The most generous reaction to David Shields' recent books would be to assume they are straight-faced parodies in the vein of those performed by Joaquin Phoenix or Andy Kaufman, sly commentaries on the culture's already rampant solipsism. But all signs are that he's serious.
Shields has always injected himself into his works about broader subjects, which include an investigation of obsession with celebrity, a meditation on ageing and death, and a novel that stars a stuttering boy whose condition resembles the author's. But in his new book, How Literature Saved My Life, and in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), he has dispensed with the idea of having any subject but himself and what he likes to read.
Reality Hunger was an argument for literary mash-up and guilt-free copyright infringement. It was composed of hundreds of numbered excerpts from other people's work, begrudgingly attributed to their original authors in an appendix. Shields blamed the presence of the citations on his publisher's lawyers, and he suggested that readers cut out the pages containing them.
How Literature Saved My Life is, in many ways, a sequel. It begins with scattered pieces about Shields, including some play-by-play of his life that more than slakes whatever hunger might exist for that reality. Then it gets down to what has become his usual business, dismissing the conventional novel (he can't imagine reading Jonathan Franzen) and memoir and championing art that blurs the idea of genre, interrogates the trustworthiness of memory and embraces the short attention span. The boundaries he draws can be conveniently hard to enforce. In Reality Hunger, Proust is described as "at base an essayist." And though he's adamant that writers should no longer write in the manner of Flaubert, he's silent about whether it's still worth reading Flaubert at all, and why or why not.
Purists may aim the same criticism at How Literature Saved My Life, but it's fairer simply to note that Shields is not very good at the form he likes most. It's not for lack of good taste in models. He offers laundry lists of recommended books and movies. To name but three of the terrific egocentric works for which he stumps: Out of Sheer Rage, a book in which Geoff Dyer never quite gets around to writing a book about D.H. Lawrence; Sherman's March, Ross McElwee's wistful autobiographical film that was originally intended to be a documentary about the titular historical episode; and Speedboat, a kaleidoscopic novel by Renata Adler. Shields' book differs from those works in innumerable ways. For one thing, the aforementioned artists are funny, a quality gone missing in the increasingly earnest Shields, who now reads like a student who's just had his mind blown by his first epistemology class. He quotes at length a letter he wrote to The New York Review of Books about the types of questions he likes to ask in his work: "What's 'true'? What's knowledge? What's 'fact'? What's memory? What's self? What's other?"
To weave such questions subtly into a work can be profound. To ask them explicitly, as Shields does repeatedly, is to engage in a long, dark night of the dorm-room soul.
He gushes briefly over outstanding examples of the work he favours but offers no real analysis of their style or substance, no window onto how difficult it is to make art from everyday mental wanderings. He offers no warnings about how it would be just as easy – if not easier – for disciples of his philosophy to make trash that badly imitates W. G. Sebald as it is for others to make trash that badly imitates E. M. Forster.Instead Shields, who's in his late 50s, indulges an almost teenage impulse simply to attest to the depth of his feelings: "Literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it," he declares at the end of one section. When a student tells him, "For years I've been taking notes for a book that I hope will materialise at some point, but every time I attempt to turn the notes into the book, I hate the results," Shields writes back, "The notes are the book. I promise you."
But this is vastly to understate the difficulty in what Shields' heroes do. Shields tells you, over and over again, that he enjoys digressing. McElwee and his ilk go about the difficult business of actually digressing well.
The more lax method of appropriating reality can be seen in some of Shields' younger colleagues, like John D'Agata, the essayist who insists that facts are secondary to style, and Sheila Heti, whose recent blend of fiction and fact, How Should a Person Be?, suffered from the belief that transcribing conversations among friends is inherently interesting. There are good sentences throughout How Literature Saved My Life, about Shields' stuttering and about his manic-depressive father, who went through several bouts of electroshock therapy. ("I'll never forget his running back and forth in the living room and repeating, 'I need the juice,' while my third-grade friends and I tried to play indoor miniature golf.")
But these moments don't amount to much. Forswearing traditional storytelling, Shields doesn't allow himself to dwell on any subject long enough to say much that's meaningful about it.