Language instinct

How Literature Saved My Life, by David Shields, Notting Hill Editions, RRP£10/Knopf, RRP$25.95, 200 pages

“Literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it,” declares David Shields. The question is, can his readers? How Literature Saved My Life is a raging, neurotic paean to the role the written word has played in his existence. It is an addiction memoir, of sorts, by turns exasperating and uplifting, in which Shields conducts a living autopsy on himself to show how literature has become interwoven with his central nervous system. Half-man, half-book, at times Shields literally seems to be declaring himself the word made flesh.

He traces his obsession to the fact that he was born a stutterer. “Language is what differentiates us from other species, so when I stutter, I find it genuinely dehumanising. I still feel a psychic need to write myself into, um, existence.” Such was his reliance on the written word that literature became his first reality. “If I’m not writing it down, experience doesn’t really register.” Literature, which freed him from his stutter, now became his prison.

Yet Shields is nothing if not a hardened lifer, and while he never seems to want to escape his prison he does try to stretch its boundaries through his calls for the creation of a new genre of writing, which he terms “wayward non-fiction”. This reached its apogee in his previous book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), in which Shields stitched together unattributed extracts from hundreds of other authors to create a brilliant, coherent whole. It challenged both literature’s retrograde stance on appropriation (compared to that displayed in the visual arts and music) and sought to create a whole new genre, “a non-fiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world”.

Shields continues this practice here, interweaving extracts from his and others’ books – this time attributed – with his own, sometimes gnomic, pronouncements. The effect is of literary collage, as if he was dumping the thoughts of his notebooks on to the page. Whether this is the best way of occupying the “bleeding edge between genres” he seeks is questionable, and Shields momentarily worries that his creation of a new genre might ultimately be down to his inability to write traditional novels any more. Yet there is no doubt that parts of this book have the “‘live’, up-to-date, aware, instant feel” that Shields seeks, a vertiginous newness reminiscent of slipping down a Wikipedia wormhole.

In other parts, however, his approach can feel overwhelming. His almost painful empathy with the books he reads turns them into a compulsion. He denounces plot, dialogue and character – “legerdemain”, he calls them – to seek the pure emotional hit literature can give. Quoting one of his students, he wants literature to “stick a spear straight to my heart – stick it straight to my brain”.

This manic thirst for literary insight undiluted by novelistic trappings gives this book an unseemly enthusiasm that is more reminiscent of a speed-freak than the work of the fiftysomething university professor who actually wrote it. Seeking the hit of literature becomes the author’s justification for his every self-obsessed act. Another complaint is that the books he quotes from are largely those of his US contemporaries – Amy Hempel, Jonathan Lethem, Robin Hemley – which lends his obsession a somewhat parochial air.

But while this book can sometimes overflow with literary fervour, we should not forget that Shields is a proponent of “wayward non-fiction”. The obsessive “David Shields” of this book is not necessarily the real David Shields. In fact, one might wonder whether there exists a real David Shields at all, or whether he is nothing more than what he says he is – a literary construct, less the word made flesh than simply a man of letters.

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