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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yesterday the Stranger Suggested: David Shields

Posted by on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 11:03 AM

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.
  • 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.


Comments (9) RSS

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Paul Constant 1
This was awesome. Really good work, Mr. Cooke.
Posted by Paul Constant http:// on February 25, 2010 at 11:16 AM · Report this
Yeah, no joke. Great rebuttal. Slog should hire your ass.
Posted by Qaraghandy on February 25, 2010 at 11:26 AM · Report this
dnt trust me 3
Mr Cooke's writing makes me want to cut off my dick and eat it raw. Not really, but his writing does suck -- the " kundera / pontificate paragraph belongs in garbage disposal. didn't bother with the rest.... #1 you suck too, get a job with 60 Minutes, or find some excuse to leave Seattle
Posted by dnt trust me on February 25, 2010 at 11:28 AM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 4
Well done. I don't know anything about Shields, or whether or not you got his point. However, I will agree with your argument that narrative fiction has great value.

I'm a voracious reader. 90%+ of non-fiction I've read has bored me to death. Fiction, regardless of faults, is just more interesting to read, generally. And a well written work of fiction can make its point just as well, or better, than non-fiction.

Non-fiction is hampered in the same way a documentary film is. You know the subject and the author's viewpoint before you start. If you are predisposed to agree, you'll read it; if you are predisposed to disagree, you probably won't. The author is preaching to the converted, and has little opportunity to reach a broader audience.

Fiction can bring in a reader who is interested in the story, the plot, the characters, or the writing style. The author then has an opportunity to deliver their message, woven into the story, without beating the reader over the head with it.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on February 25, 2010 at 11:41 AM · Report this
Care to make arguments based on specific points of Cooke's article, @3, or are you caught in a feedback loop of self-aggrandizing (severed) autofellatio?
Posted by Qaraghandy on February 25, 2010 at 11:43 AM · Report this
ha ha! @5 ftw!! Nicely written, Cooke.
Posted by two shoes on February 25, 2010 at 12:01 PM · Report this
polkaparty 7
Dang... deep stuff, but all I can handle today are reviews of hot dogs or boobies.
Posted by polkaparty on February 25, 2010 at 12:27 PM · Report this
nseattlite 8
I think Matthew got too excited about Jen's Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator, or at least the tables you can download.…

Posted by nseattlite on February 25, 2010 at 1:14 PM · Report this
This has definitely been your post of the month, thus far! I hope that after this month is over, you have time to read the book and give us a review of it as well.

I agree that narrative can be the way to discuss ideas in a more direct way than an essay could. Narrative can also explore "truth" in an interesting way because a great writer can play with context in a way that allows us to ask questions about what is universal vs. what is cultural truth. That's part of the reason I love good quality speculative fiction. By taking us away from our reality, a good author can bring perspective to our day-to-day lives that wouldn't happen if they were just to lecture us or write an essay.
Posted by Canadian nurse on February 25, 2010 at 10:31 PM · Report this

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