Tait's Reviews > Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Reality Hunger by David Shields
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's review
Dec 26, 2010

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bookshelves: literature, culture-theory

This book is extremely thought provoking - though infuriating might be a better term - in it's attempt to explore the relationship between literature and reality, but ultimately fails in understanding what that relationship fully is.

Shields' main argument is that the lyric essay is better able to represent reality than narrative fiction, because reality is far more fragmented and less constructed than a linear plot. The problem is, as other reviewers have pointed out, that reality is not necessarily like the way Shields claims it is; for many people (myself included and perhaps the majority of people considering the popularity of storytelling through all history), narrative is a far more effective way of ordering reality. Sure, linearality isn't perfect, but the essay's form is just as constructed, if not more so because it doesn't follow the conventions of time that make narratives feel so real, or at least so compelling. Just because Shields himself couldn't write a novel (which he admits to multiple times) is no reason for the form to be so roundly dismissed, at least not without exploring what effects narrative actually has on people's perception of reality.

The deeper problem for me though is that, for a book so hung up on its supposed hunger for reality, the question of what reality really is is the last thing the book attempts to grapple with, leaving instead Shields' arguments based on a limited and assumed notion of the real. As far as Shields admits, reality for him is essentially loss and failure. But as soon as he makes such a value judgment he ceases to talk about Reality, for life is other things to other people. I may have experienced loss, but that doesn't encapsulate all reality for me. He similarly seems to side reality with mass cultural productions and consensus polity rather than with direct human experience (no matter how exceptional), which points to the crux of the book's failure: that it clings to the false western academic notion that there is one objectively knowable reality "out there somewhere" that we can accurately reflect in language. Both novels and essays are subjective, no literature is an objective reality itself but the mental (emotional, spiritual) frameworks we use to order and communicate our experience of reality. But everyone's experience and frameworks are unique - Reality is manifold, and art can never be a 1:1 mirror of that. Sometimes reality is more effectively approached by representing something that doesn't look like normal reality at all, evidenced by the increasing popularity of supernatural elements in contemporary storytelling. But Shields brushes all this under the rug, whether ignoring it or not aware of it in the first place we don't know, because he's so focused on making his point and constructing a map of reality to prove it that he mistakes his map for the whole world.

Despite all this, Shields does make some necessary points about contemporary fiction. Namely that many realist novels no longer accurately depict any effective version of reality. A better argument would be to not say this is due to their false narrative form, but to examine how that form is now so caught up in generic marketplace demands. These kinds of novel have become merely consumer entertainment products, rather than attempting to examine deep questions about life the way that essays still can. But novels can do this too, or at least could if written as art rather than commodity. Similarly, Shield's book could have been a manifesto rather than a sour grapes cheap shot if it had the courage to examine the other sides of his arguments and self-awareness to escape his limitations, rather than burying them under endless borrowed quotations that are ultimately more interesting to read than any of the passages Shields wrote himself.
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