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


thought hits you sideways

Much of Shields’s problem with fiction seems to stem from a belief that narrative is detrimental to thought. There are many quotes along these lines: “It’s not clear to me what narrative is supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.” And: “Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more or less than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted.”

The first, obvious objection is that narrative is equally present in a lot of nonfiction. Putting that to the side, I find the claim that narrative is somehow detrimental to thinking or wisdom-seeking to be inaccurate. The old saying that you read nonfiction for the facts and fiction for the truth still rings true. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that narrative and characters connect you to the truth in a more powerful and emotional way. I would argue that The Wire will teach you about the failures of modern American institutions in a more memorable way than a social studies textbook.

But the second, more interesting, reason is that fiction gets to suggest instead of tell. Fiction’s power is in its ambiguity. Christianity would have died out centuries ago if the Bible was a series of lists and essays instead of stories and parables whose meanings are both elusive yet powerful. Anyone who has studied literature in school knows that Shakespeare’s plays can be interpreted in infinite ways. This is the reason that many of our most memorable philosophers have employed their arguments in metaphor or even straight fiction. Nietzsche’s most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is a fictional narrative in verse, Sartre’s plays and fiction are more widely read and referenced than his essays. Kierkegaard so knew and feared that readers get trapped by the need for authoritative systems and the facts of the author’s life that he created fictional pseudonyms (with names like Hilarius Bookbinder, H.H., Johannes Climacus and Anti-Climacus) and released novels and essays that contradict each other, leaving the reader to glean his own truths through this “indirect communication.”

And ultimately, isn’t narrative fun? People enjoy reading interesting plots and following compelling characters, whether real or invented. Entertainment and enlightenment are not necessarily at odds.

the nonfictionalizing of fiction or the fictionalizing of reality?

Why is it that so much of the most vital nonfiction I’ve read—and indeed much of the very nonfiction Shields lists and praises in his manifesto—encroaches as far as it can onto the territory of fiction? Fiction has always appropriated reality and other literary forms. This is its great freedom. But the move for ostensibly nonfiction works to freely rearrange events or even invent characters (think Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties) feels like a growing trend.

In a TIME magazine poll, Jon Stewart was voted the most trusted newscaster in America for his work on the fake news program, The Daily Show. Stephen Colbert’s (whose entire persona is a fictional parody) is a phenomenon. Large segments of the population choose to get even their most basic nonfiction, the daily news, filtered through the lens of fiction and satire.

Critics such as Zadie Smith have noted that Shields began his career as a fiction writer but didn’t really find success until he switched to nonfiction. Is this the root of his nonfiction preference? Shields himself, in his recent The Rumpus interview, says he was always aware that this critique would come up, but he does not really respond to it. To give significance to his personal distaste for fiction, Shields is forced to claim movement in the cultural zeitgeist. The central assumption of Reality Hunger is that there is a growing hunger for “reality” and that artists are incorporating ever more reality into their work. I must say I found this argument to be unconvincing. When I look at the same phenomena and culture that Shields does, I see more argument for the opposite process—a move away from reality.

Comedy, perpetually a few steps ahead of other art forms, is a great example. If Reality Hunger was written a few decades ago, there might be some argument to make about observational humor and autobiographical comics. But who represents the comedic zeitgeist today? Zach Galifianakis, Amy Sedaris, Demetri Martin, Tim and Eric, perhaps Conan O’Brien (thus the internet’s outrage at the Leno fiasco). These comics embody the formal freedom, the blurring of reality, the roughness and the artistic hodgepodge—their performances and shows are collage-like mixings of various artforms and comedic styles—that David Shields calls for, but they represent a decisive move away from reality and autobiography and towards absurdity, invention and imagination.

And whither the web? The internet is a bit hard to discuss because it is equal parts communication medium and artistic/entertainment medium. Shields argues that our obsession with blogs, Twitter and Facebook point to a reality hunger. To me, if people talk to each other on Twitter instead of the phone or pick up dates on OKcupid instead of a bar, that is just technology moving forward and does not reflect on our artistic preferences. Shields lists social networking profiles as crude essay machines. I can see that. But a Facebook profile is something you make quickly and move on from. People put far more effort into their fictional Second Life or World of Warcraft existences than they do their Blogger “about me” pages. Indeed, the ever-growing video game industry is based almost entirely around fictional narratives.

Or think of the web memes that catch fire every day. Even when these memes are spawned by real-life events—and plenty of them are spawned by fiction—they are spun into absurdist fictions. Kanye West’s MTV awards rant was mixed into increasingly bizarre references that reworked his gaffe into comic absurdity. My favorite viral YouTube phenomena was Shreds, in which a man named Santeri Ojala overdubbed live concert footage of artists like Metallica or Carlos Santana so that they sounded like either bizarre noise rockers or children banging away at their parents instruments. For the people who thought Shreds was real, the experience was just confusing. To those who recognized the meticulously constructed fiction, it was brilliant.

Shields argues that the lonelygirl15 videos were only interesting when we thought they were real, but the most the most recent viral project I’ve seen popping up everywhere is Die Antwoord. It is immediately apparent that this music group is creating fictional personas and a fictional backstory (if the production values didn’t tip you off, the man thrusting his member around in a pair of Pink Floyd boxers should) and yet their popularity is only increasing. They even got a write-up in a recent New Yorker.

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 →