States of Independence
Dazed's ultimate guide to US creativity

David Shields' manifesto for blasting traditional literature

What does a book look like in 2014? The prolific genre-buster tells us why literature matters – and how it has saved his life

David Shields
David Shields

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.

Staging a mid-week takeover is prolific genre-bender David Shields – the author of both non-fiction and fiction whose literary collaging constantly eludes classification. We've pinned him down for an exclusive manifesto, as well as curated content from those authors and poets who he believes are breaking all the right rules.

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straightforward fiction functions only as more bubble wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c. 2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behavior still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people now live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac. Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels—highly praised ones, in particular—implies a belief in an orchestrating deity or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive. A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal condition, I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it).

“I believe in art as pathology lab, landfill, recycling station, death sentence, aborted suicide note, lunge at redemption. Your art is most alive and dangerous when you use it against yourself.” – David Shields

I no longer believe in Great Man Speaks. I no longer believe in Great Man Alone in a Room, Writing a Masterpiece. I believe in art as pathology lab, landfill, recycling station, death sentence, aborted suicide note, lunge at redemption. Your art is most alive and dangerous when you use it against yourself. That’s why I pick at my scabs. When I told my friend Michael the title of my book, How Literature Saved My Life, he said, “Literature never saved anybody’s life.” It has saved mine—just barely, I think.

I wanted literary collage to assuage human loneliness. Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.

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