Reality Hunger

I’m reading David Shields’ new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.  It’s a really engaging nonlinear, non narrative, at times lyrical essay, always structured by way of collage or mosaic, appropriating snippets of ideas from other writers, thinkers, poets, and philosophers and critics, arranging in a mash-up style, voices layered over one another without attribution (until the last pages of the book, by compulsion of Shields’ publisher), that approaches the American need–no, hunger–for reality at this point in our history, when it’s evident to most people how constructed our lives are, how posed and self-conscious, positioned, where the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are fairly thin, and perhaps better for it, when we understand that traditional point A to point B narrative doesn’t suit our understanding or experience of the story of living any longer.  It’s a compelling read, and I wanted to blog about it here a little bit to perhaps start a conversation with anyone else who has read it or is reading it.

An excerpt from the NYT book review:

The flood of memoirs of the last couple of decades represents an uprising against such repression. So why have there been so many phony memoirs? Because of false consciousness, as Marxists would put it. Shields (echoing Alice Marshall) is disappointed in James Frey not because he lied in his book, but because when he appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show he didn’t say: “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.” After all, just because the novel is food for worms doesn’t mean that fiction has ceased. Only an artificial dualism would treat every non-novel as if it were reportage or court testimony, and only a fear of the slipperiness of life could perpetuate the cult of the back story. “Anything processed by memory is fiction,” as is any memory shaped into literature.

But we continue to crave reality, because we live in a time dominated by innumerable forms of extraliterary fiction: politics, advertising, the lives of celebrities, the apparatus surrounding professional sports — you could say without exaggeration that everything on TV is fiction whether it is packaged as such or not. So what constitutes reality, then, as it affects culture? It can be as simple as a glitch, an interruption, a dropped beat, a foreign object that suddenly intrudes. Hence the potency of sampling in popular music, which forces open the space between the vocal and instrumental components. It is also a form of collage, which edits, alters and reapportions cultural commodities according to need or desire. Reality is a landscape that includes unreal features; being true to reality involves a certain amount of wavering between real and unreal. Likewise originality, if there can ever be any such thing, will inevitably entail a quantity of borrowing, conscious and otherwise. The paradoxes pile up as thick as the debris of history — unsurprisingly, since that debris is our reality.

You can read the whole review by clicking here.

I can’t wait to finish it, but had to stop in here to cast a bottle into the ether about it.  I’d say this is a book that really approaches the idea of interstitial culture, art, writing, experience.




4 responses to “Reality Hunger”

  1. Rick Bowes Avatar
    Rick Bowes

    This does sound fascinating. I would say, though, that the explanation given for the amazing rise in popularity of the memoir – that it represents truth in a world given over to fiction – will not survive repeated revelations that memoirs too are fiction. If James Frey had, when his book came out, said what Shields would have liked him to have said, I doubt very much that it would have had anything like the popularity that it did.

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      I think that it’s popularity came first because of Oprah, and then second because of the ruckus over the revelation that it was fiction, so simply telling the audience the truth about fiction versus memoir probably would have just been a moment of truth telling rather than having much of an effect on its popularity. That seems to have come after, anyway.

      The book has a ton of angles on the subject. I don’t know if you would like it, but you might like skimming it. Why don’t you pick it up at the library and tell me what you think?

    2. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      Yeah, if he would have said something like that from the start, people would have yawned. But when Oprah had him on the show not the first time, which went swell, but the second time, when her audience called for a reckoning after they discovered he’d lied, that’s when I think Shields said he shouldn’t have quivered and cowered like he did, but just should have given it to them straight, rather than taking the whipping.

  2. Rick Bowes Avatar
    Rick Bowes

    Ok. If he had said what Shields would like him to have said when the book first came out then he wouldn’t have been on Oprah. It was only the idea that this was a completely
    true story and that his solution to addiction problems – will power conquers everything – was being truthfully presented was what sold the book. Telling the kind of audience that buys a book for those reasons that anything processed by memory is fiction is going to give you very uninteresting sales numbers.

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