The other day I wrote about seeing David Shields give a presentation at Magers & Quinn. I critiqued his approach to vulnerability. During the presentation, Shields critiqued the writing of Jonathan Franzen. Franzen, he said, strives to keep any signs of vulnerability or his inner character out of his writing. Shields used Franzen as a evidence of the growing irrelevance of the novel form. Shields called for a writing that would embrace wrongness and vulnerability.
I suggested Lena Dunham’s work as evidence of the popularity of vulnerability as a theme in the arts right now. On cue, the Onion has published an article entitled “Next Episode of ‘Girls’ to Feature Lena Dunham Shitting Herself During a Gyno Exam While Eating a Burrito.” The title explains the article succinctly. The writers are parodying Dunham’s style of relentless vulnerability, and the critics who breathlessly applaud it. Given the current vogue for vulnerability, it is worth thinking hard about what vulnerability really is and how to achieve it.
Dunham’s first internet fame came when she posted a video of herself bikini clad and bathing in a water fountain at Oberlin College. As we now know, Dunham’s body is hardly the ideal that the media portrays for women. This video is indicative of a theme in her work, portraying her body in compromising and vulnerable positions.
In this age of social media, sharing is ubiquitous. Many find Facebook and Twitter to be effective outlets for sharing their feelings, and they have begun to redefine what is now to be considered within the realm of privacy. Dunham’s fountain video is an example of this. The ubiquity of vulnerability has lessened its impact, and much of the New Vulnerability falls flat.
If social media is transforming privacy and vulnerability is in vogue, how can one achieve the emotional rawness that is required for effective art? Humans are nothing if not conscious of the way we represent ourselves, both in art and in the everyday. If you are self consciously striving for vulnerability, one can hardly achieve it.
As it relates to one of his books on race, Shields critiqued other writers who approach the topic as outsiders looking in. He explained that his method was superior, because he acknowledged his own racism in the book. As it pertains to racism, Shields may well have produced a more valuable book than other writers who don’t acknowledge their own racism. I would like, however, to see Shields explore the limits of his brand of self conscious vulnerability. If other writers do their topic injustice by suggesting infallibility, so too does Shields, by suggesting unadulterated vulnerability.
The novel, then, seems to remain relevant. By acknowledging and embracing the inherently contrived nature of writing, fiction has the power to suggest truths that those who only allow for reality can’t access.