The dust jacket is by far the best part of David Shields’ latest work, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” (Knopf, $24.95, 219 pages). In bold multi-colored type, the front and back covers are filled with not just praise but downright prostration from the brightest literary stars, including J.M Coetzee (“exhilarating”), Jonathan Lethem (“sublime”), Lydia Davis (“compulsively readable”) Amy Hempel (“brilliant”), Richard Powers (“incendiary”) and Frederick Barthelme (“stunning”).
After reading “Reality Hunger,” other words come to mind, including pedantic, pretentious and pedestrian. You also wonder if those A-list blurbers actually read the book, as Shields spends much his time assaulting their talent, skill and authority.
Nevertheless, “Reality Hunger” is a noteworthy, perhaps even an important book, because it manages to embrace so many of the worst ideas – especially the moral relativism and radical solipsism – percolating through that thick vein of American culture that stretches from Oprah’s couch to the halls of Harvard.
Shields, a literary provocateur who has published nine previous works, builds his book around 618 short passages, most of which are cobbled together from quotes, pieces of quotes or reworded quotes of others. The vast majority are presented without attribution. Shields says his publisher forced him to include references in an Appendix but advises readers to cut them out because he believes that concepts such as appropriation and plagiarism are forms of cultural imperialism. “Who owns the words?” he asks. “Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do – all of us – though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”
The imperialists who depend on such oppression to pay their bills might quibble with his argument. Shields’ pose would have more oomph if he had posted his book online for free instead of asking us to cough up $24.95. Still, he is hardly the first person to observe that intellectual property is being redefined in our mash-up culture where snippets of songs, films, TV shows and text are routinely appropriated and reimagined by artists and bored teenagers. His contribution is to take this development to its illogical conclusion, truly transforming artists into unacknowledged legislators.
He playfully supports his position through one of the rare direct quotes in his book, from the second century BCE Roman playwright Terence: “There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.”
Yes, there are few original ideas. The sages we quote were probably paraphrasing someone else. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. But this is not a license to steal. We do not cite sources simply to obey established laws and ethics but to acknowledge our debt – and our connection – to those who enlightened us. We give Emerson, Nietzsche and Dickinson their due because they expanded our horizon.
When Shields presents their words as his own – which, on some level, they have become – he is not just failing to give credit. He is making a far larger statement: I am alone; there is only me; everything I like is mine.
This narcissistic nihilism informs every page of “Reality Hunger.”
Shields develops this mindset through the main thrust of his book, a preference for the memoir or lyric essay over the novel. For this modern-day Holden Caulfield, most novels are phony and contrived. They corrupt experience by imposing structure and meaning on a random flurry of events. At bottom, they are false because they create meaningful stories out of the fragmentary confusion of real life.