My resistance to David Shields’ REALITY HUNGER started with the book jacket, which tells me I will either love or hate it, be a convert or detractor. The word “manifesto” lays down the same law. You’re either with it or with the status quo. I felt weary before I even started.
Of course, David Shields, or rather, “David Shields,” may or may not have written the jacket copy, and may or may not have written a manifesto, or even this book. REALITY HUNGER, as you may already know, is made up of 26 chapters labeled A-Z and 618 numbered bits of wisdom, most of them borrowed, stolen, plagiarized, ripped-off, sampled—whatever—from other writers. The original sources are, but only under duress inflicted by Knopf, identified in end-notes. And that medium, to borrow an idea from a thinker who apparently needn’t be named, is the message. The old and new together propel art into its future, copyright hinders creativity, sampling is the art of the now, and the lyric essay is the art of reality, because unlike the conventional novel, it conveys the gaps, ellipses, doubts, uncertainties and disorder of “reality,” whatever that is.
To elaborate: There’s not really a through-line here, but a number of threads that radiate and whorl like a spider’s web—the metaphor is Shields’, or someone’s. One thread is the nature, inevitability and necessity of appropriation by artists. A second announces, in effect, that for Shields at least, the conventional novel is washed up. He’s tired of made-up characters, invented plots, the neat arcs and structures that have nothing to say to us now. A third thread is that the moment for nonfiction has arrived. And not just any nonfiction, but the kind that’s been branded the lyric essay. Closer to poetry than fiction, a multi-genre prose of indirection, suggestion, association, fragmentation and non-linearity, the lyric essay brings us the news, where the real story is human consciousness. (The word “essai,” we’re reminded, signifies a process of trying, rather than a product of knowing). And so Shields’ own “essai,” REALITY HUNGER. (more…)