Iowa Writes

DAVID SHIELDS
"Autobiography as Criticism, Criticism as Autobiography" (part 2)


What I love: the critical intelligence in the imaginative position — D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical Literature; Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat; Nicholson Baker, U & I; Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage; Terry Castle, "My Heroin Christmas"; Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet; Albert Goldbarth, Griffin; Richard Stern's "orderly miscellanies"; Roland Barthes, S/Z; Nabokov, Gogol; Beckett, Proust; Proust, all; William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. Sister Mary Ignatius, in other words, explaining it all for you—les belles dames sans merci: Joan Didion, all the essays; Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights; Pauline Kael, all; Renata Adler, pretty much everything. So, too, on another track: Sandra Bernhard, Without You I'm Nothing; Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic. Then the train going in the opposite direction: Chris Rock, Bring the Pain; Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer; Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny; Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm; Spalding Gray, nearly everything; Art Spiegelman, Maus; Ross McElwee, all.

What I love: the critical intelligence in the imaginative position — D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical Literature; Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat; Nicholson Baker, U & I; Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage; Terry Castle, "My Heroin Christmas"; Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet; Albert Goldbarth, Griffin; Richard Stern's "orderly miscellanies"; Roland Barthes, S/Z; Nabokov, Gogol; Beckett, Proust; Proust, all; William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. Sister Mary Ignatius, in other words, explaining it all for you—les belles dames sans merci: Joan Didion, all the essays; Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights; Pauline Kael, all; Renata Adler, pretty much everything. So, too, on another track: Sandra Bernhard, Without You I'm Nothing; Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic. Then the train going in the opposite direction: Chris Rock, Bring the Pain; Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer; Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny; Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm; Spalding Gray, nearly everything; Art Spiegelman, Maus; Ross McElwee, all.

         "Criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness; a real critic has no one but himself to depend on. He can never forget that all he has to go by, finally, is his own response, the self that makes and is made up of such responses, and yet he must regard that self as no more than the instrument through which the work of art is seen, so that the work of art will seem everything to him and his own self nothing."
         —Randall Jerrell

         "The crucial art of the essay lies in its perpetrator's masterful control over his own self-exposure. We may at times be embarrassed by him, but we should never feel embarrassed for him. He must be the ringmaster of his self-display. He may choose to bare more than he can bear (that is where the terror comes in), but he must do the choosing, and we must feel that he is doing it. There is a moment in every love affair when the participants risk everything by revealing themselves to each other—a moment of decisive self-revelation, when one person, yielding up her weakest point, exposes her jugular (as wolves do, in surrender), and the other meets the challenge by accepting the offered knowledge and perhaps giving up something in return. All great autobiographical essays contain such moments, moments at which we are made the recipients of information so threatening to the author's integrity, so revealing of her own sense of her weakness, that we could destroy her if we misused it. She depends on our love (or, if that is insufficient, then on our distance) to protect her."
         —Wendy Lesser

My impulse is always to read form as content, style as meaning; to push the book toward abstraction, toward doubleness, toward seventeen types of ambiguity. The book is always, in some sense, stutteringly, about its own language. I'm always framing myself and the author as lone founts of dark wisdom; I'm always the exponent of airy despair; I never touch ground. "Metaphysical" is big. In my formulation, the subject of the book is seen to be about X when really it's about Y. I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument. "Existence" is frequently mentioned, as are "animal," "sex," "fuck," and "violence." I love the words "powerfully" and "enormously" and "relentlessly" and "bottomlessly." I use "investigation" and "exploration" and "excavation" and "examination" and "rigorous" over and over. What would I do without "meditation"? There's always an implied love story between me and the writer—me loving the book, loving the writer. "Candor" is key—being willing to say what no one else is willing to say. The act of writing is inevitably viewed as an act of courage ("brave" is all over the place). Life's difficult, maybe even a drag; language is (slim) solace. No one else gets what you're doing; I alone get it. You and me, babe. "Intimacy." "Urgency." We alone get life. Let me explain your book—the "text"—to yourself. Let me tell you what your book is about. Life is shit. We are shit. This, alone, will save us—this communication.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


DAVID SHIELDS

David Shields is the author of fourteen books, including How Literature Saved My Life (2013) and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). He is the co-author of an oral biography, The Private War of J.D. Salinger (September 2013).

"Autobiography as Criticism, Criticism as Autobiography," published in issue 39.1 of The Iowa Review, is available on the magazine's online archives.

This is part 2 of 2.  For part 1 of "Autobiography as Criticism, Criticism as Autobiography," please visit yesterday's page.

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on July 03, 2013

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