Reality Hunger is a book-length essay about literature and culture by David Shields that’s getting a lot of attention for its provocative key argument: we are wrong to think of fiction as the most exalted form of literature, because as readers we mostly value writings that bring us reality and truth — which are, by strict definition, beyond the scope of fiction. Shields presents today’s literary community as blind and confused, trained to pine after the ideal of the perfect novel, the sublime work of art, when in fact we crave something more primal than artistic excellence when we read.
If you accept Shields’ argument, you will no longer feel guilty when you reach for a gripping non-fiction book instead of the latest trendy and precious novel that you don’t want to read but feel you ought to. You will be less likely to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree, less likely to emit an ethereal sigh at the word “novel”, and maybe more free to think about how the various kinds of writing you do might be “literature”. You will have a better understanding of what Ben Yagoda meant when he declared that the memoir had replaced the novel as the most important literary form. You will no longer use the term “creative writing”, because you’ll realize that all writing is creative.
If you subscribe to this way of thinking you may also develop a greater tolerance for shades of truth within literature, will cease to care whether or not James Frey or Nasdijj or J.T. Leroy were “lying” (as if great writers haven’t been making shit up since Daniel Defoe, and way before). You may also find a new context in which to place many excellent writers of our era who freely mix autobiography and fiction, like J. M. Coetzee, Nicholson Baker and Lydia Davis.
I like this book very much, though I dread the hype and backlash it’s already starting to kick up. Shields’ argument is all too easy to misunderstand or dislike, as I discovered yesterday when I mentioned the book in the context of my weekly Book Review review and got two unhappy responses (both of them, I think, objecting to something I did not say). I’m not going to jump up and down about Reality Hunger and urge you to run out and read it immediately. For me, the book was very satisfying because I generally agreed with it and because it was often fun to read. But what it offered to me was comradeship, not enlightenment, because I knew this stuff already. Still, these numbered blips of prose gave me several new angles to consider, and I definitely recommend this book over similar works of general or theoretical literary criticism like How Fiction Works by James Wood (which was good but did not feel nearly as liberating as this one).
I’ve never read David Shields before, though I see he’s been publishing books (starting with, yes, novels) since 1984. I like his style, I like it that he understands hip-hop and analyzes the use of the word “realness” in a Mobb Deep track. I enjoy his Nietzschean aphorisms and Ralph Waldo Emerson samples, and I overlook the fact that for all his rebelliousness he apparently pals around with Yaddo types like Jonathan Lethem (who contributes one of the blurbs that decorate the strange Chip Kidd cover).
There are actually several other discrete arguments in this book, along with the knocking-fiction-off-its-pedestal thing. One has to do with the greatness of the collage format, another has to do with the importance of theft or small acts of plagiarism to the creative process. I find it strange that Shields never mentions Jack Kerouac, who certainly fits his profile of a truth-telling writer. I have many minor disagreements with statements in this opinionated book, but many more major agreements.
I may put together a page of quotes from this book later. I’ll start with this one:
We make a mistake in thinking of memoir as nonfiction. It’s really nonpoetry. I don’t think we can understand the strong impulse of the memoir if we look only to fiction for its roots.