The novel is dead to him, but so what? Can’t he just go off and write whatever he wants to write without climbing up on a soapbox to make a speech about it? How does this offbeat preference of his merit a book-length manifesto? Why does this book exist?
— Laura Miller, on Reality Hunger by David Shields
Laura Miller’s question about this controversial book of literary criticism is a fair one, and deserves a serious answer. I wrote a bit about this two weeks ago, but I think I’ve come up with a better answer this week after attending a talk with David Shields at a Johns Hopkins University writing center Tuesday night.
Shields turns out to be an affable and slightly ponderous speaker. He explained at the start of his talk that he grew up with a terrible stuttering problem and might stutter again; he then did not stutter but allowed his train of thought to do a lot of starting and stopping at unexpected moments, giving his words a distant and otherworldly cast. “You don’t stun me,” a woman in the room who identified herself as a former MFA student at this college said during the question/answer session. “You’re brilliant, but I expected you to shoot off sparks, and you don’t”. Something about Reality Hunger creates this sense of confrontation — as I wrote on twitter, the book seems to come with backlash pre-installed.
The most interesting thing I learned about Reality Hunger during Tuesday night’s talk is that the book originated with a package of notes that Shields handed out to students at a creative writing class he taught and still teaches at the University of Washington. He kept developing and adding to this handout from semester to semester, and eventually refined it into the book. I think this fact helps to illuminate the purpose of Reality Hunger, and it provides a serious answer to Laura Miller’s question. This is a book for writers.
Everybody knows that readers don’t need a “manifesto” (which is what Reality Hunger calls itself, leading to all kinds of mockery). I said this to Shields when I spoke up during the Q-A Tuesday night: readers don’t need a manifesto, but writers do. The term “manifesto” connotes liberation, transformation. Readers don’t want to be liberated from their favorite books. The reason to read this book is to help you write.
It’s a fact that writers yearn for liberation (God knows I do, daily). To embrace non-fiction as a lyrical, infinite act (which is what this book suggests) is to discover a new method as a writer. Tell the truth. Write about yourself. Stop showing off how talented you are, stop constructing layers of artifice, just write down what is actually happening right now. If it’s interesting to others, you might be a good writer. If it’s not, maybe you’re not.
As that un-stunned woman in the room pointed out, this is hardly revolutionary stuff. It calls to mind Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac. Shields’s canon is just the regular canon. He’s not sweeping anything away. He’s helping us remember that much of the canon (such as, say, my own favorite book) is rooted in non-fiction, that books don’t have to be novels to be great.
This idea, of course, is larger than Shields. Coincidentally (or was it?) I attended a party recently for a magazine I’d never heard of called Creative Nonfiction. It turns out that they’ve been a literary journal specializing in the so-called “lyric essay” format for seventeen years. They’re about to try out a new magazine format under the leadership of Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher.
Creative Nonfiction seems to have a devoted following, and they’ve published some awesome people. The new issue features contributions from Carolyn Forche, Richard Rodriquez, Dave Eggers, Bill McKibben, Rebecca Skloot and some guy named David Shields.
Is a movement afoot? Maybe so, but more likely we’ll realize that the “truthy” trend in literature — this is the golden age of memoir, after all — is a part of all of our literary experiences, and that it’s really not the kind of thing anybody needs to take sides over.
“Manifesto” is a silly word, sure. But I don’t know many writers who don’t want to feel liberated.