Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
by David Shields
New York Times Sunday Book Review
Consider the state of literature at the moment. Consider the rise of the memoir, the incidences of contrived and fabricated memoirs, the rash of imputations of plagiarism in novels, the overall ill health of the mainstream novel. Consider, too, culture outside of literature: reality TV, the many shades and variations of documentary film, the rise of the curator, the rise of the D.J., sampling, appropriation, the carry-over of collage from modernism into postmodernism. Now consider that all these elements might somehow be connected, might represent different aspects of some giant whatsit that will eventually constitute the cultural face of our time in the eyes of the future. That is what David Shields proposes in “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” He further argues that what all those things have in common is that they express or fulfill a need for reality, a need that is not being met by the old and crumbling models of literature.
To call something a manifesto is a brave step. It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship. David Shields’s clarion call may in some ways depart from the usual manifesto profile — it doesn’t speak on behalf of a movement, exactly — but it urgently and succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air, have relentlessly gathered momentum and have just been waiting for someone to link them together. His is a complex and multifaceted argument, not easily reducible to a bullet-point list — but then, so was the Surrealist Manifesto. “Reality Hunger” does contain quite a few slogan-ready phrases, but they weren’t all written by Shields, and some are more than a century old.
One way in which the book expresses its thesis is in its organization: it is made up of 618 numbered paragraphs, more than half of them drawn from other sources, attributed only at the end of the book. This will remind readers of Jonathan Lethem’s tour-de-force essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” published in Harper’s in 2007, in which every single line derives from other authors — note that Lethem acknowledges a debt to Shields’s essays. But what reality is such magpie business enacting? Shields answers: “Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. It is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.” He is, of course, quoting Emerson.
There is an artistic movement brewing, Shields writes. Among its hallmarks are the incorporation of “seemingly unprocessed” material; “randomness, openness to accident and serendipity; . . . criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity; . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” He briefly summarizes the history of the novel — set in stone by the mid-19th century — and that of the essay. One form is on its way down, the other on its way up. The novel, for all the exertions of modernism, is by now as formalized and ritualized as a crop ceremony. It no longer reflects actual reality. The essay, on the other hand, is fluid. It is a container made of prose into which you can pour anything. The essay assumes the first person; the novel shies from it, insisting that personal experience be modestly draped.
The flood of memoirs of the last couple of decades represents an uprising against such repression. So why have there been so many phony memoirs? Because of false consciousness, as Marxists would put it. Shields (echoing Alice Marshall) is disappointed in James Frey not because he lied in his book, but because when he appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show he didn’t say: “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.” After all, just because the novel is food for worms doesn’t mean that fiction has ceased. Only an artificial dualism would treat every non-novel as if it were reportage or court testimony, and only a fear of the slipperiness of life could perpetuate the cult of the back story. “Anything processed by memory is fiction,” as is any memory shaped into literature.
But we continue to crave reality, because we live in a time dominated by innumerable forms of extraliterary fiction: politics, advertising, the lives of celebrities, the apparatus surrounding professional sports — you could say without exaggeration that everything on TV is fiction whether it is packaged as such or not. So what constitutes reality, then, as it affects culture? It can be as simple as a glitch, an interruption, a dropped beat, a foreign object that suddenly intrudes. Hence the potency of sampling in popular music, which forces open the space between the vocal and instrumental components. It is also a form of collage, which edits, alters and reapportions cultural commodities according to need or desire. Reality is a landscape that includes unreal features; being true to reality involves a certain amount of wavering between real and unreal. Likewise originality, if there can ever be any such thing, will inevitably entail a quantity of borrowing, conscious and otherwise. The paradoxes pile up as thick as the debris of history — unsurprisingly, since that debris is our reality.
Shields’s text exemplifies many of his arguments. “The lyric essay doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention,” he writes (quoting John D’Agata and Deborah Tall), and so it is with his book, which argues forcefully and passionately, but not like a debate-team captain, more like a clever if overmatched boxer, endlessly bobbing and weaving. And for all that so much of its verbiage is the work of others, it positively throbs with personality. This is so not simply because Shields includes a chapter of autobiographical vignettes; he puts his crotchets on display.
He is serious perhaps to a fault. The decision to identify the authors of the appropriated texts was, he tells us, not his but that of his publisher’s lawyers, and he suggests that readers might want to scissor out those nine pages of citations. This is a noble and idealistic stance, of course, but it overlooks a human frailty that is undeniably real: curiosity. His asceticism seems also to govern his view of narrative. He is “a wisdom junkie” who wants “a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation,” and thinks that “Hamlet” would be a lot better if all the plot were excised, leaving the chain of little essays it really wants to be. But while it’s true that Shakespeare’s plots can sometimes seem like armatures dragged in from the prop room, they are also there to service the human need for sensation. Sometimes Shields can give the impression that he dislikes the novel for the same reasons Cotton Mather might have: its frivolity, its voyeurism, its licentiousness.
On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come. The essay will come into its own and cease being viewed as the stepchild of literature. Some version of the novel will endure as long as gossip and daydreaming do, but maybe it will become more aerated and less controlling. There will be a lot more creative use of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, of messiness and self-consciousness and high-spirited looting. And reality will be ever more necessary and harder to come by.
Luc Sante’s most recent book is “Folk Photography.” He teaches at Bard College.