Reality Hunger: A Manifesto / a / overture
All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.
— Walter Benjamin
Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art. Zola: “Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes.” Braque’s goal: “To get as close as I could to reality.” E.g., Chekhov’s diaries, E.M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (much his best book), Cheever’s posthumously published journals (same), Edward Hoagland’s journals, Alan Bennett’s Writing Home. So, too, every artistic movement or moment needs a credo: Horace’s Ars Poetica, Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie, Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity.” My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a multitude of forms and media — lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti — who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)
Jeff Crouse’s plug-in Delete City. The quasi-home movie Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank’s radio show In the Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shelton’s unscripted film Humpday (“All the writing takes place in the editing room.”) Nicholas Barker’s “real-life feature” Unmade Beds, in which actors speak from a script based on interviews they conducted with Barker; the structure is that of a documentary, but a small percentage of the material is made up. Todd Haynes’s Superstar, a biopic of Karen Carpenter that uses Barbie dolls as the principal actors. Curb Your Enthusiasm, which — characteristic of this genre, this ungenre, this antigenre — relies on viewer awareness of the creator’s self-conscious, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona. The Eminem Show, in which Marshall Mathers struggles to metabilize his fame and work through “family of origin” issues (life and/or art?). The Museum of (fictional) Jurassic Technology, which actually exists in Culver City. The (completely fictional) International Necronautical Society’s (utterly serious) “Declaration of Inauthenticity.” So, too, public-access TV, karaoke nights, VH1’s Behind the Music series, “behind-the-scenes” interviews running parallel to the “real” action on reality television shows, rap artists taking a slice of an existing song and building an entirely new song on top of it, DVDs of feature films that inevitably includes a documentary on the “making of the movie.” The Batchelor tells us more about the state of unions than any romantic comedy could dream of telling us. The appeal of Billy Collins is that compared with the frequently hieroglyphic obscurantism of his colleagues, his poems sound like they were tossed off in a couple of hours while he drank scotch and listened to jazz late at night (they weren’t; this is an illusion). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was full of the same self-conscious apparatus that had bored everyone silly until it got tethered to what felt like someone’s “real life” (even if the author constantly reminded us how fictionalied that life was). At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artiface, I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized. I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can’t abide the network news — the sound of human voices waking before they drown.
An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half-century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of the Kennedy assassination?) 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 nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
In most books, the I, or first person is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.
It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel).
Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no imgenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.
* * *
[Ed. note: I recently re-read David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), and it struck me that this book about the state of literature and where writing ought to go from here should be brought to public attention again, especially in a culture that forgets everything. Chapters from Shields’s book will appear periodically on Dooney’s this year.]