Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
by David Shields
Reviewed by Debra Gwartney
Somerset Maugham is said to have once announced: "There are three rules for writing a good novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." This is a quip contemporary writer David Shields might appreciate, feeling, as Shields does, that the literary novel's relevance has passed.
The novel, which by its definition creates an artificial world, "has never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself," Shields writes. In his latest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields, author of three books of fiction and six books of nonfiction, waxes aplenty on the traditional novel's demise ("unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless") while making clear his disappointment over nonfiction that strains too hard to seem "true" (all such prose is at least part fiction, is his claim).
The conventional memoir -- in that it has a plot, scenes, a narrative structure -- is sternly scrutinized. Yet, while Shields excoriates the literary forms most of us are accustomed to, he uses most of his book to celebrate and urge a prose that does its best to reflect current reality, via, for instance, the lyric essay and collage. A prose that rejects what he considers worn-out conventions.
On the face of it, Shields' book seems best suited to those in or on the periphery of the literary establishment, including budding writers enrolled in the nation's abundance of creative writing programs. Instead, the book reaches out to all thoughtful readers. By intertwining ideas of popular culture (including snippets of reality television, the James Frey debacle, etc.) with erudite quotes from Plutarch to Thomas Mann and many in between, Shields makes startling observations about the plight of a culture he considers desperate for reality in books and stories because we have so little of it ourselves.
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.
Shields calls the book a "manifesto." It is, in the sense that it promises to create a stir in the literary world -- actually, already has created a stir. The first pages of Reality Hunger are jammed with praise from famous writers, most of whom get quoted in the body of the text and each of whom celebrates Shields' call to arms, his insistence on a re-evaluation, a transformation, an out-and-out revolution in regard to books published by an industry that seems to be holding on to the past by some very desperate fingernails.