“Reality Hunger – A Manifesto” – Why I disagree with David Shields

“Reality Hunger – A Manifesto” by David Shields (2010) – 205 pages

In this discussion of David Shield’s new book “Reality Hunger – A Manifesto”, I will start with the first sentence in the book. 

    “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.”

This quote would be OK, if the word “true” were substituted for “reality”.  Reality is often mundane – look at reality TV shows.  I know that Shields is struggling to bring something more important into his manifesto, but reality TV has pretty much trivialized and tarnished the word ‘reality’.

Here are some of Shields’ thoughts on fiction and novels

    “Increasingly the novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps its best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.”
    “My medium is prose, not the novel.“
    “Plot is a way to stage and dramatize reality, but when the presentation is too obviously formulaic, as it so often is, the reality is perceived as false.”

The idea that fiction writers are straitjacketed into writing a certain way for the sake of the novel is just silly.  From Cervantes to Chaucer to Jane Austen to Malcolm Lowry to present-day writers, writers have been free to do and have done whatever they want with the novel.  The word “novel” itself means new and different.   

Shields advocates something called the lyric essay in place of fiction

    “The lyric essay doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention.”

The lyric essay sounds terribly joyless and self-centered to me.  Whereas a novel can be filled with many different kinds of characters interacting, an essay is usually just one person’s perceptions.  One could also say that there have been lyric essays for a long time – they are called poems.  I’m all in favor of poetry.  David Shields should explain how his lyric essay is any different from a poem.  A lyric essay doesn’t sound as interesting as a poem.

Then there is Shields’ take on Hamlet.

    “The entire play is the Hamlet Show, functioning as a vehicle for Hamlet to give his opinion on everything and anything, as Nietsche does in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’. The play could easily be broken into little sections with headings like “Hamlet on Friendship”, “Hamlet on Sexual Fidelity”, “Hamlet on Suicide”, “Hamlet on Gravediggers”, “Hamlet on the Afterlife”. Hamlet is more than anything else Hamlet talking on a multitude of different topics…I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether…”

I love the story of Hamlet, this angry young prince who finds out that his uncle murdered his father,and married his mother.   What Shields is recommending would be very similar to googling ‘Hamlet quotes’  It is only within the contest of the play that most of the quotes have any significance..  And what about Polonius and Ophelia?  Admittedly, the last act of Hamlet is mostly dead bodies piling up on the castle floor, but the first two acts are magnificent. 

In a couple of places, Shields speaks admiringly of Anne Carson as if she were in his camp.  With her translations of the ancient Greek tragedies, I don’t think there is anyone who appreciates the power of fiction more than Anne Carson.   Certainly Anne Carson is very creative in all her work, but I think she gains her power from her appreciation of these ancient works of fiction.  Maybe David Shields should translate a few ancient plays so he could get some insight into fiction.

Shields also admires David Markson’s collage novels.  I wrote an appreciation of David Markson and very much enjoy his work, because it is new and different, unique.  But even in Markson, I miss the rich context that fiction provides.   I generally only read non-fiction that is written by writers whose fiction I admire such as Robert Graves, Primo Levi, and Dawn Powell. These writers I can trust to not be dishonest and self-serving which are the major faults of non-fiction. 

Shields also argues that copyright laws should be reduced or eliminated, because all works that have been written before are just artifacts to be “sampled” by all those lyric essayists of the future. 

But the proof is in the pudding.  Maybe in the next few years there will be some lyric essays by a variety of writers that are so wonderful to read that even I will read them over fiction.  I’m not holding my breath.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting post Tony. What exactly is his beef? Does he really think all art is about reality? Does he define reality? Like you, I see “truth” as being more likely. Reality seems way too narrow a perspective on it to me.


  2. Hi WhisperingGums,
    David Shields is so enamored of these reality books like David Eggers, etc. that he thinks fiction is over and the times hunger for more reality than fiction gives. He thinks novels are necessarily contrived and no longer fulfill any need. It is totally ridiculous stuff, but Shields has a lot of friends in the book industry who wrote the book admiring quotes, so the book got a lot of notice. He should have seen that reality TV is considered extremely lame, and that using the word reality to promote his non-fiction writing would not work.


  3. Well, I’ve long meant to read David Shields’ novel, Dead Languages, because I LOVE dead languages. But this new manifesto sounds like a deliberate slap against fiction. Have you noticed the tendency to belittle fiction these days, as if it is not an art form? “Only” fiction. I hear that a lot.

    Non-fiction is not as demanding to write–I know, because I used to write the damned stuff . It is simply a matter of reporting and organizing your interpretation of interviews, “facts,” perhaps tempered by your own philosophy and observations, etc. Of course, “creative” nonfiction and “”lyric essays are no doubt more demanding than what I did. It’s hard work, but there’s nothing more demanding than fitting one’s imagination in a form like the novel. Any intelligent person can write non-fiction!

    And what’s this about Hamlet? Honestly, that’s disturbing.


    • Hi Frisbee,
      Yes, the entire book “Reality Hunger” is mainly a series of potshots against fiction. I just haven’t seen any recent non-fiction that is in the same league as recent fiction. Perhaps there are some non-fiction works being written now that will be stunning, but it hasn’t happened yet. Apparently David Shields has given up on fiction; that’s certainly his prerogative. If Shields can explain how a lyric essay is different from a poem, that would be a start.
      His ‘thoughts’ on Hamlet indicate that Shields really hasn’t thought this out very well, despite all those people that have praised his book.


      • I was going to say, yes I’ve read some nonfiction that’s pretty stunning BUT then I realised that the two that popped immediately into mind were written by well-reviewed novelists. We rest our cases eh?? LOL (Though, I think there are good specialist nonfiction writers out there too…)


        • I’m hardly a non-fiction expert. Most of the non-fiction I read are reviews of novels, stories, and plays.


          • No, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction either – the odd essay, the odd memoir, and the odd other “stuff” like social history/commentary of which latter the two I mention are (by Helen Garner and Chloe Hooper). I actually like the idea of reading some more non-fiction but the draw of fiction tends to be too great.


  4. Well, the infinite variety of fiction seems to suggest some conclusions other than the author’s! Its interesting to read reviews like this as they cover books I wouldn’t normally come across.

    I’m not sure copyright rules are restrictive of many writers – who feel free to borrow each other’s themes with abandon. As they say, you can’t copyright ideas, and what self-respecting writer would want to plagiarise someone else anyway.


  5. Hi Tom,
    Shields uses the example of “sampling” like is frequently done in rap and hip hop music where the performer actually takes part of the old record and puts it in the new record. Shields doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Too frequently, I’he best part of the new record is the part they “sampled” or stole from the old record. Shields looks on all the literature that has been written up to now as useless artifacts that these special new artists should be able to “borrow” from without restriction. My own view is that it is doubtful that the new artists will come anywhere near the classics, and credit must be given where credit is due even if it is hundreds of years old.


  6. I’m getting rather sick of smart people believing that we, as humanity, are no longer capable of art that deals with culture and society at large and has the gall to suggest that we can actually do something about it.

    Your example of Carson is somewhat spot on, here, in that I would suspect that Carson firmly believes in the power of her work (and other’s work) to create cultural and social introspection. Her The Beauty of the Husband is a firm example of a work exploring a “real” situation through a somewhat idealized lens seeking absolution.

    I think writers need to begin to believe in themselves, and not to get placed within the trap of thinking that they no longer matter unless to kneel to an altar of lowest-common-denominator.


  7. Hi, Several years ago, I decided that Anne Carson is an artist whose work would be well worth any time I spent on it. This includes both her translations of the ancient Greek playwrights as well as her own original work such “An Autobiography in Red” and “The Beauty of the Husband” and “Nox”. It would be a shame if some dude with a tin ear like David Shields came along and “sampled” her work and somehow took credit for it.


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