“Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are exactly like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?”
–David Shields, “Reality Hunger”
Yowch. There’s a lot to yowch about in Shields’ [“The Thing About Life is One Day You’ll be Dead“] latest. Reality Hunger calls itself a manifesto on the cover, but if anything it’s a printed mixtape. An argument presented in over 600 numbered snippets, none more than a page or two in length, some Shields wrote, some lifted from a variety of sources across a number of disciplines. The only way of distinguishing which is which is a poorly [by design] assembled appendix at the back of the book, an appendix Shields urges the reader not to consult. Because knowing who said what defeats the purpose of the book and what Shields is trying to accomplish. He wants to blend not only genre, but form.
Clearly inspired by sampling and remix culture, what he’s presented in the book is an attempt at a literary DJ set, MCing himself for a page or two, then mixing in some Jonathan Lethem, some Annie Dillard, some Graham Greene, some Geoff Dyer, some Mobb Deep, whatever keeps the party moving. Shields is troubled most by the state of fiction, and its place in the cultural landscape. He argues that as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, he finds himself personally undercutting each genre at every opportunity: he’s quick to point out what’s real in his fiction, and what’s exaggeration in his nonfiction. And in a culture obsessed with authenticity in all its forms, from memoir to Jersey Shore, he feels this is entirely appropriate. He feels the sun of the novel is setting, fast, and a new art needs to rise in its place, one free from traditional modes, inspired by sampling and remix culture.
The kneejerk response of most contemporary fiction writers to Shields’ ideas has been dismissive at best, and even I would agree that calling for the death of fiction is a baby/bathwater tossing scenario. But there are ideas worth considering here, namely on how the culture, at least in the West, values the real over all else. James Frey was publicly flogged for exaggerating aspects of his life in his ‘memoir.’ Shields finds no fault in Frey for exaggerating [rather, he says, fault Frey for being an awful writer, not for lying]. JT LeRoy’s novels went from celebrated to loathed when it was revealed the story behind the writer was completely made up. A film studio even took Laura Albert, the woman behind LeRoy, to court on the grounds that she was in breach of contract because the studio had optioned her novels on the understanding they were rooted in reality. Reality is held up as the ideal in so many facets of Western culture, are fiction writers desperately clutching onto a form that has no relevance? Would the talents of these writers be better served in the service of Shields calls the “lyric essay”, the combination of memoir and fiction, seen in works like Eggers’ “What is the What” and “Zeitoun” as well as Jeanette Walls’ “Half-Broke Horses”? The culture puts more worth in those works that come from reality; “Based on a True Story” may be the most bankable words in the English language at this point.
Shields doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, and that’s sort of the point. Despite whatever the cover says, the book is not a manifesto, it’s a provocation; it wants you to think, to reconsider what you value in art, and the role of reality in the art you value. In that respect, the book is successful.
One last, personally beloved example of what we’re talking about here. Recently a friend gave me a printout of something that ran in the New Yorker a couple years ago. The magazine took a story by Raymond Carver called “Beginners” and ran it side by side with the manuscript worked over by Carver’s longtime editor Gordon Lish. Lish changed names, eliminated identifying details of the characters, excised pages and pages of Carver’s original, including the ending. This is not news to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Carver’s career, by now most people know the story of Lish’s contributions to Carver’s work.
But in light of the Shields book, a few compelling questions arise: For one, it’s now known that Carver lifted pretty much every plot for his stories from things that happened in his life. What did the stories gain from changing the names and adding a few fictional elements? Do they lose any of their power because we know Carver rubbed Vaseline on the lens? As well, knowing the heavy hand Lish had in most of Carver’s work, which stories do we consider the ‘real’ work? And what does it say about Carver as an artist when the most fascinating story of his life was the power struggle he lived with his editor?