David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto comes clad in heavy armor of praise from such esteemed writers as Charles Baxter, Amy Hempel, Jonathan Raban, and Albert Goldbarth among many others. Indeed, blurbs of endorsement appear on both the back and front jackets, wherein the case of the latter they obscure and are obscured by the title and byline. The visual effect is one of slight disorientation.
What to make then, of this awkward crowding of encomia? Well, first it suggests that the writing world and its inhabitants have long awaited Shields’ work and now, with it given to them, such is their gratitude that they cannot help but jostle for the opportunity to greet it with grateful hallelujahs, cannot help but pay strident homage to Shields’ genius.
For his part, Shields embraces—indeed prompts—the expectation of messianic revelation. He writes in the “overture” to the work, “My interest 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) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” In other words, the aim is at once to describe and prescribe a set underlying beliefs and foundational principles for artistic expression in virtually every communicative medium available in contemporary society.
Presumably we are to pay it no mind to the documents Shields cites as precursors—Horace’s Ars Poetica or Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie for example—which generally limit their concern to a particular discipline (in each case, as their titles suggest, poetry, or more accurately, imaginative fiction). Indeed, the ambition to speak to diverse forms, to propose a universally applicable governing aesthetic for the production of art, is not an accident. Rather, it is a foundational principle of the case that Shields wants to make in his manifesto (the genre to which his subtitle ascribes the work): namely that the very notion of genre is deeply suspect and that emerging creative practice should repudiate conventional categories of making and thinking about art.
I will further consider particulars of Shields’ argument, but before doing so I have to tip my hand: the paratextual exoskeleton of compliment that surrounds the book cannot prop up its lifeless content. If one expects the “fresh observations” that Lydia Davis declares the volume will deliver or the astonishment that Jonathan Lethem promises, then one had better be Lydia Davis or Jonathan Lethem, because there is little here to surprise or astonish or even interest an averagely savvy reader. Partly this is because Reality Hunger consists almost entirely of statements and passages derived from other works, sometimes quoted verbatim or nearly so, sometimes paraphrased or elaborated by Shields. This is not a covert exercise in assimilation; it is an example of the kind of art Reality Hunger celebrates.
Like collage in visual arts or sampling in hip-hop—two forms to which Shields pays particular attention—Reality Hunger incorporates and reworks existing material with the aim of making it new again and, in the process, unsettles assumptions about originality and creativity, indebtedness and derivation: “Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little—for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim. You mix and scratch the shit up to the level your own head is at…” Fair enough. It should be noted that Shields draws from an impressive range of materials—from the ancient to the contemporary, the “popular” to the erudite, the “high” to the “low”, and so on. For collage or sampling to matter, though, it should both recreate and preserve, reinvent and recuperate, the art on which it draws, and in so doing extend its relevance and signifying power.
Reality Hunger accomplishes none of the above. Part of the blame lies with the structure of the book, which consists of 618 relatively brief passages divided into 26 chapters or groupings, each titled with a letter of the alphabet (presumably like a primer for learning how to read) and a summary of theme or realm of interest—“mimesis” or “trials by google” or “reality tv” for example. The effect of extracting passages or sentences or, sometimes, phrases or clauses from their original context—essays and interviews and conversations and so on—is to give them the aura of aphorism. Whatever its merits in its original context, however, the material from which Reality Hunger borrows is made numbingly fatuous and platitudinous in the volume rather than provocative and enigmatic as aphorisms should be.
Here are some gems of enlightenment: “Good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I’m not bothered at all by this artifice” and “It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” Statements like these, delivered with leaden gravity, abound in Reality Hunger but for whom are they surprising or revelatory? Who imagines that there is anything, literary at least, that does not entail the artful arrangement of episode and anecdote, the careful patterning that makes a narrative design out of experience?
Shields’ bête noire is those readers who responded with horror to the revelation that James Frayn did not experience many of the significant hardships that he recounts in A Million Little Pieces The point of literature, apart from that which calls itself journalism, Shields insists over and over and over again is not veracity but “truth”—the illumination of the human experience that resides within the story whatever its historical accuracy.
Of course, the question of what is “real” is as old as the questions of what art is and what its functions may be. Imagination and experience inform one another and if one is in the business of making art, in whatever medium, one must acknowledge as much. According to Shields we need his manifesto to remind us of this. Perhaps the response (in some quarters) to the Frayn incident suggests that we need to be reminded of the salutary artifice that informs all art, but while such a reminder might make for an intriguing essay it does not, at least in Shields’ hands, merit this exercise in grandiose self-importance.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when Reality Hunger eschews source material and Shields makes his own proclamations (we are cued to the distinction by the inclusion of an appendix in which Shields offers a loose citation for recycled material –a concession, he insists, to “Random House lawyers”). Here are two examples:
Oh how we Americans gnash our teeth in bitter angst when we discover that the riveting truth that also played like a Sunday matinee was actually just a Sunday matinee.
Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more or less than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted.
Presumably Shields intends for the first to sound a Nietzschean rhetorical note with its imagined scene of outbursts of terrible emotion, frenzy even, accompanying disappointment born of the knowledge that one’s faith in the essential orders of the world has been undermined. Or something like that. Whatever one’s opinion about Nietzsche, one has to acknowledge that Shields here comes across as an adolescent who has just read, say, Beyond Good and Evil and is eager to try his hand at grand and earthshaking pronouncement.
As for the second: what are we to make of the “qua”? Why is the word, and more broadly the clause to which it belongs, even there in the first place? Its apparent function is to play the part so often given over to quotation marks (to emphasize that the term is a constructed rather than natural category) but dressing up prosaic observation in what one believes to be Latin fancy pants cannot disguise its lack of profundity.
Then there is the insensibility of the metaphor that follows. If a frame is flexible it is not easily breakable—the two are contradictory terms. Is this meant, in Derridean fashion, to sound the depths of seemingly apparent meaning to reveal the paradoxes toward which language simultaneously points but cannot reveal? No, it is simple carelessness—note: not recklessness.
Reality Hunger presents itself as a demolition job on entrenched assumptions about the distinction between art and reality (there isn’t any, it proclaims over and over) with the concomitant aim of forcing the reader either to embrace or reject its argument. Here, for example, is what the jacket reads: “People will either love or hate this book. Its converts will see it as a rallying cry; its detractors will view it as an occasion for defending the status quo. It is certain to be one of the most controversial and talked-about books of the year.” In other words, any criticism of the book can only evidence its daring genius, can only issue from a nervousness born of the seismic tremors it incites in the cultural landscape.
As a detractor of the book let me end by making one thing clear: I am not taking Reality Hunger to task for being radical or shocking. Rather, I am taking it to task for being banal and mundane. There is much to be said and debated and contemplated when it comes to matters of artistic license and audience expectation. This has always been the case and it always will be and this is a wonderful thing. For this reason the world may not need manifestos (art happens) but they can be fascinating indexes of the cultural moment from which they arise; or they can be powerful and unsettling declarations of a break with the past. Reality Hunger is neither.