Reality Hunger: Where Art and Life Entwine

March 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

We don’t mean to lean negative on Reality Hunger, David Shield’s intriguing, challenging, quick-witted literary manifesto.  In fact, here at Brevity, we stick to our original impression — we agree with about half, disagree with about half, remain fascinated by the questions Shields ask, and are glad he wrote the book.  So, let’s leaven some of the recent “where Shields got it wrong” posts with a very positive but balanced review from one of the smartest book critics in the business, Donna Seaman, in Booklist:

Shields is a balance-beam critic, taking his critiques of life and art to the edge and executing breath-catching leaps and flips. He doesn’t always stick the landing, but he’s always entrancing. After confronting death in The Thing about Life Is That One Day You Will Be Dead (2008), Shields looks to art in the digital start to the twenty-first century and issues a declaration of innovation. He presents his brain-teasing argument in numbered aphorisms, succinct and memorable pronouncements on the age-old effort to “to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” As he applauds the ascendancy of the lyric essay, the significance of collage, the legitimacy of appropriation, and the blurring of fact and fiction, he creates an assemblage of sampled quotes without attribution, until one turns to the endnotes where Goethe meets William Gibson. Thus provocateur Shields constructs just the sort of mash-up he audaciously and brilliantly celebrates as the new art paradigm for the participant-driven Internet zeitgeist, where art and life entwine in one big, loud reality show.

“He has not instructed but provoked my soul”

March 25, 2010 § 4 Comments

When we asked Eric Lundgren whether he would offer his forceful Amazon review of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto to our Mini-Reality-Hunger-Festival, he wrote back: “In the spirit of this book, I should let you appropriate it and remix it, no?”

So we did:

1. Despite this book’s praise for collage and appropriation, cutting passages from the jacket copy and/or Shields’ own description of the book, then pasting as a five-star Amazon review, isn’t valuable in any way.

2. Speaking of the jacket copy, by writing a negative review of this book it seems I will be “defending the status quo.” Always useful to caricature your opponents in advance. And I thought the status quo totally depressed me …

3. What is this “conventional literary novel” Shields keeps talking about? Yeah, I also have no desire to read Olive Kittredge, but my lack of interest in the latest celebrity memoir hardly discredits the genre of memoir as a whole. Is Shields reading Hemon, Javier Marias, Percival Everett, Kathryn Davis? For someone who persuasively writes of the novel as a hybrid genre and wants to stake out an indefinite space for his own work, Shields really likes drawing lines in the sand.

4. When Shields does admire a fiction writer (i.e. Bernhard, Coetzee, Sebald) he pretends the writer is a sort of essayist in disguise. This is bizarre. All of the above writers create imaginary characters and involve them in invented narratives. Photos in Sebald do not make him a documentarian. The reason their books do not seem like fiction is that they are incredibly well executed, that is to say artistic. Fiction that does not seem like fiction is simply good fiction. Shields can’t admit that the magic is working.

5. How can a book about reality-based forms of art and writing not mention historical fiction even once? Is it because historical fiction sounds staid and proves that Shields’ ideas aren’t as new and exciting as they want to be? Anybody remember postmodernism, by the way?

6. Elizabeth Costello, a book Shields recommends several times, would surely create much less cross-genre frisson (would be much less interesting in Shields’ own terms) if it was just a series of lectures, if it didn’t have its so-called fictional rigging. The fictional elements of it are what create the epistemological uncertainty — a fact that was certainly remarked upon when Coetzee delivered the stories as lectures at universities.

7. It’s funny that a writer tries to be au courant by citing 40-50-year-old quotes announcing the death of fiction. Doesn’t this undermine the case a little? No doubt he’s right … about fiction’s irrelevance to the culture, anyway, but surely it will be displaced by more meaningless chatter, social networking, and noise, not the lyric essay. Actually this book seems to be in many ways a manifesto for the blogosphere. I kept thinking, blogs are what you want to read, man. Brevity, appropriation, truthiness, the self in all its mangy glory.

8. The part where he tells his writer friends what their books are really about is insufferable. Even the original recipients must have winced when they got these letters, and it is painful to eavesdrop on them. The chapter is of a piece with Shields’ bewildering theory that fiction has a sort of extractable essence. If only Ballard did away with all those drained swimming pools and crashed cars and told us what he really meant about technology and modernity! If only Kafka cut the atmospherics and philosophized! Surely Shields thinks “The Zurau Aphorisms” is Kafka’s best book.

9. I realize I am getting carried away here. This is to Shields’ credit. He has not instructed but provoked my soul, to paraphrase him paraphrasing Emerson. Ultimately this is a book about the lit David Shields likes, which is stuff I also like. I don’t define it the way he does. I resent the sophistries and the posturing. I suspect his argument against fiction is more personal than I understand, much like Franzen’s jeremiad against difficult books. But the aesthetics here seem pretty egocentric and narrow in the end. (When you read a novel you are participating in someone else’s imagined reality, and it amazes me that someone so averse to this generous, beautiful act would comment on fiction at all.) However, “Reality Hunger” is a seriously intended book and it should provoke a serious debate. Let’s stop essentially blurbing this book — it’s been blurbed more than enough already — and actually discuss it.

An Entire Universe of Ideas: More Reality Hunger

March 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

Today’s Guest Blogger, William Bradley, the Ethical Exhibitionist:

Much has already been written about Reality Hunger-– David Shields’s manifesto on writing and culture– with Michiko Kakutani weighing in just last week, calling the book “deeply nihilistic.” I don’t think I agree with that assessment at all– in fact, if anything, I find Shields to be a little over the top with his exuberance and optimism about the way people are engaging with both the world they live in and the worlds they encounter through books. But I’ll tell you– his enthusiasm is kind of contagious. It was only after I put the book down that I had to wonder if this is a manifesto I’d like to follow.

I don’t think anyone can deny that Shields has written a bold and audacious book, deliberately provocative, and quite beautiful in places. Shields is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising and exciting to see that his voice remains present even through this exercise in collage (or plagiarism, depending on your point-of-view). In fact, I think “exciting” is the best adjective I can use to describe the book– there’s an energy to his prose, and an elegance to his writing (or assembly of text– or is there a difference?) that carries you away as you read it. And I have to say, I read the book last Wednesday and Thursday, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since– I can’t watch TV or read anything without thinking about what Shields has had to say about our culture and its trend towards “the real” in our art and entertainment.

That’s not to say that I agree wholeheartedly with every argument his book makes (or seems to make– the book is deliberately, self-consciously contradictory in places, which is of course evidence of a first-rate intelligence behind it). Like Dave Griffith I found his “defense of plagiarism”– with its discussion of sampling in hip hop music — rather unconvincing.

And I feel like he devalues the role verifiable facts play– or at least, can  play– in our essays. He’s pretty harsh on readers who expect that a subjective account of the world will be 100%, objectively “true,” but I’m not sure that such readers really exist– at least in significant numbers. I think that most readers are smart enough to know the difference between a subjective retelling and outright fabrication, and that it’s perfectly understandable that a reader might be disappointed to find out she has been lied to. If one of the most important qualities of the personal essay is, as Phillip Lopate tells us, its conversational tone, then isn’t it legitimate to be upset to find out that the person I’ve been conversing with has been misrepresenting himself the entire time?

This concern should not, of course, be read as a condemnation of every writer who tries to experiment with form, pushing generic boundaries. Shields insists that the most interesting writing happening right now is the stuff that blurs the distinction between genres, causing us to re-think just what an essay is and can be. I’m not sure that I completely agree (I still get excited about books that don’t experiment with form– sometimes, someone who “just” writes beautiful, insightful sentences is enough to delight me), but recent works by the likes of Ander Monson, Lauren Slater, Steven Church, and, well, Shields himself seem to illustrate this argument rather handily.

A part of me also wonders whether recent trends tend to contradict Shields’s idea that our culture is somewhat peckish for the real. It’s true,  as he points out, that reality television has enjoyed incredible popularity in the past decade or so. But it’s also true much of reality TV is… well… not all that “real.” I do understand that part of Shields’s point is to celebrate the way genres have become blurred and distinctions between that which is “real” and that which is “artifice” have become meaningless, but… I mean… I’m not the only one who thinks that Snookie from Jersey Shore is the same character as Ruthie from The Real World: Hawaii, am I? That some of the most popular examples of reality TV don’t just fuse life with a script, but constantly force life to conform to and act out the same tired and trite script that’s been recycled for over a decade now?

Of course, then another part of me wonders if my perceptions are skewed because I’m a stuffy old college professor who is, by his nature, a little resistant to change. “You kids call that reality? In my day, we had real reality!” That Shields is older than I am doesn’t really matter– his book is just that cool. I’m over here, trying to convince you that it just doesn’t get any better than Alan Funt, whereas Shields beckons you over to drink champagne in the hot tub with Flava Flav and Brigitte Nielsen.

As many reviewers have pointed out, this is a book that pretty much begs for notes scribbled in the margins and multiple re-readings; it’s a book I will go back to every year or so, I’m sure. I feel like there’s an entire universe of ideas to explore in this slim book, and I’ve only just started to zip up my space suit. For now, I’ve been thinking, and I’m still thinking.

Six Simple Tips for Writing a Literary Manifesto

March 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

Without a doubt, one of our favorite responses to the “literary manifesto” trend comes from Richard Hellinga over at Pop Matters.  Excerpts below, and the full link here.

So you want to write a Literary Manifesto that will make us readers stand up and demand a New Kind of Literature. Here are a few simple tips to help you earn great renown for writing a provocative, ire-raising, Literary gauntlet-throwdown that will be taken seriously by the Literati.

1) Title. Having a snappy title like “How Hunting the Billion-Footed Beast Is Destroying Literature” isn’t enough. Put the word “manifesto” somewhere in the title.

2) Identity. Be White and Male. …Rightly or wrongly, white males still have the hot air of authority about them when it comes having their manifestos taken seriously.

3) Definition. Your definition should tell us in unambiguous terms the exact kind of Literature That Ought to Be Written and Read…

4) Dire Consequences. You must indicate in the most strenuous terms possible that the End of Culture will occur if your manifesto is not heeded. …

5) Be the Change You Seek. …. Everything you write should fit your new mold. No hypocrisy for you.

6) Friends. Get friends (aka other published writers) to tout your manifesto in blurbs, ad copy, banner ads, blogs, and tweets, by saying things like, “it’s a thought-provoking work on the future of literature”…

Nonfiction is a Framing Device: Shields Speaks

March 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

David Shields weighed in yesterday in the LA Times, on truth, nonfiction, invention.  He is, as always, fascinating, though this ‘truth’ thing still bothers us:

From the beginning of time, nonfiction writers have invented. In “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars,” Thucydides made up the generals’ speeches. Thomas DeQuincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” is a heavily fictionalized account of DeQuincey’s addiction to and recovery from opium. Edmund Gosse’s “Father and Son” recounts page after page of supposedly verbatim dialogue from 50 years earlier. George Orwell’s classmates questioned virtually every detail of “Such, Such Were the Joys.” As Jonathan Raban has written, “The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the nonfiction writer is to tell what really happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart.”

Memory is a dream machine. Nonfiction isn’t “true.” It’s a framing device to foreground contemplation, or at least it is in the nonfiction I love the most — nonfiction at the highest reaches of literary art. I want to redefine nonfiction upward — taking nonfiction’s limits and reframing them so that nonfiction can be a serious investigation of what’s “true,” what’s knowledge, what’s “fact,” what’s memory, what’s self, what’s other. I don’t want a nonfiction full of “lies.” I want a nonfiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.

Read the full LA Times interview here.

Reality Hunger: Where Did Shields Get His Contentious Ideas?

March 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

From the GQ Interview:

GQ: This is a really unusual book. The form, the delivery system—the fact that a big part of it is quotations from other sources—is as crucial to the thesis of the book as the actual content. Which idea came first—the concept, or the form?

David Shields: This sounds like a rather pedestrian answer, but the book begins with a course that I was teaching, in the creative writing program at the University of Washington, in Seattle. The program really has only two tracks, or two genres—fiction and poetry. I began as a fiction writer—I had written three novels in my 20’s and 30’s. But as my work has gravitated towards literary nonfiction, or lyric essay or poetic essay, whatever you want to call it, I’m constantly beating my head against the wall, ’cause I’m teaching a genre that’s no longer that exciting to me, and that I’m no longer practicing.

So the book was a kind of revenge on myself and the program. I’ve been teaching a course, for maybe a dozen years, in which I sort of make the strident case for nonfiction to the unconverted—namely, graduate students in fiction writing. And basically the path of the course was me pulling thousands of quotations from different sources, and I would just literally fling these passages onto the table and say, “Let’s talk about this passage, let’s talk about that passage.” The passages were sometimes taken from previous books of mine, from journals, from friends’ emails, from Nietzsche, from Sonny Rollins. And [this material] got me thinking about the literary and existential and philosophical excitement that the best non-fiction has.

via A (Relatively) Brief Conversation With Someone Smarter Than Us: David Shields: The Q: GQ.

Brevity Blog’s Mini-Reality-Hunger-Festival

March 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

We suspected David Shields eccentric book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto would generate some buzz in the nonfiction world, but to be honest, we hadn’t anticipated so much buzz. He is everywhere these days, book reviews, giving interviews, speaking here and there.

It has been an interesting response to the book, beginning with pure praise and love, insightful reviews, and now generating the inevitable backlash.

So What do we at Brevity think of the book: It is fascinating, sharp, controversial, interesting.

How much of what he says do we agree with: About half.

Do we think truth still matters in nonfiction:  Yes, very much so.

Do we think the novel is dead: No.

Starting today, we are launching a Mini-Reality-Hunger-Festival here on the Brevity Blog.  Join us with your comments, or send us blogposts of your own (we welcome guest bloggers).  We’ll keep it running until the energy expires, which may be three days, a week, into next week, or until the Next Big Thing.

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