I picked this book up because it’s mentioned in an online correspondence between Jonathan Lethem (one of my very favorite authors, although I’m finding Chronic Town tough to get through and David Gates. They both clearly admire the work as a way of helping them think about their own writing, and the way that writing is changing.
It’s a funny sort of book — really a collection of about 800 numbered passages, some of which are only 3 or 4 words, some which stretch to 3 or 4 pages. Some of them are Shield’s own writing, lots of them are cribbed from other authors.
His main point is that the novel is dead. More particularly, that the constraints of the novel mean that they’re so predictable and artificial — so awkward and divorced from the pace and intensity and authenticity of modern life — that they’re uniformly unchallenging and interesting for him. More fundamentally, he argues that all writing is fiction. Non-fiction, history, memoir, novels, poems, essays, etc – that they are all a construct of a mix of human memories. He more or less says that Andy Kaufman was right — that everything blurs. He cites a variety of examples of the trend, including some Eggers’ work and some of Frey’s. (In his view, Stephen Frey should have gone back on Oprah, not to take his beating by self-important critics, but rather to help people understand this idea):
“When Frey, LeRoy, Defonseca, Seltzer, Rosenblat, Wilkomirski, et al. wrote their books, of course they made things up. Who doesn’t? Each one said sure, call it a novel, call it a memoir; who’s going to care? I don’t want to defend Frey per se—he’s a terrible writer—but the very nearly pornographic obsession with his and similar cases reveals the degree of nervousness on the topic. The whole huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.
I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world. Instead, he showed up for his whipping.”
He doesn’t really argue that novels will actually disappear — more that they are occupying a less and less central place in our culture.
I highlighted more passages in this book than I have in a really long time, even though I don’t really like the premise — but I know that Shields is correct about single-author long form work receding in importance, and very quickly.
Anyway, I think this is a really important piece of work for anyone who’s interested in where writing is headed at the moment. It’s a little sad to me, but really probably isn’t good or bad, just a reflection of today’s fragmented, multi-media, always synthetic culture.
One of my favorite set of passages:
To think with any seriousness is to doubt. Thought is indistinguishable from doubt. To be alive is to be uncertain. I’ll take doubt. The essayist argues with himself, and the essayist argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. The very purpose of the genre is to provide a vehicle for essaying.
When we are not sure, we are alive.
I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant, conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone.
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.