Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Relativism Run Rampant in the Penny Press!

Keith Miller wrote a review last week in the TLS that was, as far as I can recall, utterly unique in the annals of that venerable publication. It was a review of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but that’s not the unique part; Shields’ idiotic little collage was reviewed everywhere. No, the unique part was that Miller’s review was utterly free of actual aesthetic judgement. Right there in the TLS, in precincts long known for their fiercely opinionated pronouncements on all things literary, Miller turned in a piece that was to book reviewing what abstract painting is to photography. A lazy, sniveling cop-out, in other words.

Shields, as some of you will know, composed his little book of bits and pieces from the works of other people, and he shaped it all for the purpose of making the latest point that’s obsessed his sadly deteriorated mind: that literary ownership is a bogeyman of the 20th (or even – shudder – the 19th) century, that dutiful attribution is for sissies, and that only a mix-tape of memoir and meta-fiction mini-bursts has any chance of coping with The World 2.0. I’ve come across this mulish laziness before, many times (people sententiously proclaiming that the only literature they need to know is that written by their personal friends, etc.), and it never fails to both sadden me (because such morons literally have no idea what they’re missing) and enrage me (because if you’re lazy you should just admit it and slink away, not take pride in it –or worse, try to argue that it’s not actually laziness). And I guess I just count on the TLS being saddened and enraged by pretty much the same things that sadden and enrage me. It’s a deal we’ve mostly observed for half a century, and I’ve grown quite comfortable with it.

Not this time, however. Keith Miller – a TLS regular and a very intelligent writer, regardless – starts off his piece promisingly enough, referring to Shields as “involved with the McSweeney’s axis,"  but the glimmers of hope fade pretty quickly after that. Bad enough he calls Shields’ vile,  racist book Black Planet “engaging, and, in some ways, brave” – I could swallow such a mischaracterization if it were just a small detour on the road to roasting Reality Hunger, but what follows is as mysterious as anything I’ve read in the TLS. Miller puts the pieces of a review in place, but he refuses to assemble them.

“You may or may not share Shields’s skepticism about the possibilities of the novel,” he writes.

“You may agree that we live in unprecedentedly complicated times,” he writes.

“You may accept the hip hop/collage model,” he writes, “or you may find it constraining in its own way.”

“You may feel that the issues of authorship and collaboration which Reality Hunger both debates and embodies are by no means settled,” he writes.

And there’s the concluding line of his piece:

“But Reality Hunger has little to say about style except to repeat the old macho-modernist canard that it’s something you must get beyond before you can say what you’ve got to say. You might feel you have to disagree with that, too.”

In professional circles, this is known as giving a book a pass, and I can scarcely recall a time when it was last done in the TLS. It’s not that Miller’s piece is bad – it isn’t, I doubt it could be. Like I said, he’s a reliably talented writer who always has thought-provoking things to say, as in this essay when he digresses briefly about David Foster Wallace:
This sense of basic things overlooked in the scrabble to explore elaborate ones is to be found even in the prodigiously clever and tirelessly humane Foster Wallace, whose endless, and rigorous, wrangling with himself and his characters’ selves yields, at times, an unexpected, slightly creepy flavour, a ghostly aftertaste of a judgemental, impatient, reactionary man.

That’s good, but it says very little about David Shields except obliquely. Nothing in this piece speaks directly to the two central rotten tenets of Reality Hunger: its inherent contention that you can’t find ‘reality’ in novels, and its equally obnoxious implication that if you did find it, plagiarizing it wouldn’t constitute a moral wrong. Nothing Miller writes addresses the core boring reality behind Reality Hunger, which is that Shields’ powers of concentration have addled (Beer? Pot? Video games? Middle age?) to the point where he won’t make himself pay attention to anything. Not to anything long and complicated, but to anything at all. The book is a hummingbird’s manifesto, a cretin’s credo of codified sloth, and dammit, I expect the TLS to say that, not dance around the issue with ‘you mays’ and ‘you mights.’

Fortunately, we have recourse to life-saving alternatives. When the subject is contemporary American fiction (and for all the ostentatious breadth of his plagiarized sources, Shields is basically writing about contemporary American fiction; given how deeply a pantywaist like Jonathan Franzen bores him, it’s extremely unlikely Shields has ever even heard of Anthony Trollope, and he’d probably besoil his britches if he so much as caught sight of Clarissa), especially contemporary American fiction, we can always turn to the two best critics of that genre working today, New York magazine’s Sam Anderson, and Open Letters Monthly’s own Sam Sacks. These two can be relied upon, not only to invariably find the important things to write about, but to write about the important parts of those things (and it doesn't hurt that they’ve both got what John Adams referred to as a “remarkable felicity of expression”). Anderson is the more ruthless of the two, almost always eviscerating his subject instead of merely killing it. His take on Shields:
The book’s supposed profundities – that the line between fiction and reality is unclear, that genres an be more powerful when mixed, that narrative often imposes a simplistic order on the chaos of actual life – are, to anyone who’s ever thought seriously about any of these issues, a bunch of remedial Grade-A head-slappers. And yet Shields intones them with the air of a holy man whispering the final secret of the universe from his mountaintop.

Sacks is usually more magisterial, but that can make the final summation, when it comes, all the more damning:
Obviously Mr. Shields is perfectly capable of exercising the atrophied part of his mind that shuts down when confronted by traditional books; it takes a curious self-absorption to assume that the burden of change rests with everybody else. And ultimately, despite the interesting provocations in "Reality Hunger," that's the impression it leaves: Mr. Shields is espousing a movement that would valorize his own laziness. He'd like literature, and its millions of faithful followers, to conform to his own private version of reality.

Good stuff. Glad I can read it somewhere.

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