The Last Book I Loved: Reality Hunger

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Despite what some might see as a fuming belligerence that characterizes our age (tea partiers, Rush Limbaugh, Charlie Sheen, etc.), I think we’re hampered by a cultural tendency to be overly polite, especially when it comes to the arts.

Go to France and England and you’ll find people practically dueling over an aesthetic or intellectual dispute—and then inviting each other to dinner the following week for round two.
But in the U.S., I’ve seen friendships break up over an artistic difference voiced only the slightest bit ardently—as if to talk passionately and argumentatively is bad manners. Kumbaya.  We’re a country of book clubs whose main purpose is to drink wine and chitchat about novels that go half-read and half-thought-about.

For God’s sake, let’s take our reading seriously and argue the hell out of it. Our books aim to represent life after all, metaphysically and phenomenologically. So… do you agree with an author’s take on reality or not?

That’s why I love the often pugilistic tone David Shields takes as he essentially puts up his dukes to the literary establishment in Reality Hunger. At the heart of Reality Hunger is Shields’s critique of the literary world’s rather stodgy proclivity to privilege the traditional realist novel as the mirror of reality—a representation of reality that has held firm since the 19th century, despite all of the world’s changes.

What if Impressionism had continued as the dominant art form for the last 100-plus years, but just with different subject matter? What if Cubism still dominated the art world for that matter? Think of all of the exciting, compelling, challenging, wondrously disturbing (or disgustingly disturbing) art we would have been deprived of.

So Shields takes on this intractable monolith of realism, the novel, and exposes the form for its calcifications, limitations, and, well, its sometimes God awful boringness (Shields says he’d rather die than read Jonathon Franzen—oh, if there were a literary death match on TV, I’d love to see Shields vs. Franzen).

It’s all about a definition of reality in the end. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” Shields writes (or does he write, because the book is an assemblage of short, aphoristic entries, many of which are plagiarized—with plagiarism operating as a premise of reality, so is it really plagiarism?).

There’s a disturbing complacency in how the majority of the reading public has come to unquestioningly accept the standards of literary fiction—usually written in the third person, adhering to Flauberts style indirect libre, removed from the heartbeat of reality that’s so immediate in a first person narrative of an essay or memoir that doesn’t adhere but explores, ventures, jaunts, and perhaps even fails.

Yes, fails.

Shields appreciates a text’s rawness—a messiness that is absent from much contemporary fiction and much of the real-life fiction foisted upon us in our lives, whether it takes the form of a politician, a newscaster, or an advertisement.  He prefers the essay—the attempt—to the polish of the three act plots that guide most novels. “My medium is prose, not the novel,” Shields writes. By emphasizing prose, Shields neuters plot. To read in pursuit of the end, or at least the next, is one way to read, but Shields asserts the meaning of the moment, a narrative of pauses and drifts of dramatic tension (yes, dramatic tension that can occur without plot).

“The lyric essay doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention,” he writes (quoting John D’Agata and Deborah Tall).  On the other hand, novels tend to be written toward conclusions instead of questions. “The novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential,” Shields says. “You can always feel the wheels grinding.”

What fun is it to read such a grind of authorial construction? Somewhere within that grind, you can almost feel an agent or editor looking over the author’s shoulder. The click of a stopwatch that says it’s now time for the reversal, now time for the denouement. Think simply of most characters in realist novels, who generally operate around one or two contradictions or counterpoints—life represented as relatively neat and tidy in comparison to the many personas and doubling backs and strivings that form most of us.

Shields is after something without so much artifice, which is why he says that memoir and creative nonfiction are the most compelling genres of our age. Life not as it’s represented via authorial filtering, but as it’s lived. “Not only is life mostly failure, but in one’s failures or pettiness or wrongness exists the living drama of the self,” says Shields.

But here’s where I stub my toe with Shields. I don’t buy that the best “fiction” is being written as nonfiction, although I appreciate how he emphasizes the fictionality of nonfiction. If anything, I feel that we’re living in an age where memoir has become bloated. As Neil Genzlinger put it so perfectly in the “The Problem with Memoirs:” “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

I think what Shields is actually getting at is Camus’s thought that writing should be confession: “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.”

To use Franzen as an example again (just because I love picking on him), his novels read with the wheels grinding, the studious craft of storytelling guiding every sentence. But his novels don’t read as anything close to confession. And that’s the problem. To write with a sense of confession brings writer and reader closer to a hungered for reality. To strive for authenticity is different than striving for what is real—and this is the crux that dooms much realistic fiction. The literal truths (which Franzen aspires to capture in his socioeconomic approach to characterizaiton) aren’t as important as the poetic truths (which, say, Bolano or Kundera aspire to).

“You adulterate the truth as you write,” says Shields.

Forms must change.

“If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.”

And write manifestos. And break forms. And then write manifestos again. Here here.


Grant Faulkner’s work has appeared in The Southwest Review, Gargoyle, Word Riot, The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Big Ugly Review, Ink, and Transfer. He’s currently managing editor of the National Writing Project and working on his first novel, Elsewhere. More from this author →