by David Shields
Hamish Hamilton; Hardback;
240 pages; Price £17.99;
First, a series of radical pronouncements: narrative prose fiction has ‘never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself’; the ‘novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia’; and, more generally, ‘forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: because they’re no longer embodying what it’s like to be alive.’ Having disposed of the novel Reality Hunger then announces, with a further valedictory flourish, that the writer as writer is dead, to be replaced by the ‘scissors-and-paste man.’ Meaning is no longer written as such, but arranged from found parts, and is ‘a matter of adjacent data.’ Such is the swinging tack that David Shields’ Reality Hunger takes, and made as it is of what are essentially fragments written by other people (more on which later), arranged into themed chapters but kept from any more cohesive argumentative unit by its principled eschewal of linearity, it is asking a lot of even the open-minded reader it is presumably aimed at.
The major difficulty with Reality Hunger as a manifesto is that most of its prescriptions for the future of the prose form are anything but new. Writing from life, importing uneven chunks of undigested ‘reality’ into the text, questioning the actuality of events and the nature of factual truth, interspersing the remembered with the misremembered, allowing free cross-fertilization between fact and fiction, doubting authorial possession of the text – these are now familiar signatures of the Post Modern. Reality Hunger recommends these strategies to the reader with the breathy excitement of the explosively new, but in reality its theoretical base is to be found in Theory of the 1960s onward. But despite the whiff of anachronism that accompanies some of the text’s contentions, there is something necessary about this recapitulation of certain liberties that have been, if not forgotten, neglected. The novel form does feel tired in places, and the neat compression of so much valuably sceptical thought and reading into these two hundred pages is an achievement in itself. The attraction lies partly in the freedom allowed by the alternatives Shields provides. The ‘lyric essay,’ the ‘anti-novel,’ the work of ‘non-poetry’ (instead of non-fiction) sound sufficiently capacious and untried as forms for the ambitious writer to make something genuinely new in testing them out.
Shields means ‘essay’ in the sense of Montaigne’s essai, a test or a try, necessarily partial and incomplete. Montaigne, as the example of the prose writer of pre-novelistic times whose freedom to import thoughts, phrases and ideas from his reading into his writing, is central to Shields’ defence of the unacknowledged quotation which lends not only the conceptual structure, but much of the actual body of Reality Hunger. This is because, as Shields makes explicit in paragraph 296, just short of half-distance, ‘Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources.’ There are plenty of hints up until this point that awaken suspicion: this reviewer for one was alerted to Shields’ ‘taste for quotation’ by unacknowledged use of Eliot’s Four Quartets and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, implying that many more of these words were not ‘written,’ as the word is usually understood, by David Shields. From this realisation the reader’s attention is drawn to the book’s curious appendix, appended at the behest of Random House lawyers who ‘determined that it was necessary…to provide a complete list of citations.’ Once you know it’s there, the presence of an index-linked reference guide for nearly every one of Reality Hunger’s 617 paragraph fragments either ruins or augments the reading experience, depending on your mindset. The problem is that if you have a historicist bent, and you find it illuminating to know that, for example, ‘I need say nothing, only exhibit’ (paragraph 6) is derived from Walter Benjamin, then you are reading the book in the wrong way, according to its own prescription. Shields is adamant that the book be restored ‘to the form in which I intended it to be read,’ by excising the appendix with a pair of scissors in the name of the purity and communal ownership of the world of art and ideas, comprised of and belonging to the ‘reality’ from which they are taken, and which ‘cannot be copyrighted.’ Whether this is idealist, or a way of privileging a private club of readers who do get many of the references, depends on the degree of scepticism you bring to the reading.
Equally as significant for Reality Hunger is the impact of late Twentieth and Twenty-first century technology allowing the (primarily musical) artist the liberty to recycle, or sample, older pieces of music or other types of recorded sound. The excitement conveyed by the idea of embracing such changes of creative method, allowing that ‘the act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument,’ is extremely convincing. In technology, too, is a partial solution to the surrender of authorship, as social media allows ‘reality-based art’ to be produced ‘at grassroots level, among nonexperts,’ making ‘user-made content…the new folk art.’ The exhilaration of this idea derives from its accessibility, and from Shields’ self-situation as one of ‘us “regular” people…pushing through like water, or, perhaps, weeds.’ Suddenly the writer or artist doesn’t seem so far removed from the rest of us. On these issues Shields is particularly knowledgeable, his cultural range deeply impressive, and the sense of his omnivorously curious mind clearest.
It may be historically naïve of Reality Hunger to proclaim the death of the novel without acknowledging that the form tends to be defined, eventually, by those writers working at its boundaries, in the sick room, as it were. Nor does Shields confront the view that story-making, the construction of linear narrative, might be an innate human activity similar to that of religious practice, and that there could be psychological and physiological resistance to its deliberate fracture. Most of the focus of Reality Hunger’s critique, the weekly torrent of newly penned and fairly conventional prose fiction, will probably be forgotten in ten years. It’s the kind of thing recommended by Reality Hunger, if not the book itself, that is future canon-material. But it is here, in the now, and by connecting a pre-capitalist world without copyright law with the present and immediate future in which sampling, file-sharing, and social media have loosened the bonds of authorship, that this intriguing, contentious book finds its most convincing argument for its own plausibility.