Monday, May 5, 2014

Reality Hunger: A Manifsto by David Shields

This book, published in 2010, is promoted at "An open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century." It consists of 618 numbered items, some as sort as a sentence, a few as long as a page and a half, in 26 chapters. Shields has published three novels, and collections of essays; Reality Hunger was his tenth book.

Shields makes the case that because memory is fallible memoir and autobiography is actually form of fiction. Moreover, because words are not things and because writers choose the words they use, decide the order in which they fall, shape the sentences and paragraphs, nothing we write is "real" in the sense that a horse, a house, or a noose is real. Yet, "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art." Shields argues that the well-formed novel with plot, characters, description and action is as passe as Dickens or Trollop. Today's best fiction is (or should be) a collage, a mix tape, a mashup of quotes, letters, advertisements, news stories—bits and pieces that serve the author's vision.

As is Reality Hunger itself. I did not realize until I was more than halfway through the book (this reflects both my traditional mindset—blinkers—and my naiveté) that the book is virtually entirely  snippets from other sources that Shields has clipped and arranged. It took me a while to catch on because the individual numbered items are not cited and would not have been, Shields tells us, had not the publisher's lawyers insist he add an appendix with the sources. The book is a collage, a mix tape, a mashup.

It is also thought-provoking. The quotes Shields has found and the way he has ordered them so that they play off one another, resonate, convey more (or different) meaning in their new context is extraordinary. But to give you a sample of the quotes taken virtually at random without the context:

77. We all need to begin figuring our how to tell a story for the cell phone. One thing I know: it's not the same as telling a story for a full-length DVD.

112. Memoir is a construct used by publishers to niche-market a genre between fact and fiction, to counteract and assimilate with reality shows.

421. I don't know what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone.

573. To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.

574. He who follows another will never overtake him.

575. You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back.

I believe that anyone who is serious about writing should buy, read, highlight, and think about what Shields has produced. What in it makes sense? What doesn't? Why?

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