The first sentence in David Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life, is, “All criticism is a form of autobiography.” Obviously, this isn’t absolutely true. Criticism is often about formal matters. How many lines are in a sonnet? How did Amadis of Gaul influence Don Quixote? What is lyric poetry? These are questions that can lead to criticism that is only trivially autobiographical. Then again, even the most self-absorbed critic – and David Shields is certainly self-absorbed – at times transcends (or sidesteps) autobiography while, for instance, explicating brilliant moments in a short story or film.
But if the sentence “all criticism is a form of autobiography” isn’t absolutely true, it is, in fact, a good and honest beginning to a book that relentlessly relates instances of art (books and movies in particular) to the life of the critic. We have here a book in which a man seeks passionately to discover the personally relevant in art while, at the same time, looking for that thing (“truth” you could call it, I suppose) that transcends the personal, that allows for a break from the self.
It could be considered insulting to call a man self-absorbed, but there’s “self absorption” and then there’s “narcissism.” For the narcissist, the world is significant mostly because it allows him a pretext to talk about himself. Shields’s self-absorption is not like that. At the heart of How Literature Saved My Life is a fear of being trapped (in the self) mingled with a sense that that entrapment is inevitable for humans, that it’s a tragic dimension of the human.
Shields quotes relentlessly, as if to insist on the outside world and on others, but his greatest approval is given to authors and books that – to quote David Foster Wallace – “aggravate [the] sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, [in order to] move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” In other words, when we can see our self-absorption for what it is, we get a break from it. One of the ways literature “saves” us then. if it saves us at all, is by allowing us to get a perspective on the most frightening aspects of being human.
One of the other things literature does is that it keeps the plates in the air, so to speak. Much thinking, in the humanities, has shifted from the answer-oriented to the question-centred. It’s a commonplace, these days, that what makes any idea vital is its capacity to keep the mind engaged. Shields seems to accepts this. About halfway through How Literature Saved My Life, he describes Annie Dillard’s essay This is the Life: “[Anne Dillard] establishes the problem, deepens the problem, suggests ‘solutions,’ explores the permutations of these solutions, argues against and finally undermines these solutions, returning us to the problem …” Shields adds that, as far as he’s concerned, this is his process as well: to see the problem (of the self, of literature, of loneliness, of meaning …) in its many permutations before, finally, seeing it anew.
How Shields keeps his concerns vital – or keeps them present for the reader – is his main accomplishment. He is a writer of non-fiction collages. He’s a collector of asides, brief moments, confessions, book reports, movie reviews, tentative definitions (of guitar solos and poetry), and much else besides. At times, it’s like being on a kind of cultural bumper car. In the book’s second chapter, Love is a Long, Close Scrutiny, we’re treated to small sections (two or three pages at most) about a number of things: the movie Shortbus, Otto Preminger’s film Laura, Shields’s confession of reading his ex-lover’s diary, a self-help book called Love Someone Today by the New Age writer Delilah, Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms in Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Miss Nude USA, a film by Agnès Jaoui called The Taste of Others, a handwritten draft of a Dear John letter Shields found in a library book, Shields’s most “dramatic sexual experience,” Lorrie Moore’s novel Anagrams, and Amy Hempel’s story Weekend.
That may sound like a bit of a mishmash, but what keeps everything moving (blithely moving, almost) is Shields’s brevity, rhythm and, sometimes, stone-faced humour. In a word, he is, at times, a wonderful writer: “My father, who throughout his adult life was severely manic-depressive and constantly checking himself in to mental hospitals, where he craved and received dozens of electroshock therapy treatments, died a few years ago at ninety-eight. 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.”
There’s much else to say about How Literature Saved My Life. It’s twisty, always interesting, sometimes surprising, and it ends by erasing itself: “… nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this – which is what makes it essential.” At times, the book feels a little like something by the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer – whom Shields admires and, possibly, mistrusts – but the book it reminded me of most is Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life (especially in the section in which he reveals 55 works he swears by: from Renata Adler’s Speedboat to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five). Like Miller, Shields manages to convey his affection for and admiration of literature, and that, the enthusiasm and admiration, can revitalize the reader’s love for the art form.
I must admit, though, that this is one of the oddest books I’ve read. It felt personal, but personal by accident. Shields is a few months older than I am. I’ve read many of the books he’s read, seen most of the films he mentions, and have met some of the writers he has. We are by no means twins, culturally speaking, but for the first time in a long while, it felt like I was reading a book by a true contemporary.
I hate inserting the personal in assessing a book, but while reading How Literature Saved My Life, I couldn’t help wondering if I could say that literature “saved” (or did not “save”) my life.
It would take a much longer essay for me to answer that question, but it occurred to me while reading Shields’s book that it has been a long time since I expected anything of literature. I accept that what writers do is only tentatively meaningful or significant. I made the decision to be a writer 40 year ago, when “Literature” seemed the most important thing in the world to me. I now think of what I and my contemporaries do as being on a par with doing business or politics or anything that keeps a human occupied before his or her life ends. Yes, of course, I love literature, but it’s the impersonal things that matter most to me now: How this word instead of that changes what a reader feels or influences how an audience reacts, what to leave out, where sound and sense meet etc. In a word, I’m more interested in what I might be able to do with literature than what literature does with me.
I’m not suggesting that getting away from the “personal” is virtuous. Au contraire. I’m grateful for How Literature Saved My Life because the book has made me think again – and for the first time in a while – “Well, what is it we do when we read?” It’s a damned annoying question, but it needs to be asked now and then, and Shields has asked it in a way I find resonant and moving.
André Alexis is a Toronto-based novelist, playwright and critic.