How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields is not your regular sort of memoir. While I was reading it I thought it brilliant but now that I have let it sit for a few days it seems less somehow. I’m not sure what I mean by less. I still like the book and found it interesting with lots of “ah!” moments, but time has diminished the overall effect and I am not sure whether, in a month or two, I will remember much about the book. It’s too bad too because Shields is a passionate person who cares deeply about writing and literature.
The book is written in chapters of sorts and then in each chapter there are collections of related discussions. Shields likes collage and each chapter is just that. Nonetheless, the collage manages to, in the end, create a whole pattern. The book being a memoir one might expect that there would be many personal stories but there aren’t. Most of the collage pieces are about books and authors Shields likes or students and classes he has taught. But, as he begins the book, “All criticism is a form of autobiography.” Through his discussion of other people, we learn about what is important to Shields: truth, language, reality, loneliness, connection.
And then we learn that Shields stutters. Stories about stuttering start to weave themselves into the discussion of language and love and literature. Shields, it seems, in order to gain control over words that were so very hard to speak, became a writer. In literature he has control but also admits that the control is an illusion because even on paper language always ultimately fails. So instead of writing freeing him from the prison of his stutter, it has trapped him just as firmly but in a different way:
because I stutter I became a writer (in order to return to the scene of the crime and convert the bloody fingerprints into abstract expressionism). As a writer, I love language as much as any element in the universe, but I also have trouble living anywhere other than in language. If I’m not writing it down, experience doesn’t really register. Language has gone from prison to refuge back to prison.
Shields’s move to a collage style, he says, has a direct relation to his stuttering. And so this memoir is also a sort of explanation of his style, a sort of apologia for his previous book, Reality Hunger. He talks briefly about why he thinks novels are no longer relevant and why and when he came to that realization. He discusses genre and how books should be genre-bending. And of course, he practices what he preaches. As he talks about the literature that is important to him, about his change in writing style, about what he thinks literature should do and be, he tries to write a book that does what he says a book should do.
It is all very thought-provoking and enjoyable and I added quite a few books to my TBR list, but there is a certain distance Shields creates and as passionate as he is about literature and writing, the book is missing a heart. I suspect that missing heart is what has caused me, as I mentioned at the beginning, to see the book as diminished after sitting with it for a few days. It is too bad really. I like what Shields is doing and I think he is a good and fascinating writer. I disagree that the novel is no longer relevant. I enjoy reading books like Shields writes but I could not survive on a steady diet of them so I am glad there is still plenty of variety of books rooted firmly in their genre and bursting out of them. Because really, Shields could not write the kinds of books he advocates unless there are books against which they are written. Without genre, one cannot write against genre.