Tuesday, June 29, 2010

David Shields

Hamlet, dying, says, "If I had the time, I would tell you all." The entire play is the Hamlet Show, functioning as a vehicle for Hamlet to give his opinion on everything and anything, as Nietzsche does Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The play could easily be broken up into little sections with headings like "Hamlet on Friendship," "Hamlet on Sexual Fidelity," "Hamlet on Suicide," "Hamlet on Grave Diggers," Hamlet on the Afterlife." Hamlet is, more than anything else, Hamlet talking on a multitude of different topics. (Melville's marginal comment on one of the soliloquies in the play: "Here is forcibly shown the great Montaigneism of Hamlet.") I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective - a lens, a distortion effect. Hamlet's very nearly final words: "Had I but the time... O, I could tell you." He would keep riffing forever if it weren't for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.
This quote, fragment No. 455 from Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book that I admired and enjoyed, reservedly, is a neat example of the bravado and conviction with which David Shields attacks the novel, the plot and contrivance of contemporary fiction in general.

Reality Hunger presents itself as a manifesto, 'for a burgeoning group of interrelated artists in a multitude of forms and media,' which means: I (Shields) will talk about whatever I so choose; which he does, pleasantly. The scope of the book is vast; a wobbly, zigzagging line, tracing the evolution of narrative art. Nevertheless, Shields is picky about what he mentions and to what extent; he moves quickly from Proust, to music piracy, to Oprah, to memoir, to Reality TV, to Hip-Hop... The list goes on and on.

And, accordingly, what it is, precisely, that Shields wishes to advocate remains unclear, or at least obscure (to me), although deliberately so I suspect, and, at times, the lack of visible parameters of his artistic movements makes the book feel less like, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and more like, Reality Hunger: A List of Stuff I Like. What is clear, however, is that, according to Shields, the current conventions of writing must be removed: "I want books to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory and thought." The writing of today disappoints.

Not long before I read Reality Hunger, I read an article, entitled The Pleasures of Imagination by Paul Bloom [link], which gives fiction a little more credit, even more than people, or sex. I have selected some passages that seem relevant:
How do Americans spend their leisure time? The answer might surprise you. The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.
Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal. [...]
Why do we get pleasure from the imagination? Isn't it odd that toddlers enjoy pretense, and that children and adults are moved by stories, that we have feelings about characters and events that we know do not exist? As the title of a classic philosophy article put it, how can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?
The emotions triggered by fiction are very real. When Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Little Nell in the 1840s, people wept—and I'm sure that the death of characters in J.K. Rowling'sHarry Potter series led to similar tears. (After her final book was published, Rowling appeared in interviews and told about the letters she got, not all of them from children, begging her to spare the lives of beloved characters such as Hagrid, Hermione, Ron, and, of course, Harry Potter himself.) A friend of mine told me that he can't remember hating anyone the way he hated one of the characters in the movie Trainspotting, and there are many people who can't bear to experience certain fictions because the emotions are too intense. I have my own difficulty with movies in which the suffering of the characters is too real, and many find it difficult to watch comedies that rely too heavily on embarrassment; the vicarious reaction to this is too unpleasant. [...]
In the end, though, those brought to tears by Anna Karenina are perfectly aware that she is a character in a novel; those people who wailed when J.K. Rowling killed off Dobby the House Elf knew full well that he doesn't exist. And even young children appreciate the distinction between reality and fiction; when you ask them, "Is such-and-so real or make-believe?," they get it right.
Why, then, are we so moved by stories?
David Hume tells the story of a man who is hung out of a high tower in a cage of iron. He knows himself to be perfectly secure, but, still, he "cannot forebear trembling." Montaigne gives a similar example, saying that if you put a sage on the edge of a precipice, "he must shudder like a child." My colleague, the philosopher Tamar Gendler, describes the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway that extends 70 feet from the canyon's rim. It is supposedly a thrilling experience. So thrilling that some people drive several miles over a dirt road to get there and then discover that they are too afraid to step onto the walkway. In all of these cases, people know they are perfectly safe, but they are nonetheless frightened. [...]
That many of the words (the fragments), in Reality Hunger, were originally said, or written, by others, is important; Shields argues, in the end, that the success of his manifesto depends on it enacting that which it advocates: writing that is appropriated, plotless, self-aware, self-referential, and, above all, representative of Reality (this word could be underlined, capitalised, italicised or written in wingdings... Take your pick; according to Shields, this is where art begins and ends). This argument, presented as it is, seems to work, unusually, in practice (the books presented as prototypes for the movement are, almost without exception, very, very good) but, perhaps, not in theory.

The arguments that cite James Frey, reality TV, and Hip-Hop, in my mind, overstate the importance of these relatively straightforward and transient cultural moments, to fiction. For example, that reality shows, "are a hybrid of mutant of documentaries, game shows, and soaps," does not seem like evidence that readers will naturally reject the categories of fiction and nonfiction, in favour of a larger, more all-encompassing type of writing. (By the way, I don't necessarily disagree with Shields, just his logic).

The style of the book is frustrating, at times (because it seems more interesting, I have described more of what I dislike, rather than what I like about Reality Hunger): the arguments, broken into fragments and pulled from hundreds of different sources, lose momentum as the voice changes; the tone (often too brash, as if shouted, to be convincing) changes constantly. And, yet, the book is enjoyable, easily read, even if the arguments do not stack up. Oh, and Shields quotes well: "I've never heard of a crime that I could not imagine committing myself." Goethe.

James Wood, taking the opportunity to speak freely about the nature of realism (which, in my opinion, is when he is at his best), reviewed the book for the New Yorker recently [link]. His introduction, represented selectively here, is long, but it says what Shields does not:
[...] So even if it’s hard to decide whether the novel can really progress it’s easy to see that it can congeal—that certain novelistic conventions grow steadily more conventional, and lose some of their original power. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes called this “the reality effect.” He was talking specifically about fictional detail (the kind that pretends to be quietly “irrelevant,” like Bob’s mole, in one of my hypothetical examples); his larger argument, made elsewhere in his work, was that realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”? Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages. All too often, conventional novelists find themselves producing a version of what the art critic Harold Rosenberg called, about fifty years ago, “kitsch”—that is, the following of established rules at a time when artists are calling those rules into question.
But Roland Barthes is one per cent wrong, too; and, like the one per cent that separates us genetically from chimpanzees, Barthes’s tiny wrongness is quite large. Convention may be boring, but it is not untrue simply because it is conventional. People do lie on their beds and think with shame about all that has happened during the day (at least, I do), or order a beer and a sandwich and open their computers; they walk in and out of rooms, they talk to other people (and sometimes, indeed, feel themselves to be talking inside quotation marks); and their lives do possess more or less traditional elements of plotting and pacing, of suspense and revelation and epiphany. Probably there are more coincidences in real life than in fiction. To say “I love you” is to say something at millionth hand, but it is not, then, necessarily to lie. All life is conventional in various ways, like narrative; postmodernists as different as Thomas Pynchon and Steven Millhauser use many conventional narrative elements (sometimes as parody, and sometimes not). [...]
Barthes often sounds as if he considered fictional narrative to be a fundamentally sneaky enterprise, in which bourgeois novelists were conspiring in smooth lies. In this sense, his critique of realism is religious in flavor, and joins a long tradition of religious anti-novelistic suspicion. With less √©lan than Barthes, but with some of his sacred zeal, David Shields makes a passionate plea for what he calls “reality-based art” in his new book, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” (Knopf; $24.95). Shields prosecutes an effective, if coarse, sub-Barthesian argument against the traditional novelistic machinery. He rants a bit, apparently fearful that if he were quieter we would not believe in his sincerity [...]


  1. sweet news brother. enjoying the balloon.

  2. Thanks Miles.

    And, whilst I'm here, have you read The Book of Memories by Peter Nadas? At times, when I am reading certain passages, I am reminded of your own prose, particularly those fragments you have been posting on your blog recently. If you haven't read it, I think you should check it out...


  3. This is excellent - the first thing I've read about Reality Hunger, a book whose subject I find pretty compelling, that made me think the book is actually worth reading.:)

  4. Thanks Sam.

    I'm glad I gave that impression because I do think Reality Hunger is worth reading (it is not a very trying read after all), even if some of the ideas are a little rough around the edges...