David Shields — How Literature Saved My Life

literature_shieldsHow Literature Saved My Life
by David Shields
Knopf, February 2013
224 pages / $24.95  Buy from Amazon or Powell’s







Published last month, How Literature Saved My Life is both a boldly written love note to a most precious of subjects, and David Shields’s latest statute in his quest for “art with a visible string to the world.” Short of a true sequel to his polarizing 2008 “novel,” Reality Hunger, Shields’s latest work does devote more than a little page space to proselytizing for his vision of a world where fact and fiction combine and literary tropes like linear plot lines and fanciful character design fall by the wayside.

Sharing my current reading choice with friends — and an unsolicited suggestion that they look into it — it was a common to hear, But isn’t it just for writers and literature snobs?

Well, yes.

Casual readers may be able to sieve out the life lessons, but will likely find themselves drowning in a sea of name drops and literary in-jokes. Which is not to say that a novice reader couldn’t use the book to take studious notes and build a respectable reading list, but I wouldn’t consider that sort of parergonal use to be a huge selling point.

Truth is, how many summer readers are going to pick up a book called How Literature Saved My Life in the first place anyway? And it’s probably my fault for recommending it for a general audience, because it isn’t. Shields makes no bones about writing for a niche audience, one he can’t help but self-consciously wonder about with a market analyst’s zest, a fact of life for virtually any creative professional these days, whether we like it or not. Unabashedly, Shields probes this and other insecurities writers in the digital age run up against with far great frequency and impact than their predecessors.

Is literature worth writing anymore? Can it adapt without losing whatever attributes make it recognizable as “literature”? Who am I writing for?  Franzen: Why bother?

For literary types with similar doubts, Shields’s writing comes across prescriptive, offering answers to questions lie those raised by Jonathan Franzen in Why Bother? (originally published as Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels), and in one sense answering David Foster Wallace’s charge against forms of literature that have no remedy for the ills they diagnose.

That’s not to say Shields believes he holds all of the answers. For all his manifestoing, Shields comes off very much as the Sisyphean analog described in Camus’s famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” always climbing towards some semblance of meaning while remaining all too aware that the proverbial boulder will just roll right back down the hill. Make no mistake, this is an inner battle almost every writer faces on a regular basis; the difference here is that Shields has put it on the page for all to see, stripping away the layers of certainty and confidence that give a finished work its sheen and exposing us to the honest process.

“The notes are the book,” Shields wrote to a student having a crisis of literary form, “I promise you.”

This is going to irk those lit-department craftsman who will undoubtedly argue that the job of the writer is nothing if not taking the skeleton notes and fleshing them out into something whole, something virtually indistinguishable from pages of hastily jotted ideas. It would be easy to say that the approach Shields encourages is little more than compensation for a lack of narrative knack. But Shields — and I — would argue that the literary collage straddling the line between fiction and non is a more authentic reflection of real life, and particularly how our brains make sense of the real world, using ” the ambiguities of genre as an analogue to the ambiguities of existence.”

And that’s not an indictment of modern culture, which has done little more than to highlight the fractured nature of our realities. We don’t experience the world as a linear narrative, but rather as a constant influx of signals and information which our highly evolved frontal lobes then set about determining the priority and relevance of. The mistake previous generations of fiction writers made, Shields would argue, is that they’ve taken it upon themselves to do all of the interpretation, deciding for the reader what the important narrative is and turning down everything else. Here, Shields bucks against the tendency of writers to carefully guide readers along a pre-determined path of escapism, remarking emphatically that he finds “books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time.”

What’s interesting is that Shields has managed to turn his pleas for a new form of literature into that very form of literature.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a reader to be exasperated by this, wondering when Shields will step down off the soap box and get to writing this next generation literature he’s spent two books extolling the virtues of.

The critic of metafiction’s self-referentialism won’t find much to love here. That wall has long since be reduced to ruble in Shields’s canon. The writing is about writing, is about reading, is about a lonely man trying to connect with a few other lonely souls out there. Great and powerful Oz, indeed. The façade of the writer is no more in Shields’s mind. He is unapologetically tied to the work, not as egoist but as “symbolic persona, theme carrier, host for general human tendencies.”

Shields’s strength, what makes him an effective writer in spite of a resistance to traditional narrative, is his brave insistence on embarrassing himself on the page; a laying bare of himself runs appropriately parallel a laying bare of the form itself. We find out about his secretly reading the diary of a girl in college in order to better woo her and hear his ruminations about growing up in “post-hippie” California in a family he called a “horrific regime.”

Perhaps the most important moment of the book, though, comes early on, as Shields uncomfortably compares himself on a point-by-point basis to George W. Bush, noting their similar propensities for outsourcing as much work as possible, their shared love of football and pretzels, and their shared, secret disdain for their mothers. What Shields is ultimately getting at here is one of psychology’s dangerous ideas, which is simply that we’re not all that different when it comes down to it.

To bring it all back to Camus, who is cited regularly in How Literature Saved My Life, I think Shields’s boulder is ultimately not meaning but a relief from human loneliness. In a wise but weary final line, Shields shares his desire for ­”literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this— which is what makes it essential.” It may not exactly be a happy ending, but still, you must imagine Sisyphus as happy.


James J. Fitze is a writer living and working in New York City. His debut novel, The Atomist, is due out in early 2014.


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  1. Review: David Shields — How Literature Saved My Life | Fitze's Journal

      […] Read the full review at HTMLGiant. […]

  2. Guest

      Shields continues to pretend like non-linear narrative/prose is newer than linear narrative/prose, which is historically inaccurate. The non-linear is as “traditional” as the linear and this is easily proven/shown through cursory survey of Western and World Literature.

      Just another annoyingly insecure self-proclaimed experimental writer who needs to make up crap to support the label because he’s too insecure to allow his work to do most of the talking.

  3. A D Jameson

      Guest, have you read Steven Moore’s alternative history of the novel? He argues that it’s an ancient form and has always been experimental (I’m convinced, especially about that last part; I reviewed it here).


  4. Guest

      No, but any text on non-linear prose makes the same argument, essentially. It’s bizarre how people often assume that “linear”= “traditional.” Says more about their own hidden conservative assumptions than anyone else’s supposed closed-mindedness.

  5. A D Jameson

      Yes, when people argue that “linear = traditional” and “non-linear = new/experimental,” what they’re really arguing is that they don’t know much about the history of literature.

      I find Moore a very refreshing exception to that—check out his book!

  6. Guest

      According to the likes of Chris Higgs and Ken Baumann, studying the history of literature is a super-conservative activity best left to old fogeys, whereas their version of experimental literature–according to their super progressive stance–is ignoring history and making up stuff on the fly, because everyone knows that a truly progressive person is easily bored with history and can’t be bothered with exploring the deep connections between past and present. That would require too much work. Besides, one might be confronted with the realization that his work isn’t as “experimental” as he originally thought, so it’s best to ignore the past and pretend like everyone who cares about the past is a rigid get-off-my-lawn conservative. Plus, all the easily impressionable 19 and 20-year-old kids will eat it up.

  7. Jeremy Hopkins

      What recognizable “tradition” of narrative could be said to stretch all the way back to the ancients? Just because one can make the case that the Satyricon is sort of like a “novel,” it doesn’t mean there’s not a “tradition” of fairly standard novel-writing which has emerged in the last few hundred years. [This is just someone hinting at the variegations of the terms “tradition” and “novel.” It can be perfectly reasonable to consider linear narrative as part of a certain “tradition.” In fact, it seems more reasonable than lumping all works one could imagine as being “sort of like a novel” into a “tradition” without any social continuum. You’d be replacing a former localized meta-narrative with a more all-encompassing and retroactive meta-narrative (which might be useful in the interest of de-Westernizing the literary imagination or something, but still).]

  8. Guest

      Of course there’s a tradition of linear novel writing, but there is a difference between acknowledging this tradition typically associated with the Mid-Victorian Realist novel and associating it with “traditional-at-large” so you can pretend like non-linear prose published today is some radical response to that particular tradition that only recently appeared because of–drum roll–our “fast paced lives and relationship with the Internet.” Nonsense. Modernist and Post-Modernist American fiction writers have been using fragmentation, collage, and modular design forever. Even the Late Victorians were writing non-linear fiction a few years removed from George Eliot.

      No one has attempted to lump all narratives into a “sort of like a novel” category.

  9. A D Jameson

      Hi Jeremy,

      This is somewhat echoing what Guest said, but narrative is as old as the hills. Well, not quite that old, but old. Gilgamesh, for instance, is a long-form narrative.

      As for the novel, its origins are debated. I’m no expert in when it should begin, but Steven Moore argues it’s an ancient form. See his book for his argument.

      In my experience, people who argue that, say, a non-linear plot is experimental are usually constructing some simple straw man as to what is not experimental. I did the same thing when I was 20 and thought for some reason I needed to tell the world about metafiction. I was clueless.

      Non-linear plots abound; all sorts of weird shit abounds. As I got older I read more and realized there have always been bizarre writers out there, and that a lot of them have been rather mainstream. I just read Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm (1883), which reminded me a great deal of writing by Elfriede Jelinek and Clarice Lispector. Is it experimental? Sure, why not? Was it a huge hit at the time it was published? Yes, it was.


  10. Jeremy Hopkins

      I looked up the Moore book before my first comment. Looks interesting, but I suppose I doubt the worth of such an endeavor. I like ideas, and I’m sure he has some, but making an argument that novels are something other than what people think they are seems both fruitless and doomed.

      Like you say, the origins of the novel are debated. Did they exist before anyone ever thought to categorize literature that way? Or did they not exist until someone thought they should? No one will ever convince everyone. And if we really can’t know, are attempts at grandfathering in older works whose authors we can hardly understand any more sound than the placement or preservation of artificial limits on the definition more in line with the “traditional” or “conservative” options?

      Ultimately, I guess all I’m really saying is that I probably don’t have the combination of particular wills and foci required for a post-graduate degree and career studying Literature. I like to read, think and ask questions, though.
      I feel like writing shouldn’t be called “experimental” unless there is actually an experiment going on, not just weirdness. Downside is, of course, some truly experimental works might never be recognized as such; I’m sure it already is this way.

  11. Jeremy Hopkins

      ” so you can pretend like non-linear prose published today is some radical response to that particular tradition that only recently appeared because of–drum roll–our ‘fast paced lives and relationship with the Internet.’ ”

      I totally agree that this sort of thing is bullshit: small-thinking, buzzwordy flimflam.


      I didn’t say people were lumping “all narratives into…” [I’m not sure if you think I did, or were simply tacking that point on.] There were two sentences. You might consider it a false dichotomy or limited binary choice (a popular charge lately) but that wasn’t my intent. Besides, comparing two things can be useful, even when they are not the only two things.

  12. A D Jameson

      I do highly recommend the Moore book, even if you don’t buy his argument regarding what is/isn’t a novel (and there isn’t any one thing that people think they are). Personally, I don’t really care if Moore’s right about whether fiction X is a novel or not, as I believe that simply comes down to how one defines the word “novel.” What’s more important, I’d argue, is his broader argument that there have always been gobs of innovative/experimental long-form fiction writing. In that regard his case is very convincing—and important, I think. Moore also names those fictions, providing wonderful reading suggestions. It’s a really fun book! There’s lots of sex in it, too.

      I think you and I are in agreement regarding experimental fiction, though it’s not a term I care much about myself. The question then becomes, though, what counts as an experiment? Moore’s useful because he shows how a lot of stuff people think are experiments are really old-hat. Which doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t repeat them. But it does provide more context for how traditional a lot of “experiments” really are.

      Cheers, Adam

  13. Guest

      You might consider the fact that I’m responding to Shields’s weak straw man arguments. Are you familiar with his work?

  14. Jeremy Hopkins

      My knowledge of Shields’s work depends entirely on the integrity of the review above. So blame the reviewer. *wink*

  15. Daniel Goldman

      “What’s interesting is that Shields has managed to turn his pleas for a new form of literature into that very form of literature. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a reader to be exasperated by this, wondering when Shields will step down off the soap box and get to writing this next generation literature he’s spent two books extolling the virtues of.”

      Don’t those sentences contradict each other? I completely agree with the second point; Shields aggressively pats himself on the back for using innovative forms and crossing genres, but his writing just isn’t as stellar as he thinks it is. The “literary collage” angle mostly comes off as a way for him to include everything he’s written in the past several years in one book (he even repeats things from his own books almost word for word, odd for a writer so fixated on literature that doesn’t waste the reader’s time.)

      I do agree that Shields’s big strength is his willingness/eagerness for humiliating himself: It takes a special kind of person to admit that in college, he carved “I will dethrone Shakespeare!” onto a library desk. But the thing is, underneath the self-deprecation, there’s clearly this huge, pretty delusional ego at work, which makes the whole thing pretty irritating. There are many great living writers doing amazing things with form and genre, but just talking about them doesn’t make you one of them.

  16. Guest


  17. Jeremy Hopkins

      Looking back over this, I think I was basically on a rabbit-trail and interpreted your remarks in that context, which was not the original context. I’m sure I missed something whilst hopping along my extrapolative, tangential way. Forgive my digression.


      […] at the HTML GIANT website James J. Fitze just got done writing a really great Book Review on “How Literature […]

  19. Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis

      You lost me at “parergonal”…

  20. Review: David Shields — How Literature Saved My Life | James Fitze

      […] Originally published on HTMLGiant. […]

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