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Reality Hunger: A Manifestoby David Shields
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.
It’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many do?
If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.
All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men. Nadja. Cane. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! “The Moon in Its Flight.” Wisconsin Death Trip. Letters to Wendy’s.
We evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention.
Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Jazz is a trace, but it’s not a defining trace. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.
Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of the- mill four-hundred-page page-turner. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.
The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.
Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?
If literary terms were about artistic merit and not the rules of convenience, about achievement and not safety, the term realism would be an honorary one, conferred only on work that actually builds unsentimental reality on the page, that matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form. This, alas, would exclude many writers who believe themselves to be realistic, most notably those who seem to equate writing with operating a massive karaoke machine.
A novel, for most readers—and critics—is primarily a “story.” A true novelist is one who knows how to “tell a story.” To “tell a story well” is to make what one writes resemble the schemes people are used to—in other words, their ready-made idea of reality. But a work of art, like the world, is a living form. It’s in its form that its reality resides.
Urgency attaches itself now more to the tale taken directly from life than one fashioned by the imagination out of life.
I want the veil of “let’s pretend” out. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don’t interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. He wanted to directly address desperate individual existence, which bores many readers. I find him a joyous writer, though; his work reads like prayer. You don’t have to think about literary allusions but experience itself. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice.
This is life lived on high alert.
Nearly all writing, up to the present, has been a search for the “beautiful illusion.”
Nowhere do you get the feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.
Very well. I am not in search of the “beautiful illusion.”
Critics can’t believe that the power to make us feel our one and only life, as very few novelists actually do these days, has come from a memoirist, a nonfiction truth-speaker who has entered our common situation and is telling the story we now want told. But it has.
There’s inevitably something terribly contrived about the standard novel; you can always feel the wheels grinding and going on.
If you write a novel, you sit and weave a little narrative. If you’re a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, give a little narrative here and there, etc. And it’s okay, but it’s of no account. Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.
There is more to be pondered in the grain and texture of life than traditional fiction allows. The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction, more open and speculative.
One would like to think that the personal essay represents basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy.
The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems—The Dream Songs, the long prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five, pretty much all of Philip Larkin and Anne Carson, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Maybe these works succeed, maybe they fail, but at least they all attempt to clarify the problem at hand. They’re journeys, pursuits of knowledge. One could say that fiction, metaphorically, is a pursuit of knowledge, but ultimately it’s a form of entertainment. I think that, at the very least, essays and poems more directly and more urgently attempt to figure out something about the world. Which is why I can’t read novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those
novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Kundera’s Immortality. Most of Houellebecq. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe. Lydia Davis, everything.
The kinds of novels I like are ones which bear no trace of being novels.
Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There’s only one thing worse than boredom—the fear of boredom—and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens—e.g., Tristram Shandy, Notes from Underground, Camus’s The Fall, Thomas Bern hard’s Correction, Duras’s The Lover, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang.
What the lyric essay inherits from the public essay is a facthungry pursuit of solutions to problems, while from the personal essay it takes a wide-eyed dallying in the heat of predicaments. Lyric essays seek answers yet seldom seem to find them. They may arise out of a public essay that never manages to prove its case, may emerge from the stalk of a personal essay to sprout out and meet “the other,” may start out as trav- elogues that forget where they are or begin as prose poems that refuse quick conclusions, may originate as lines that resist being broken or full-bodied paragraphs that start slimming down. They’re hybrids that perch on the fence between the willed and the felt. A lyric essay is an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric, a kind of logic that wants to sing, an argument that has no chance of proving out.
An essay that becomes a lyric is an essay that has killed itself.
There are no facts, only art.
What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.
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.
Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.
2 Sentence about Unmade Beds: Soyon Im, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Seattle Weekly
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
589 Naipaul, quoted in James Wood, “Wounder and Wounded,” New Yorker
590 First sentence: Benjamin
591 Richard Serra, quoted in Kimmelman, “At the Met and the Modern with
Richard Serra,” New York Times
596 Marcus, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing,
Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” Harper’s
601 Williams, Spring and All
602 Coetzee, Summertime
606 All but last sentence: Naipaul, quoted in Donadio, “The Irascible
Prophet,” New York Times
609 First five sentences except titles: D’Agata, Collision interview
610 Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
611 Except for titles, E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
612 D’Agata, The Next American Essay
616 Marcus, “The Genre Artist,” Believer
617 Berger, G
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