Reality hungry or good hungry

by Cynthia Newberry Martin on May 8, 2011

So, David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger.

Structure: 618 short sections grouped into 26 chapters.

Subject: our hunger for the real as opposed to the invented.

Shields makes some strong points and shares some controversial ideas, most of which, in the real world, would require a cite. But Shields does not believe that reality–words, music–belongs to anyone. Random House forced him to credit the sections–there’ s a li st in the back of the book. But he begs you to cut that section out. Or at the very least not to read it.

Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

That’ s pretty cool. Of course, then there’s

  • the novel is dead #327

But perhaps he’s just reading the wrong novels. Still, it’s true, as Martha Cooley wrote in “Novel Anxiety,” in The Writer’s Chronicle:

In content and f orm, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience.

The sense of novel-fatigue out there seems palpable to me…

Shields is FOR a blurring of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction #3. He thinks memoir is as far from real life as fiction is, and that selection is as important a process as imagination #104.

Reality Hunger is repetitive and would have been more powerful if shorter. The stronger ideas would have shined rather than been buried. Still, I’m glad I read it.

I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. #517

~Cross-posted at Catching Days

Jeff McMahon May 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Thanks for bringing this up, Cynthia! I wanted so badly to talk about this book when I read it last summer, and now it has faded somewhat in my memory.

I think his point about plagiarism—that it’s a moral prohibition necessary to the economy of mechanical reproduction—makes some sense. Plagiarism was outlawed not because it’s bad, but because copies had to be controlled in order for profits to be generated. Copies can’t be controlled in the same way in the economy of digital reproduction—in fact, it’s possible they can’t be controlled at all—and the moral code is likely to adapt.

I appreciate the vista he grants us there: whether or not we get off our high horses, we’re not the ones steering them. Fittingly, someone plagiarized the entire content of Reality Hunger, so anyone can read it here:

Shields also says (or quotes) that the novel isn’t dead (#56), and then he says, “My medium is prose, not the novel.” Does the novel seem tied, also, to a particular technology and economic structure? Some have argued that it’s also tied to a particular moment in human economic development—the formation of the liberal subject. Do those moments seem, if not eclipsed, at least in flux?

Jeff McMahon May 9, 2011 at 9:30 am

There’s so much we could talk about. The problem with the line between fiction and non-fiction is that it’s already blurry. Out of the phantasmagoria of potential sensory experience in any moment, we select and then we order, narratively. It’s how we make life manageable. And because we must necessarily choose and omit, even our experience is fiction, before we even set out to write it down.

Cynthia Newberry Martin May 9, 2011 at 1:34 pm

All so true. And yes so much we could talk about. For one thing plagiarism, it seems to me, involves two issues: one the policing off it and two the failure to give credit for an idea to its author. The fact that we perhaps can no longer police it doesn’t seem to free writers from the obligation to give credit where credit is due. It’s cool, I think, to read thoughts without attribution b/c sometimes the who can affect the opinion. Nevertheless, Shields seems off base to me in not wanting ultimately to credit the original thinkers, even if he wants to agree with them.

Cynthia Newberry Martin May 9, 2011 at 1:46 pm

And just as memory is so obviously selective and different witnesses to an event often have different memories of it, proving that memoir is not synonymous with truth, so also truths, many of which writers are not even aware of, flow through writers into their fiction.

At one point, either Shields, or the collective Shields, calls memoirs the new novel (I’m not sure what section-I don’t have my book with me). Perhaps we are in fact moving toward some new hybrid. And another place I see movement in terms of genre is toward the new novel-in-stories, which seems to me, requires a better name. Or perhaps perhaps, we will abandon all genre nomenclature other than fiction.

Jeff McMahon May 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm

“Or perhaps perhaps, we will abandon all genre nomenclature other than fiction.”

This would make Frances very busy.

Jeff McMahon May 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I think he contends that there are no original thinkers, that thoughts are always recycled, and that it really makes no sense, therefore, to suggest they belong to someone. Who, for example, wrote “Romeo & Juliet”?

And Shields is consistent with some academic work that traces the birth of the author—the concept of an individual producer of a literary text—to the middle ages, when it also arose in response to economic conditions. I’m not an expert on this and there are many who could state it much better. The point is, I think, that concepts like the “author” have become obvious to us so that we rarely question them, but Shields reminds us they are temporal and economically based and that the ground on which they arose has shifted, such that they may have outlived their usefulness.

Cynthia Newberry Martin May 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Ha. Okay, fiction and poetry then.

Your most recent comment helps me to better understand what Shields is saying, especially in that section in which he was writing about literature as a conversation. So yes, with the internet and comments… he may be onto something…or onto something again.

Jeff McMahon May 10, 2011 at 8:26 am

I remembered this morning that I got that word phantasmagoria from Joan Didion, and that she was on this long ago:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the
consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea.
The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth
floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it
would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes
some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal
sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the
Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman
in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling
at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the
social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see,
select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially
if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate
images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting
phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Cynthia Newberry Martin May 10, 2011 at 12:39 pm

I love this quote–that last line is stunning. Of course, you could have just claimed it as your own.

Jeff McMahon May 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I guess I’m too Old School for that. When I remembered the quote, I felt like I had been claiming it as my own, whenever I paraphrased that last line, which I’ve done many times without thinking of the source.

Jodi Paloni May 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Or, perhaps, everything we read and write is TRUE–at least I tend to think so–and thereby call it all non-fiction, which is a word that describes a thing that isn’t something else in the first place.

It’s all so contrary.

Jeff McMahon May 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm

It is all so contrary, Jodi, and you’ll notice we dodge the whole fiction/non-fiction dichotomy in our submission guidelines. Mario Vargas Llosa has an intriguing essay about the different kinds of “true” that are at play in fiction and that other stuff. It’s called “The Truth of Lies.”

He notes that the supposed line between truth and fiction is maintained and guarded in open societies, where people value the truth of official records and reports and accounts of history. But in closed societies, where history is written by propagandists, there is no such line to guard. In closed societies, “The difference between historical truth and literary truth disappears and they become fused in a hybrid which bathes history in unreality.”

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