Reality Hunger by David Shields is made up of 26 lettered chapters and 618 numbered paragraphs. It is Shields’ literary manifesto in which he decries the state of the contemporary novel, can’t understand why people think memoirs are all true when we all know that memory is fallible (Is an author really going to be able to recall verbatim a conversation with a friend at the age of ten? Sometimes I don’t even know what day of the week it is, let alone what I said to someone when I was ten or 20 or even just yesterday), praises borrowing/repurposing/plagiarizing other artist’s work, lauds the blurring of genre, and declares the lyric essay the literary form that is best suited to satiate our reality hunger.
Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication – autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read and write novels.
It is one of those serendipitous things that I read this book not long after Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and the the resulting discussion about literary innovation. And it is interesting that Dorothy recently posted about contemporary fiction after she complained that she is often bored by it.
Shields has lost faith in the novel. While “plots are for dead people,” made me laugh as did
Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?
And while I too find a good deal of contemporary fiction to be disappointing and boring, I haven’t given up on fiction. I still have faith in the novel. And also unlike Shields, I do sometimes just want to read for a good story and be entertained and I don’t think that fiction should be thrown out on the dust heap.
While Shields’ book is interesting and has quite a lot of provocative things to say and much to ponder, I think what it all boils down to is that he wants literature to do a better job at representing reality and the form of literature that he elevates – the lyric essay – is his own personal taste. I love essays, but I don’t think they, or to a certain extent memoir, are the only means by which we can examine the reality that we live in. I don’t think the novel is dead. I think it is difficult for fiction writers to publish the truly innovative and this isn’t just a symptom of our own age. Virginia Woolf self-published after all.
Maybe more than anything, Reality Hunger is a call to shake things up in the literary world. Things are getting stale. Casual readers are abandoning ship for the internet and video games and Facebook. Whether being drawn away from reading fiction is because fiction is somehow failing or for another reason, I don’t know. But I think it is worth thinking about.
The way Shields has constructed his book is a collage of quotes from various sources bumping up against each other, speaking and arguing, contradicting and confirming. They do not make a coherent narrative or argument, they aren’t supposed to. The argument emerges from the accumulation of quotes. It is not a common way to write a book but it certainly isn’t new either. It is a if-David-Markson-wrote-nonfiction kind of book. It took me about 10-15 pages to settle into the book and figure out what Shields was up to. But after that, I very much enjoyed it and all the questions it brings up about what literature can and should be.