Steev Hise's Reviews > Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Reality Hunger by David Shields
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's review
Feb 23, 11

bookshelves: filmmaking, fun
Recommended for: writers, filmmakers, readers of modern lit
Read from February 05 to 22, 2011 — I own a copy

This book really is quite unique. It's a collage of various quotes and aphorisms by both famous writers and other artists as well as by critics and reporters, mixed with original musings and pronouncements and autobiographical notes by Shields himself - all circling around the associated topics of appropriation, creativity, and the mixture of non-fiction with fiction. Shields has a definite agenda, and that's why the book is rightfully called a manifesto. With this book he is very skillfully and artfully backing up his opinion that the most interesting writing going on right now, and the future of "serious literature," is in a sort of hybrid memoir/novel form that he often terms the "lyric essay." He includes ideas from other mediums to support his thesis, mentioning innovative filmmakers like Herzog and McElwee as well as reality television, poetry, and painting.

"Reality Hunger" is inspiring, because it gets at some creative works, tendencies and urges that I've seen and felt to a great extent in recent years. This kind of hybrid, montage-y work is compelling and extremely interesting, and, as Shields points out many times, it (often, i will qualify) seems to get at what it's like to live in our modern world more deeply than a standard "pure" novel.

However, Shields is quite forceful in his praise and advocacy of this type of work, to the point where I have to part ways with him at times. He makes some pretty extreme statements, like that he "can't" read regular old novels. In fact toward the end of the book he really loses me when when he says of Franzen's "The Corrections": "I couldn't read that book if my life depended on it." To that I say to Mr. Shields, What the fuck? Did you even try? Or did you just see that it was an Oprah pick and a huge best-seller and conclude that it must be a boring 'normal' novel?" He makes this statement just a few pages after excerpting a letter to his friend Jonathan Lethem in which he interprets and praises Lethem's work. now, I've read Lethem and Franzen, and I don't see a huge difference in skill level or style, frankly. They both adroitly infuse their work with multiple narrative viewpoints, intimate autobiographical influences, and excellent commentary on the experience of modern culture and life. In fact, Lethem's "Fortress of Solitude" features a magic ring that confers the power of flight and invisibility (how is that "reality-based"?) whereas Franzen's "The Corrections" uses no such fantasies, and struck me to the core with its hearfelt depiction of true mid-westerners adrift on the sea of life - much more so than Lethem's brownstone-inhabiting brooklyn protohipsters. Perhaps it's all about who the reader is. I'm (originally) a mid-westerner, Shields is from New York. So yeah, he's friends with another New Yorker and gets his book more than I ever would.

In "Reality Hunger" Shields says that books can either help us escape from life, or help us deal with life, and he wants the latter, while most novel-buyers seem to want the former. This is undoubtedly true, I think, and there are many other ways in which the American consumer is clearly concentrating on escape.Still, I must admit I continue to love a good story, a narrative, something Shields seems to want to destroy. I share his desire to mix together the imagined with the actually-lived, but I think a good story, whether its "all fiction" or "pure biography" (neither of which really exist) can deliver wisdom about living while also taking us away, temporarily, from our current situation, can educate while entertaining.

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Reading Progress

02/20/2011 page 151
67.0% "this is an inspiring read so far, and skillfully crafted. i don't share to the same extent Shields' boredom and frustration at storytelling. but many of his other interests and priorities I am totally on board with, especially the breakdown of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction."

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