As the title of this post suggests, I am arriving a bit late to the party on this one.
David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, was published in 2010, and a lot has changed since that time.
But then, I feel that Shields a bit late to the party himself, with his manifesto against the traditional novelistic form. Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author appeared in 1967, Michel Foucault’s What is an Author? in 1969. And endless thoughts and variants of these arguments have appeared and been rehashed ever since. Reality Hunger fails to move the issue forward.
My copy is the 2011 Penguin edition (it was originally published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton), and the cover somewhat sensationalises Shields’ work. The blurb reads:
“Reality Hunger questions every assumption we ever made about art, the novel, journalism, poetry, film, TV, rap, stand-up, graffiti, sampling, plagiarism, writing and reading. In seeking to tear up the old culture in search of something new and more authentic, it is the most vital book of the new century.”
It is true that Shields covers a lot of ground, a lot of genres in this work. He also makes the case for “tearing” up traditional forms in favour of a literature that is based more upon reality rather than the (perhaps) entirely fabricated fiction of the novel. But there are problems.
To begin, there is his use of the collage technique of composing the text. There is nothing new or particularly exciting here. This method of cut and paste involves hundreds of unattributed quotations (until the end, that is, where Shields provides full attribution—at the request, apparently, of the publishers, who didn’t want to be sued), in an obvious nod to plagiarism and the role of allusion. This is again a method that has been used time and again by authors and artists from even before postmodernity, and to greater success. Picture a cubist collage, The Wasteland, or Benjamin’s Arcades Project.
But, this is also true of his central argument: there is nothing new here. The “problem” of what fiction should and can be has been central to literary theory for countless years. Shields does bring this up-to-date, with references to Oprah Winfrey, James Frey, social media (in its earlier incarnations), and forms such as hip-hop. Apart from this he makes very little progress with his concepts surrounding fiction, narrative, authenticity, and reality.
Perhaps his most convincing arguments are those that surround the idea of the memoir as literary form. The notion that memoir must be acknowledged as being as much fiction as non-fiction is a compelling one, and something that does have to be considered when dealing with the form. But again, it is not very original. The blurring between fact and fiction has been going on since before the two genres even existed. I would point to a writer like Jorge Luis Borges as a master of combining the two forms.
Another issue with Shields’ book is that it was published around the same time as many other books dealing with the same or very similar subjects. A few that I would recommend in particular are Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century; Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing; and In Praise of Copying by Marcus Boon; all of which were published in either the same or the following year as Shields’ manifesto.
Lastly, I have to make the point that the death of the author and of the novel has been continuously pronounced for at least the last 50 years, and yet there are more novels being published and more authors being discovered than ever. Yes, many of these are taking on ever more experimental forms—the novel has been evolving into a many-faceted beast—but the traditional novel is as popular as ever. And it is not going to go away without a fight. And why should it? I feel like instead of pronouncing it’s demise, we should be working on it’s continuing evolution.