How Literature Saved My Life

  • David Shields
  • Knopf
  • 224 pp.
  • Reviewed by Stephen Goodwin
  • April 3, 2013

The author delivers a provocative collage on finding solace in literature.

From the start, I was uneasy about this new book from David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life. The title seemed both grandiose and glib, and the first few pages were jarring. After identifying with a young poet who is “in agony over the ‘incommensurability of language and experience,’” Shields swoops from high to low: he identifies with George W. Bush. They are both homebodies, vain about their height and weight, read newspapers by looking at the headlines, lionize athletes, etc. The points of comparison are sometimes dubious (does Bush really revile his mother?) but they are numerous, and after three full pages Shields concludes: “[Bush] is my worst self realized.”

Are we to believe that Shields, given the power of the presidency, would have waged two wars, authorized torture and swaggered across the deck of an aircraft carrier under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”? Is this some kind of Swiftean stratagem to make us realize that we are all more like Bush that we care to admit? Or is it merely evidence that Shields’ oft-admitted self-absorption is so complete that he can ignore everything about Bush that doesn’t match up with his experience?

Or maybe Shields wants to shock the reader. That’s part of his schtick. He’s a polemicist who likes to challenge settled attitudes, a memoirist committed to unsparing candor. He wrote a couple of early novels but now works only in the form of the collage; his books are composed in fragments, intensely self-reflexive, a mixture of bombast and brilliance, stuffed with quotations and lists, mini-essays, scraps of memoir. The jump cuts can be jolting, but the riffs are often dazzling and the pleasure of reading Shields is that he is so constantly amped; his writing gives off joules of intellectual energy.

After the Bush comparison, Shields parses Spider-Man as a drama of male sexuality, segues into a discussion of Prometheus, conducts an astute inquiry into the way that institutions like his alma mater, Brown, leave their mark, and discusses the unpublished memoir of a seminarian friend, which leads him to quote at length a letter of self-defense that he wrote to the New York Review of Books. 

That’s Shields, romping along. And then I came to a section called “Love is a long, close scrutiny” — a memorable phrase lifted from a novel by John Hawkes, one of Shields’ first teachers, but there is no citation. The next six pages are an account of a dorm romance in which Shields confesses to reading his girlfriend’s diary. These pages seemed distinctly familiar — as indeed they should have, since this account has been reprinted, almost word for word, from an earlier Shields book, Enough About You, published in 2002. Later in the book, I came upon another familiar passage in which Shields describes his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; this also appeared first in Enough About You.

Call me an old fogey, but I think that recycling one’s own work — without explanation, without acknowledgment — is a literary misdemeanor. Shields, however, has a fully articulated defense of this practice. In his last book, Reality Hunger, he used quotations from hundreds of writers and didn’t want to cite any of them; when his editor insisted that he do so, he urged his readers to take box cutters and remove the citations. The literary artist, Shields maintains, should have the same freedom to use the work of other artists as a musician, or a visual artist. To borrow one’s own work is, presumably, just another way to shatter convention and decorum. Per Shields, it’s the prerogative of the artist to rearrange his shards however he damn well pleases. 

Still, the inclusion of these passages left a bad taste. And it made me start to doubt the very qualities I had always trusted in Shields. Over and over again, he tells the reader that writing must be of the utmost urgency. The Post-it note on his computer provides a constant reminder of the words of Denis Johnson: “Write yourself naked, from exile, and in blood.” 

But really: how urgent can his message be if part of it was written years ago? 

How much blood did it cost Shields to reprint those pages? How many other passages did he lift? Is his despair real or is it just a posture? Once those questions reared their ugly heads, I found it hard to trust Shields as I had in previous books when he did seem fiercely engaged in the process of literary invention. 

In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields bumps up against the limitations of his own prose as well as the limitations of the form he has championed. By temperament, he is a thinker, not a feeler; he wields the tools of a critic with deadly ease and he dismisses the novel as an archaic form that has “gone dark” for him. Indeed, his goals are entirely different from those of the novelist. Shields writes: “According to Tolstoy, the purpose of art is to transfer feeling from one person’s heart to another person heart. In collage, it’s the transfer of consciousness, which strikes me as immeasurably more interesting and loneliness-assuaging.”

And yet the burden of this book is to communicate his agony and loneliness, and the urgency of his need to find solace in literature. Without doubting the reality of those feelings, the reader cannot help but question whether they can be adequately represented in a collage — which by definition does not engage in the representation of feeling. The momentum of the collage, with its dizzying jump cuts and mood swings, works against the sustained development of any feeling. Archaic the novel might be, but it remains the form in which an emotion like despair can be evoked and deepened, rendered in all its darkness and power.

For this reader, How Literature Saved My Life is unable to deliver on its title — unable, that is, to turn the banality inside out and give the book a life-or-death urgency. Nevertheless, there are pleasures to be gleaned from the wit, the audacity, the candor and the insight of the wide-ranging discourse. And no matter how much I disagree with Shields about the novel, or object to some of his practices, I have to admit his work stirs me up. “Writin’ is fightin’,” Shields says at one point in the book, and he’s not one to back away from a brawl. Throughout this book, I felt that I was in a dispute, but a dispute worth having. His greatest gift might be his ability to make literature matter to others. Shields quotes the familiar Kafka sentence — “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us” — and he knows how to wield an axe.

Stephen Goodwin’s most recent novel is Breaking Her Fall. He teaches in the MFA Program at George Mason University.

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