I finished reading this book (from 2010) a week ago and it’s still sitting in my head, wrapping itself around several doubts and questions that were already in residence. I don’t think it’ll be leaving any time soon, and it’s already nagging me to re-read it.
I thought I’d have more to say about the book, some wise reflections, but no, I only have the excerpts below. I think I heard of the book via James but I can’t recall the context now. Thanks James (or sorry, if it wasn’t you).
The book’s organised into 26 lettered chapters, with 618 numbered fragments. I felt a bit dumb when, a fair way in, I noticed the lawyer-requested list of sources at the back, and realised that most of these fragments are things Shields has copied from other places. I’ve got over that now.
Here are the bits that grabbed me most. Bold numbers indicate the fragment number, not page numbers. Ellipses are mine.
45 After Freud, after Einstein, the novel retreated rom narrative, poetry retreated from rhyme, and art retreated from the representational into the abstract.
c. books for people who find television too slow
47 I listened to a tour guide at the National Gallery ask his group what made Rothko great. Someone said, “The colors are beautiful.” Someone else mentioned how many books and articles had been written about him. A third person pointed out how much people had paid for his paintings. The tour guide said, “Rothko is great because he forced artists who came after him to change how they thought about painting.” This is the single most useful definition of artistic greatness I’ve ever encountered.
57 In 1963, Marguerite Yourcenar said, “In our time, the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as a medium of expression.” No more. Increasingly, the novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.
65 The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of a fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened — which a fiction writer daily wakes to. One can never say of the lyric essayist’s work that “it’s just fiction,” a vacuous but prevalent dismissal akin to criticizing someone with his own name. “Lyric essay” is a rather ingenious label, since the essayist supposedly starts out with something real, whereas the fiction writer labors under a burden to prove, or create, that reality, and can expect mistrust and doubt from a reader at the outset. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it’s apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know. The implied secret is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers, take note. Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.
69 There are two sorts of artist, one not being in the least superior to the other. One responds to the history of his art so far; the other responds to life itself.
78 It’s important for a writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms. You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea to go writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.
d. trials by google
92 When Frey, LeRoy, Defonseca, Seltzer, Rosenblat, Wilkomirski, et al. wrote their books, of course they made things up. Who doesn’t? Each one said sure, call it a novel, call it a memoir; who’s going to care? I don’t want to defend Frey per se — he’s a terrible writer — but the very nearly pornographic obsession with his and similar cases reveals the degree of nervousness on the topic. The huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality, and within that frame, great drama.
95 What if America isn’t really the sort of place where a street urchin can charm his way to the top through diligence and talent? What if instead it’s the sort of place where heartwarming stories about abused children who triumphed through adversity are made up and marketed?
101 … The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence. Trial by Google.
180 Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends. Unlike a fiction reader, whose only task is to imagine, a nonfiction reader is asked to behave more deeply: to imagine, and also to believe. Fiction doesn’t require its readers to believe; in fact, it offers its readers the great freedom of experience without belief — something real life can’t do. Fiction gives us a rhetorical question: “What if this happened?” (The best) nonfiction gives us a statement, something more complex: “This may have happened.”
212 … I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself urself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now. …
225 It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.
227 [A couple of pages about the artist Sophie Calle who I hadn’t heard of before but whose work sounds fascinating. For example:] … The Address Book (much my favourite): Calle finds an address book. Before returning it to the owner, she photographs its pages, then calls everyone in the book. She asks each of them to describe the owner of the book, his habits, qualities, idiosyncrasies, creating a portrait of the man via these interviews. The man is upset when he discovers what she has done. …
240 The mimetic function in art hasn’t so much declined as mutated. The tools of metaphor have expanded. As the culture becomes more saturated by different media, artists can use larger and larger chunks of the culture to communicate. Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silk screens and his Double Elvis work as metaphors because their images are so common in the culture that they can be used as shorthand, as other generations would have used, say, the sea. Marilyn and Elvis are just as much a part of the natural world as the ocean and a Greek god are. Anything that exists in the culture is fair game to assimilate into a new work, and having preexisting media of some kind in the new piece is thrilling in a way that “fiction” can’t be.
k. reality tv
311 Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: they’re no longer embodying what it’s like to be alive. If reality TV manages to convey something that a more manifestly scripted and plotted show doesn’t, that’s less an affront to writers than a challenge.
m. in praise of brevity
377 How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.
379 As Stephen Frears, the director of High Fidelity, worked to translate the best moments of the Nick Hornby novel on which the movie was based, he found to his surprise that the best moments were the voice-overs, especially the direct speeches of Rob Gordon (John Cusack) to the camera. … This is the case for most novels: you have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set.
385 The roominess of the term nonfiction: an entire dresser labeled nonsocks.
v. it is much more important to be oneself than anything else
539 Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note carefully just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.
595 Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?
601 Nearly all writing, up to the present, has been a search for the “beautiful illusion”.
602 Nowhere do you get the feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.
603 Very well. I am not in search of the “beautiful illusion”.
605 There’s inevitably something terribly contrived about the standard novel; you can always feel the wheels grinding and going on.
607 There is more to be pondered in the grain and texture of life than traditional fiction allows. The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction, more open and speculative.
609 … One could say that fiction, metaphorically, is a pursuit of knowledge, but ultimately it’s a form of entertainment. I think that, at the very least, essays and poems more directly and more urgently attempt to figure out something about the world. …
611 Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There’s only one thing worse than boredom — the fear of boredom — and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot too. …