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.
He extols the memoir and lyric essay in literature – and collage in other art forms – because they are less deterministic. “As work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing,” he writes, “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 explores.”
Problem is, this process of packaging and processing is not a phenomenon of the novel but the mind. It naturally – and inescapably – creates coherence out of confusion, through stories that find meaning in experience. Indeed, culture is the process of storytelling. It evolves as succeeding generations find themselves drawn to different stories. The most celebrated artists, thinkers and leaders are those who use their talent and insight to tell the most convincing stories.
Even the most avant-garde works of art are simply counter-narratives that seek to establish their own order by challenging the status quo. Nihilism is just another belief system, just another story. More importantly, as provocative as they may be, “experimental” literature, art and music are unpopular. Few people prefer Arno Schmidt over Tolstoy or John Cage over Mozart. Life is already a jumble; we turn to artists to find the pattern, and make sense of the world.
Shields acknowledges as much when he writes, “Readers thirst for narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling ones.” This statement, however, is not an admission of a central truth but one of the many contradictions that suffuse “Reality Hunger.” In fairness, contradiction is one of Shields’ narrative strategies. He sees it as a cornerstone of the movement he is championing, which is marked by, “A deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, unprofessional.”
At bottom, this approach rejects the central idea that art expresses our clearest thinking, our best selves. It is the act of processing and filtering our experience to find meaning. This does not mean that we resolve all contradictions, but that we acknowledge and explore them. Everyone has doubts and mixed feelings; artists think about and help us understand them. They do the work, so we don’t have to. That’s why we quote them.
But not Shields. For instance, he never precisely defines his central concept – reality. The closest he comes is the assertion that, “Reality-based art is a metaphor for the fact that this is all there is, there ain’t more.” Translation: It is everything – therefore it is nothing. Indeed, even as Shields states that we have a deep hunger for reality, he suggests that it is an illusion. Nonfiction memoirs are no more realistic than fictional novels because all experience and knowledge is filtered through memory, which is inherently unreliable. “Anything processed by memory,” he proclaims “is fiction.”; “There are no facts,” he maintains, “only art.”
This is not serious argument. There are facts. End of story. But for Shields this assertion is another form of naval-gazing freedom, allowing him to say whatever he pleases, as every statement becomes a matter of perception and opinion. This leads him to an incoherent defense of James Frey who famously invented pivotal scenes in his best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.” That Shields cannot see the difference between the honest lapses of memory we all suffer from and intentional deceit is a sign of his moral myopia.
Shields only understands memory as personal – never a collective – attribute. It’s true that even eyewitness have slightly different memories of the same event, whether it’s 9/11 or a football game. Many marriages crumble from the weight of such disagreements.
If Shields took his critique of memory and his hunger for reality seriously, his book would make an argument not for the memoir – whose inherent subjectivity makes it unreliable – but for reportage or history. Just as the stock market assigns the value of stocks through the wisdom of crowds, the reality of any experience is best approximated by collecting and sifting through multiple versions of events. It is often collective memory that replaces confusion with clarity, establishing the facts on the ground.
It is especially telling that as the book trudges along, Shields increasingly uses the first person. Passages increasingly begin with the phrases, “What I love,” and “What I believe” and “I prefer.”
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“Reality Hunger” would be easy to dismiss if its wrongheaded ideas weren’t resonating in the culture. Its assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s. It also highlights a growing contradiction in liberal thought. Generally speaking (liberalism is not groupthink) even as some liberals extol the importance of community and government action, others, like Shields, are promulgating ideas that loosen our bonds to one another. When all truth is personal truth, when there no facts, only art, conversation and true understanding becomes increasingly unrealistic.