Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Genre etc

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It makes me think of the instability of a literary work, that it is always being understood or subverted through and by other work one has read. Where does meaning come from? The following paragraph is quoted all over the place, another jab, at one level, at the conventions of realist fiction.

“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”

The sentence clearly functions as a performative utterance, but also captures the struggle many have with contemporary narrative fiction, the sort of fiction that David Shields inveighs against in Reality Hunger. It is stuffy and confining.

Essays like The Argonauts and Adrian Nathan West’s Aesthetics of Degradation aren’t a new form, but act as a rejection of genre boundaries. Do I particularly care what is made up if I enjoying following Nelson and West’s thinking on the page? Not even remotely. Use whatever techniques of fiction are available to explore themes of love, sexuality, memory and the nature of existence. Give me the space to think though complex issues and I’ll reward a writer with my readership, for what it is worth (clue: very little).

David Shields’ How literature saved my life

It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation  I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.

From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.

How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein

Alex Stein, essayist and aphorist, is the author of Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. In The Artist as Mystic, Stein interviews Yahia Lababidi, essayist, aphorist and poet. Does Lababidi exist? Is the interviewer imaginary? In these post-postmodern (or neo-modern) times, do such distinctions matter? As David Shields wrote in his manifesto, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.”

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #565: On three walls, continuous forms with alternating… (1988)

As Sol Lewitt said, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Or as Alex Stein puts it, they “hold something more dear than one’s own happiness.” With one exception, the artists chosen as subjects for these literary interviews are those that have accompanied me from early on: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kierkegaard.

Beyond Stein’s introductory essay the book is structured, as the title suggests, as a series of interviews with Yahia Lababidi. Stein fades away, as Lababidi discourses about literature. Lababidi wears his erudition lightly during these interviews with a discursive style that is undemanding but whose allusions circle a fraternity of Modernist thinkers. Of Kafka, Lababidi says:

Kafka is us, without lying.

Shouldn’t that change the way I read him? It should. And it does. It ups the volume on everything. Even if he only clears his throat, it rings like thunder. Because the fact of the matter is he has something thunderous in him to say, and the fact of the matter is we know that he does. That is the point. Some of this stuff, sure, it can be more navel gazing, more convolutions, but what we cannot fail to recognise in Kafka is that this is a guy who is wrestling with his angel, and that commands our attention. What he is up against, so are we up against.

The passion that Lababidi brings to his reflections on what he terms The Exquisites revitalizes and never fails to offer some fresh perspective. This is a short text, that I read in a single sitting, which I hope generates a sequel.

Vilhelm Ekelund

I left hanging above the exception, Vilhelm Ekelund, of whom Lababidi says:

He practised a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.

Another essayist and aphorist? Having verified that Ekelund is not imaginary I shall seek out his work.

The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields

What then remains, but that we still should cry
Not to be born, or being born, to die?

Francis Bacon

Like Reality Hunger, many of the best bits of David Shields earlier (2008) book are the numerous quotations. This was a whimsical purchase. A day or two after reading Reality Hunger, I spotted The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead on the LRB shelves and decided to continue my reader relationship with David Shields.

I am torn about the book. On several occasions I almost abandoned it, was tempted to throw it away. To be honest, the book which deals in a frank way about birth, ageing, physical and mental decay, death and mortality succeeded in shocking me. It catalysed me to think (however briefly) about how I live, my relationships with my wife and daughter, with friends. This is clearly A Good Thing, what we hope from literature.

The book is distressing, though there are flashes of dark humour. I found David Shields, the narrator, profoundly irritating as he veered between boasting and regretting the passing of his sports-jock days and whining incessantly about his numerous physical and mental complaints.

The writing is clunky, mixing quotations, lists and short essay-like chapters. This theme is covered more intelligently by Julian Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It wasn’t a waste of time but I will not be keeping or rereading the book.

A later chapter consists entirely of Last Words and was the first time I’ve come across this sad but funny one:

Lady Astor, the first woman member of British Parliament, surrounded by her entire family on her deathbed, said, “Am I dying, or is it my birthday?”

Reality Hunger by David Shields

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revives the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is great fun to read, and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.

Shield’s Manifesto

Five Dials magazine number 9 is available; the highlight for me is some advance text from David Shields. (I am looking forward to reading Shield’s manifesto Reality Hunger when my copy arrives from the US.)

It is rousing material, reminiscent of Marinetti’s manifesto.

Shields: I and like-minded writers and other artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanci- ful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don’t interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice.

Like any dogmatic position, there is enjoyment in arguing about Shield’s thesis. As a reader who derives deep pleasure from reading writers like W. G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, John Berger or de Maistre and Beckett before I look forward to the debate.