Reality Boredom: Why David Shields is Completely Right and Totally Wrong


Reality Hunger, the newest book from the always interesting David Shields, comes sheathed in glowing blurbs from the likes of Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Amy Hempel and Jonathan Lethem. Needless to say, I had high expectations and on one level they were met. Shields writes passionately about the vitality of short works, the inanity of our copyright laws, the relevance of remix culture, the changes technology is bringing, and, as always, the need to find new modes of expression. Reading these arguments left me with a renewed faith in the relevance of fiction and the authors, filmmakers and other artists who are making fascinating work from the power of their imaginations.

However, this outcome might annoy David Shields. Because while Shields praises the same qualities I look for in my art, the book is framed by a somewhat incoherent thesis that fiction is dead, narrative is pointless and the premier literary form of the now is the lyric essay (with memoir, it would seem, being a close second). I cannot be the only one to read a supposedly radical manifesto—the book jacket labels detractors as mere defenders of “the status quo”—and be a little disappointed to learn that the novel is dead (again?) and the literature of our bright, hectic future is the lyric essay and memoir. Even the terms “lyric essay” and “memoir” feel dusty sandwiched between discussions of hip-hop and cell phone stories. In short, I read this book with as much disagreement as agreement. Surely no one writes a manifesto without expecting and even welcoming some push back, so I wanted to lay out of a few of my reactions.

form as argument

Reality Hunger is a 205-page compilation 618 numbered paragraphs, only a handful of which are written by Shields. The rest are quotes from a wide range of writers, entertainers and thinkers: everyone from Homer to Herzog. It may take a while to realize this, as the paragraphs lack attribution (although they are listed in the back by the order of “Random House lawyers”). Shields sums up his intent thusly: “My interest is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.”

I am not mocking David Shields by appropriating his numbered structure. Shields is correct that reality is fragmented and thought jumps around. Why pretend otherwise? The structures of the standard modes of fiction (and, I would add, memoir and other nonfiction forms) are indeed exhausting in their formal predictability.

And yet, although Reality Hunger’s structure was initially interesting, I think it is ultimately a failure and one that illuminates a problem in his argument. Much of the book is spent discussing the relevance of collage art and remixing in modern music. I am a great fan of both and agree that appropriating, remixing, and reinventing are vital tools for modern artists. But the entire point of remixing is to blend the disparate elements together so that they both recall and distort their previous meaning. This effect is not realized by simply placing different things next to each other. Pasting Picasso’s famous “Art is theft” line next to several similar quotations does not distort or reinvent his words. A collage artist does not crop a few different images and paste them on separate sheets of paper. A mash-up artist like Girl Talk, who Shields discusses, does not present you with a few seconds of horns followed by a few seconds of a cappella rapping finished off with a guitar solo. The collage artist and DJ blend their various pieces together into something strangely familiar yet startlingly new. In separating and numbering each of his quotations—with little mixing or play—most of Reality Hunger feels closer to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations than the new vital new form the book calls for.

Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, fan fiction, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, William S. Burroughs’s cut-up exercises, Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations, Robert Coover’s Ghost Town, certain Oulipo exercises. Ironically, the elements of literature most ripe for literary remixing—characters, narrative, genre tropes, dialogue, plot—are the very elements of traditional fiction that Shields rejects.

definition wars

Shields recalls his revelation at reading James Joyce: “I could play all the roles I want to play (reporter, fantasist, autobiographer, essayist, critic.)” The potential to combine everything excites Shields. Much of the book is spent arguing for the destruction of the barrier between genres. He also stresses that “reality” is always a myth and that the borders between fiction and nonfiction are quite blurry or nonexistent. It is hard to argue with any of these points. Yet that is exactly why it is confusing to see him turn around and spend so much of the rest of the book attacking “fiction” and lauding “nonfiction” as superior. Shields’s literary homerism is even more apparent in interviews, where he openly admits to spending time trying to “kidnap work for the nonfiction canon.” Proust is secretly an essayist, Nicholson Baker is actually “a comic personal essayist disguised, sometimes, as a novelist,” and so on. Wasn’t the point that genre didn’t exist and that works should straddle different forms or invent their own?

Reading these portions of the book reminded me of the time a vigorous sci-fi fan told me that Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America was unquestionably science fiction and not literary fiction because alternative history is rooted in a multiverse concept that comes about, for some reason I can’t remember, through worm-hole theory. It feels like the literary equivalent of listening to sports fans squabble about whose stadium is more awesome (although I realize I may be accused of playing fiction homer to Shields nonfiction homer here). What is really the point?

Even if you want to turn a literary discussion into a definition war, you can not merely redraw the boundaries on your map. You must conquer the actual ground. Proust is not an essayist, he is a novelist. Parts of his work are essayistic and other parts are not (“Swann in Love,” for example, could be excerpted from Swann’s Way as pretty much a traditional novel). Just because you favor one part of Proust does not make the other parts disappear.

The second chapter, “mimesis”, gives a sort of speed history of literature from the early B.C. to Freud. Shields uses this history to promote a sense of nonfiction’s importance over fiction, but the chapter feels more notable for its omissions. Take the one paragraph on Renaissance literature that mentions only four authors: “Many of the most important writers in the Renaissance—Montaigne; Francis Bacon, who imported the essay into English; John Donne, whose sermons mattered much more than his poems—were writers of nonfiction. So secure was the preference for truth that Sir Philip Sidney had to fight, in Defence of Poesie…for the right to ‘lie” in literature at all.” No mention of John Milton or François Rabelais much less William Shakespeare? Paragraphs like this have the opposite effect of their intent, reminding one how much more lasting and famous the great fiction writers have frequently been than their nonfiction counterparts.

Lincoln Michel‘s fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, VICE, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He is the former editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and a founding editor of Gigantic. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and Tiny Crimes, an anthology of flash noir. His debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was published by Coffee House Press in 2015. He teaches fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @thelincoln. More from this author →