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.

The Sway of Forward Progress

David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto is an inspirational book, the kind of extended piece of criticism that is so passionate about its argument and so clever in its execution that it’s hard to resist letting your feelings rise up to match his. Yes, yes, up with mashups! Down with traditional novelistic structures! Away with the notion that fiction can create a reality that substantially differs from the reality of the author who created the fiction in the first place! “The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama,” Shields writes in one of the 600-odd paragraphs that is in fact his and not repurposed from another source*. His argument is that the clearest, most intriguing literary works foreground the author and the things from which he stole—and that the author is now compelled to do this foregrounding thanks to the upheavals in other forms of culture. There’s no better proof that the strategy can succeed than the existence of Reality Hunger itself. After all that talk about the death of the author, it’s nice to see somebody argue for the life of it.

But—and there’s always a but, because if history teaches us anything it’s that it’s best not to reflexively embrace everything with the word “manifesto” in the title—one problem with Reality Hunger is that Shields is better at venting his exasperation with traditional narrative structures than he is at showing why, exactly, they fail. “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting,” he writes, “I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of forward progress.” Even if I resist my instinct to write this behavior as poseurish nonsense, Shields doesn’t address what benefits he might derive from such a backwards reading. And though twice he voices his enthusiasm for Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat as an example of the kind of anti-narrative, anti-“realistic” novel he aches for, he dwells little on what in its structure (or lack of it) inspires him so.

Of course, spending time discussing rules for successful anti-fiction would be programmatic and thus run counter to his intentions—it’s going to have to be enough to say that what works is anything that helps the reader avoid that “sway of forward progress.” Shields knows that this kind of writing is nothing new—his inspirations go back to Borges and encompasses Spalding Gray, Art Spiegelman, Lydia Davis, and more. Wherever memoir and fiction merge is where he wants to be, and whatever rejects the traditional satisfactions of storytelling is where the author can truly be found. “You don’t need a story,” he writes. “The question is How long do you not need a story?

Well, apparently you can’t go on too long before a story is what you want. Speedboat (which I haven’t read) is less than 200 pages long. Davis’ “French Lesson I: La Meurtre,” to pick one of many great stories of hers that dismantle narrative expectations, would wear out its welcome at more than seven pages. Gilbert Sorrentino’s beguiling A Strange Commonplace, works primarily because it bounces brief chapter against brief chapter—were it longer, the reader would be less compelled to do follow that bouncing. Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren’s slim prose poem on his native city is an impressionistic, personalized, mashed-up snapshot that captures a lot of the city but gets in and out quickly—certainly much faster than Mike Royko’s Boss (untrustworthy reportage by Sheilds’ thinking) or, say, Adam Langer’s Crossing California (unlikable formal novelistic narrative that’s chock-full of forward progress.)

The mash-up, the collage, the remix—this is the stuff of the future, and this is the stuff that Shields’ great fiction of the future must embrace. More Davis and Sorrentino, less Langer and Franzen. It will be brief, it won’t pretend to hide the author, and in its formal invention it will resist all efforts to assimiliate it. Yesterday, thinking of a good shorthand for Shields’ preferences, I thought, “Anything that repels parody,” because something needs to have a structure, or at least some obvious working parts, to be parodied. But then last night I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos**, and one of the segments featured a series of “mash-ups”—embarrassing moments over which the same footage of wailing wedding attendees is superimposed. Somebody trips and falls, here come the wailing ladies; a minor picnic mishap, and the wailing ladies return again. If a cultural movement has grown so powerful that the least intellectually challenging show on network television can make something simple of it, it may not be an especially powerful method of experimentation.

That’s not to say that Shields is wrong—better there be more interesting fiction experiments than more hackneyed novels with stale plots. Just that people have a powerful capacity to turn yesterday’s innovations into today’s bad habits, which is something Shields never quite addresses. And as more artists break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” producing more and more of the kind of fiction Shields is agitating for, that kind of fiction might very well become its own cliche.***

* I think he wrote this. An appendix to the book lists all the cases where Shields repurposed text from other sources, but the footnotes seem slightly out of order. At any rate, because one of the tentpoles of the book’s structure is that somebody else’s statements can stand in for your own, it’s not really a problem if I make an attribution error, at least by Shields’ way of thinking.

** Look, my home Internet access is down, OK?

*** The process may be hastening. In April essayist Ander Monson will publish Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an entertaining essay collection that uses strategies similar to Reality Hunger to study memoir at a time when the genre’s factual integrity is increasingly called into question. “Maybe what memoirs offer us is another fiction: that of understanding,” he writes. “By reading memoir we can pretend to comprehend a life.” To show how closely the narrative tools of memoir and fiction merge, Monson fills the book with sections called “assembloirs,” mini-narratives built out of snippets of a few dozen memoirs. In showing how alleged “truth” has an artifice behind it, he ends up constructing small stories that hold together, albeit in oblique ways. Monson and Shields are both skeptical of the Great American Novel (or Memoir), but I don’t think that either would disagree that whatever replaces it is going to have to work very hard to figure out how much or how little it wants to address storytelling’s familiar satisfactions.