Had Shields published this book anonymously without copyright or charge I might take him more seriously, but really you have to laugh, at least I do.
Even so, there’s some good and important stuff here about the changing nature of the world and information and art, which is why I give the book three stars, and also because I think it’s fun to challenge the irony and hubris in Shields’s argument. He gets the scenario mostly right, but his manifesto is too dogmatic to accommodate its own artistic notions.
The argument is framed as a manifesto on art in the digital information (streaming) age. More specifically, it heralds the demise of fiction and novels and authors as we have known and loved them, and those are the parts that most interest me. Whatever Shields might choose to call this, the book is a work of criticism, and Shields is the critic.
He contends: “The novel of characters belongs entirely to the past; it describes a period: the apogee of the individual. The world’s destiny has ceased, for us, to be identified with the rise and fall of certain men, of families . . . Just as out-and-out fiction no longer compels my attention, neither does straight-ahead memoir.”
Following the backstory of literature from the birth of writing, we arrive at now, where the era of imaginative invention (his term for fiction) is ending. We are now, Shields proclaims, in the era of collage.
“Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in art of the twentieth century.”
Perhaps more than anything else, the Internet has rendered a fragmented world, such that, Shields argues:
“There isn’t any story. It’s not the story. It’s just this breathtaking world, that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there.”
Hence, the only artistic form that really matters, in Shields’s opinion, is collage.
“Collage is a demonstration of the many becoming one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many that continue to impinge upon it.”
“The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context.”
“In collage, writing is stripped of the pretense of originality and appears as a practice of mediation, of selection and contextualization.”
Shields rules the lyric essay the standard of contemporary literate writing, and the only kind of writing besides poetry that suits collage; the only novels that will continue to matter will be variations upon the lyric essay and poetry.
All of the above – essay, poem, novel – are now perpetually streaming into an ever-swirling reconfiguration of our fragmented reality. Which means that nobody can legitimately claim ownership or authorship, we’re all up to our eyeballs in each other’s realities, we’re all gleaning and borrowing and assessing and piecing.
“The distribution economics of the internet favor infinite niches . . . with as many senders as receivers and data transmission spread out over geography and time. A new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including the livelihoods of artists . . . Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work . . . The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Reality can’t be copyrighted.”
Which is why Shields felt free to cobble his manifesto together from the writings of others without distinction or credit, except for the source notes at the end of the book that his lawyers insisted upon.
But Shields is by god taking your $24.95 in exchange for copyrighted text under a brilliant book jacket with his bold name out front dead clear. And don’t even try to blame your publisher, Shields, you didn’t need a publisher to do this, you could have freely and prominently streamed and promoted this book in any number of online ways.
I most clearly see the disconnect in his argument about fiction and novels as follows.
He writes: “The fiction both published and unpublished that moved and pleased me then as now was precisely that which had been made luminous, undeniably authentic by having been found and taken up, always at a cost, from deeper, more shared levels of the life we all really live."
He celebrates Emerson for calling “the new literature he’d been looking for a panharmonicon. Here everything is admissible – philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, fun, mimicry, anecdote, jokes, ventriloquism – all the breadth and versatility of the most liberal conversation, highest and lowest personal topics: all are permitted, and all may be combined into one speech.”
I contend that the novel of purely imaginative invention, which Shields refuses to allow, can be all of the above as authentically as can a novel collaged from fragmented reality. Which is to say, again: This manifesto is too dogmatic to accommodate its own artistic notions.
“The artist who begins with a doctrine to promulgate, instead of a rabble of multitude of ideas and emotions, is beaten before he starts.”
“A work of art, like the world, is a living form. It’s in its form that its reality resides.”
Whether a form works or not is up for debate, but you don’t begin by prescribing or limiting artistic form to accommodate a doctrine, be it Shields’s or anyone else’s.
I fail to see how we continue to have recognizable works of art without recognizing individual artists, and I shudder to think what becomes of art if only the critics are credited.