on Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields (Knopf)
David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto ardently tags after the American poets who have dismissed the facts of the day and their shotgun-riding media and arts. “Realism is a corruption of reality,” said Wallace Stevens. In 1951, as the hydrogen bomb made its debut, William Carlos Williams voiced his disregard:
“What is the use of reading the common news of the day, the tragic deaths and abuses of daily living, when for over half a lifetime we have known that they must have occurred just as they have occurred, given the conditions that cause them? There is no light in it. It is trivial fill-gap. We know the plane will crash, the train be derailed. And we know why. No one cares, no one can care. We get the news and discount it, we are quite right in doing so. It is trivial.”
Shields channels Philip Roth to make the same complaint about “American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.”
Arguing for custody of the images and sounds of reality, Shields says the realists are infidels, and the clanking machinery of their novels no longer satisfies: “Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication.” He recommends the lyric essay as antidote -- and cross-genre work that blurs the imagined, the recalled, and the documented.
I’ll set aside his thesis for a moment – since it alone isn’t why writers should read Reality Hunger. The book is comprised of 618 aphoristic assertions, reflections and analyses, numbered and flowing through 26 titled chapters. Punchy and querulous, sometimes personal, the entries represent a mind sorting out its literary impulses, building confidence, and gathering energy for future projects. I find his mode and passion irresistible.
Baiting the makers of supposed verisimilitude, whether disparaging bio-pics or novels, he taunts, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? I could go on about this forever.” And he does. Here are some samples:
“One gets so weary watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression” (#57).
“I’ve always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you” (#133).
“This is the case for most novels: you have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set” (#379).
“For me, anyway, the fictional construct rarely takes you deeper into the material that you want to explore. Instead, it takes you deeper into a fictional construct, into the technology of narrative, of plot, of place, of scene, of characters. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place” (#518).
Shields expresses a similar loathing throughout for the kudzu-like growth of conventional memoir -- but he qualifies his aversion: "(Ambitious) memoir isn't fundamentally a chronicle of experience; rather, memoir is the story of consciousness contending with experience."
Reality Hunger is less a manifesto than a pep talk, a rally where the home team psyches itself up while knowing that the opposition has an undefeated record. But since at this moment I’m very receptive to Shields’ message, initially I absorb it all – the hyperbole, indictments, and the smashing of entrenched narratives (and narrative form itself) and canons to make room for more heroic and relevant replacements. I take what I need and toss out the rest. As he cites the works of and quotes his own mentors, I jot a long list of recommended readings, from Montaigne to Elizabeth Hardwick, Pascal to Cioran. When he says “a writer serves the story without apology to competing claims” such as factual veracity, I recognize the role of the poet.
Shields champions the lyric essay because it “tells a story at a baser level: irrational, plotless, characterless, or repetitiously characterized, it informs by serial enactments of the mind’s processes prior to writing the story.” I think of how Pessoa, des Forêts, and Jabés influence me, or how Elizabeth Hardwick, Anne Carson and Donna Stonecipher excite me – but also how a lyric essay may leave me feeling manipulated, such as Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Facile profundity (demanding submission to effects agreed on in advance) coagulates its gestures in any trend.
Shields castigates “most novels,” not all – and most novelists I know would concur with his criticisms of the lifeless and conventional -- though they would refute his claim that the novel is incapable of generating the cerebral and profound impressions of reality that Shields feeds on.
Sometimes Shields goes so far out on the limb that he falls off. He insists that James Frey (“a horrible writer”) represents the liberation of imagination from fact, but I resist the notion. Shepard Fairey isn’t one of my culture heroes. But when Shields says the Frey affair “has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama,” I nod.
Shields touches on reality TV, modern art, stand-up comedy, documentary film. He says copyright laws are “obstructing the natural evolution of human creativity” since we all steal from each other anyway, but he also notes “the sanctity of the copy … produced the greatest flowering of human achievement the world had ever seen.” Like everyone else, Shields is confused about how writers will earn their pay in an open digital world in which “non-experts” flood the sluice.
He tells us that he quotes without attribution throughout Reality Hunger -- but the lawyers at Random House insisted that he include a list of acknowledgements. He does just that – and then asks us to ignore it, don’t look! I get the playful point. But I did look. In #474 he paraphrases Vivian Gornick: “Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we’re in need of at the time we’re reading” – thus proving I have been in need of Reality Hunger.
[Published February 23, 2010. 220 pages, $24.95 hardcover]
Of relevant interest --
An interview with David Shields at The Quarterly Conversation.
Ron Slate's review of Memoir and the Art of Time by Sven Birkerts (Graywolf)