Reality Hunger, a new book by David Shields, is an important book—of this much I am sure. If I had any doubts about this fact, the torrent of blurbs on the book jacket would clear any of those up. There is not an inch of space on the back or front cover that is not taken up by someone’s praise of the book, whether that praise is from fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, poet and “cultural critic” Wayne Koestenbaum, short story writer Amy Hempel, or nearly a dozen others. Some of the blurbs actually cover the title. It’s a bit much.
But then, Reality Hunger is all about breaking boundaries—boundaries of taboo, genre, expectation, artificiality, and so on. It also seems by design that a fair number of the blurbers are quoted in the actual book itself. Shields wants to force the reader to think about the relationship between different texts and different authors. Not much of Shields’ “manifesto,” you see, is actually written—or at least originally written—by Shields himself. What he has done instead is aggregate an impressive amount of text from other sources, ranging from Michael Moore to T.S. Eliot to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and organize them into several distinct categories.
This does not make Reality Hunger an inferior version of Bartlett’s, since the organization is the primary creative act. I cannot begin to imagine how well-read Shields must be for him to have cataloged such a diverse group of texts and remolded them into his own stream-of-consciousness treatise. It is also important to note that the vast majority of quotations are not presented as quotations. Their original sources are only listed in the appendix (and even then only out of legal obligation—Shields frankly admits he didn’t want to include them at all), and they are presented as regular text in numbered chunks, marked no differently from Shields’ own words. Indeed, it took me several dozen pages to realize that not everything in the book comes from Shields himself. The idea is that Shields is using other peoples’ words to express his own ideas.
The aphoristic style seems to echo the writings of Confucius or Friedrich Nietzsche. This, combined with the fact that “manifesto” is right there in the title, is bound to make people think of this book as a kind of literary—or pop—philosophy. Indeed, Shields does have a clear point he wants to make, namely “to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.”
But the cut-and-paste style of the writing hurts any attempt to develop a clear argument. Since the sections come from all different sources, the logic connecting them is not exactly linear—it’s more like some kind of weird fractal, in which things are repeated, refashioned, and contradicted in almost equal measure.
Reality Hunger is the kind of book that will drive any amateur logician crazy. At times, it constitutes a veritable catalog of informal fallacies, from begging the question (“our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any”), to false dilemmas (“The world exists. Why re-create it? I want to think about it, try to understand it.”), to complex questions (“Why is hip-hop stagnant right now, why is rock dead, why is the conventional novel moribund?”), to appeals to authority (“For Coetzee, all criticism, including his own, is autobiographical”—although, in many ways, the whole book is one giant appeal to authority). Often, Shields just inserts a blanket assertion with no justification at all (“Collage…was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century.”)—a technique made even sneakier by the fact that so many of his assertions are framed as facts, lulling the reader into a passive state.
By far Shields’ favorite style of argument is argument through repetition: If I say the same thing enough times, in enough different ways, then eventually it will be accepted. Aphorisms are unfortunately conducive to what I like to call the “beautiful non-statement”: a turn of phrase that sounds pretty and interesting but is, on serious reflection, ultimately meaningless. Shields is not the first to rely on these—they are typical of pretty much any collection of aphorisms—but he is particularly good at selecting and isolating them. He’s great at picking quotes like, “There is properly no history, only biography” (Emerson) or “A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory” (Keats), or coming up with his own, like “Genre is a minimum-security prison.” These are all nice and pithy, but they don’t really mean much of anything without any context.
We shouldn’t expect anything else, though;Shields has more or less declared war on context. Things like genre, narrative, plot, labels, classifications—in short, anything that might provide context—are a constant bête noir for Shields. He views these things as artificiality imposed on reality. In a chapter about James Frey, for example, he makes the point that the technical truth of his memoir isn’t important. All memoirs (the word for which, Shields points out, comes from the French and Latin words for “memory”) are recreations and, to some extent, re-imaginings: “Good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I’m not bothered at all by this artifice.”
The goal of prose, as Shields sees its, is to force “reality” into a carefully constructed artifice. The conventions of plot, story, and characters, in his view, distract from this goal, marking a work as too artificially conceived. He praises novels that are more notable for their voice than for their story and linked short-story collections that don’t neatly cohere around some narrative arc (he doesn’t mention it by name, but I’ll bet he loves The Things They Carried). Indeed, despite his declaration early that “[t]he novel isn’t dead,” Shields’ book seems to be a death knell for the novel, given the utterly dismissive feelings hehas for conventional narrative and realism. Even of a book as excellent as The Corrections, Shields says: “I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a ‘good’ novel or it might be a ‘bad’ novel, but something has happened to my imagination which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.”
Instead, Shields champions genres like the “lyric essay,” which blur lines between real and fake, fact and fiction, rendering such distinctions less important. The lyric essay “enjoys all the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of the fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened—which a fiction writer daily wakes to.” In other words, a lyric essayist starts with reality, but is not bound by it. This allows the writer to penetrate his own thoughts more directly, indulging in digressions and monologues without the encumbrance of plot or artificiality.
Unfortunately, the argument Shields makes on behalf of this kind of reality hunger, in addition to being barely intelligible, is not that compelling. Shields does a good job of convincing you that he really likes lyric essays, but a lousy job of explaining why they are superior to realistic fiction. If anything, novels actually seem more honest and realistic, since they are at least straightforward about the fact that they are a story.
Indeed, Shields is so hung up on genre distinctions and classifications that he actually places more importance on them than he wants to. By focusing on what he calls the “blur” between the lines of certain genres, he has to be constantly aware of those lines. It’s akin to the difference between watching The Hills and watching The Wire. Which one actually gives a better sense of reality?
Even though Shields’ book fails as a real “manifesto,” it succeeds as something else. It never makes a convincing argument for the “interrelated (but unconnected) artists” that Shields likes or even lays down a consistent definition or criteria for them. Instead, Reality Hunger functions as a cross-section of the current cultural climate. Many of Shields points fail as normative arguments, but they succeed as actual descriptions. Shields directly confronts many of society’s confusions over plagiarism, originality, authenticity, art, and the importance of reality and “realness.” When he declares that the realistic novel is not as important as it once was, for example, I might disagree with whether or not this is a good thing, but it’s hard for me to argue with the basic point.
This is what makes Reality Hunger such an important book in spite of its failures as a piece of rhetoric. It represents something that is undeniably occurring in our culture, and challenges people to think about the values underpinning those changes. For those of us who have a deep and abiding interest in narratives and fiction, David Shields at least forces us to think about why those things are important. And, ultimately, that should be the goal of any manifesto.