You’ll usually find this in the literary criticism section of a book shop, and having now read it, I can’t exactly argue with that placing, but I can say that it would also be right at home in many other sections: cultural anthropology, sociology, memoir, philosophy, history, poetry, or even general fiction (if I’m feeling particularly objective). It’s a lot of things in one, which means that the book itself fully embodies the crux of its own argument, to get all postmodern on you, which simply put is: the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not as black and white as we think. Or written another way, and quoting directly from the book: “Writing is writing. Every act of composition is an act of fiction.”
I picked this book up and put it back down several times before eventually breaking down and buying it. I kept bumping into it at my favorite used bookshop, thumbing through it and reading little bits here and there, finding myself confused by the format — was it a book of quotes or a book of random thoughts? — eventually judging it too odd and putting it back on the shelf. The next time I came back, it would be gone (of course!), and I found myself missing it, getting what I would consider the opposite of buyer’s remorse, wishing that I had taken it home with me when I had the chance. Eventually, of course, another copy would show up on the shelves and I would start the whole process over again. Eventually that Chip Kidd cover won me over and I took it home.
This is basically the postmodern literary equivalent of building a song out of samples. I was about halfway through before I realized that a huge chunk of this book is sourced from elsewhere, remixed, modified, recombined, and used interstitially between genuine writing done by Shields himself to tie this whole crazy opus together. It’s brilliant and absurd and since it’s sourced from hundreds of different people, it speaks in a lot of contradictory absolutes about art, writing, reality, “reality”, memory, copyright, fiction, identity, persona, subjectivity, the nature of creativity, etc. It contains a lot of things I agree with, a lot that I don’t, and a lot that I’m not so sure about anymore.
Whatever it is, it’s deeply misunderstood. Read a few reviews and you’ll find people who hate it with a passion or ecstatically adore it. You won’t find too many in the middle. Which honestly, is the exact kind of reaction you want something to evoke in others. Otherwise, it’s just mediocre right? Anyway, I think those people with intense opinions on it are thinking way too literally, and might benefit from the practice of trying to hold two opposing opinions in their heads at the same time, and mulling them over. I think what this book really is, is a jumping off point to start a conversation about what is real, what is fake, and why ultimately, maybe it really doesn’t matter that much, and maybe we should stop classifying things and let art be art. Let journalism handle facts, and let both our non-fiction and fiction pieces of art just be.. pieces of art. Maybe we don’t need to worry about which box to put things in anymore. Maybe the process of telling a “true” story injects it with fiction anyway. Or maybe none of that too. Or maybe — and this is more realistic here — just some of it. Pick and choose, etc.
It would be a mistake to read this quickly, which is easy to do since it’s so short, and presented in little bite size chunks. There’s just too much going on here to rush through it. It’s a genuine book of ideas. I had to take a lot of breaks — short and long — to give myself time to process the concepts. I took a lot of notes to organize my thoughts; trying to get to the bottom of what I was feeling about what was being said. If I came across something that really got my thinking, I threw the book down and went for a walk to mull it over a little. Or maybe I would just put it down for a few days, read something else, and come back to it when I was really interested again in the questions it was posing; when the ideas were pulling me back in.
Paraphrasing, of course, but some of those questions were: What sort of responsibility should a memoirist have to literal facts? Can we actually trust our memory enough to state anything we remember as fact? How much truth is there in fiction? How much fiction do we allow in non-fiction? If fiction uses lies to tell the truth, can memoir be just another literary genre, soaked in the author’s subjective experience, but the truth of that experience used only as a means to illustrate something more important? If the point of memoir is that more important bit, does it actually have to be married to truth at all? Just what is being “created” in creative non-fiction? Who owns ideas? Do we necessarily always need Form and Story and Narrative and the other usual pieces of storytelling? Is the space between truth and fiction actually more interesting anyway?
I don’t really have a conclusion on this. Like I said earlier, the book is a jumping off point, and I’m still kind of lost in all of the ideas it presented. If you’re interested in any of those questions, I’d suggest you check it out, it’s really quite bizarre, and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot.