Tonight I went to see David Shields at Magers and Quinn to present his new book How Literature Saved My Life. I went to the event because I had followed the debate over his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto keenly, and I wanted to see the man in person. In Reality Hunger, Shields argues that the realist novel no longer adequately reflects the concerns of people today. I’ve not read the book, but as a lover of novels I was rather opposed to the idea.
As I heard him defend his ideas tonight, I found it difficult to get around his critique of plot. His point is that if a novel is meant to convey ideas, then why should plot be necessary to drive those ideas. I was struck by this argument, because I’ve often said that I read novels not to find out what happens but to find out why it happens. I’m perfectly OK with “spoilers.” I like novels because the characters and plot which they contain seem to be effective ways through which the writer can explore ideas.
In his presentation, Shields quoted David Foster Wallace who said that literature is the bridge that connects essentially isolated individuals. Part of Shield’s argument against the conventional novel is that people can’t conceivably know others thoughts or motivations. The author is limited in his ability to construct characters, because he or she can’t possibly know what another human being is thinking. The author can only know his or her own thoughts.
Shields used “wrongness” as a theme for his presentation. He spoke about how he is interested in being wrong, and how wrongness leads him to greater truths. He read a passage from How Literature Saved My Life in which he listed a lengthy compendium of similarities between himself and George W Bush. The list was supposed to be proof of Shields’ dedication to vulnerability. Vulnerability is a hard thing, especially when it is a key part of a literary movement you are trying to spur. Parts of his list seemed to devolve into jokes, and the exercise of seemed to self consciously vulnerable.
Vulnerability is in vogue right now (see: Lena Dunham), and the popularity and self awareness of vulnerability threatens to strip it of its value, which is not to say that vulnerability is impossible. Vulnerability is essential to making relatable art, and a writer should always strive for it. The writer should strive for it, while keeping in mind that the act of writing itself is a contrivance.
For me, the novel still has value, because it contains characters. Characters and the interactions between them ask the reader to try and conceive of how other people think and feel. While acknowledging that this isn’t possible, it can still be a valuable exercise.
Just as it is impossible to know other people’s motivations, so too is it difficult or impossible to know even one’s own motivations. The strength of fiction is that it acknowledges its contrivances, and yet proposes that it can attain some truth despite itself.