasures in following one’s own genius. Even the fact that commercial success in literature–which is the dream of many who don’t admit it–is all but impossible, becomes exciting. Many of the quotes in Shields’ book are just well-written versions of “be yourself.” Not really very revolutionary, but……
By the way, one of the few quotes he didn’t corral was this one by Thoreau: “A man is best when he is most himself.”
2. Speaking of Thoreau, he, or anyone else who likes plants or trees, is nowhere to be found in this collection of aphorisms.
Yes, we have Emerson, the parlor general, who I too have come back to lately with great enthusiasm. But while Shields sometimes tries to define himself against New York, he shares their revulsion at the thought that human beings are animals that evolved next to other animals. I was weaned on Philip Roth and love Woody Allen. But how can any serious thinker today be merely urbane and urban; that is how can they think of human beings, creatures that evolved in nature for thousands of years, as merely brainy creatures unconnected to the animal world? Even Roth no longer does this (if he ever did), frequently including “nature” in his recent work.
3. Another of the good things about this book is that it cuts through the phony baloney and gets right to the heart of why we love to read, at least why we like to read nonfiction of the autobiographical or biographical sort. The almost greedy instinct to take what others have to offer and put it to use in our own lives.
On the other hand, one of the worst things about the book is that it serves up its own brand of phony baloney. That is because Shields tries to take what are really a bunch of random ideas and, despite claims of embracing uncertainty, attempts to write edicts. (It is, after all, a manifesto.) He tells us that lyric essays are what matter and that anything with a plot does not, as if there were not varied pleasures in different sorts of reading. This is like a tennis pro suggesting that golf be outlawed. Or telling someone that because they like the Talking Heads they can’t like Neil Young.
Or, to put it yet another way: he does a great job of focusing on one of our reading pleasures, and one that New York publishers/ marketers have neglected. But spare me the “there’s only one kind of writing/reading” bullshit.
4. There were many things I loved about this book, and many passages I underlined and marked up. It made me remember that in high school and college I used to like reading introductions to classic works more than the works themselves, and that I sometimes preferred biographies about great writers to their actual writing.
5. I enjoyed reading all the quotes but for me, and most reader’s I suspect, it became a parlor game of trying to guess who said what and flipping to the back. This grew irritating and while I know the author wanted all the quotes to go un-attributed, that would have been even more irritating.
6. Given the basic premise of unoriginality—nothing is really new–it’s funny to watch the way Shields is being touted as thoroughly original, and the next big thing. That is not the author’s fault of course and in this day and age when everyone defends themselves against even the possibility of reading, any way you can get a title in peoples’ hands is justified. Still there is an inherent irony in the proceedings.
Shields has definitely captured something that is in the air. But it isn’t particularly new to most of us.
7. Shields should read Walter Jackson Bate. Not only was Bate the best 20th century thinker on originality and influence (sorry Harold Bloom), but he followed to their logical conclusion many of the ideas that Shields simply presents in seed. For instance, Shields likes to quote Goethe talking about how un-original he is. This is accurate, and bracing, since we are talking about one of the most original artist in the last 200 years. But what the short quotes don’t get at it is that this admission of unoriginality was just a starting point, and that by leaning on and learning from great predecessors, Goethe made the long climb toward greatness and originality. What Shields seems to suggest, on the other hand, is a “Well you can’t be original so why try” attitude.
So here’s an aphorism of my own: an admission of our unoriginality is just a starting place. It’s where the climb to art begins.
8. This last point shows in Shields’ own writing. It’s sometimes hard to pick out the quotes, but you’re always pretty sure when it is Shields himself writing. One small problem of placing your own prose next to the prose of the greats is that your prose may look a little weak. Shields is a provocative, smart, interesting writer. But Emerson he ain’t.
9. Why, in books of this sort, does there have to be an obligatory Franzen bashing? Maybe they—the whole artsy experimental gang—should get it out of their system once and for all and form a lynch mob and go after the man himself. Are they really so jealous or afraid of Franzen? Why riles them up so? The Corrections was not penned by the anti-Christ. You know what the Corrections is? It’s a good, old-fashioned page turner. It’s real predecessor isn’t Delillo, but the Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities.
And there should be room for page turners. The last thing we want to do is say reading can’t be fun.
10. If you don’t have time to read this book pick up The Art of the Personal Essay and read Lopate’s introduction to the anthology. Lopate’s essay on the essay is not just the best thing he ever wrote, but just about the best writing about the essay that I’ve ever read. Shields, by the way, ends up quoting substantial chucks of the Lopate essay.
The two men follow essentially the same argumentative path, until the end of Reality Hunger, when Shields splinters off toward an even more specialized essayistic form—the lyric. I think a happier, and more honest, conclusion would have been to admit that all sorts of writing—the personal essay, autobiography, biography, poetry and fiction too—can provide the sorts of pleasures and wisdom—the “reality”–that Shields is hungry for. To say that only the lyric essay can satisfy this hunger is a little like saying one should eat Chicken Marsala every night. Don’t get me wrong, I like Marsala as much as the next guy. But I prefer a full and varied fridge.
[related posts on Bill and Dave's: Against the Literature of Fact: Part One (Dave's Take) and The Fact of Literature: Part Two (Bill's Take).]