Meet Matthew Cooke, a Stranger reader who has vowed to do everything The Stranger suggests for the entire month of February. Look for his reports daily on Slog and Line Out. —Eds.
Readying for shitstorm.
Last night’s reading was very different from the first one I went to earlier this month. Instead of reading a passage from his book, which would have been a disjointed experience given that it’s entirely composed of short snippets and quotes, author and UW English professor David Shields spoke extemporaneously about it as a manifesto.
His talk centered on the nature of reality and language, and I found most of it fascinating. But I got stuck on one of his major themes: Narrative fiction as we know it has outlived its usefulness for conveying ideas. If I understood him correctly, I have major issues.
I know there are a lot of shitty novels out there; God knows I’ve read (and threatened to write) a few. But to me, that’s more an issue of buck-chasing book publishers and timid, thoughtless writers. Shields, however, has made the leap into blaming the actual mechanics of narrative—plot, dialogue, etc—insinuating they’re merely distractions; some kind of showy deceit. And to me, that ain’t right.
Before I go on, let me acknowledge that I haven’t read the book, and that Shields is a smart, crafty man who’s almost certainly considered the following arguments. But just so we’re clear:
Narrative, in my view, can be used as a skeleton on which the blood and skin of an author’s idea can be grafted. I think of Milan Kundera (whom I love) and how his book’s plots are thinly veiled excuses for him to pontificate on relationships and the broader human condition. Taken by themselves, his rambling, wild tangents, no matter how philosophically engaging, would collapse. His narrative is a safe harbor he—and we—can return to when his ideas need room to breathe.
I reject out of hand the entire premise that the architecture of dialogue and description gets in the way of ideas; indeed, I think there are some ideas that can’t be explained without it. Nuances in dialogue can say hugely significant things about not just how we talk but who we are, and the use of descriptive metaphor, done well, can convey in a few words what more “direct” language would take an essay to accomplish.
Lastly, I am confused by Shields’ implied supposition that the non-reality of narrative fiction has no value in and of itself. Shields himself said that written language is our best and truest way to connect and escape from loneliness; isn’t it possible that stories by their very nature are part of our connective tissue? Doesn’t a well-told tale, arising from a writer’s knack for plot and storytelling, offer escape and yield connections via the shared pleasure of imagination and creativity?
Shields knows he’s written something provocative, and there’s value in starting a conversation about why there are so many bad books. I just hope he’s ready for the shit storm that may await him. The marrow of fiction runs deep in the human animal. We—or I, at least—won’t give it up easily.