March 11, 2010



Could be an interesting read. I think David Markson beat him to the punch, but I'll still check it out.

Jacob Silverman

I haven't read Shields' book, but I've read a fair number of reviews of it and some interviews with him, so I'll chime in anyway. I think Shields is certainly defending "fiction and fiction-making" -- just of a particular kind of those things.

I'm not really a partisan in the James Wood Wars. I like some of his stuff and don't like others. But I do think he can be cold and clinical -- as exemplified by the title of one of his books, "How Fiction Works" -- and sort of aristocratic in his dismissiveness of that which doesn't find favor with him. In the New Yorker piece, he seems to consider Shields' book and conclude "Nice try, but not so much" -- only to briefly invoke Shields again in considering Chang-Rae Lee's new novel, while failing to own up to the fact that he (Wood) is apparently rather sympathetic to Shields' argument. He'll call it a bit of "useful skepticism," but it appears that without Shields' book, Wood would have given Lee's book an unadulterated positive review. "The Surrendered" is, in his view, "commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places." Would its "utterly conventional" nature have been as apparent to Wood without the influence of "Reality Hunger"? It's unclear, and I don't think Wood fully addresses the issue, though I'm open to debate it, even as I tend to think that the answer is no.

Then there's this example of that condescension I referred to earlier: Wood says that "the placarded datelines ("Korea, 1950"; "New York, 1986") belong to an inferior genre." Two problems here: 1) What's wrong with placarded datelines? I just finished reading a very good novel, Sofi Oksanen's "Purge," that uses placarded datelines throughout, and they're an unobtrusive and handy guide to navigating a text that flits between places and eras. It in no way impoverishes the text or makes it seem like an easy way out for a writer. Not all has to be buried in subtle and telling detail. 2) The "inferior genre" label reeks of haughtiness. The effort to break down genre barriers -- by people like Lethem, Chabon, and a number of other folks -- is ascendant, and I say, why not? How is one genre -- if such distinctions are as monolithic and obvious as sometimes claimed to be -- inherently inferior to another? Must we fight the same silly aesthetic battles over and over again, or do we only allow the rare token (say, Graham Greene or Battlestar Galactica) out of the genre ghetto? This is a separate debate, but it irks me that Wood wears his (aesthetic) prejudices so proudly.

On the other hand, I think the last few paragraphs of the piece are very well done -- clear, even-handed, cogently argued -- the sort of thing Wood generally does best.

Jacob Silverman

Sorry to scribble all over your blog, Mark, but I wanted to add one more thing. Related to my concerns above, there's an interesting passage from Susan Salter Reynolds' review of "Reality Hunger":

Shields is sick of genre, calling it "a minimum security prison." Once you slap a label on a piece of art, he writes, it loses a lot of life.


There's nothing like using the word "manifesto" to get publicity. After reading three interviews where Shields came off like a windbag each time, plus reading a ridiculous amount of blog coverage (hi Mark), and two reviews of the book itself that both said the central idea is weakly presented and not at all new, I'm about ready to skip this one. Meet you at the next manifesto.



This is a very good piece from The Rumpus, although I liked the Wood piece as well. Shields is just riding a potentially interesting dead-end trend in a particularly self-aggrandizing manner.


I found both Woods's and Reynolds's (thanks, Jacob) pieces interesting and full of strong points. What I haven't understood about Shields's manifesto, as presented in reviews (yes, I need to read the book, but I did hear a talk Shields gave on it) is why he considers narrative's "artificiality" somehow evil. Art's conventions are always artificial. The artificiality of plot and coincidence and closure has proved time and again to be a powerful engine to bring readers a deep experience of other minds, lives, and eras. This is wonderful. And it's hard to get that experience any other way. Just because narrative is a made and manipulated thing doesn't mean the results are lacking in honesty, rigor, truth, and passion. Quite the opposite.


Mr. Shields needs to read some Kant, ASAP.

Ward Jones

The subject may be stale but I'd like to add my two bits. Amazon has an interview of David Shields on his new book. After hearing it I was reminded of Tom Wolfe. Shields seems to share his journalistic approach to novel writing. Not that there's anything wrong with this approach, but it's just that, an approach. Hardly a basis for condemning those of us who write from a different angel.


Why must Mr. Shields read some Kant? I suggest he read, uh, Schopenhauer. See, I can name drop German philosophers too! Look at how smart I am!


Vic -

Sorry if mentioning Kant made you feel insecure. I was just referencing Kant's belief that we are denied direct access to reality.


I don't know - the Kant reference was pretty gratuitous, particularly as it was nonspecific enough to be opaque. I myself thought you were suggesting that Shields read the third critique (on aesthetic judgment), since "Reality Hunger" is, after all, an aesthetic manifesto; my second guess was the second critique (on practical reason and moral law), since maybe you thought Shields should categorically-imperatively consider a universe in which writing collage-based creative nonfiction were elevated to a natural law. It never occurred to me that you were sending him back to the first critique, though I guess I get it, now that you've explained it. Reality, etc. But it's not as if Shields named the book "Thing-In-Itself Hunger"! The connection you were trying to make was far from being self-explanatory, even for people who've read Kant. And, yeah, your post probably would have come across exactly as inscrutable and name-droppy if in fact you had said "Schopenhauer." So consider this a lesson in rhetoric: your readers can't always read your thoughts or follow your references.


Ich kann daran einfach nicht glauben. Mein Freund lebt! Ich freue mich darauf, mit Ihnen bald zu sprechen.


I'm not sure what my insecurity has to do with you referencing an 18th century German philosopher and assuming everyone here knows precisely what you mean. I'm secure enough to admit I don't know Kant well enough to connect his complex philosophies with Reality Hunger by mere mention of his name. I'm sure you do, but you didn't bother to explain it, which makes you come off as insufferably pretentious.

Kelvin Alejandro

For me argument about the "realistic" conventions of the novel versus the deconstruction of those conventions comes to a simple this: There are many different ways to tell a story just like there are many perceptions of reality. Cinderella tells the tale different than the Fairy Godmother.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."