How Literature Saved My Life

how literature

Have you heard about the new non-fiction?  It’s all the rage.  There are a couple different names for it: collage writing, I think is one of them.  It sort of defies categorization, or is too new to have a definitive label, but David Shield’s How Literature Saved My Life both talks about it and is an example of it.

This is what it’s like.  In a lot of ways, it’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness essay.  Only “essay” makes it sound truthful, and perhaps boring.  And there are a lot of quotes, some of them attributed, some not, leaving you to wonder whether this is an original thought, a quote from a piece of fiction, a quote from a piece of non-fiction, or something else entirely.  It’s not as entirely unpleasant as you would think.  There are a lot of thought-provoking sound-byte one-liners.  Like:

Are poems “so many suicide notes”?


“If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a whole bottle of white pills.”

A little bit more expansive: “What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts?  Is poetry and essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections?”

There is a sort of confessional, coming-of-age quality to a lot of it that I have read.  For example:

“Teenage boys want to believe that the sex instinct trumps and transfigures the day-to-day world.  Which [according to the author] it does and doesn’t.”

Shields here also included a fairly lengthy analysis of how the Spider-Man series can be viewed as a prototypical male journey to manhood.  I never did the comic thing, but have seen some of the movies.  I can get some of this.

As I said, there are a lot of quotes from other writers/thinkers: “The single most important thing in writing is to maintain a playful attitude toward your material.” -Walter Abish-

But this does not make it automatically uninteresting.  The most interesting and I think central idea in the whole book had to do with this shifting concept of non-fiction/truth/”reality”/veracity.  Quoting Fred Moody, the book provided:

“Novelists get a free ride, presenting fact as fiction and taking undeserved credit for creativity when they’ve simply taken down what reality dictated to them.  But let a nonfiction writer try to present fiction as fact for the noble cause of inspiring and uplifting the reader, and he ends up crucified on Oprah.”

I’m not sure whether this was a specific or general reference to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, but there are definitely applications.  Is there no such thing as fiction?  Should people who hold themselves out as non-fiction writers be held to a different standard?  If non-fiction is written as truth, but is not true, then how is it different than anything else?  “Non-fiction” can inspire whether it’s true or not.  But if not true, then it could have been written by anyone, about anything.  Isn’t there something about actual truth that makes a book different?  More readable?  More inspiring?

Continuing with this theme:

“[N]onfiction [is a] staging area for the investigation of any claim of facts and truth, an extremely rich theater for investigating the most serious epistemological and existential questions: What’s ‘true’? What’s knowledge?  What’s ‘fact’?  What’s memory?  What’s self?  What’s other?  I want a nonfiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.”

This focuses upon, and perhaps calls into question the literalness of ‘facts,’ ‘truth,’ ‘reality’.

There were some funny elements in the book too.  Interrupted by a woman during a business lunch: “Either you have been raised in some incredibly rustic community where good manners are unkown, or else you suffer from the common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct, or possibly both.”

It’s like an attempt, this new non-fiction, to defy form and genre as well as truth or fantasy.

Some ideas are started, but then left off:

Movies love to imply that the man and woman held each other all night long, but you can’t do it.  You have to roll away…


We’re both excited and disgusted by otherness.  You always eroticize the person who isn’t in your life.

There are relateable human elements:

“And the more righteous our self-presentation, the more deeply we yearn to transgress, to fall, to fail–because being bad is more interesting/exciting/erotic than being good.  Even little children, especially little children, know this.”


“We’re the only animal that knows it will die.”

The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead– a whole book about this concept.

At one point, in speaking about a student attempting to write a book, the student complains that he has all these notes, but can’t get them together into book form.  “The notes are the book” he offers pithily.  If the notes are the book, then the notes on the book are the blog post.  Here you go:

“The universe is a solitary place, and all its creatures do nothing but reinforce its solitude.  In it, I have never met anyone, I have only stumbled across ghosts.” E.M. Cioran.

“Reality isn’t straightforward or easily accessible; it’s slippery, evasive.  Just as authorship is ambiguous, knowledge is dubious, and truth is unknown or, at the very least, relative.”

“What separates us is not what happens to us.  Pretty much the same things happen to most of us…What separates us is how each of us thinks about what happens to us.  That’s what I want to hear.”

“I learned a long time ago that the people whom you most want to love your books…won’t.”

“A lot of the writers I know are incredibly good email writers.  I often find their emails more compelling than the things they’re writing at the time.  Everyone has two lives: one is open and is known to everyone, and one is unknown, running its course in secret.  Email is the unknown life, and the published work is the known life.”

-Elif Batuman

“The twitterization of the culture, turning personality into a cult and gossip into the only acknowledged platform.”

“The traditional novel is a freeway with very distinct signage, while collage is surface street to surface street–with many more road signs, and each one seemingly more open to interpretation….The traditional novel tells the reader pretty much where he’s going…Collage demands that the reader figure out for herself where she is and where she’s going.”

“Honestly,” his daughter Natalie said, “most people my age don’t have the attention span to sit down and watch a two-hour movie, let alone read a book.”  Doesn’t say who she is.  Probably true, no matter how old she is.

Vonnegut: “Contemporary writers who leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorian writers misrepresented life by leaving out sex.”

Ander Monson- Vanishing Point, Not a Memoir.

DFW: I don’t know what you’re thinking and feeling, and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling–so writing, at its best, is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness.

I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness.  Literature doesn’t lie about this–which is what makes it essential.

David Shields himself.

Robot and Frank a full length feature film.

How did that work for you?

I am currently reading another book that falls in this same genre, if more subtly: Artful by Ali Smith.  I am not sure what to make of it, or if what I dislike is me resisting change or something deeper.  But a lot of writing seems to be heading in this direction.  What does anyone else think?

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