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Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

tombadyna, February 28, 2010

This is continuation of earlier review ...

I'd like to rebut this book's theses one by one as they seem not only largely idiotic but, given its apparently wide and mysterious appeal, dangerously so – so much so I'd label the literary philosophy of Mr. Shields Tea Party Poetics – but I don't know that it'd do any more good than using real-world logic on Palinistas. I leave off with brief counter-arguments to his foundational premise that 21rst c. society is so complex that invented narrative is inadequate to its understanding and, also, to his idea of reality in art, that for which he claims an unsatisfied hunger.

Since the beginning of the written word, old people have lamented the loss of the simpler times of their youths. That's provably true. It is also provably true that the act of history simplifies past times into, well, narrative. It necessarily leaves out most of the daily clutter of noise. Which does not mean that that static was not there. I think of one of my great-grandmothers who grew up in remote parts of a partitioned Poland. She worked her youth as a servant and spoke her own patois of Polish, Russian, German and French. It was a tricky, potentially deadly confusing confluence of three cultures with a fourth as a cultural overlay. She had to negotiate that within the confines of a backwoods Catholicism mixed in with goblins, jinns, evil spirits and a whole host of hocus pocus rigamarole to keep her safe between disease and death on one side, rape and indenturedness on the other – to say nothing of managing food supplies without refrigeration or supermarkets while learning to heart a thousand songs and fables to pass the nights. History has Poland neatly partitioned on maps and peasants simple inert markers on a board. I suspect we live in an ever-simpler world, that we're really not as smart as we used to be, but I wouldn't be able to prove it, not even to myself, and certainly would not use the claim but ironically, not even in the contriving of a new poetica. When I was twelve, I could take a discarded lawnmower and salvaged parts from trash heaps and make a serviceable go cart. Twelve year olds today can make a computer do some novel things. One, I don't see, is more complex than the other. I suspect Facebook is less complex than the social intricacies of hanging out unsupervised at the pharmacy's soda fountain with all its attendant perverts, bullies, theives, druggies, girls, so on, but why would I care to prove so one way or the other? How would I do so? When one of my great-grandfathers was twelve, he could run a farm – and did.

Mr. Shields says invented narrative served well in simpler times, but we're too advanced for the novelties of past dullards. Seems to me there's a fifty-three year old teacher a little lost in and intimidated by the world of his students. Also, he wishes to be young. And this is profound and challenging?


Mr. Shields states that the world has become so unbearably artificial that artists need to break ever-larger chunks of reality into their work. Best I can tell, these chunks of reality we're supposed to steal are the artistic efforts of the talented as well as untalented – which is to say, the manifesto-er here instructs that we create a new art out of the actual bricks and mortar of this unbearably artificial world. Honestly. That's what he's saying. It's the exact equivalent of the Tea Party idea of cutting taxes to reduce the deficit while keeping the government out of Medicare.

Narrative is a defining construct of the human mind, and invented narrative is the best way we have to understand that ideas, actions, words, even just being, all have consequences. Only in invented narrative can the philosophic contemplations of multiple souls play out not in the abstract but in the context of flesh and blood and reality.
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Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

tombadyna, February 27, 2010

An intellectual manifesto! How retro. It's like 1965 and a dorm room, on Daddy's dime, but a little more bowing and scraping before corporate lawyers this time.

Despite that, as I absorbed the sense of Mr. Shields' stolen directives, I expected him, somewhere, somehow, to note that Henry Miller was burning these same bridges seventy-five years ago – and doing so with actual art, with actual integrity, with actual risk. I don't have a copy handy, but didn't Mr. Miller begin Tropic of Cancer by writing that there were no more novels to be written, "thank God"? Didn't he expound on this at considerable, raconteuring length? Didn't he write "Cancer" seated before a mirror that had taped to it newspaper clippings, photographs, scraps of journal entries, letters, so on? Didn't he say he was putting it all helter-skelter in – dirty reality, conversation, dreams...? Didn't he say of perfectly written novels that he wouldn't say they weren't great, but that he was uninterested, that he missed the cloying qualities, the dirty footprints across the page, of those desperate, hungry ones for whom he claimed greatness?

And I am, I suppose, shocked.

Miller's whole oeuvre – from the surreal cut-and-paste jobs of the "Tropics" to the hyperreal autobiographic rants of Sexus, Plexus and Nexus – is pretty much dead on what Mr. Shields, at his best, is calling for. At his worst, he seems to be jiggering the idea of art so that its practice is a matter of inclination rather than talent. He is of that curiously common class of denizens of the literary world who like the idea of literature a whole lot more than literature itself.

His generation (mine too, the second half of the Baby Boom, those who came of age in the seventies) produced an excess of individuals who expected, even demanded, that the society they were rejecting reward this rejection with a remunerative, respectable occupation. The arts, most commonly, were it, and all my adult life I've heard their literary wing whine that contemporary works have failed them, that there were no more greats, nothing exciting. "I'm bored, Ma."

He's of that type into literature for the style, that of rebellion. He missed the sixties. By this much. He feels cheated. Always has. And has three decades now, with all his cohorts, sought to recreate that sense of moment. Which is the problem. How to be at once an outsider but recognized enough for it, appluaded for it, enough to be on the best-seller lists. Reminds me, weirdly, of the late Times Square billboard of Puff Diddy (or whatever his name now is) in a Nike leisure suit and slack pose suggesting the Mexico City actual, courageous, galvanizing, electric stand of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Unable to make his own. Much as Mr. Shields steals from past rebellions to make his. There is absolutely nothing new in this book.

Which maybe explains his intolerant insecurity. It's one thing to not like novels, or recently written novels. But so what? Ninety-five or ninety-eight percent of Americans don't care much for them either. I don't care much for quilting bees, but I'd be deservedly called a psychopath if I wrote a book calling for the end of quilting bees, since they no longer serve the purpose they once did. Come on, old ladies. Get with it.

If Mr. Shields has lost his taste for novels – so what? Write something else. Or don't write at all. No one would care. Literary fiction is the prediliction of one percent of the population. Always has been. Mr. Shields is deeply troubled that every McDonald's fry cook and every Wall Street trader are not attending quilting bees.

That said, I share with him the perception that contemporary literature has bogged down, has lately served mostly to deaden its own generative impulse to reject authority, rebel against the elites, so on. Nine million Americans with a literary hunger starve in our ridiculously bountiful land of novels of lyrical realism. On every tree, a thousand plump psychological truths. Beneath every rock, a juicy slug of emotionalism. But he claims that the problem is not the content, but fictional narrative itself. He finds that it has suddenly become inadequate to the needs of this old, eternal rebellion. And his way forward, stated without irony, is to call for psychological and emotional truths. He does. As if the problem is not that we are bored by these truths. He wants us to get it all in there and do so without the artifice of actual art. He seems to be demanding that writers write their own Cliff Notes, mixed in with a little autobiographical detail, a little bit of outright plagiarism, some kowtowing to the rant of the culture, of its three hundred million souls scrambling for infinite attention. One suspects that Mr. Shields believes this new form of literature will be good for society. He wrote a manifesto. He wants a movement. But he fails to admit (or see) that he is abdicating the lonely throne of art and doing so in such manner as to prohibit it to all. His advocacy is the worst of collectivism. The failure of invented narrative, according to him, is the test itself, not the takers. Fitting for a man of the first generation graded on a curve.

The problem with the narrative arts is not the act of invention, but that the inventions we use have become incapable of creating a moral territory in which the individual stands in a state of rebellion. Our writers are unable to create a conception of man except with the constructions with which ordinary man ornaments his identity. To use these ornaments co-opted from old rebellions and made the means of cultural and societal authority puts the writer, like Puffy, in a stolen pose.

Early in Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, an abandoned soul on the crummy streets of an alien land, claimed that he was the happiest man alive. Biographers have gone to some length to show that this was neither psychologically nor emotionally true. And maybe so. But it was and is artistically true. Much truer than the reality Mr. Shields would give supremacy. How does man, Mr. Shields claims to want to know via literature, negotiate this thing called life? How the cows go about it? If Mr. Shields doesn't value the primacy of artistic truth, why is he is the game?

I haven't time to go through all his arguments. But they are ludicrously idiotic.
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