Reality Hunger

By David Shields

David Shields is bored. He is bored with novels. A novelist himself, it is the contemporary novel in its conventional narrative form that bores him the most. This is because “when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel.” He finds “nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” Steinbeck bores him. He couldn’t read Franzen’s The Corrections if his life depended on it. Even Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (a work many consider revolutionary in terms of its self-consciousness with regard to the novel’s form) fails to hold his attention. He’s seen it all and he’s become jaded. Blasé.

It is time, then, for a manifesto. Typically reactionary documents, manifestos begin by rejecting a perceived status quo. For Shields this is the aforementioned boring modern novel.

Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of-the-mill four-hundred-page page-turner. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.

Their popularity aside, never have these shaggy beasts “seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself.” Such books cannot convey “what it feels like to be alive right now.” Instead of novels like these, Shields is interested in “reality” (following Nabokov, he insists on the quotation marks) and is “drawn to confession”:

I’m bored [again] by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters. I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. Everything else seems like so much gimmickry.

In opposition to such gimmickry as, for example, story, Shields champions the experimentation of once-new theoreticians of the novel like Robbe-Grillet (a note tells us that Robbe-Grille’s For a New Novel was “the book that in many ways got me thinking about all this stuff”). He wants to set fiction and non-fiction on a continuum, with no clear line separating them. Instead of reading about the lives of invented characters he prefers creative memoir and autobiography.

He also wants short-short stories. Not just short stories, but short-short stories. This is a form more in tune with what it feels like to be alive right now (“delivering only highlights and no downtime, the short-short seems to me to gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does”), and they also have the virtue of being over quickly, which means they don’t bore Shields (“I’ve become an impatient writer and reader: I seem to want the moral, psychological, philosophical news to be delivered now“).

Finally, Shields’s manifesto takes a stand against originality, another word that he would like to quarantine in quotation marks. Reality Hunger makes this point by being itself a collage or cut-and-paste job of bits and pieces taken from various sources. And so when Shields says “I don’t feel any guilt normally attached to ‘plagiarism,’ which seems to me organically connected to creativity itself,” you know he means it because that’s actually a quote from Jonathan Lethem. “You mix and scratch the shit up to the level your own head is at.” He has a chapter on hip-hop that extols its “theft without apology – conscious, self-conscious, conspicuous appropriation.” The “natural evolution of human creativity” is toward sampling, an expression of art’s “cannibalistic tendencies.” “All of culture is an appropriation game” (Ralph Ellison). We are all samplers, all thieves at war with stifling modern copyright laws. Laws that are now woefully out of date, out of touch with reality. Or “reality.” Écrasez l’infâme!

The progress of artistic growth in many media is being hindered, like those poor pine trees in alpine zones able to grow only a few weeks each year. For writers and artists who came of age amid mountains and mountains of cultural artifacts and debris: all of this is part of their lives, but much of it is off-limits for artistic expression because someone “owns” it.

I think this is a fair outline of the argument put forward in Reality Hunger. Now, to respond . . .

In the first place: How depressing all this is. In another book, indeed another self-styled “manifesto” that came out the same time as this one, You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier criticizes with some acuity the coming culture of “second-order expression” that Shields finds so exciting. Mashups and mixtapes, sampling and appropriation, all of it derivative and cannibalistic, defines for Lanier the new “retropolis.” For Shields, shoring fragments from the mountains and mountains of debris we are buried under is itself just another fragment to be shored. Self-consciously, to be sure. But even the cultivated air of decadence, that sense of being born into an exhausted zeitgeist, seems stale. Is re-heated Robbe-Grillet all that’s left today’s theorists of the novel? “Thank God I am not a young man, living in so thoroughly finished a world.” (That’s Goethe, by the way, though not a line Shields makes use of.)

And the unashamed narcissism! Shields finds all expression that is not a direct exploration of the self to be – you guessed it – a tedious bore. Even phony self-expression, in the form of fake memoirs, is more interesting (since there is no distinction between fiction and non-fiction, and all memoir is fake anyway). But how unnecessary, in this day and age, to write a manifesto for a movement whose “key components” are

A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. . . . Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and non-fiction: the lure and blur of the real.

Add in the bit about brevity, the self-conscious and endless borrowing, the primacy of the personal, and doesn’t it all sound familiar? Shields has written a Blogger’s Manifesto! When he declares that “Literary intensity is inseparable from self-indulgence and self-exposure” one wants to tell him to go post it on Facebook. Now there’s a mongrel form where he can explore his “own damned, doomed character” to his heart’s content. While, of course, being ignored by the tens of millions of people who are doing the same.

Making things worse is the fact that Shields is unable to present a convincing, coherent argument. His antipathy for conventional, linear narrative, for example, tilts at a straw man. We all want art to be true to life, revealing of the human condition, and, of course, not be boring. But Shields is throwing the fat kid out with the bathwater when he finds “nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” As a prose principle he wants to cut out all the boring stuff and leave only the epiphanic moment. But most prose stylists, even of the most traditional variety, have a similar goal. Like Elmore Leonard, they want to leave out the parts most people skip.

Shields’s method, which is at least true to his message, is a combination of collage and what he calls “lyric essay.” “I need say nothing,” he explains, “only exhibit.” But shouldn’t such a radical job of cutting and splicing mean no boring stuff? Included among Shields’s exhibits are banalities like number 149: “All the best stories are true” (a platitude that is even sourced). And among the original commentary we find number 56: “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.” Really?

(An aside: I say the method is true to Shields’s message, but can’t follow his reasoning on why it is essential: “A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it.” Go figure.)

As a reviewer, it’s easy to feel some sympathy for Shields’s sense of burn out. His conclusions, however, are perverse. There is a reason no one reads Robbe-Grillet any more. He’s boring. His recipe for the new novel, product of similar feelings of fatigue, never took for the same reason. And while it may be a bit depressing, is it so “amazing” that people still read 400-page blockbusters? What kind of an alternative does Shields present? The “real drama” of “an active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved or not solved being alive”? Good heavens! Could there be anything duller than that? Or, for that matter, anything duller than listening to people talk about themselves? And what is the point of writing a manifesto that simply caves in to what seem to be inexorable trends in the culture anyway (brevity, self-exposure, appropriation, a blurring of the line between fact and fiction)? Most of contemporary culture has already been swallowed by the internet, thank you very much. The audience has become the art. That there no longer is any audience doesn’t seem to be upsetting anyone. Yet.

All of this just to avoid the terrifying ennui of the man who’s seen, read, and heard it all?

I don’t ever want any of my readers to be bored. I’d much rather risk them getting annoyed and frustrated than bored.

I’ll vote for all of the above.

Review first published online February 22, 2010. I’ve always found it a bit problematic when friends of the author, who are thanked in the acknowledgments, also provide blurbs that appear on a book’s dustjacket. Reality Hunger goes one better. The entire dustjacket, front and back covers, is made up of blurbs. A number of these are provided by people who are, in turn, “sampled” inside. As Geoff Dyer puts it: “Reading it [Reality Hunger], I kept thinking, ‘Yes, exactly, I wish I’d said that,’ and then I realized that I had.” The effect is like having the contributors to an anthology praising their own work.