Narrative Shimmers In

David Shields‘ appearance in D.C. last night didn’t make me more of an admirer of his new book, Reality Hunger, but it did clarify where he’s coming from, and his enthusiasm is palpable—he has the courage of his convictions, which is a big reason why people are so interested in the book.

My issue with Reality Hunger, still, is that Shields is better at explaining why conventional novels let him down than showing why the unconventional ones excite him; it’s clear why he thinks Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections represents literature as a spent force but not as clear why, for him, Renata Adler‘s Speedboat points the way to the future. So I appreciated that he took some time to walk through Maggie Nelson‘s 2009 book, Bluets—one of Shields’ 122 favorite bookscultural works*—and explained how he admired the way it foregrounded its theme instead of buried it. Shields isn’t against narrative; he just dislikes writing that suggests the writer is a slave to it. I wasn’t a very good notetaker, but Nelson herself nicely summarized the strategy in an interview with Bomb: “Narrative often shimmers in as a by-product of working with length and sequence. But mostly it’s a formal interest that pushes me out, an abiding interest in—and bewilderment about—how thoughts hold together, how they push against each other.”

Somebody in the audience asked Shields if he thought that bookstores were conditioning us to adhere to conventional narratives and clear splits between fact and fiction. Shields suggested that it may be more systemic than the publishing or bookselling industries. Perhaps it’s a reflection of “the Ben Franklin part of us that’s always terribly practical,” he said, though when I chatted him up about this a little later he stressed that it wasn’t a uniquely American condition. “We like the slumber,” he said, and approaching art that way is a global condition. (Shields, a fan of romantic comedies, isn’t immune to it.) I don’t agree, though, that all conventional narratives are highways to slumberland—if they’re treated that way, isn’t the flaw more the reader’s than the writer’s?

Update: Thinking on the question above for a bit today, I think I’ve sorted out what strikes me as arrogant in Shields’ assertions. During his talk last night he discussed how literature ought to better respond to the streams of information and media in which we currently swim—the tweets, e-mails, blogs, TV shows, video streams, and all the rest of the things that tend to yank us away from whatever we’re reading. To that end, Shields tends to favor short books. (Just cherry-picking from the novels on his list, Amy Fusselman‘s The Pharmacist’s Mate is 86 pages; Elizabeth Hardwick‘s Sleepless Nights is 144 pages; J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello is a comparatively epic 240 pages.) There’s nothing inherently problematic with short novels—except, perhaps, in leveraging them as models for where we ought to look for ideas because (unlike fat, Corrections-y novels) they’re not so full of—Shields’ word—“furniture.” But if allowing ourselves to be slaves to plot is such a foolish way to behave, allowing ourselves to be slaves to our own impatience isn’t much of an improvement, in terms of a system for reading fiction. Furniture isn’t useless.

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