The Shock of the Real

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto BY David Shields. Knopf. Hardcover, 240 pages. $24.

The cover of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

In aphorism 462 of David Shields’s tenth book, the invigorating Reality Hunger, he observes, “All writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.” I’ll take that dare.

The book was intended as an ars poetica for artists—from essayists to filmmakers to comedians to rappers—who infuse “reality” (Shields’s quotes, not mine; this is the kind of book that constantly questions accepted ideas) into their work. The book is also clearly the record of a man trying to figure out why he does what he does, where he’s coming from, and where he intends to go. And this, perhaps, is where Reality Hunger is most successful, because what emerges is a portrait of a very smart man vigorously engaged with, and contributing to, the world of ideas. Organized first in lettered (rather than numbered) chapters and then in numbered aphorisms, the book is a complex collection of ideas from a variety of sources, speaking directly or inadvertently in each chapter about a specific concept: “reality,” “memory,” “doubt,” etc. It is a testament to Shields’s remarkable control that his authorial voice dominates among the chorus he assembles and conducts.

As a writer who has fictionalized my life, I found that the issues he discusses have a direct impact on my creative process and output. So I had three points of entry into this book: as a syllabus, as a manifesto, and as a work of writing.

One can look at the book as a syllabus for “Reality Hunger 101”—a subject Shields could teach as one of his courses in the University of Washington’s English department. We are instantly privy to his recommended reading, viewing, and listening list for a deeper (though obviously incomplete) understanding of the history of the written word, modern art, and reality television. Shields is strongly influenced by collage, which he calls “the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century.” Some of the ideas contained in Shields’s aphorisms are his own; others are expressed in nonattributed quotes from various culture creators. There is an appendix listing all the sources, but Shields has added a note asking readers to ignore them. My advice is, in turn, to ignore Shields’s counsel and repair to the appendix to clear up all confusions of authorship. Otherwise, reading Reality Hunger becomes a game: to suss out which aphorisms are Shields’s own and which belong to, say, Werner Herzog. (Hint: Herzog talks about film a lot.)

Shields’s foremost concern is the written word and he is lusty with his writerly references. (Aphorism 1 contains allusions to Zola, Chekhov, Forster, Cheever, Hoagland, Horace, and Breton, and more.) Such flourishes may come across as pedantic, since some of the texts Shields mentions aren’t widely read outside the classroom. But Reality Hunger’s erudition rewards careful attention. Much more than a summary of literary and visual works, the book refers and responds to a vast store of cultural capital. At the very least, I would recommend this book to anyone contemplating an MFA writing program—the volume contains a year’s worth of educational materials. You can thank me later.

But as the book builds its principal case—as a manifesto against many forms of fiction—it becomes less useful and ultimately less convincing. Nonfiction writing, Shields insists, starts from reality and truth (as much as an author, or really anyone, is capable of presenting truth) and therefore is far more relevant and important than fiction. “Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent,” he writes, then goes on to say that nonfiction requires more work from both its author and its readers.

His argument deepens, detailing the reasons why, in this moment, we hunger for reality, or at least an entertaining reflection of it. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any,” he writes. Reality television, the Internet, the general ease of technology—all have contributed to our preoccupation with the lives of others, as well as to our own self-obsession. (While Shields nods briefly toward the power of Facebook, I was surprised he neglected to mention Twitter and Tumblr, two ever-evolving collage-influenced distributors of personal information, reality-based and otherwise.)

Shields dedicates an entire chapter to authors who in recent years have published novels and claimed they were memoirs, only to be found out by the media. The discussion focuses mainly on James Frey, and Shields even provides a backhanded defense of A Million Little Pieces; he thinks Frey is a terrible writer but doesn’t understand why it was such a big deal: “A frankly fictional account would rob the memoir/counterfeiter, his or her publishers, and the audience of the opportunity to attach a face to the angst.”

Halfway through the book, he finally begins to take on the novel forcefully—positing that novels sacrifice contemplation for plot, as if the two cannot coexist. (Aphorism 324: “The absence of plot leaves the reader room to think about other things.” Aphorism 325: “With relatively few exceptions, the novel sacrifices too much, for me, on the altar of plot.”) Four pages later, he is still bashing: “I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” There is no reprieve for the novel in Shields’s eyes. Those of us who love fiction are fools.

Coming changes in book technology and distribution methods have sparked widespread fear in the publishing industry. But the novel is neither dead nor dormant, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. People are still going to read novels and short stories, since storytelling fulfills a basic human need. Works of fiction continue to comfort, to challenge, and to entertain. And plot does not sacrifice a damn thing, because life itself is one big, long plot. Things happen in life, and most people do not have the luxury of contemplation; they are busy taking action.

As Alice Munro writes of one of her characters in Too Much Happiness, “She hated to hear the word ‘escape’ used about fiction. She might have argued, not just playfully, that it was real life that was the escape. But this was too important to argue about.” What Shields is looking for is authenticity. I recognize that when I choose to write fiction, even if I am mining my own reality, there is a genuine risk of sacrificing authenticity. But authors of fiction always seek an emotional truth—and that’s as true a gesture as possible.

It feels provocative, and even almost dangerous, to see Shields proclaim the death of fiction when writers of all stripes are struggling with a dearth of outlets to be published and receive praise as it is. But I say “almost” because I do not think Shields is necessarily asking for anyone to take a specific course of action.

Despite my quarrels with its premise, I find Shield’s book absorbing, even inspiring. Hence my third approach to Reality Hunger: as a piece of art. The ideas he raises are so important, his interests are so compelling, that I raved about this book the whole time I was reading it and have regularly quoted it to friends in the weeks since. Even when he’s ranging on unsound terrain, Shields is a funny and sharp writer with a flair for the dramatic.

I am grateful for Shields’s sometimes brutal interrogation of what I believe. His critiques led me to reconsider my own creative process. How had I gotten to a particular moment at the end of some book or essay? What had been my intention? What had I wanted the audience to think about my characters—or about me, for that matter? Taking the time to consider these ideas felt extremely decadent—allowing a little bit of the luxurious contemplation Shields would wish for all readers.

There is an impressive rhythm to Reality Hunger: Shields posits ideas, cites references, composes a gallery of unique, influential voices to support his beliefs, and then—ever so gently, every so often—reveals a bit of his personal life, more than just his ideas, but a tantalizing suggestion of who he is and where he’s coming from. And that’s when the book feels complete. Here is a man; here is what he believes. Here is how he lives and how he has lived. Now that’s a story.

Jami Attenberg’s most recent novel is The Melting Season (Riverhead, 2010).