David Shield’s Critical Legerdemain

In my so-so review of Lydia Davis’ collection Varieties of Disturbance, I mentioned the claim of innovation levered at the book.

So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.

This is profoundly about intellectual laziness, about the wish to write innovation into material that is derivative and second-rate without bothering to really engage the written work that actually exists. If we proclaim something innovative or new, we absolve ourselves from the responsibility of trying to understand what is, and has been writing so far, the shapes, traditions and context of past and present writing. This is such a transparent, such a cheap enterprise that it takes a nimble pen, a writer quick and flashy in his rhetoric, to pull it off. The most prominent and successful practioner of this is David Shields, who tends to sound perfectly dim in interviews. I will, within the next month, comment on his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but you can see his method of critical legerdemain at work in this new review of Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (my so-so review of an older book by Monson is here). His declaration therein

Memoir is dead. Long live the anti-memoir, built from scraps.

is a perfect example of the impoverished understanding of literature and genres inherent in his method.


10 thoughts on “David Shield’s Critical Legerdemain

  1. From Shields’s review of Ander Monson’s book that you cited above, here are the opening sentences. To my ear, they sounded like they were patched together with buzz words for the sole purpose of impressing the reader: “In direct opposition to the literal-­minded, linear and epistemologically naïve nature of many such works, there has emerged in the last dozen years a vital countertradition, what John D’Agata labels the “lyric essay.” It’s a form with ancient roots. Hera­clitus, anyone?”

    This kind of language may sound erudite at a cocktail party, but it looks showy on the page.

  2. See, what’s puzzling me (and what’s the sole reason why I’m bothering with him at all) is this: why does this nitwit get so much praise and attention, from people such as Scott Esposito, who’s probably Shields’ biggest fan, to writers like J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, Tim Parks, and Rick Moody?

    Profoundly puzzling, this is.

  3. Wray’s quote is strictly speaking about religion, but really it is about credulousness. The man who speaks these words is a trickster and a cheater and a thief, in short: a confidence man, who uses that credulousness to exploit his fellow men. And that same credulousness makes Shields’ flashy but empty rhetoric such a hit, I think. Clearer now?

  4. Gotya! Here is a slightly different interpretation: think Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. When fixed to the wall in a men’s room, it’s an appliance. When displayed in a museum, it becomes a work of art. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Cookie: J.P. Donleavy’s “The Ginger Man” « shigekuni.

  6. Pingback: David Shields’ pale echoes « shigekuni.

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