Starving for substance

April 18, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. David Shields; Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95 cloth, 224 pp., 978-0-307-27353-6.

In the February 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine, Jonathan Lethem published an essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which posits that all art involves a process of borrowing, sampling, and rearranging work from other sources. Originality is a chimera and copyright is corrupt. Culture should not be considered anyone’s property, argues Lethem, but rather should be available to us all, to use and reuse as we see fit.

What makes Lethem’s essay provocative is that practically everything in it, up to and including the essay’s title, is lifted from the work of other writers. A key at the end provides notes for “the source of every line [Lethem] stole, warped, and cobbled together” – the reader learns that along the way they have read words penned by writers as diverse as Mary Shelley, Lewis Hyde, William Gibson, and David Foster Wallace. All of this appropriation goes unacknowledged in the body of Lethem’s essay, although he tips his hand in his subtitle: “A Plagiarism.”

One of Lethem’s notes reads, “Closer to home, my efforts owe a great deal to the recent essays of David Shields,” and reading Shields’s latest book, one gets the distinct impression that the debt runs in both directions. Reality Hunger is, in effect, “The Ecstasy of Influence” writ large, stretched to book-length and repurposed for our early 21st century sound bite culture. The book is made up of 618 short sections – some no longer than a single sentence – many of which have been lifted from other writers. The first acknowledgment of this comes on page 103, when Shields writes, “Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little – for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim.” (Which sounds suspiciously like Lethem’s avowal at the end of his essay: “Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly – for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.” Whether this is a matter of unattributed appropriation, a meta-textual allusion, or merely coincidence is unclear.)

Shields provides notes at the end of his book citing the passages he has appropriated. Apparently, these notes were included at the behest of Random House’s lawyers, who felt that reproducing so much work without any attribution at all could perhaps be problematic. Shields objects to this on high-minded grounds, stating that he is trying to reclaim “a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.” He suggests that readers who want to read the book as he intended it to be read should take a box cutter and slice out the notes. “Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read,” Shields writes, “is not a bug but a feature.” He goes on: “A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it.” Presumably, we can all be thankful that serial murder is not a major focus of the book.

So what is all this “borrowing” in aid of? Shields is an erstwhile novelist who has turned his back on the form because of his dissatisfaction with the novel’s ability to render life as it is lived in the post-postmodern days of the early 21st century: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.” He surveys our media-saturated cultural landscape and notes the layers of fabrication and artificiality – everything from James Frey’s fudging of his biographical history in A Million Little Pieces to the mediated “reality” on offer in American Idol and Survivor – and argues that what we long for is not less reality, but more:

Living as we do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication – autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to write novels.

The word “seeming” in the second sentence is significant, since it stands as a testament that every act of portrayal involves a kind of factual subversion: even filmed documentaries are edited to such an extent that “reality” is mediated by the filmmaker’s vision and intention. Indeed, Shields argues that generic classifications such as fiction and non-fiction are unhelpful, because each employs aspects of its putative antithesis: “An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. ‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” Instead, Shields argues for art that eschews “generic boundaries” and explores “generic fissures”: “Walt Whitman once said, ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ Not, though, the daily paper as it’s published: both straight-ahead journalism and airtight art are, to me, insufficient; I want instead something teetering excitedly in between.”

Which is all well and good, but since Shields himself acknowledges the elision between fiction that employs elements of the author (which is all fiction) and non-fiction that employs elements of artistic rendering (ditto), it is unclear where precisely Shields’s difficulty lies. Is it merely the generic labels, in which case it would be relatively easy to ignore the word “novel” as applied to, say, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and assume instead that the book is fictionalized autobiography. In other words, on a meta-textual level, fiction and non-fiction already blur into each other: the “generic fissures” that Shields argues for already exist in practice, however sublimated they may be.

By dismissing the potential for novels to reflect the truth of lived existence, Shields ignores the form’s unique ability to capture emotional truth, which is something that straight documentary is frequently unable to achieve. Moreover, novels take us out of ourselves and allow access to the lived experience of others; the fact that those others are characters that sprung from the author’s imagination in no way denudes their ability to inculcate empathy in a reader. A novel imagines the world in an attempt to understand it; it is precisely this imaginative rendering that gives novels their particular force and effect.

Of course, the other property of novels is their length: they take time and concentration to appreciate, and Shields appears to want no part of either. In a chapter titled “In Praise of Brevity,” Shields praises the “short-short story” (e.g. Jane Anne Phillips’s “Sweethearts” or Amy Hempel’s “In the Animal Shelter”) for dispensing with “the furniture-moving, the table-setting typical of the longer story.”

Delivering only highlights and no downtime, the short-short seems to me to gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does. As rap, movie trailers, stand-up comedy, fast food, commercials, sound bites, phone sex, bumper stickers, email, voice mail, and Headline News all do, short-shorts cut to the chase.

Note once again Shields’s insistence that a particular form allow “access to contemporary feeling states” without a concomitant questioning of the legitimacy of those states themselves. It may be true that short-short stories allow access to the way it feels to live in a media-dominated, Internet-besotted, fast-forward culture, but it’s by no means clear that this ontological state is a good thing; novels and stories, in their langour and deliberation, offer a necessary corrective to a culture that is increasingly short of attention and impatient. “I’ve become an impatient writer and reader,” says Shields, “I seem to want the moral, psychological, philosophical news delivered now, and this (the rapid emotional-delivery system) is something that the short-short can do exceedingly well.” This demand for instant gratification is completely in tune with the dominant trends in our culture, but it also ignores our need for quiet, for contemplation, for thoughtful appreciation of nuance and ambiguity. By uncritically accepting our culture’s increasingly noisy demands for speed, brevity, and immediate satisfaction, Shields ignores what we as a society are losing in the process. (Except to the extent that he confesses to be bored by novels and long stories: “My reaction to a lot of longer stories is often Remind me again why I read this, or The point being?”) And let’s be honest: do we really want a culture that takes its points of reference from stand-up comedy, commercials, bumper stickers, and Headline News?

Note that in all of this, one theme dominates: Shields approaches art demanding that it give him what he wants, rather than allowing his view to be moulded and challenged by the art he consumes. This is perfectly in line with the pervasive strain of narcissism that runs throughout his book: “Literary intensity,” he writes, “is inseparable from self-indulgence and self-exposure.” For Shields, the best writing is the writing that cleaves closest to the persona of the writer, that allows a window into the writer’s own psyche and soul. The writing that Shields prizes is not outward looking, but inward looking, navel-gazing, and solipsistic. “The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction,” Shields writes, here quoting Phillip Lopate. “What does it mean to write about yourself?” Shields asks. “To what degree is this a solipsistic enterprise? To what degree are we all solipsists? To what degree can solipsism gain access to the world?” This series of rhetorical questions seems to me the kind of self-absorbed rumination that only an unrepentant narcissist would engage in: Shields wants art that approves and validates his own perspective, and praises art that lays bare the personality of the artist at the expense of a deep engagement with the outer world. This, too, is a perfect reflection of our culture’s current obsessions: self-exposure through social media that serves as nothing more than an echo chamber for people who love to hear themselves talk; Twittering about what one had for lunch or how long the line-up at the bank is; blogging about the party one attended or a recent break-up; posting YouTube videos of users dancing around in their bedrooms to a Britney Spears tune; or creating faux-clever mash-ups of a Barack Obama speech and a Jay-Z video.

That Shields has so thoroughly bought into the prevailing tides of modern culture is unsurprising; what is frustrating is the uncritical approach he has taken in summing up our current situation. In praising collage, mix-ups, sound bites, and snippets, he ignores the inability of all these things to tap into deep meaning or to provide a nuanced encounter with the world around us. On the subject of our modern society’s impoverished mythology, Alberto Manguel writes, “We distrust profundity, we make fun of dilatory reflection. Images of horror flick across our screens, big or small, but we don’t want them slowed down by commentary: we want to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out but not to have to sit through the rest of Lear.” Shields wants to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out without having to suffer the rest of Lear. He considers this attitude to be on the artistic avant garde. What is most worrisome about his new book is that he may indeed be right.


2 Responses to “Starving for substance”
  1. Good review. I’ve been considering picking this one up. You haven’t made up my mind for me, but food for thought is always welcome.

  2. Billie says:

    Terrific essay. A thoughtful review not only of the book but of this culture and its constant diet of fast-food & chainsaws. I find it peculiar that Shields rejoices in the absolute deficit in his attention span. He has no apparent interest in layers of meaning, of historical meaning, of reaching something beyond his own little pee pee. Camille Paglia, of all people, gave what I thought was a terrifically frantic lecture on the importance of learning through art, mythology and religion. CBC’s tapestry ran it in an episode called “The New Commandments” with Christoper HItchens, Paglia and AJ Jacobs. Hitchens is a bore/boor but Paglia (2nd in the line-up) makes some astute and savage remarks about contemporary culture — particularly with regard the Eastern academic crowd. It’s the October 11th podcast if you’re curious.