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A Provocative Conversation,
This review is from: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Hardcover)
Prior to its release, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields, created a quiet storm among writers and readers. The book has garnered high praise from high-profile writers like JM Coetzee, Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Lethem and Lydia Davis. The quote from American writer Ben Marcus: `Reality Hunger is thoughtful, provocative, and querulous, and I hope it helps to start a much-needed conversation.'
For those of you who have been paying attention, it already has.
Reality Hunger is made up of some 582 aphorisms, mini-essays, provocative statements and quotations--most of them from sources other than Shields himself. Using both his own words and the words of others, he takes on the nature of art, pits fiction against non-fiction, essay against story and imagination against invention. The book asks enormous questions like, `What's next for literature?' While some will applaud, many will take issue with Shields' conclusions. Among them: the death throes of the novel, and a call for the end of copyright as we know it. In collage fashion, mixing and juxtaposing his own thoughts with quotations, Shields sketches a world where the non-narrative real has overtaken, even subsumed, the narrative story in our collective imagination:
"Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped up revelation. Life, though--standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night--flies at us in bright splinters."
The internet--a digital medium with the potential to display a multiplicity of artistic and pedestrian experience in our very laps, both drives and reflects this trend. For Shields, the digital age is one of the reasons the fictional story is no longer central to our lives. He allows us our stories, but what's important right now, he says, is a different kind of storytelling.
And so, he makes the controversial argument that fiction is on the decline, and that the end of novel's long reign in literature is imminent, if not long overdue. Reality--elusive, contradictory, and open to interpretation--is more interesting than made-up stories because it requires readers to struggle with the complex idea of what might be true. So what's next for literature? Shields makes a case for the essay.
Yes, the essay. Not the tortured academic essay of our youth, but the lyric essay, the richest and most nimble form available to capture the uncertainty of the world we live in now. The lyric essay makes use of all that we expect in artful writing: poetry, narrative, imagery, logic, revelation. Passion. It can even, by turns, do all of these things at once. Shields argues that the essay alone has the capacity to illuminate the complicated cultural moment we find ourselves in: a moment where people confess their sins and run video of their lives on the internet; a moment where every kind of recording and duplication and broadcasting is firmly in the hands of the masses; a moment where images and songs and the text of books are all one Google-search and one high-speed download away. `Reality Hunger' is as much a cultural description as a personal manifesto.
Because for David Shields, writing is personal, and any interrogation of truth, whether fictional or non-fictional, begins with the self. Where a fiction writer places the primary questions of the work outside himself, giving them over to the story's characters, the essayist holds these questions in his hand; he clutches them to his heart. For Shields, this is where those questions belong, He prefers the raw material, and insists that this `hunger for the real' is not just a personal preference, but an artistic opportunity.
None of Reality Hunger's quotations are attributed within the text. Shields fought for the right to publish his Manifesto without any attribution at all, arguing that citation belongs in the realm of journalism--not art. He lost; the book is published in the both the UK and US with an appendix of citations, preceded by the author's statement inviting readers to find a pair of scissors and restore the book to its intended form.
This book has people talking because it points convincingly to change in long-held ideas many of us hold dear as readers and writers. The novel as we know it passing into a kind of obscurity (as poetry has); information exchanged temporarily on screens rather than marked indelibly on pages; a culture of art where the creative process moves away from original creation (but not from originality) and more overtly toward sampling and collage.
Formally, Reality Hunger mimics the movement it describes, and demonstrates what it argues for:
"A deliberate unartiness: "raw material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. . . . Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real."
The collagist style is both formally consistent with the book's intentions, and compulsively readable. Each idea stands alone, and yet accumulates meaning by what comes before and follows after it. Central concerns emerge: the nature of art and artistic movements; the (arguably false) dichotomy between fiction and non-fiction; artistic copying, sampling and appropriation in the digital age.
It's an important book, both describing and exemplifying the creative issues of our time. Soon, someone's going to press it into your hand; someone's going to bring it up over cocktails. Maybe you'll see it mentioned in an article, or hear about it at a lecture. It's the kind of book that gets more interesting each time you return to it. Read it now so you can read it again later, when it comes up. Shields has started a conversation, and you'll want to be a part of it.