David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life Successfully Murders the Novel


David Shields did it, again. He killed the novel.

But it’s less painful than it sounds. In How Literature Saves My Life, his eleventh book and first since the controversial 2010 hit Reality Hunger, Shields convincingly reminds us why novels aren’t what they once were and why we should stop being seduced by fiction.

Reality Hunger was a provocative manifesto that dug into the decline of the novel and called for the creation of a new form—one that didn’t distinguish between nonfiction and fiction, memoir and narrative, authenticity and plagiarism. Chuck Klosterman said it “might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last 10 years.” Jonathan Safran Foer called it “more than thought-provoking” and “one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.” Meanwhile, it had a lot of people up in arms. As the novelist Blake Morrison put it in the Guardian, “Shields sells fiction short.” On Salon, Laura Miller dealt some blows: “The novel is dead to him, but so what? Can’t he just go off and write whatever he wants to write without climbing up on a soapbox to make a speech about it? How does this offbeat preference of his merit a book-length manifesto? Why does this book exist?”

How Literature Saved My Life picks up, in many ways, where Reality Hunger left off. “Some people seemed to think I was the Antichrist because I didn’t genuflect at the twin alters of the novel and intellectual property […] I became, briefly, the poster boy for The Death of the Novel and The End of Copyright,” he writes in the new book. Shields, however, doesn’t take that as a bad thing. He defends himself and continues to make a compelling and sometimes rattling case against what we think about fiction. It’s radical (especially the parts on plagiarism and the obsolescence of the novel), and you may not agree with much of what he’s saying. But he gives you enough to chew on to make you realize that he has a point: He convinces you that you’re still really hungry for reality.

The book is quintessential genre-defying Shields. You could call it a memoir or a lyric essay or unorthodox criticism or some other variety of creative nonfiction. The fact that the book is so hard to classify is its very point. As Shields puts it, “I love that feeling of being caught between floors of a difficult-to-define department store”—a.k.a. book. His writing gives you that sense of vertigo. It’s energizing and weird, and it works.

A lot fits between the floors of How Literature Saved My Life. Quotes from Tolstoy, Ice T, David Foster Wallace, and Burt Reynolds—yes, Burt Reynolds—on the meaning of life, or its meaninglessness. What Shields thinks he has in common with George W. Bush. Why the work of “handsome male writers” and ugly ones is different. Being a conscientious objector during Vietnam. The American obsession with being “fine.” Stories about the radio personality Delilah. A cringe-worthy account of a failed relationship during his sophomore year at Brown. Reflections on writers ranging from Maggie Nelson to Proust to Jonathon Lethem to Renata Adler to Geoff Dyer… the list goes on and on. This is a book about literature after all—well, sort of.

More than anything else, How Literature Saved My Life is about Shields: It’s a portrait of a writer vigorously bashing his head against the world of words, trying to figure out where the words end and the world begins. He is hardly afraid of using rhetorical questions and making big universal statements to make his point; but he lays off before verging on the didactic or grandiose. Shields brings his own life into the text with biting, funny, and sometimes brutal self-awareness; and that openness— in addition to his mix of the low with high culture— brings the book down to earth. And this distance between lived life and literature is what Shields is trying to break down. That’s the question at the heart of How Literature Saved My Life. Where is the line between real life and art?

Hint: there isn’t one, or shouldn’t be. For Shields, the basis to good art, or any art at all, is in editing whatever happens to you and making art out of it. “Isn’t this what all writing is, more or less—taking the raw data of the world and editing it, framing it, thematizing it, running your voice and vision over it?” Edited life = art.
But with this idea of life as art, Shields, in a typical self-reflective rhetorical turn inward, gives us a sort of warning. “The question I’ve been trying to ask all along. Do I love art anymore, or only artfully arranged life?” The question goes unanswered and it sticks with you—maybe the subject of Shields’ next book.

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