Reality Hunger purports to be a “radical intellectual manifesto” about plagiarism, the death of fiction and the rise of the memoir, and has been described as “the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years”. The reality of Reality Hunger, however, is 618 consecutively numbered, easy-to-read and easy-to-write paragraphs, each one characterized by phony bravado and a persistent fatuousness.
1. In the appendix to Reality Hunger, Shields’ much-talked-about manifesto concerning “the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel,” he states, “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.”
2. Similarly, in his book The Cinderblock of Hate, sociologist James Magistrate treats the painful subject of racial hatred and ethnic stereotyping by indulging at great length in startlingly ugly excoriations of various minority groups, pointedly using some of the most hurtful terms in the English language, because, in his own words, “I do not think it feasible to examine the phenomenon of hatefulness without being hateful.”
3. The book and author described in the preceding paragraph do not exist, nor, to the best of my knowledge, does a book about the problem of illiteracy that deliberately employs fragmentary sentences, non-standard grammar and garbled syntax.
4. Reality Hunger does exist, however, and was recently reissued in paperback. In the book’s discussion of memoir, biography and autobiography, he states, in an approving context, that “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.”
5. The “therefore” in the preceding sentence performs approximately the same function a Popsicle stick performs in propping up a well-maintained Victorian-style house.
6. The premise of Reality Hunger is that “reality-based art” is superior to art that is not based on reality (fair enough); that reality, or “the stuff of everyday life” is “complicated, messy, difficult, overloaded”; and that, as a result, our art should be the same.
7. The very first sentence of Reality Hunger, a book that consists of 618 loosely connected paragraphs, reads as follows: “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.” Once again, fair enough, especially if one believes, tautologically, that “everything that transpires is reality,” to quote a wild-eyed and inebriated, though not at all unmistaken, preacher I once encountered.
8. Later in the same paragraph, Shields states that his “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.”
9. Later on in the book, Shields expands on the television part of his manifesto, stating with considerable aesthetic courage that “however scripted (reality TV) is, it’s more compelling than standard soap operas.” He also notes that, “bored with the airbrushed perfection of Friends, we want to watch real people stuck on tropical islands without dental floss.” It is not clear why Shields sometimes puts “real” and “reality” in quotes and sometimes does not, but it is nonetheless unlikely that the people ““stuck” on tropical islands by reality television producers do without much of anything the lack of which might result in a tort action against a major television network.
10. How reality TV is an example of “larger and larger chunks of reality,” or even “reality,” being smuggled into the producers’ work, rather than representing a sometimes entertaining and sometimes tawdry, highly produced, painstakingly edited and exceptionally manipulative iteration of a mutually-agreed-upon television-friendly illusion that in extremely artificial ways pretends to present real-life situations while actually presenting only variations on earlier iterations of reality TV, is beyond me.
11. The very first blurb on the cover of the paperback edition of Reality Hunger calls it “a literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre, one that doesn’t draw distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, originality and plagiarism, memoir and fabrication, scripted and unscripted…”
12 “Method of this project,” according to Shields, or perhaps Walter Benjamin: ” ‘Literary montage.’”
13. When I review a book, I like to dog-ear pages that contain interesting passages or noteworthy statements. By the time I was done with Reality Hunger, my paperback was so puffed up by pages that were doubled in width by means of dog-earing that it looked like I’d dropped it into a hot bath filled with Calgon and then left it to dry on a radiator.
14. These dog-eared passages come in two forms: Interesting notions that invariably turned out to be written by others, and Shields’ own obvious epiphanies.
15. Shields states, “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?)”
16. Agreed. And what sculpture has been more influential than a B-52?
17. The “imitative fallacy” is a very common, but little-discussed, tendency to assume that the tone or form of one’s artistic production should directly mirror its subject. Thus, a poem about the crumbling of our common assumptions, destruction of the old faiths, and the chaotic nature of our culture might be highly praised because it is itself, in its syntax, arguments and arrangement of words on the page, discontinuous, disorienting, fragmentary, shambolic. Cf. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
18. Though not Eliot’s Four Quartets.
19. The imitative fallacy is a fallacy rather than a technique, because the project of the artist is to transcend, interpret, comment upon, and give shape to the subject matter, not to (or, rather, not merely to) “mirror” it..
20. In any event, there is no “it.”
21. Shields notes, “Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.”
22. Shields reproduces this observation without any understanding of its irony in the context of Reality Hunger, though at least, and rather inconsistently, he directly attributes it to Nabokov.
23. Shields states, “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 is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.”
24. Speak for yourself, Shields.
25. Shields continues, “the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
26. This Rothian (and, accordingly, unoriginal) observation has not prevented the writer who originally expressed a rather similar sentiment, Philip Roth, from transcending this “envy” and creating, for example, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, Sabbath’s Theater and The Dying Animal, among other great works of fiction.
27. Correction: The above quotation, the one about how American reality “stupefies, sickens, infuriates,” is not only “Rothian,” but is in fact from Philip Roth himself. . Nonetheless, it remains true that subsequent to this statement, Roth wrote American Pastoral, The Human Stain, etcetera.
28. Without resorting to a perusal of the appendix, it isn’t instantly obvious which words are Shields’ and which have been borrowed from other writers, since Shields does not use quotation marks to distinguish the latter.
29. One often wonders if rappers and other appropriators of existing artistic creations (whether they pay for the works they appropriate or not) are ever a bit embarrassed by the contrast they themselves are creating between the originality of others and their own manifest lack of this same quality.
30. There was a theory in the early days of hip hop’s popularity that fans were responding more to the snatches of sampled hits from decades past than to the surrounding rap, being too young to realize that the samples were not written and performed by the rapper. This notion is rarely advanced these days, as rap itself has become more creative.
31. Shields quotes (though without quotation marks) the artist Richard Serra as saying, “we evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention.”
32. At this point in our artistic history, is not collage already a tired old convention?
33. Like a literary Negativland, Shields only with the greatest reluctance, and at the behest of Random House’s lawyers, includes the sources of his borrowed material in tiny type at the back of the book. A numbering system allows the reader to connect the original writers with the numbered paragraphs where their words appear in the body of the book.
34. The font in which these citations are noted is “smaller than that on some sleazy sales and service contract at some soulless Home Depot somewhere in southern Iowa..”
35. There are approximately 500 such citations in Reality Hunger. In this sense, it could be described as sort of a commonplace book. A commonplace book is a collection of literary quotations from the assembler’s favorite authors and books, sometimes, though not always, bearing on a common theme.
36. The rest of the book, other than these 500-ish citations from the works of other authors, consists of words that Shields typed by himself. Given the lack of quotation marks, the easiest way to distinguish the quotations from the original passages is by means of the acuteness of many of the former and the banality, or commonplaceness, of nearly all of the latter.
37. This was a ballsy act on Shields’ part, I think, battling the man at Random House’s law firm, knowing from the beginning that he’d lose and have to list his citations anyway. Though perhaps not as courageous as posting or self-publishing the book without the “interference” (i.e., support) of a major publishing firm, deliberately failing to note the source of the citations, and battling as many as 500 lawsuits from writers or their estates on one’s own (though it’s entirely possible that fair use might make many of these citations, attributed or otherwise, permissible anyway.) In any event, what really matters in this project is the illusion of transgression.
38. It is unquestionably true that digitization and artistic appropriation go hand-in-hand if for no other reason than because cutting-and-pasting words is so much more efficient than retyping them.
39. But on the other hand, creating an opportunity online to link directly to those 500-ish citations would kind of wreck Shields’ pose of defiance. He says in the appendix, “if you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 207-221 (i.e., the pages where the sources of the quotations are identified) by cutting along the dotted line.” (The word “intended” in the above sentence ideally should be reproduced in quotes, which is to say the kind designed not for attribution but for sarcasm.)
40. This kind of permanent excision would not be possible online, where everything is a click away. Note to self: Check out the ebook version of Reality Hunger to see how Shields deals with this minor complication.
41. Note to self: Eh, don’t bother.
42. Digitization is the high-fructose corn syrup of culture. Incredibly cheap to produce, instantly filling and yet unsatisfying, it is a disassembled and reassembled simulacrum that is putatively “just as good” as the real thing, and is something that everyone accepts as natural for a given period of time, and then, eventually, tires of and eventually begins to see as repugnant. On the other hand, it certainly does make collage, montage, appropriation, mash-ups, remixes, genre-bending, parody and pastiche much easier to accomplish.
43. It is also true that life itself is sometimes something of a mash-up, and that much of “reality,” whatever that may be, is or at least appears to me and Shields and Philip Roth and others to be “chaotic.”
44. But other chunks are not.
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