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


Perhaps Shields sturdiest ground is television. He devotes an entire chapter to reality TV, undeniably a big part of modern culture. Still, reality TV has been moving towards greater unreality. The first two seasons of Real World, as Shields himself points out, were much more “real” than subsequent seasons. The writers, cast members and directors of reality shows have increasingly opted for more scripted and constructed realities. Look how quickly we turned from “regular” human beings to B-list entertainers—people raised in the art of creating false personas—to star in our reality shows. Strange Love is a long way from Candid Camera. Perhaps these shows have only retained the label “reality” out of inertia.

The second point is that reality TV, for all its popularity, feels fleeting. I suspect few people are sitting at home re-watching the first season of Road Rules or talking to their friends about season 4 of American Idol. The interest is in the concept more than the execution. Will anyone watch old seasons of those shows in thirty years? And yet I have little doubt that people will still be watching and analyzing The Wire, Seinfeld and The Sopranos for decades.

music and art

Throughout the book, Shields seems to group non-narrative art forms in with “nonfiction” and “reality.” I’ve never thought of art as existing in that dichotomy. Some paintings depict real events, others fictional events and others are abstractions. Take, for example, this quote regarding Andy Warhol’s Monroe and “Double Elvis” prints: “Having preexisting media of some kind in the new piece is thrilling in a way that ‘fiction’ can’t be.” For one thing, the image in Warhol’s Double Elvis works was taken from the fictional western Flaming Star. But what is this quote trying to say? Does Shields mean a fan fiction story using Harry Potter characters is not fiction since those characters are part of preexisting media? Or that “Double Elvis” wouldn’t have been thrilling if it was “Double Darth Vader”?

A similar assumption seems to be made that music, or at least sampled music, is somehow an example of “reality.” Ironically, the music most discussed in Reality Hunger is also perhaps the most fictional and narrative. Hip-hop is the inheritor of the folk tradition of narrative stories through lyrics. Rappers are also expected to create personas that are either completely exaggerated (the small-time crack dealer becomes the Noriega of the entire South) or utterly fictional (murderous space doctor from the year 3000). Rappers frequently have multiple, contradictory characters with their own names and invented histories. Take one of the most important hip-hop artists of all time: Robert Diggs. Depending on the album, Diggs might be the spiritual leaders of a clan of ninja-rappers (RZA), a psychopathic serial killer (The Rzarector) or a hedonistic sci-fi party boy (Bobby Digital).

what does nonfiction add?

Since Shields is an advocate of memoir, he must ultimately tackle the James Frey situation. I found the wording of his defense to be surprising though: “What does it matter if Frey actually spent the few nights in prison he writes about in his book?”—note: Frey actually invented a three-month jail stay—“Fake jail time was merely a device to get a point across, a plausible situation in which to frame his suffering.” Using fictional elements as devices to create a plausible narrative for the author to frame his feelings…isn’t that just a description of a novel?

The question is what does the label “nonfiction” add to a piece? What would be gained by relabeling Frederick Exley’s magnificent A Fan’s Notes a memoir? What purpose would it serve to publish Lydia Davis’s brilliant contemplations as essays instead of stories? It is a question, I think, of “authority.” If you are publishing something as nonfiction, you are borrowing part of your authority from reality, from its relation to truth. This is not a slight against nonfiction, for it is asking to be judged on those grounds as well. If you publish a work of prose as fiction you are asking for it to be judged as one would judge a painting, a song or a poem. The authority arises only from its own merits.

Shields notes, perhaps correctly, that “anything processed by memory is fiction.” He believes readers need to “make their peace with this there will be less argument over the questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the ‘facts’ and ‘truth.’” I am skeptical readers will ever make their peace with this because what readers want from nonfiction is the truth, is facts. If someone picks up A Million Little Pieces today, do they still read it as nonfiction or do they just read it as a novel? Speaking for myself, I am not likely to spend time guessing or Googling what is true or false. I will read everything as fictionalized and judge the work as I would judge any novel.

attempt at conclusion

We have heard the cries of the death of the novel for so long that even pointing out how many times we have heard it feels cliché. In a world where Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are the best-selling authors, Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time and the biggest broadcast TV disaster occurred when NBC tried to push aside scripted dramas for an inexpensive talk show, speaking of societies hunger for reality over fictional narratives feels a little premature.

Of course, Shields, myself and the readers of The Rumpus are concerned with more complex and interesting art than that. But as I’ve argued the desire for fiction and imagination is still quite strong, even in the zones that Shields discusses. I have nothing but respect for the many fantastic nonfiction writers working today. Real events and reflection on them is always essential, but I believe that the desire for imaginative works is alive and well and their place in culture is secure.

As I said at the beginning, I love what Shields has to say about collage, fragmentation, form-breaking, sampling, genre-dissolving, and the power of brevity. Reading his work reminded me of the modern works I most admire—the enigmatic contemplations of Lydia Davis, the collage stories of Donald Barthelme, the mystifying shorts of Diane Williams, the relentless rants of Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, Barry Hannah, Anne Carson, and so on and so on—and left me challenged and spurned to do more, to push harder. Really, that is all one can ask of a book like this.

I’ll end on the quote from Reality Hunger I found myself most in agreement with. From Ben Marcus: “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and its formal originality.”

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 →