Stay Hungry: Why David Shields’s Book Is Important

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.


8 Responses

  1. Books don’t have to be novels
    Books don’t have to be novels to be great, yet you (and Shields, it seems) refer to great novels as examples of what you’re talking about. What are some examples of this revolution in non-fiction you observe?

    “Creative non-fiction” is an idea that’s been around a while, for sure – it certainly doesn’t begin with Capote and Mailer, though they are leading contemporary (though dead) examples; it could even be seen as Bacon’s operating intent with his essays, which pioneer the form. In fact, I’d suggest the whole notion that this is some golden “age of memoir” to be more helpful to publishers and marketeers than readers and writers. Does it mean anything other than “a lot of memoirs are being published these days?”

    This is to me why these “literary controversies” always amount to much ado about very little (if not nothing): there is nothing new or controversial to the idea of “lyrical non-fiction” — unless of course you are talking about lyrical sociology dissertations, lyrical history books, lyrical science texts, and such, which neither you nor Shields are considering. (Even so, there are indeed lyrically written books of history and science.) I might get more interested in this ride if Shields, who I suppose is the driver, exhibited any depth as a tour guide. But he doesn’t, as the lady observes, “shoot off sparks” or “sparkle” (and to me, thus, is not “brilliant”); the guy sometimes appears not to have read what he’s criticizing (and I guess judging by that link about the Bat Segundo show has been “caught” at this – another controversy!?!?). Really, the way so many readers (even those who ought to know better) hop on board these “literary controversy” trains makes me wonder if there’s not a good CNN/Fox TV show in this, where the host invites some know-little like Shields and some other critic on to debate a Literary Controversy. Should Huck Finn be edited?!? Is the novel dead?!? Does fiction matter?!? Is Anyone Reading?!? (These by the way have all been Literary Magazine Cover Headline News Controversy in the last five or so years.) I’ve gotten to where I don’t even talk about books any more, because this kind of stuff is always coming up. The ongoing influence of TV on literature, I guess. Foma for the granfalloons. La-dee-dah. So it goes.

  2. I love essays. As much as
    I love essays. As much as novels. Give me Wendell Berry or George Orwell or Robert Hughes anyday. Not too mention my favourite writer at the John Michael Greer. I guess i’m always after edutainment and not just escape. But each to their own.

  3. Richard Rodriguez’ work is an
    Richard Rodriguez’ work is an outstanding contemporary example of this – I call it personal essay, you call it what you want. But there are many other examples: all of Ruskin – call it lyrical essay, De Quincy, and I also consider Baudelaire among these writers because he wrote prose poems that were like little slices of life. Of Baudelaire, I like to say he was a poet and Paris was his beat, almost as if he were a journalist but filing his reports as poems. And then of course there is the work of WS Burroughs where in a book like Exterminator he takes off from memoire and riffs off into the cosmos.

    Damn it Levi, now I have to add another book to my reading list to see what all the fuss is about. A manifesto for writers. I like it.

  4. Richard Rodriguez on his
    Richard Rodriguez on his essays:

    “I do work from within my imagination of the world, but I have not created imaginary worlds. I write essays.”

    “Sometimes the Stranger asks if I write poetry.

    “Good heavens, no. Tying on an Elizabethan ruff. Gielguding one’s voice?
    No. I do read poetry, though. The ultimate non. The memorable afternoon.
    The apricot light. The cheese of experience without the maze. And poetry
    does intrude upon my essays, for simile is a language of connection
    between the worlds of sentiment and argument.

    “But, yes, this is just a collection of essays. For lack of a muse of fire. My interest as an essayist is prosaic. I describe the intersection of my personal life with American public life. My writing life, moreover, is purely an historical accident.”

    “The sort of essay I write — the ‘personal essay’ — tests an idea, any idea, against the narrative of a life. The first chapter of my first book challenged a pedagogy called ‘bilingual education’ that purported to have read my life, even proposed a remedy for my life. The first sentence of the first book I published was an act of self-definition: ‘I remember to start with . . . .'”

    “I needed a voice. I wrote in a voice I had never used in my intimate life or, indeed, in public — an approximate voice, a personal voice, a voice not my own, a voice that could say anything; it was the first time I attempted to portray myself accurately. I felt the freedom of the novelist.”

    “Memory was my authority.”

    “So many years ago. It occurred to me as a grandiose young man that the personal essay might dramatize a life given over to thought. To write of a life interacting with an idea makes of each the biography of the other. The essay recounts how an idea came to the writer or might plausibly have come. To this extent, the essay will tempt fiction. Plausibility is often a fiction, for who — except some scientist of cause and effect, some physiologist or logician or obsessive diarist or, to the point, novelist — would attempt to say, precisely, how one came to such and such a conclusion? The personal essay is the human history of a conclusion. The conclusion is the epitaph of an idea.”

    From “The Writing Life,” By Richard Rodriguez, Washington Post, Sunday, March 24, 2002; Page BW10.

    My favorite take on Richard Rodriguez’s prose style is this essay by Mark Richardson:

    “I did not know until this year that Keats spoke with a cockney accent”: Richard Rodriguez’s Prose

  5. Great stuff on Richard
    Great stuff on Richard Rodriquez, thanks. I guess I better search him out.

  6. I like your distinction
    I like your distinction between a book for writers vs. a book for readers. As I’ve pondered Shields’ book, I agree with you – it is a book for writers. And he’s trying to deal with the contemporary setting, electronic-ized, connected, splintered, speckled. And I think he’s onto something – that the human mind is changing and he’s trying to change the way writers think about it and express it. Rather than fighting it or declaring it a tragedy – he’s stating how he feels it is changing. I find it (the book, the thinking) exhilarating.

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