It’s not just that Shields sees novelty where, in fact, there’s a long historical tradition. It’s that his version of an aesthetic of incoherence in “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps” is attenuated in the ethical dimension that was so thoroughly elaborated by earlier thinkers. Shields’ version of the aesthetic of incoherence isn’t a triumphant break with an impoverished past: it’s a pale echo of an old idea. It’s weak tea that thinks it is nitroglycerine.
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.