“The system, as it currently exists, does not welcome movements or true independence, only perversely canny individuals who have figured out how to work that system as though it were an uncommonly prodigal slot machine.” – Tom Bissell, Magic Hours
Every publication has its stated norms that defines what it is, along with the unstated norms that defines what it isn’t.
For Seattle Review of Books, the stated norms are those that you can read about on the website – a Seattle sensibility, diversity and inclusiveness, and respect for genres such as romance novels, graphic novels, and sci-fi/fantasy novels elsewhere looked upon with disdain.
As for the unstated norms, there’s really just one that stands out, and that’s “Fuck David Shields,” right?
In 2015, Paul Constant wrote an article lamenting that out of all the deserving and talented writers doing highly original and creative work in the Seattle writers’ community, it’s David Shields who keeps winning the prizes, it’s David Shields with his UW teaching position getting fellowships, it’s David Shields with his frenetic publishing schedule racking up honors that otherwise might go to someone struggling to pay the rent, searching for an audience, trying to survive as a writer.
In my 2017 review of Shields’s Other People: Takes and Mistakes, I adhered to SRoB’s unstated norms with a suitably snarky tone, offering only the faintest of praise for the book being reviewed. I spent the first half of the review talking about myself, and the second half chastising him for not reading enough Philip Roth despite including one of his quotes in the epigraph. Middlebrow snark, still snark. I recall that the SRoB editors liked the piece, and it was published with just minor changes.
Last October, I received a review copy of Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump. I pitched a review of the book, along with the general idea that I was going to write something about my trip to Sydney and Melbourne later that month.
In November, I had lunch with David Shields in Wallingford, and we talked about his book, and about my trip to Australia.
In early December, I submitted my review of Shields’s Trump book to SRoB. I didn’t hear back from you through the holidays. I checked in with you in late January, and you apologized and said you’d get to it, and here we are in April.
In retrospect, the review had serious flaws. As such, it should probably remain unpublished.
Nonetheless, a brief recap:
The central conceit of Shields’s Trump book is that it’s a manual for how to beat a bully. In the review, I described my encounter one afternoon at a Sydney pub with a Trump fan who wanted to debate me about immigration. Here, then, was my bully, and with the help of Shields’s book, I would be emboldened to beat the bully. The intended punchline of the article was that despite having Shields on my side, I foolishly lost the debate; that Shields’s advice was not good enough to carry the day; that I did not win; that I did not get that shiny fiddle made of gold; that I lost my soul to become another Trumpian Wormtongue.
That was my critique of the book; that it did not sufficiently prepare me to win an argument. That probably says more about the self-help seeker than the self-help book.
In reality, I may have won the argument. That’s because it wasn’t just the two of us having a talking-points, as-seen-on-TV shouting match. In reality, I was there with my wife, he was there with his girlfriend, and we all talked. We talked about our failures, our families, our hopes, our humanity. In my earlier account, I didn’t make anything up, but I left a whole lot out.
What I didn’t leave out of the review was an extended digression about having been a Howard Stern fan until the mid-1990s. This was the prelude to an observation, made by Shields and to which I concur, that Stern begets Trump. And if I would publicly admit to having been a Stern fan, it may have seemed to the eyes of a horrified editor that my Sydnescene conversion narrative had been genuine rather than feigned.
Also, and fatally for a SRoB review, I failed to leave out this unironic endorsement of Shields’s book:
If Reality Hunger was David Shields’ manifesto, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump is his successful proof-of-concept for the manifesto. It’s an easy-to-read, entertaining collage of cultural artifacts and observations, coalescing into an eye-opening portrait of our peerless leader.
In the pages of SRoB, one can admit to having been a Stern fan; one can claim to be a Trump acolyte; but one must never kiss the ass of David fucking Shields.
Sorry about that, it won’t happen again.
It’s not that I don’t have a review copy of Shields’s latest, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power. And it’s not that I don’t like his new book.
It’s that I no longer have the critical distance to write objectively about David Shields.
In March, I wrote a book compiling the stories of my 97-year-old father, from his Brooklyn childhood to his teenage years hitchhiking across the country; from his wartime service on merchant ships to his 23-year career as a ship’s officer in the U.S. Merchant Marines; and his later years as a stay-at-home father and a Screen Actors Guild extra. It’s raw, funny, and dirty, a mix of the historical and the incredible, and an entirely faithful retelling of the stories I’ve heard my entire life.
Before I started, I asked David Shields to meet for breakfast. I wanted to get his advice on how to structure the work, and on how to deal with topics that might embarrass the family or offensive language that might upset readers. It snowed that weekend and we had to cancel, and we haven’t yet rescheduled.
Yet I didn’t need to meet with David Shields, because by reading his books, I was able to imagine what he would say in answer to my questions: Let the material speak for itself. Don’t dramatize. If it’s difficult, painful, or embarrassing, leave it in. Take the rest out.
As I was collaborating with the subject, the writing involved some elisions from the source material that prevented a fully Shieldsian take, but overall, I followed much of the advice proffered by my imagined Shields, and I therefore owe him credit as an inspiration.
But that’s a wrap for my Shields criticism on behalf of SRoB. I’ll leave it to other aspiring book reviewers to take on the new Shields book when it arrives every six to eight months.
Think of it as the SRoB initiation rite. And whatever you do, don’t fuck it up like I did.