88 Highly Debatable Statements About ‘Reality’ in ‘Reality Hunger’

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.

Every Man’s Work is a Portrait of Himself

45. Examples of reality that are not chaotic, but something else: Electricity, unions, plumbing, air travel, democracy, justice system, education, agriculture. To be specific, each system, though imperfect and undoubtedly riddled with faults, creates a reality that is better than it would have been without human invention and intervention (working in darkness, child labor, cholera, provincialism, totalitarianism, persecution, ignorance and starvation, respectively.)

46. Other examples of reality, or, if you will, “reality,” that are not chaotic, piecework or pastiche — or that more accurately have taken the inchoate, disorganized or nonexistent and through human ingenuity, enterprise and optimism transformed them into something superior — are available upon request, or upon further reflection.

47. Shields notes, “The world exists. Why re-create it?” This would seem to be the crux of his argument.

48. But a few paragraphs latter, in a seemingly self-contradictory way, Shields notes, “No artist tolerates reality.”

49. (Well, actually, it was Nietzsche who noted this.)

50. In any event, that would seem to answer Shields’ question about “re-creating” the world. The artist invites us into his/her own perception of reality, which, because it is the perception of an individual and additionally is not tolerant of received opinion or groupthink, is not exactly congruent with external reality, and, in the process of doing so expands our own ability to perceive, i.e., alters our reality. Every time we encounter a work of art, we briefly inhabit, for better or for worse, someone else’s unique consciousness.

51. That is the difference between an artist and an assembler of collages.

52. That is the difference between a painter and a maker of mirrors.

53. Shields: “So, no more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

54. At least he grants us the possibility of convexity!

55. “Begging the question,” or petito principii, is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the answer to a question or proposition in the very process of raising that question or proposition. (It is often misused these days to mean “raising or provoking a question.”)

56. Shields “begs the question” in Reality Hunger by baking into his manifesto’s argument an assumption that we all agree that reality is chaotic, stupefying and sickening, and that faced with this prospect, the artist must passively accept and reflect this reality — which is to say, not really be an artist — rather than transcend it, grapple with it, interpret it or alter it.

57 The imitative fallacy and the petito principii fallacy are inextricably tangled in Reality Hunger, in its arguments, in its “arguments,” and in its very form.

58. Shields, or perhaps someone else, notes that “every man’s work — whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else — is always a portrait of himself.”

59. This slender semi-truth both excuses, and cancels out, all of the rest of Shields’ manifesto and the logical fallacies that under-gird it. It is only what Shields thinks, and nothing more.

60. But if that is the case, Reality Hunger cannot be a “manifesto.” The purpose of a manifesto is to influence others and thus is predicated on a belief that art can influence the outside world, and that we can achieve, under the command of a superior intellect, certain commonalities.

61. In the context of a discussion of our essential aloneness, Shields quotes Nabokov as writing, “I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment; death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape but to do so is the end of the tender ego.” And yet this statement occurs in the context of a passage (not noted by Shields) in which the fictional character Pnin is experiencing just such a sensation of divestment. That is, he felt “porous and pregnable.” Pnin is a neurotic mess and a figure of fun in Nabokov’s novella, but making oneself “porous and pregnable” is nonetheless part of the writer’s task, part of an admittedly nearly hopeless effort to transcend one’s inherent discreteness and open oneself up to the world. This effort is what creates a Pnin, a Lolita, a Speak, Memory. (Shields approves of Speak, Memory.)

62. In a book that consists largely of the words of others, and that omits to include the integuments that bind the bits of argument together, it is possible to find pretty much anything you want to read.

63. Unless it results in something that is greater than the sum of its parts, the pleasures of pastiche are limited to the bright glimmers of the bits it contains, and to the illusory satisfactions of apophenia.

64. Apophenia is the human tendency to discern patterns or significance in randomly assembled fragments.

65. Shields, in attempting to grapple with the issue of truthfulness and falsity in the memoir, states that “the memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and once writers and readers make their peace with this, there will be less argument over the questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the ‘facts’ and ‘truth.'”

66. Assignment: Reconcile this relatively unambiguous statement with Shields’ notion that the great artistic project of the moment is to smuggle larger and larger chunks of reality into one’s work. This would suggest, it would seem, that the memoir writer should not be part of the “imaginative world,” that he to the best of his ability represent his experience, which is to say his “reality,” truthfully (bearing in mind the vagaries of memory), and that memoirs that decline to distinguish between “lies” and the “truth” begin to resemble, though more imperfectly and disingenuously, the novel, which art form, however, Shields dismisses repeatedly through his manifesto.

67. Shields says of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: “I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it.”

68. And he further says, “there’s only one thing worse than boredom — the fear of boredom — and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens.”

69. On page 27 of Reality Hunger, conversely, Shields quotes a writer who states that “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.”

70. A memoir that purports to represent the writer’s reality but deliberately does not in fact do so is a lie. It is not an artistic lie; it is just a lie. Shields prefers the unconventionality of the lying memoir to the perceived conventionality of the truthful novel.

71. In Section 575 of Reality Hunger, Shields quotes someone as saying, “You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back.”

72. Jonathan Lethem blurbs, “I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger and I’m lit up by it — astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed…It really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous, visionary volume.”

73. A writer for Vanity Fair burbles, “Shields’s radical intellectual manifesto is a rousing call to arms for all artists to reject the laws governing appropriation, obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and give rise to a new modern form.”

74. Jonathan Safran Foer blurbs, “Reality Hunger is more than thought-provoking; it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.” (Is it at all possible that he thought the Nabokov quotes were written by Shields himself?)

75. Other blurbs: “Witty, insightful, and compulsively readable. Every page abounds in fresh observations…this is the book our sick-at-heart moment needs — like a sock in the jaw or an electric jolt in the solar plexus…might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years…it keeps the reader alert and attentive and excited through sheer intelligence, epigrammatic concision, wit, and sheer rightness…one of the most provocative books I’ve ever read…I think it’s destined to become a classic.”

76. Shields, in short, has no arrows in his back.

77. After stating, as noted in Paragraph 1 of this column, that he can hardly focus on appropriation and plagiarism without engaging in it, and that it “would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it,” Shields goes on to say, “…or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.” This argument takes some time to comprehend, but I think that what Shields is trying to say is that it would be hypocritical for him to espouse a given viewpoint without taking that viewpoint to its logical conclusion — for example, creating a manifesto for raw and unprocessed art that is itself raw and unprocessed; or creating a manifesto against capitalism that is, itself, anti-competitive.

78. The second half of Shields’ statement is at once self-pitying (“I wrote a book but I can’t get it published!”) and self-aggrandizing (“I wrote a book that’s powerful enough to destroy the publishing industry!”), albeit self-pitying and self-aggrandizing only at second-hand because Shields has evidently not, in fact, written such a publishing-industry-destroying book (unless one counts Reality Hunger itself). Anyway, its connection to the statement about lying has a fish-on-a-bicycle quality about it. Even if you accept the dubious premise that one must engage in lying to write a book about it, it does not logically follow that one must be given the opportunity to destroy capitalism (and the publishing industry that is part of the capitalist system) in order to write a book about it, since an author can lie all on his own, but getting a book published, and eventually harming the publishing industry, is largely dependent on the agency of others.

79. Perhaps he means that if he wants to write a book about destroying a given industry, he wants some assurance up front that the industry in question will willingly participate in its own destruction before he risks his own time and capital on the project.

80. Quote at beginning of Reality Hunger: “Art is theft.” — Picasso.

81. If art is (merely) theft, and the world is filled with thieves, where’s the next Picasso?

82. Stated method of Reality Hunger, in Shields’ own words: “We live in difficult times; art should be difficult (my goal is to make every paragraph as discomfiting as possible.)” Actual method of Reality Hunger: Persistent fatuousness, partially obscured by a discontinuous, easy-to-read arrangement.

83. In the 31 January issue of the New Yorker, there is an account by Ruth Franklin of the little-known Czech writer H.G. Adler, who had been imprisoned for two and a half years in Theresienstadt, and for a brief time in Auschwitz and several labor camps. “Within a year of his emigration to London, in 1947, he had completed the exhaustive Theresienstadt 1941-1945. More than nine hundred pages long, the book is a comprehensive study of the camp from every perspective: sociological, historical, economic, anthropological, psychological…In the decade after the war ended, he wrote at least five novels…poetry, works of history, collections of documents and testimonies, essays on a vast variety of topics, and another colossal (and still untranslated) sociological tome on the deportation of German Jews, called The Administered Man. In an interview near the end of his life — he died in 1988 — Adler recalled thinking, upon his arrival at Theresienstadt, ‘If I survive, then I will describe it….by setting down the facts of my individual experience, as well as to somehow describe it artistically.”.

84. “As well as to somehow describe it artistically.”

85. Adler’s friend, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, famously said that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Shields says that “we’re overwhelmed right now by calamitous information. The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama.” And, as Franklin notes, “…the idea of a Holocaust writer who fails to confine himself to the facts of his experience has always been difficult to accept. We expect our survivors to be witnesses and chroniclers, not artists.”

86. Nonetheless, Franklin describes two of Adler’s five novels (both recently translated into English) as “modernist masterpieces worthy of comparison to those of Kafka and Musil.”

87. An extremely obscure writer (his name is not even worth mentioning) once said, “I take it more or less as an article of faith that no writer has ever created a fictional character who is as complex, baffling, multi-faceted, ambiguous, self-contradictory, and fully dimensional as even the least complicated actual human being. It’s analogous to the way in which the human brain itself is still infinitely more capacious and flexible than any computer ever created: Reality still beats artifice every time, Hamlet is the ghostliest of presences compared to my high-school English teacher whose name I cannot even recall…and Anna Karenina can’t hold a candle to my sweet and simple Aunt Harriet, may she rest in peace, who lacked ‘only’ a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy to make her life as memorable as it was complex.” 

88. Nonetheless, the writer in question, and I think, most of us, are very glad that Tolstoy at least gave it a shot.