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Reality Hunger: A Manifesto


Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Cover







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. Zola: “Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes.” Braque’s goal: “To get as close as I could to reality.” E.g., Chekhov’s diaries, E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (much his best book), Cheever’s posthumously ?pub?lished journals (same), Edward Hoagland’s journals, Alan ?Bennett’s Writing Home. So, too, every artistic movement or moment needs a credo: Horace’s Ars Poetica, Sir Philip Sid- ney’s Defence of Poesie, André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chasity.” My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)


Jeff Crouse’s plug-in Delete City. The quasi–home movie Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit ?Glo?rious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank’s radio show In the Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shel- ton’s unscripted film Humpday (“All the writing takes place in the editing room”). Nicholas Barker’s “real-life feature” Unmade Beds, in which actors speak from a script based on interviews they conducted with Barker; the structure is that of a documentary, but a small percentage of the material is made up. Todd Haynes’s Superstar—a biopic of Karen Carpenter that uses Barbie dolls as the principal actors and is available now only as a bootleg video. Curb Your Enthusiasm, which—characteristic of this genre, this ungenre, this antigenre—relies on viewer awareness of the creator’s self-conscious, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona. The Eminem Show, in which Marshall Mathers struggles to metabolize his fame and work through “family of origin” issues (life and/or art?). The Museum of (fictional) Jurassic Technology, which actually exists in Culver City. The (completely fictional) International Necronautical Society’s (utterly serious) “Declaration of Inauthenticity.” So, too, public-access TV, karaoke nights, VH1’s Behind the Music series, “behind-the-scenes” interviews running parallel to the “real” action on reality television shows, rap artists taking a slice of an existing song and building an entirely new song on top of it, DVDs of feature films that inevitably include a documentary on the “making of the movie.” The Bachelor tells us more about the state of unions than any romantic comedy could dream of telling us. The appeal of Billy Collins is that compared with the frequently hieroglyphic obscurantism of his colleagues, his poems sound like they were tossed off in a couple of hours while he drank scotch and listened to jazz late at night (they weren’t; this is an illusion). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was full of the same self-conscious apparatus that had bored everyone silly until it got tethered to what felt like someone’s “real life” (even if the author constantly reminded us how fictionalized that life was). At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized. I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can’t abide the network news—the sound of human voices waking before they drown.


An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.


In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.


It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel).


I need say nothing, only exhibit.



Part of what I enjoy in documentary is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because one can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who controls the danger.


2      Sentence about Unmade Beds: Soyon Im, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Seattle Weekly

4      Thoreau

5      Roland Barthes, Barthes by Barthes (who else would be the author?); “minus the novel”: Michael Dirda, “Whispers in the Darkness,” Washington Post

6      Walter Benjamin

618  Carson, Decreation

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tetons, March 8, 2010 (view all comments by tetons)
I found Shield's new book fascinating. Anyone, like me, who is both intrigued and troubled by the overwhelming abundance of reality TV, film and literature these days will find Reality Hunger a helpful remedy. I came away from this book with a new appreciation for reality-based art. Don't get me wrong: I've not suddenly become a fan of the awful reality shows on TV; but, Shield's book gives me hope that there are artists out there taking a very close look at how reality and truth can be used successfully. This last weekend I read an article on director, Paul Greengrass. One of my favorite films in the last decade was his "Bloody Sunday." He has a new film on the Iraq War coming out next month. A quote from the article: “I hope that when it works,” he added, “you get this sense of extreme emotional intimacy and sort of performed truthfulness with an extreme sense of captured reality.” Shield's book helps continue this type of conversation. Highly recommended.
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film2write, March 7, 2010 (view all comments by film2write)
David Shields has written another insightful, thought-provoking, and beautiful book.
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tombadyna, February 28, 2010 (view all comments by tombadyna)
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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Product Details

Shields, David
Knopf Publishing Group
Fusselman, Amy
Modernism (literature)
Literature, Modern - 21st century -
Semiotics & Theory
Literary Criticism : General
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
27 b/w photographs throughout
8.25 x 5.5 in 1 lb

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Anthologies » Essays
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Humanities » Literary Criticism » General
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Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Used Hardcover
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Product details 144 pages Knopf Publishing Group - English 9780307273536 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

In Reality Hunger, Shields draws from classic and contemporary sources — artists, writers, philosophers, and more — to present a collage of ideas that is erudite and provocative. It's a book of intentional plagiarism that casts new light on ideas of ownership, appropriation, and reality

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Shields's latest reinvents the 'how to' while explaining how the hazy line between truth and lie undermines all forms of modern communication, an understanding that requires accepting the inherent imperfections and idiosyncrasies of a single writer's memory, intent, desire, and point of view. Shields's manifesto reads as a mixture between a diary and lecture-hall notes, each well-thought-out entry (titles include 'mimesis,' 'books for people who find television too slow,' 'blur,' 'hip-hop,' 'in praise of brevity') made up of a series of numbered paragraphs. Incorporated into his consideration of general themes in art are specific pieces of writing and music as well as current events, like the election of Barrack Obama. Shields references a multitude of well-known writers whom he considers definitive (or re-definitive) in literature; one writer that Shields returns to repeatedly is James Frey. Shields considers the Frey debacle, including his guest appearances on Oprah, by way of the imperfect human faculty for memory and communication, finding in Frey's story damning evidence that human beings are doomed to experience life alone. Touching, honest, and dizzyingly introspective, Shields (The Thing About Life is that One Day You'll be Dead) grapples lithely with truth, life, and literature by embracing his unique perspective, and invites each reader to do the same." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Reality Hunger is a collection of wisdoms and aphorisms, some borrowed/stolen/appropriated from others, some written by Shields himself — which layer one upon the other to shimmer with an insistence on a literature that reflects modern life's many complexities and contradictions. The book presents its arguments in the style of Pascal's Pensees or Montaigne's Essays, and is equally as scintillating — a thrill to many who'll read this book, a poke in the eye to plenty of others." (read the entire Oregonian review)
"Synopsis" by , Fresh from his acclaimed exploration of mortality in the genre-defying, best-selling The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, David Shields has produced an open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century.

Shields's manifesto is an ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists who, living in an unbearably artificial world, are breaking ever larger chunks of reality into their work. The questions Shields explores — the bending of form and genre, the lure and blur of the real — play out constantly around us, and Reality Hunger is a radical reframing of how we might think about this truthiness: about literary license, quotation, and appropriation in television, film, performance art, rap, and graffiti, in lyric essays, prose poems, and collage novels.

Drawing on myriad sources, Shields takes an audacious stance on issues that are being fought over now and will be fought over far into the future. Converts will see Reality Hunger as a call to arms; detractors will view it as an occasion to defend the status quo. It is certain to be one of the most controversial and talked about books of the season.

"Synopsis" by , Part memoir, part manifesto, this exploration of the underside of America's obsession with safety is prompted by the author's visit to a thrillingly alarming adventure playground in Tokyo


"Synopsis" by ,

Part memoir, part manifesto, this exploration of the underside of Americaand#8217;s obsession with safety is prompted by the authorand#8217;s visit to a thrillingly alarming adventure playground in Tokyo

"How fully can the world be explored," asks Amy Fusselman " . . . if you are also trying not to die?"

On a visit to Tokyo with her family, Fusselman stumbles on Hanegi playpark, where children are sawing wood, hammering nails, stringing hammocks to trees, building open fires. When she returns to New York, her conceptions of space, risk, and fear are completely changed. Fusselman invites us along on her tightrope-walking expeditions with Philippe Petit and late night adventures with the Tokyo park-workers, showing that when we deprive ourselves, and our children, of the experience of taking risks in space, we make them less safe, not more so.

Savage Park is a fresh, poetic reconsideration of behaviors in our culture that and#8212; in the guise of protecting us and#8212; make us numb and encourage us to sleepwalk through our lives. We babyproof our homes; plug our ears to our devices while walking through the city. What would happen if we exposed ourselves, if and#8212; like the children at Hanegi park and#8212; we put ourselves in situations that require true vigilance? Readers of Rebecca Solnit and Cheryl Strayed will delight in the revelations in Savage Park.

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