David Shields, University of Washington professor of English and author of 14 books including the New York Times best-seller “The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead,” has a new book out titled “How Literature Saved My Life.” He answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.
What’s the concept behind your new book?
My previous book, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” burned literature down to the ground — for myself (and apparently for a lot of other people). I wanted to reconstitute literature for myself. I’d opened a space; now I wanted to fill it — take what I’d theorized about in “Reality Hunger” and attempt to apply it, practice it, vivify it, visceralize it, vulnerabilize it (not sure if the last two are words).
Is it difficult to work in such a deep vein of autobiography? Is it a necessary part of your process?
An interesting question, but to me rather like asking a fish if it’s difficult to work in a deep vein of water. It’s what I do. I’m a personal essayist. I write book-length essays. I proceed under Montaigne’s idea that “Every man contains within himself all of humanity.” I want to explore myself to the bottom of myself, in the hope that I will get to something “universally human,” thereby making other people feel “less freakish,” as Phillip Lopate says, more human.
I grew up under the sway of modernism — writing the great novel — a la Proust, Woolf, Joyce, Mann, Kafka. I was in awe of pure voice — voices such as Ford Madox Ford’s, Nabokov’s, Hawkes’s, Barth’s, Camus’s. I now want to do something that is more choral, more collage-like, more pointillistic, more undemocratic — my voice, for sure, but a more demotic voice and one that incorporates other people’s voices as well.
You write, “The writers I like tend to present the ambiguities of genre as an analogue to the ambiguities of existence” and note the work of the late memoirist Spalding Gray in this regard. Can you elaborate?
This is a rather fancy way of saying it on my part, isn’t it? What am I trying to say here? Only that it’s very difficult to know who we are exactly, and I like work that jumps boundaries and troubles genres as a way to convey the difficulty of knowing what a self is. Hope that clarifies somewhat. I resist quite a bit works that exist safely within genre; such works pretend that identity is more knowable than it really is.
Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from “How Literature Saved My Life”?
I hope that readers will take away from “How Literature Saved My Life” a deep mystery story, a detective novel: I’m the detective. I’m lost — unable to talk, aware of the difficulties of love, of communication, of the body’s limits, of mortality. I find refuge in literature, but that curdles; I want literature to save me, but I can’t abide a literature in which the membrane isn’t very thin between life and art. Do I love art or just art-like life?
In the last chapter I try to find a way to save my life via literature. Do I do so? That is the journey I hope readers wish to go on.