Reality Hunger

David Shields

You know you’re in for some bold and broad declarations when a book starts off, “Every artistic moment 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.”

Reality Hunger calls itself a manifesto, yet it feels less a call to arms to me — it’s more of a collage of thoughts that are numbered in the hundreds and organized into 26 themes that all circle around the intent to deconstruct artistic creativity. Some of the thoughts are Shields’s but many of are quotes or partially comprised of quotes. He wanted to publish these unattributed but was legally required to include a list of citations. I personally was glad to have a reference for sources, since the book is a good jumping off point for further reading, though as there is a recurring argument on how copyright stagnates the creativity that might arise from derivative works, this seems a bitter concession on his part — it’s not clear to me why attribution degrades the work, especially sequestered at the end where it’s so easily ignored. There is a dotted line printed on those pages near the spine to assist in cutting them out and discarding them, if you wish.

Shields yearns for writing to blur the lines between genres, and a few sections critique the scandals of memoirs that aren’t entirely true and the betrayals of fictions where the story is drawn so closely from life that the writers’ imaginative powers are questioned. He is hopeful about the lyric essay, which is the in-between of fact and invention as well as of prose and poetry. It makes sense that Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable certainly falls into this category since I found this book through her blog.

Reading this fired up my thinking on creativity, even though I don’t necessarily agree with the parts that advocate entirely abandoning the frameworks of writing as we know it, declaring them dead and gone. While Shields may find that many contemporary novels no longer interest him, I’ve read plenty lately that have entertained me, which sometimes is plenty to expect of a piece of writing. I don’t think every book needs to push consciousness to the next level, but it is exciting to think about where literature may evolve beyond our strict genres. I’d rather feel optimistic about the potential of what’s to come than pessimistic about books retreading over known territory, since we can choose whether and on what terms we read them. My favorite section might be chapter x, “let me tell you what your book is about,” which is comprised of excerpts of letters Shields wrote in response to friends’ books. He finishes by analyzing this habit itself:

My impulse is always to push the book toward abstraction, toward sadness, toward darkness, toward doubleness, toward seventeen types of ambiguity. … The book is always, in some sense, stutteringly, about its own language. I’m always framing myself and the author as the lone founts of dark wisdom; I’m always the exponent of airy despair…