Reality Hunger by David Shields

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.

22 Responses

  1. I’m done with “controversial”
    I’m done with “controversial” books about literature, books, writing, and related issues. It’s always Much Ado about Something Important that so few people do that it is Relatively Nothing.

  2. “If you accept Shields’
    “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.”

    Yeah, I think this whole thing is based on an idea of novels as something you read because it’s good for you or something, like novels are health food. I never read a novels I don’t want to read. Novels should be fun. The notion that non-fiction is somehow more gripping to people than fiction is silly. Tell that to the millions and millions of people who went out to see fictional movies last year instead of documentaries.

  3. For all of his apparent
    For all of his apparent rebelliousness, that Champion guy apparently pals around with more gainfully employed types like Levi Asher (who contributes one of the fawning blurbs that appears on the cover).

  4. I’m currently reading
    I’m currently reading Toynbee’s Study of History. Filled to the brim with extremely colourful ancient social-reviews by some of the greatest writers ever. They may have been elaborate with their words but fiction it was not. And Toynbee’s lucid yet metaphoric writing could entertain me far more, because it is enlightening and just damn good writing, than some boring rehashed novel about whatever. Fiction will always be great when it is for whoever finds it so. But without truth we could not relate to it most of time.

  5. Genre is no guarantee of
    Genre is no guarantee of truth. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or non-fiction, that it did. I think what you’re really talking about here is style.

  6. I’m glad this book is
    I’m glad this book is stirring up some strong opinions. Eric, I know you read a lot of speculative/sci-fi stuff which probably makes the relentless drumbeat of literary fiction less oppressive to you than it is to me. I agree that it seems silly in theory that any readers would need to be “break free” from the worship of the novel. But it is clear that this book has struck a chord with many readers other than myself.

  7. “If you accept Shields’
    “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.”

    Somehow I find it kind of hilarious that there would be people in the world who need a book to tell them not to feel guilty over reading what they like. I mean, really? Okay. And then, of course, when will they have the chance to read this book that would liberate them from fiction’s nefarious stranglehold? They’re probably too busy reading novels they don’t even want to read. And thus the cycle repeats itself.


    Maybe I’m just naive, and maybe I’d have to read this book before drawing any worthwhile conclusions or making any arguments, or maybe I’m missing something because I haven’t even had a whole cup of coffee yet, but it seems like the same old thing wherein a dichotomy is set up in order to exalt one form over another. And who cares? Some people seek reality, some people seek an escape from reality via good storytelling, some people seek words used well no matter the form. There’s room for everybody. It’s not like there’s a quiz at the end.

    I’m not really trying to argue with you, but I’m just curious if I’m missing the point entirely, because I’m failing to see how Nonfiction: It’s Okay, You Guys! is rebellious or revolutionary or not already completely obvious.

  8. Jamelah, you are actually
    Jamelah, you are actually saying you have never felt guilty over not liking a book you were supposed to like? And you have never needed to be liberated from fiction’s nefarious stranglehold? I must remind you of a certain series of yours detailing your attempts to read “Ulysses”, culminating here:

  9. It’s true I read a lot of
    It’s true I read a lot of speculative fiction, but I don’t JUST read it. Hell, recently I read Murphy by Samuel Beckett and thought it was a blast. (“The sun shown down, having no alternative, on nothing new.” — Brilliant!)

    My point is that the notion that you should read things because you’re SUPPOSED to is stupid, and I reject it. If I were some kind of cultural studies scholar I might say something about the petit bourgeois mentality, but as it is I’ll just say it’s wrongheaded and responsible for a lot of what’s wrong with literary culture.

  10. I would think any decently
    I would think any decently self educated reader would have reconciled long ago any internal or external pressure to give creedence to one genre at the expense of another.
    Every book has a chance to inspire someone or advance the power of humanity, regardless of genre. Personally I fail to see what target audience this book is supposed to reach. Are there really people out there (excluding students) chained to books they feel forced to read? If so I feel very sad for them indeed…

  11. Okay, look … I must be
    Okay, look … I must be explaining this badly. Please let me try again.

    This book is meant to operate at a personal level, not a social level. There’s nothing at all in here relating to any peer pressure readers might feel to appear smart or trendy by reading certain novels. I definitely agree with several commenters here that anybody who chooses books because they feel they are supposed to read them rather than because they want to read them is a loser. That’s not the type of situation this book addresses.

    Situations this book implicitly addresses include:

    — the fact that bookstores, bestseller lists, writing courses, MFA programs and almost all major literary awards strictly segregate fiction and non-fiction. Why is this tradition so deeply ingrained? How does this longstanding tradition affect the way we all think about the books we read? How does it affect the way books are published and marketed? Is it possible that this tradition is not as helpful as we may think it is?

    — the fact that both non-fiction and fiction authors are frequently dragged into horrible “ethical quaqmires” when they cross that big thick line separating fiction from non-fiction. Again, look at James Frey, Nasdijj, JT Leroy, and a new one that’s in the news today, Ryszard Kapuscinski (the headline in the Guardian here is “Poland’s ace reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski accused of fiction-writing”!). These “scandals” have destroyed careers, bankrupted worthy authors, and caused good books to lose their audiences, despite the fact that writers have been deceptive about the true-life circumstances behind their work since the dawn of literature. Might the publishing/legal establishment be drawing this line between fiction and non-fiction a little too clumsily in some of these cases?

    — the fact that, as writers (and I speak here as somebody who considers himself a writer) we are trained to either write fiction or non-fiction, and trained to think differently about each. What effect does this have on us as writers? Is it always a good thing?

    I hope these examples help to explain what I think the value of this book is.

  12. “Are there really people out
    “Are there really people out there (excluding students) chained to books they feel forced to read?”

    Yes. Quite a lot of them. Possibly even a majority.

  13. I think JT Leroy had a fairly
    I think JT Leroy had a fairly clear mission in regard to her work (the creation of her character in the real world was a master stroke). I think Frey was a little more dishonest, although as a drug addict myself I may be a little sensitive on that issue.

    Levi I agree that strict segregation of books into fiction/non fiction is not always possible or helpful. You did make your case more clearly thank you.

  14. When I first sat in my
    When I first sat in my college library as a freshman, I looked at the stacks of books around me and said to myself, “I want to read all these books before I die.” The problem is, every year new books keep getting added to the stacks, but few books are ever removed. You have the classics, the 19th and 20th century, now the 21st century. Now I just want to read all the books in my personal library before I die, adjusting for additions, of course.

    I don’t distinguish between non-fiction or fiction. I distinguish between literature and non-literature. Literature for me consists of works in either poetry or prose that you think will be around for a while. This would include novels, plays, histories, philosophy, certain scientific works, essays, memoirs, and biographies, to list a few major examples. Non-literature is either practical reading (e.g. “How to trade currency futures”) or something that you read strictly for amusement (e.g. Mad Magazine). This is my personal classification system, and what goes into literature is my personal choice, influenced of course by what other people that I know, or have read, think should go into the category.

    So if I read, say, a 21st century novel that I consider literature-grade, and I read Toynbee, and Beckett and William Gibson, and I enjoy what I read, then I’m happy. But I don’t just look for truth. I also look for good writing, imagination, all sorts of things. How about being transported to another world through the imagination? Each writer brings his own talents and insights to the party, and they are usually all good in some way. Of course there are books you read that are supposed to be good or great, but in your own opinion, suck. This is personal taste. And so it goes.

  15. “Jamelah, you are actually
    “Jamelah, you are actually saying you have never felt guilty over not liking a book you were supposed to like?” etc., Ulysses.

    Uh, well, I didn’t feel guilty. Reading it was mostly a chore, though there were parts of it I liked, but overall, I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been something that I wanted to do. (Sometimes the struggle itself is the most entertaining part.) But I don’t feel guilty about not having loved it when I finished it, because eh, who cares? Enough other people love it, and good for them.

    So anyway, just wanted to say thanks for explaining the book’s argument in more detail. I get it more clearly now. If we didn’t segregate books by fiction/nonfiction, what would happen to the Dewey Decimal System?

  16. I agree with the basic
    I agree with the basic premise that when we read we hunger for something to fulfill a craving that we have for truth, or beauty, or escape from reality, or power, or love or whatever it is we need as individuals. Obviously if we were totally self satisfied we would not need to read in the first place. We would have no *needs* at all.
    But I think that our food can be found in many strange and wonderful places, memoir, fiction, poetry, high literature, nonfiction etc ect. To say that one genre is more truthful or satisfying than another is to narrow your horizon’s unnecessarily.
    And acceptance -from someone or other- is another thing we hunger for , that’s where the whole idea of trendy comes from. That’s why we read books we don’t particularly like- we gain acceptance.

  17. hmmm, got all philosophical
    hmmm, got all philosophical there for a bit… what really mean is- we all look for something very specific in a book although my specific is different to yours. So how would we ever find what we were looking for if there is no classification system?!?!
    Authors who aren’t sure if they are writing fiction or not should just have their own category, no harm done.

  18. But Michael, you don’t think
    But Michael, you don’t think Mad Magazine is literature? See, that just goes to show. As I’ve mentioned often here, I think of early/classic Mad Magazine as the very essence of 20th century literature.

    Interesting discussion here, people, thanks …

  19. I mean, the problem is…this
    I mean, the problem is…this isn’t new. He acts like Benjamin never wrote the Arcades Project, or Pound didn’t incorporate textual collage into the Cantos or that the Situationists did this and called it detournment that Flarf hasn’t existed since the mid 90s or that Jackson Mac Low and John Cage never did their mesositcs, acrostics, and aleatoric experiments [or Burroughs never did cut-ups for that matter]. These strategies have been present in avant-garde poetry and fiction in some capacity since Joyce and have only gained further prevalence as the 20th and 21st centuries progressed. There’s an entire lineage of textual appropriation, re-combination, collage, and using found language from other art, the newspaper, the historical record, and other sources that extends far past this fellow. I guess he’s just getting the memo? Or maybe this is Official Verse Culture and the rest of the mainstream trying to re-cuperate the avant garde?

  20. “We are wrong to think of
    “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.”

    The problem starts with getting hung up on exaltation. What, ultimately, does it matter who or what’s perceived to be at the ‘top’ of the flesh-to-pencil (flesh-to-keyboard) heap or sprawl?

    Epiphanies of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, to my awareness, occur in the mode of thinking, not in the thoughts thought. ‘Reality’ and ‘truth’ as put forth here look limited to me–they refer to narrative or story instead of mode of thought.

    As both a fiction (stories) and nonfiction (essays) writer, I want to slough off narrative more and more (naturally, not forcefully), have it become secondary to mode of thought.

    That’s just me. Basically, we each need to write what we need to write, and read what we need to read.

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