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Review: ‘How Literature Saved My Life’ finds its author desperate to escape his numbness

After I got over my irritation with David Shields’ new meditation/memoir, How Literature Saved My Life, I discovered that he’d written a very sad, very lonely book. Shields seems to see himself as trapped, forever, in his fierce isolation, and believes that no person — and not literature, either, his title notwithstanding — can save him from what appears to be irreversible solitude.

But first, my irritation. Shields is best known for his provocative, ostentatious literary manifesto from 2010, Reality Hunger, which argued that mainstream literary realism (think Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides, Claire Mussad et al) is bankrupt because its conventions — its vow to represent reality faithfully, the unfolding of plot, the slow revelation of character, the detailed delineation of setting — have become so familiar and used up that they can’t do what they used to do, which is to help us suspend our disbelief that we’re reading fiction and make us believe that the story we’re reading is “real,” or at least a genuine reflection of real life as we live it. Shields claims in that book that he’s hungry for more reality than realism can provide, and proposes a new hybrid form of literature, one which draws on the directness of memoir, structures itself as a montage, incorporates (steals) other writer’s words into itself the way hip-hop artists steal bass lines, and basically eliminates the false conventions that, for him, strip literature of its ability to confront reality, raw and unfettered.

Reality Hunger caught on because it articulated what a lot of people were feeling — that in the information age, the novel was losing steam as a form, and that “reality-based” forms — reality TV, memoirs that mixed fact and fiction, personal essays, mash-up records — were the artistic forms of the future. That Shields’ arguments against realism and the novel were 50 years old — that they’d been articulated by first-generation postmodernists like John Barth and Ronald Sukenick — got lost in the excitement of Shields’ I’m-not-being-ironic-I-swear praise of Survivor and Sarah Silverman. And its slick celebration of montage, which Reality Hunger embodied, and its slippery appropriation of other people’s words (you couldn’t tell if what you were reading were his words or quotations unless you read the appendix in the back) obscured the fact that lots of what Shields had to say was simply lame. (One example, from the first page: He claims that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memoir-ish The Crack Up is “much his best book.” To put it kindly, this is horseshit.)

I read Reality Hunger with a scowl on my face, and began How Literature Saved My Life the same way, but I couldn’t hold it for long, because the new book explains why Shields seemed, in Reality Hunger, so hungry for more reality in books: Because he can’t seem to feel much that’s real in reality. He says it over and over again: He feels “detachment from [my] own emotions”; “I feel so remote from things”; “If I’m not writing it down, experience doesn’t really register.” Discussing the title character from William Vollman’s Butterfly Stories, he says, “He could not feel! Reading this extraordinarily intimate book about the butterfly boy’s incapacity for ordinary intimacy, I couldn’t identify more closely with him if I crawled inside his skin.” At one point, Shields tells an extraordinary story about his first intimate relationship in college. When he’s first getting to know the girl, he learns that she’s keeping a diary about their relationship, and he begins secretly reading it: “When we were kissing or swimming or walking down the street, I could hardly wait to rush back to her room to find out what phrase or what twist of my body had been lauded in her journal.” Her journal about their relationship seems, in young Shields’ head, to take precedence over the relationship itself. When they finally make love, he decides it’s wrong to continue his secret reading, and stops, but soon afterwards the relationship fizzles, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Shields lost interest once the relationship was no longer something he could read about rather than something he could live. It’s almost a parable about his inability to connect to anyone unless it’s filtered through language.

Shields is often a wonderful literary critic. Much of How Literature Saved My Life discusses books by contemporary writers in ways that are passionate, generous, knowledgeable and sensitive, and he makes a fine ambassador for a certain formally experimental kind of fiction. But it’s his continuing contempt for traditional fiction that grates, his narrow-minded conviction that realism as a form must be dead because he doesn’t respond to it. But if he’d try to emerge from his own isolation for a moment, he’d realize that David Shields — a person who admits he can’t feel reality when he’s experiencing it — is not exactly a good test case for whether realism is an adequate form for the rest of us. How Literature Saved My Life is engaging and enraging in its arguments about literature, but finally it’s a portrait of a guy trying to feel through the medium of words because it’s the only way he knows how to do it, and he ends up spinning, sadly, in his own cocoon.

HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE, David Shields, Knopf, 207 pages