Parsing Reality Hunger

By Caleb Powell | January 28, 2010

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. by David Shields, Knopf, 224 Pages. $23.95, February 2010

What should the author consider before labeling his or her work fiction or nonfiction? Can liberties be taken from others’ realities? How should we react to the traditional novel’s loss of relevance?

These, and a myriad of other dilemmas, are the focus of David Shields’ new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.  Shields, the author of ten books and a recipient of numerous awards and fellowships: PEN, NEA, Washington Artists Trust, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, constructs an argument against the “concrete of fiction” and states: “The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all of the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of the fiction writer’s burden.” Admired by Frederick Barthelme, “Reality Hunger is a splendid opening of the chest cavity, where the discussion of the real might take place…David Shields has written yet another stunning book”, and enigmatic J.M. Coetzee, “I, too, am sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”, Shields ignites the polemic as he cogitates over “genre, quotation, appropriation, plagiarism, provenance, existential doubt, readerly vertigo, etc.” By championing the lyric essay, though, Shields enters into controversial territory, the dismissal of traditional fiction, a position that will surely generate discussion.

Shields began writing traditional fiction: two novels and a collection of short stories, all readable, autobiographical, and at times remarkable. Since then he has established wide readership by writing nonfiction only, about basketball and race (Black Planet), the media (Remote), sports (The Body Politic), autobiography (Enough About You), and even a short volume about Ichiro Suzuki (Baseball Is Just Baseball). His previous book, The Thing About Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead, is his best, a meditation on mortality using his nonagenarian father as inflection point. Shields’ strength is his voice, a doubting self-consciousness, striving to excite, always searching. But he is not a marathon storyteller, his focus ephemeral, and thus reading Shields has zeniths and nadirs. His knock on the traditional novel, then, may be understandable, as the nonfiction books he has written are exactly the type he admires (self-reflexive taste, though, forgivable in authors).

Reality Hunger moves within 618 numbered reflections spaced over 26 chapters, with an Appendix and citations, as he skillfully uses the material of other writers to construct his own argument (he feels artists should share without compunction). Shields proclaims: “The origin of the novel lies in the pretense of actuality”, “plots are for dead people”, “…the illusions of facts will suffice…”, “The real story isn’t the official story; the real story is my version (wrong, too, but aware that it’s wrong) of the official story”, “Anything processed by memory is fiction”, “We are and we are not.”

Shields hungers for prose that can sear: “I’m bored by out-and-out fabrication”, “I have a strong reality gene”, “I want to cut to the absolute bone”, and in doing so Shields puts himself under a microscope of the highest resolution. He reflects on praise given to Mark Rothko: “Rothko is great because he forced artists who came after him to change how they thought about painting. This is the single most useful definition of artistic greatness I’ve ever encountered.”  I would, however, like to see this definition applied to some other artist beside Rothko (who, like the more recognizable Pollock and Warhol, undoubtedly changed art. But for the better?). Art can be abstract, surreal, and even escapist; the final product is not always real. Therefore, what does he desire? Reality or superb art? When you agree with him, you feel have found a friend (yes, David, you are right about tomes that ‘luxuriate in other worlds’. Who would read a novel because it evokes Iceland when there’s National Geographic?). And the art he admires does deserve eloquent praise. Example: the films of Nedžad Begović and the graphic novels of Art Spiegelman.  Yet his personal tastes (Chapter J. Hip-hop and Chapter X. Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About) ring self-indulgent and Reality Hunger, at times, becomes the panoply of ‘David’s likes and dislikes’.

Another problem is that his hostility toward fiction is often generic, though he does take swipes at John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Tobias Wolff, and will not read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge or 400 plus pages of Jonathan Franz’ The Corrections. Why? Shields (E.M. Cioran) proclaims, “There’s only one thing worse than boredom – the fear of boredom – and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel.” Okay, he does not want to be bored. If this is his argument, and in essence it is, I am not satisfied.

Shields declares, “The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all of the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of the fiction writer’s burden.” Yet what then? V.S. Naipaul wrote both fiction and nonfiction. Which is more autobiographical, A Bend in the River or Among the Believers? In Naipaul’s essay “The Killings in Trinidad,” Naipaul notes, “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies, it reveals the writer totally.” To put it another way: It’s way fucking easier to gain trust by writing nonfiction. The reason why Shields is bored with fiction is because so few truly great fictional novels exist, and not because the medium offers no possibilities. Coetzee (though he does not like his praise bandied about) may agree with Shields, but he wrote Disgrace with ‘plot’ and ‘character’, and made of ‘concrete’ a sculpture. What writer might feel comfort or relief no longer having to use imagination and creative powers to structure a profound story?

Whether or not you agree with him, what Shields writes resonates: “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.” Try to deny this observation. Hollywood, mass media, and the digital age are bombarding us with various forms of entertainment and enlightenment. Who has not seen skeletons in mass graves, a setting sun trying to penetrate a black tarred skyline, the hollow eyes of a child witness to domestic violence, the mendicant groping for scraps amidst dumpsters? Back in the days of Upton Sinclair and James Baldwin the novel shook the foundation of society. No more?

Shields provokes other disputes. He rightly asserts that all art is political, although politics are not his forte. Example: In the eponymous Chapter C – Books for People Who Find Television Too Slow, Shields (referring to Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia) interprets: “…wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge.” Perhaps media has failed as an agent for benevolence, but the choice society makes to flip on the television bears little resemblance to the compulsions of the Khmer Rouge. In 1997 Yale University Press published Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. Dith Pran compiled and edited, with the help of Kim DePaul and Ben Kiernan, first person accounts of twenty-nine survivors of the Cambodian Holocaust. Their short memoirs are simple, their tragedies redundant, ‘memories’ may be ‘fictional’, though consistencies in shared trauma make this doubtful. Most of these refugees now live in North America, a few went on to graduate school and even became involved in human rights, but the majority live simply. Ask them if media raids their memories just like the Khmer Rouge. The problem with reality, and this Shields and any author even mildly interested in existence knows, is that it is boring. But this is why the artist explores, transforms, and creates. Would the depths of ‘horror’ fill with ennui? Are politics too real? Shields lets us know what forms of expression captivate him, but what is he prepared to undertake? To analyze hell one must prepare for monotony; this can be one of the greatest sacrifices an artist can make. Atrocity should not exist to give artistic pleasure, or to make implausible connections.

Though Shields hungers I am not convinced that he hungers for reality but rather for superb art. Art and reality are intertwined, and yet we should not dismiss possibilities: the novel, essay, memoir, poem, myth, editorial cartoon, sketch, symphony, fable, screenplay, film, investigative journalism, aphorism, stage, the reality show (Chapter K)… What to hunger for then? Well-constructed artifice? Real entertainment? Real art? Entertaining reality? Real reality? Real “reality”? (Shields notes, “Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotations.”)

Shields, in the end, effectively shows how the lyric essay offers much to the genre. That he is less successful in denying the challenges and satisfactions of the well-written traditional novel is another discussion. Nevertheless, he has sounded the alert with Reality Hunger. Technology enables popular art and the media to be so powerful that the novel must evolve or die. If Reality Hunger triumphs, for better or worse, the future novelist might have to alter his or her course. Nevertheless, the present message is clear: The novel, to maintain significance, must use all means possible to compete with the deafening noise of technology.

Caleb Powell lives in Seattle and blogs at

1503 w.  January 28, 2010


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