Reviewed: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields

The anti-novel jihadist.

Shields calls for literature that formally engages with human experience today. Photograph: Jason Larkin/Panos Pictures

How Literature Saved My Life
David Shields
Notting Hill Editions, 224pp, £12

David Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness. “The only way out,” he argues, “is deeper in.” Yet readers of How Literature Saved My Life will be divided over whether Shields develops or merely revisits ideas that have earned him a reputation as “the poster boy for the death of the novel”.

Mixing original writing with quotes, as he did in his last book, Reality Hunger (2010), Shields demonstrates his commitment to collage and appropriation but his conviction that “the notes are the book” might signal a skeleton of memoir and polemic instead of a realised work.

For Shields, who reveres Proust but no longer has the patience to read him, the novel has “gone dark”. His aesthetic criteria feel limiting but his candour is attractive and the strongest passages concern his life. On a college-era relationship, he writes: “I was 19-years-old and a virgin, and at first I read Rebecca’s journal because I needed to know what to do next and what she liked to hear.” The romance is fraught with anxiety about performance and authenticity but there are intriguing symmetries between Shields’s snooping and the qualities he praises in Renata Adler’s 1970s novel Speedboat:

She’s doing everything she can to make me hyper-aware of her thought processes . . . I feel the strange rub of language, the way it not only evokes life but creates it, prophesies it.

Shields reads because he wants to watch others thinking and he writes from the compulsion to share his mind’s movements. He’s both audience and actor, as he was when reading Rebecca’s journal.

While studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Shields receives treatment for a speech impediment and is “overwhelmed by the paradox that as a writer I was learning to manipulate words but that as a stutterer I was at the mercy of them”. He contrasts the clinic and its “efficient demand for a liveable life” with the basketball gymnasium where, “When one person cheered, this cheer flowed into the bloodstream of the person next to you.” This book thrives on the tension between the world’s insistence on efficiency and Shields’s longing for community but writers must, he believes, confront “the marginalisation of literature by more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms”.

His encounter with Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Guardians, however, was more visceral than his calls for immediacy: “I did something I do when I genuinely love a book: start covering my mouth when I read. This is very pure and elemental; I want nothing coming between me and the page.”

Must communion be direct, untrammelled by slow burn and subtext? Shields quotes Manguso: “I don’t want to have to hold my breath until the very end and then find it wasn’t worth it.” This sounds incongruous in Shields’s book, which celebrates artists’ attempts to articulate truth, and such impatience ignores the important role that disappointment can play in reading.

Shields is wary of what Geoff Dyer calls “self-karaoke” and Manguso warns: “The threat of writing to an audience becomes only more present a danger as time passes and renown increases.” In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields relishes his role as controversialist (“Fine by me”) and his weakness is less writing to please admirers than to deflect detractors.

Shields nominates the genre-bending Ben Lerner as “my doppelgänger of the next generation”. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner combines fiction, autobiography and criticism and dramatises his formal choices so that they become a significant part of his subject matter. Lerner’s book is a novel because the form affords imaginative freedom and invites renewal, yet Shields persists with generalisations about “tidy coherence” and work that “tells the reader pretty much where he’s going”.

It’s easier to cite celebrated, recent novels that leave readers not knowing what to think – Teju Cole’s Open City, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? – than to name a serious fiction writer who wouldn’t sympathise with Shields when he says: “I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time.”

Has literature saved Shields’s life? “Just barely,” he concludes, echoing Picasso (“A great painting comes together, just barely,” the painter once said). This book is worth reading because Shields is an invigorating polemicist, as well as a subtle and amusing memoirist, but is his disavowal of fiction for real? Is he committed, as Dyer has said, to “anti-novel jihad”?

As a child, Shields found play “fantastically unfulfilling”. Nowadays, he thinks that in David Foster Wallace’s fiction, “The game is simply not worth the candle,” but he concurs with a writing professor who recommends a “playful attitude” to material. Shields’s books yearn for meaning but they’re as mediated by performance as the culture they criticise. This doesn’t diminish their relevance but I was disappointed when, after interviewing Shields two years ago, he asked if I was writing a novel.