Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields

Shields comes across as an adolescent who has just read, say, 'Beyond Good and Evil' and is eager to try his hand at a grand and earthshaking pronouncement.

Publisher: Knopf
Author: David Shields
Price: $24.95
Book:Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Length: 240 pages
ISBN-10: 0307273539
Publication Date: 2010-02

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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