Reality Hunger: A Manifesto / c / books for people who find television too slow

By David Shields | April 17, 2023


books for people who find television too slow


Abstract expressionism: the manipulation of reality through its technique of spontaneous creation on the canvas.


Mark Rothko.

I listened to the tour guide at the National Gallery ask his group what made Rothko great, Someone said: “The colors are beautiful.” Someone else mentioned how many books and articles had been written about him. A third person pointed how much people had paid for his paintings. The tour guide said, “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.


In 1987, Cynthia Ozick said, “I recently did a review of William Gaddis and talked about his ambition — his coming on the scene when it was already too late to be ambitious in that huge way with a vast modernist novel.” She reviewed Carpenter’s Gothic. The “vast modernist novel” to which she was referring was The Recognitions. It’s difficult to overemphasize how misguided her heroic (antiheroic) way of thinking is.


The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.


The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe. The present period is one of administrative numbers.


The life span of a fact is shrinking. I don’t think there’s time to save it. It used to be that a fact would last as long as its people, as long as kingdoms stood or legacies lived or myths endured their critics. But now facts have begun to dwindle to the length of a generation, to the life spans and memories of wars and plagues and depressions. Once the earth was flat, but now we say it’s round. Once we thought we could sail west to the Indies; now we know that a New World is there. Once we were the center of a vast but known universe; now we’re just a speck in a vast and chaotic jumble.


Modernism ran its course, emptying out narrative. Novels became all voice, anchored neither in plot nor circumstance, driving the storytelling impulse underground. The sound of voice alone grew less compelling; the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart: the tale. What could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?


Suddenly everyone’s tale is tellable, which seems to me a good thing, even if not everyone’s story turns out to be fascinating or well told.


Plot is a way to stage and dramatize reality, but when the presentation is too obviously formulaic, as it so often is, the reality is perceived as false. Skeptical of the desperation of the modernist embrace of art as the only solution, and hyperaware of all artifices of genre and form, we nevertheless seek new means of creating the real.


Barbara Kruger was a painter, but her day job was photo editor at Glamour. One day she could no longer tolerate the divide between the two activities, and her artwork became the captioning of photos.


Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.


In 1963, Marguerite Yourcenar said, “In our time, the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as a medium of expression.” No more. Increasingly, the novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.


My medium is prose, not the novel.


Frank Conroy, “Stop-Time”

Just as Stop-Time obliges us ultimately to distinguish between Conroy the author and Frank the character, so A Fan’s Notes requires that a similar distinction be drawn between Exley the author and Frederick the character, a distinction that much more difficult to draw because Frederick seems, throughout the course of the narrative, to be writing — or at least trying to write — the very book we’re reading. Which accounts for the greater technical and structural complexity of A Fan’s Notes and also explains why a book so carefully created and meticulously ironized was so often criticized for being autobiographically self-indulgent. It’s in this very struggle between literary form and lived life that these two books find the structural tension which transforms Conroy’s “autobiographical narrative” and Exley’s “fictional memoir” into fully accomplished works of art. There are two unmistakable and distinctly positive effects of novels-as-autobiography like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes: first, they deliberately undermine the traditional and largely spurious authority of the novelist by depriving him of his privilege position above and beyond the world; and second, they narrow the gap that exists between fiction and autobiography, a gap that is artificial to begin with.


The first essay in Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere was selected by Annie Dillard as one of the best essays of 1988, but the book as a whole won the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best first work of fiction of 1990, while in the foreword to the book Richard Howard calls the chapters “neither fictions nor essays, neither autobiographical illuminations nor cultural inventions.” The narrator — Howard calls him “the Bernard-figure (like the Marcel-figure, neither charcter nor symbol)” — is simultaneously “the author” and a fictional creation. From mini-section to mini-section and chapter to chapter, Bernard’s self-conscious and seriocomic attempts to evoke and discuss his own homosexuality, his brother’s death, his parents’ divorce, and Southern California kitsch are woven together to form a beautifully meditative and extremely original bildungsroman. “Maps to anywhere” comes to mean (comes to ask): when a self can (through language, memory, research, and invention) project itself everywhere, and can empathize with anyone or anything, what exactly is a self?


The subtitle of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is “Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” but the front of the book carries a blurb announcing that it’s a novel. Is the book a collection of stories or a novel, nonfiction or fiction? Graphics, statistics, and mock-sociological definitions compete, as marginalia, with the principal text, which consists of “tales” only loosely connected by the same cast of characters, but very tightly organized around the inability of any of the characters to feel, really, anything. The mixture of nonfiction and fiction — information crowding out imagination — in Generation X embodies the idea that these characters, bombarded by mall culture and mass media, feel that they have “McLives” rather than lives.


Brian Fawcett. “Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow.”

On the top of each page of Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow appear parables — some fantastic, others quasi-journalistic, and all of which are concerned with mass media’s complete usurpation of North American life (Fawcett is Canadian). On the bottom of each page, meanwhile, runs a book-length footnote about the Cambodian war. The effect of the bifurcated page is to confront the reader with Fawcett’s point: wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge.


How can we enjoy memoirs, believing them to be true, when nothing, as everyone knows, is so unreliable as memory? Many memoirs make a virtue of seeming unadorned, unvarnished, but the first and most unforgettable thing we learn about memory is that it’s fallible. Memories, we now know, can be buried, lost, blocked, repressed, even recovered. We remember what suits us, and there’s almost no limit to what we can forget. Only those who keep faithful diaries will know what they were doing at this time, on this day, a year ago. The rest of us recall only the most intense moments, and even these tend to have been mythologized by repetition into well-wrought chapters in the story of our lives. To this extent, memoirs really can claim to be modern novels, all the way down to the presence of an unreliable narrator.


If no formal distinction exists either way, then the defining question to be asked of memoirs concerns nothing less than the degree of truthfulness they seem to manifest. This is where today’s eager appetite for self-consciousness seems contradictory.


Albert Camus, “Lyrical and Critical Essays.”

The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of a fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened — which a fiction writer daily wakes to. One can never say of the lyric essayist’s work that “it’s just fiction,” a vacuous but prevalent dismissal akin to criticizing someone with his own name. “Lyric essay” is a rather ingenious label, since the essayist supposedly starts out with something real, whereas the fiction writer labors under a burden to prove, or create, that reality, and can expect mistrust and doubt from a reader at the outset. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it’s apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know. The implied secret is is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers, take note. Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.


Today the most compelling creative energies seem directed at nonfiction.


Biography and autobiography are the lifeblood of art right now. We have claimed them the way earlier generations claimed the novel, the well-made play, the language of abstraction.


I’m interested in knowing the secrets that connect human beings. At the very deepest level all our secrets are the same.


There are two sorts of artist, one not being in the least superior to the other. One responds to the history of his art so far; the other responds to life itself.


As a work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art — underprocessed, underproduced — splinters and explodes.


Truth, uncompromisingly told, will always have its ragged edges.


The lyric essay asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or leaving the blanks blank? What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expansive transformation? There are now questions being asked of facts that were never asked before. What, we ask, is a fact these days? What’s a lie, for that matter? What constitutes an “essay,” a “story,” a “poem”? What, even, is “experience”? For years writers have been responding to this slippage of facts in a variety of ways — from the fragmentary forms of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry that try to mimic this loss to the narrative-driven attempts by novelists and memoirists to smooth over the gaps. The lyric essay, on the other hand, inherits from the principal strands of nonfiction the makings of its own hybrid version of the form. It takes the subjectivity of the personal essay and the objectivity of the public essay and conflates them into a literary form that relies on both art and fact, on imagination and observation, rumination and argumentation, human faith and human perception.


Movies now seem to be so pigeonholed. That’s a comedy, that’s a horror film, that’s an adventure film, that’s an epic, boom, boom, boom… down the line. I want all of it; I’m incredibly greedy. It’s like preparing dinner, bringing in a lot of people — we’ll have some tacos, we’ll have some cordon bleu, and perhaps some Japanese food as well. I want to mix it all together, because I think that’s what life is like, and I want to stick as much of it on the screen as possible.


The opposite of broadcast: the distribution economics of the internet favor infinite riches, not one-size-fits-all. The web’s peer-to-peer architecture: a symmetrical traffic load, with as many senders as receivers and data transmissions spread out over geography and time. A new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including the livelhoods of artists. The contours of the electronic economy are still emerging, but while they do, the wealth derivd from the old business model is being spent to try to protect that old model. Laws based on the mass-produced copy are being taken to the extreme, while desperate measures to outlaw new technologies in the marketplace “for our protection” are introduced in misguided rightousness This is to be expected: entire industries (newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios, record labels) are threatened with demise, and most will die. The new model is based on the intangible assets of digital bits: copies are no longer cheap but free and flow freely everywhere. As computers retrieve images from the web or displays from a server, they make temporary, internal copies of those works. Every action you invoke on your computer requires a copy of something to be made. Many methods have been employed to try to stop the indiscriminate spread of copies, including copy-protection schemes, hardware-crippling devices, education programs, and statutes, but all have proved ineffectual. The remedies are rejected by consumers and ignored by pirates. Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. New relationships, links, connection, and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office. The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Reality can’t be copyrighted.


Science is on a long-term campaign to bring all knowledge in the world into one vast, interconnected, footnoted, peer-reviewed web of facts. Indepndent facts, even those that make sense in their own world, are of little value to science. (The pseudo- and para-sciences are nothing less, in fact, than small pools of knowledge that are not connected to the large network of science.) In this way, every new observation or bit of data brought into the web of science enhances the value of all other data points. In science, there’s a natural duty to make what is known searchable. No one argues that scientists should be paid when someone finds or duplicates their results. Instead, we’ve devised other ways to compensate them for their vital work. They’re rewarded for the degree to which their work is cited, shared, linked, and connected in their publications, which they don’t own. They’re financed with extremely short patent monopolies for their ideas, short enough to inspire them to invent more, sooner. To a large degree, scientists make their living by giving away copies of their intellectual property. What is this technology telling us? Copies don’t count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library.


The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire texts into this library. The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge.


We all need to begin figuring out how to tell a story for the cell phone. One thing I know: it’s not the same as telling a story for a full-length DVD.


It’s important for a writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms. You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.


Facts quicken, multiply, change shape, elude us, and bombard our lives with increasingly suspicious promises. The hybrid, shape-shifting, ambiguous nature of lyric essays makes a flowchart of our experiences of the world. No longer able to depend on canonical literature, we journey increasingly across boundaries, along borders, into fringes, and finally through our yearnings to quest, where only more questions are found; through our primal senses, where we record every wonder, through our own burning hearts, where we know better.





  • David Shields

    David Shields is a writer, filmmaker, and professor. Among his two dozen books are "The Very Last Interview" (2022), "The Trouble with Men" (2019), "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto" 2010," and "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" (2008).

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