Reality Hunger

I’ve just been writing 100-word reviews at Goodreads of the books I’m reading for my comprehensives, but I was unable to keep my thoughts on Reality Hunger to 100 words. And I know someone will say that just the fact I feel compelled to write about it means it’s good, but— I think my need to say something about this book stems more from the overwhelmingly positive response to it than from the book itself. That said…

My main takeaway from Reality Hunger is that fiction bores David Shields (and therefore, it should bore you, too!). Sure, there were some interesting quotes in the book and some points I don’t disagree with—that memoir and fiction are closer than people think, for example, or that memoir is much like poetry in its mix of real and invented. Sure. Yes. But mostly, in the bits that weren’t the unattributed words of other people, it was Shields going on about how he finds fiction boring and memoirs are too close to fiction and essays are where it’s at. Ok, then. Write an essay.

This wasn’t an essay. It was a bunch of disconnected sentences and quotations, some Shields’s own, some from other people. I’m not sure where the manifesto comes into it. While it was a book object-wise (hilariously, one with a deckle edge! Quote from RH‘s Amazon page: “Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges.” So it’s a fake handmade book! Muahaha! Now that is awesome. Intentional?), it wasn’t a book content-wise, meaning there was no rationale for this being a book.

It was as if I took the contents of my blog for the past year, stripped the attributions from the quotes, dumped it all in to a Word doc and published it as a book. Which I could do easily enough through any one of the many POD services available. But to what end? What would be the point? Bookifying the quotes and posts I’ve written would mean stripping out the links (context). And a string of quotations, without context or explanation for why I’ve saved them would be pretty meaningless to anyone else.

No, the best place for such a compilation is my blog, not a book. Which I think is maybe the greater point that Shields is missing. Not everything should be a book. We have different media now; make use of them where appropriate. Reality Hunger could have been an interesting blog project, but it makes for a boring book.

That’s right. I said boring.

There’s nothing I find more boring than a privileged person going on about how bored they are. Give. me. a. break. I really do not care if you don’t enjoy novels or find them boring. Don’t read them then. Problem solved. Why are you telling me this? Why are you telling anyone this?

If I had to sum up my opinion of RH in one word, that word would be: meh. I didn’t hate it, because, like I said, there are interesting ideas blobbed in here and there, but they’re not explored. To me, it has a “been there, done that” quality. Yes, I know the lines between fiction and memoir blur. Yes, I know there’s a trend to reality/nonfiction. etcetera. Shields was stating (or quoting) these ideas like they were revelations when they’re obviously not. (And now, I’m wondering, it this just me? Maybe I’ve been thinking about this stuff for too long. Maybe these are revelations to some people.)

Anyway, I wanted more. I was expecting an exploration of what reality is. Or why the “reality” we seem to be hungering for is so fake. But Shields seems to take the trend to reality at face value, like it’s actually a trend away from fiction to nonfiction, from “let’s pretend” to “let’s be real.” But let’s be serious. The “reality” we’re trending to is just as contrived (if not more) than the fictional worlds Shields claims he can’t stand. (At least fiction has the honesty to admit it’s made up.) It’s not the contrivance that’s changed; it’s what we call it. Used to be we were fine with saying “this is pretend” and now we have to say “this is real” (but of course we all know it’s fake). So the real question is not what’s driving us to reality, but what’s driving us to claim we want realness when really we just want to pretend that the fake is real.

Kind of like how the abundance of positive reviews of RH go on about the freshness of Shields’s ideas, his argument, his manifesto. What?! He is quoting other people who already said these things. By definition these are not fresh, new ideas. They’re recycled ideas.

And that’s the other thing. Shields fancies himself a bit o’ a copyfighter: “I’m going to direct quote a bunch of people but not attribute them! Whee! I’m getting back to the roots of writing!” Um, no. Copyright is the exclusive right to make copies, derivative works, etc. And yes, it’s out of control, but that’s an issue separate from what Shields is doing (or wanted to do) here. Attribution is a moral right. If you’re not attributing something you know someone else said, you’re not copyfighting, you’re being an asshole. Copyright restrictions do inhibit creativity; crediting (or hat-tipping) people for the contribution they’ve made to your work does not.

Of course all creative work builds on what has come before. But acknowledging that your ideas build upon bits and pieces that you’ve read and seen and heard over the course of your lifetime, much of which you don’t consciously remember, is quite different than directly quoting someone else but deliberately choosing not to give them credit.

This hit home most acutely when I realized Shields quotes from at least two unpublished theses—I assume former students of his. While one might expect that the writings of famous authors would be recognized and identified by some, if not all, readers, the same cannot be said for the writings of unknown graduate students, especially when the quoted-from manuscripts are only available in the university library (not online). If Shields hadn’t been forced to cite, who would ever have known these words were not his? Seems rather unfair (especially considering he’s profiting from this book, and they, presumably, are not. Correct me if I’m wrong!).

And it’s not just unfair to the writers whose work he’s quoted. It’s unfair to his readers. With the authors credited, readers can find and read the works Shields quoted from. If the authors had not been credited, RH would have just been a dead end for a lot of people. Not citing advantages those who have already read pieces Shields quotes from and are able to recognize them, and disadvantages those who haven’t. I can’t help thinking there’s a whole power/privilege dynamic going on here. Those already on the inside get the references, drawing them in closer, while those on the outside get pushed further out.

Shields tries to position his unattribution as akin to sampling in music or collage in art. But there’s a big difference. In music and art, the source material is implicitly credited. In music, the sample will be readily identifiable as being from a different source because the singer’s voice, for example, will be different, so even if the listener doesn’t know who the singer is, they’ll recognize that part of the song as a sample from something else. Similarly, with artistic collage, the collaged bits are identifiable as being from a different source via style, via medium, etc. The artist and the musician are not trying to pass off the samples as their own work but rather openly incorporating it in something new.

With a printed book, it’s different. A lot of the cues you have with visual or aural media are missing. In RH, for example, everything is presented in the same way: the typeface is the same throughout; there’s no attempt to use bold or italics or a different font size or numbering scheme to indicate which words are Shields’s and which are quoted. What you have left are writing style and context. And to be sure, it was obvious that some of the quotations were not written by Shields due to a jarring difference in style or a reference to things that made no sense in terms of Shields’s own background. But if you went into RH not knowing anything about Shields or that the book was made up of a patchwork of quotes, you could be excused for wondering how he managed his many careers (writing! music! movies!)—not to mention how such an inconsistent voice got past an editor.

RH would have been better as a real scrapbook, torn bits pasted together, a true patchwork quilt of quotations, different typefaces and papers, one where the reader could see the torn edges and how Shields knit them together.

I found this remixed version of Reality Hunger, with the attributions from the appendix incorporated into the text, and just having those cues there makes for a better read, imo. The changes in voice make sense and there’s a better sense of time and context (the attributions aren’t dated, but you can be sure a long-dead writer isn’t referring to the internet, for example). But it also makes you really aware of how radically not a book this text is. It’s just a bunch of quotes!

Is it possible that all the positive reviews, including the ridiculously over-the-top cover blurbs are meant to be sarcastic? Cause if you read them with sarcasm they kind of make sense. If they’re meant to be taken seriously, it feels like an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of deal, like how people keep claiming that Twilight actor is attractive, but all I think about when I see photos of him are the fugly hockey players back in high school who girls pretended were cute (boys with no front teeth are adorables, amiright? ;-)) because, hey! they were hockey players.

Let’s pretend that the fake is real.

If we repeat it often enough maybe we will make it so.


Everyone and their dog reviewed RH; this is the one that I thought captured it best. Oh, and also this.