REALITY HUNGER, truth, lies and why manifestos make me cranky

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.

REALITY HUNGER has kept me awake for a week.   Reading it, I kept wanting to raise my hand and say, “yes, but….”   I scribbled in every margin, argued, cheered, agreed, sneered, made snide remarks.  I filled up the blank pages on both ends.   Sometimes because I was excited by the ideas, sometimes because I found them banal or wrong-headed or filled with sloppy thinking.   Sometimes, as when Shields (apparently) writes about music or cites his own notes to friends explaining what their books are really about, because I was moved.  As a nonfiction writer, I felt cheered that Shields champions the essay as more than narrative—which even in writing programs seems to be the default idea of what an essay can do: tell a nonfiction story with all the shape, arc, structure and certitude of a conventional short story.   The lyric essay is an exciting and infinitely plastic form and Shields gives it a bigger platform than it’s had outside of John D’Agata’s anthologies and The Seneca Review (I exaggerate).  To his call to invention and to throwing off tired forms, I shout a loud huzzah.

I have to confess that I did not follow Shields’ instructions to cut out and toss the endnotes.  Instead, I copied the information into the book at the appropriately numbered sections: 312 James Joyce, 200 Virginia Woolf, 157 Wittgenstein, 539 Cocteau.   I know de-contextualization and all that is very hip-hop and so forth, but I like to know who says what, and I also wanted to know what bits Shields himself (if there is a self) had written and pasted into the collage.   Shields lets his chorus do most of the talking, and when he does pipe up, at least in the first half of the book, it’s often disappointing (to wit: #112: “Memoir is a construct used by publishers to niche-market a genre between fact and fiction, to counteract and assimilate with reality shows”; or #166: “Anything processed by memory is fiction”).  If a writer’s going to play DJ, spinning other people’s records and hoping we’ll dance, he’s got to have better patter and style.   He’s got to play us some new ideas.

And that is one of my perhaps petty grievances with the book: much of it is not exactly a revelation: narrative imposes a structure that “real life” doesn’t have; representation is not the thing itself; memory is fallible; the “I” who speaks in nonfiction is a persona.   At times the book reads less like an essay and more like a commonplace book, in more ways than one.    Only with the hip-hop chapter (“j”) do the prose and the thinking come alive—and that chapter, ostensibly, is mostly Shields.  He should write more of his own stuff.  The riffs on the evolutions of music and what they tell us about writing and reality are brilliant.  So are chapters x, y and z.

A sampling of my other negative squibs, copied from the endpapers:

  • This would have been more interesting (real) if he’d done something else with the fragments (pasted them to mirrors in public restrooms, climbed the space needle and thrown them into the wind).
  • This is like overhearing undergraduates (born 1991) rave over having just discovered Led Zeppelin or pot.
  • Re: lit theft: been there, done that: Borges, Kathy Acker, Homer
  • Patricial Hampl is the wisest, clearest thinker we have on the subject of memoir.
  • Universalizing (and why manifestos are tiresome):
  1. Who is this “we” in “we hunger/thirst” for reality? who is the “our” in “our life today”?
  2. “life is what a man thinks all day” (#429 Emerson).  Where is the body in all this?
  3. Why are 98% of the citations to male writers?

What is reality?  This reads like the angst of the over-privileged.

#587: “life is shit. We are shit.  This, alone, will save us—this communication.”:  Really, DS?  This is what it all comes to?

These are only crotchets (though some are not).  So here’s my largest complaint: one might have hoped for clearer thinking in the section on truth, falsity and memoir.  Yes, memoir is a literary genre, given to all the aesthetic shaping and artifice required of any art.   Yes, “reality” and “truth” are slippery and hard to define.   There is emotional truth, metaphorical truth, the truth we find in poetry, the truth we find in dreams.  There is no way of understanding “reality” outside of language, so any rendering of experience is necessarily imagined.  Yes, memory is not mimesis.  But it does not follow from this that there is no such thing as fact.   “What is fact?  What’s a lie for that matter?” (d’Agata).  These apparently rhetorical questions seem intended to support the contention that the writer of the lyric essay, the memoir, the nonfiction work can simply, with impunity, make shit up.

I have problems with this, and I may be in the minority among writers.   But first, I think this discussion needs to be taken outside the echo chamber of the writers’ salon into the “world” we’re ostensibly writing for.  In that world, the genre label “memoir” or “nonfiction” implies a kind of contract between writers and readers.  The writer implicitly says, “I have made things up to the extent that all writing shapes, selects, orders, etc.  But I have not lied about data.  I really do have two sisters, I really did go to Disneyland, my memory is imperfect, but I’ve recorded its version of events as accurately as I can.”  That’s why Oprah’s audience went bonkers over the Frey’s deception.    They’d been lied to, in the commonsense understanding of lying: with knowing intent, Frey made up not just the story of his life, but data.

Within the writers’ circle, we can follow this line of logic: all writing is made up, so everything’s fiction, so why does it matter if we say something happened when it didn’t?   And we can simply dismiss readers who object when a book they bought because it claims to be telling the truth, turns out not to be.    But this, to me, is not the contract.  I don’t want to dismiss readers who don’t have as “sophisticated” an understanding of the truth as those in the salon might wish.  And I want to write as authentically as I can, as skillfully as I can, and as truthfully as I can.  That’s my intention, and if I’m tempted to write something I know is false (either emotionally, intellectually, metaphorically or factually), I choose not to.  I want to hold myself to the contract readers expect of me.

So there’s the lying that is writing, and there’s the lying that’s falsifying data.  Is there a hard and fixed line between them?  Probably not.  But is it a line that we have an ethical obligation to recognize?  I think we do.   And if we want to make up data, we shouldn’t call it nonfiction.

Because if we really believe there are no facts, or all facts are provisional, or facts don’t really matter, then outside the writers’ salon, we are in trouble.  Where along your “truth continuum” do these verbal constructions belong?: There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, waterboarding isn’t torture, and there were no ovens at Auschwitz.

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6 Responses to “REALITY HUNGER, truth, lies and why manifestos make me cranky”

  1. Alice Eckles Says:

    Oh, manifesto-femifesto, still I love Shields’ enshrinement of the essay.

  2. Kevin Kane Says:

    Thank you for taking to task the idea that somehow falsity in nonfiction writing becomes allowed through rhetorical questions. Experimentation and risk in any genre or mode should be encouraged, and essay writing, creative nonfiction, and memoir should not be exempt from evolution. But that certainly doesn’t give license for the bastardization of the writer’s contract with the reader. As you mention, “memory is not mimesis,” but the writer still needs to strive toward that truth and recognize when they edge toward falsification. Good to know that the minority you mention exists.

    Your line “This is like overhearing undergraduates (born 1991) rave over having just discovered Led Zeppelin or pot” had me rolling.

  3. Tracy Seeley Says:

    Thanks, Kevin–I just got back from AWP, and from the buzz about ‘Reality Hunger,’ I’d say we’re in a pretty huge minority.

  4. Two Hungry Davids « Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour Says:

    […] as Tracy Seeley puts it in her post on Shields: “Where in all of this is the […]

  5. Geraldine Says:

    I’m curious to find out what blog system you are utilizing? I’m having some minor security problems with my latest site and I’d like to find something more risk-free. Do you have any solutions?

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