“I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.”
That’s Amazon’s teaser for Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). Now seems the perfect time for me to consider author David Shields’ position, which he presents in 618 numbered paragraphs, many of them quotes from other writers and artists. It strikes me that this book might have worked better as 618 blog posts with comments, so I’ll do that here, commenting on any of the paragraphs that happen to grab me as they’re passing by.
1. Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.
That’s the opening sentence of the book, and already I don’t agree. But I’m not in the mood for the big universal concepts; I want to think about whether I personally am wasting my time writing novels.
50. The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.
Did the creators ever believe that the characters were anything more than puppets? Oh, but now I see that it’s Robbe-Grillet who made this statement — he wrote novels, did he not? In a sense R-G’s characters are puppets, no more animate than the lampposts against which they lean. Maybe he regarded real humans as puppet-like.
57. Increasingly, the novel goes had in hand with a straightjacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary of watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.
Is the straightjacket built into the form? Is the medium intrinsically concrete? But I see the point: it’s hard to evade or dismantle one’s own and others’ expectations about what a novel is supposed to be. Maybe migrate to other forms that are either so new that they’re not yet burdened by tradition, or so old that the traditions no longer exert any real force on the contemporary practitioner.
63. …memoirs really can claim to be modern novels, all the way down to the presence of an unreliable narrator.
Shields wants to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, between author and character. In this context he commends Proust and Exley and Sebald. Shields I think wants to argue that, since every novel’s main characters are stand-ins for the writer, the writer should do away with the artifice and write in the first person. In so doing, the writer need not feel bound to tell the factual truth about himself and his life, inasmuch as memory is so distorted as to be nearly indistinguishable from imagination. Fine: that’s one way to go. The question I have to ask myself is whether the invention of fictional characters does anything I couldn’t do more directly with imaginative memoir. Of the cuff, I’d say that I’m more interested in writing about the fictional characters than about myself.
65. The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of the fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened — which a fiction writer daily wakes to.
Shields goes on to commend the lyric essay throughout his book, but he never really says what it is. But why should the fictional aspect of the novel be deemed a “nasty fact” that both the author and the reader must overcome in order to take the writing seriously? This goes back to Shields’ opening salvo about smuggling reality into the art.
65a. The implied secret is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.
This is precisely my reaction to much of the speculative metaphysics I’ve read on the blogs, as well pretty much all the religion. My instinct is to go the other way: call it fiction.
67. Biography and autobiography are the lifeblood of art right now. We have claimed them the way earlier generations claimed the novel, the well-made play, the language of abstraction.
So now Shields is going to talk about reality TV and the memoirists who get exposed on Oprah as having made up parts of their stories. This sort of reality-so-called fascinates me not at all. I’m way more interested in True Blood than in Survivor. I am interested in the Making-Of, but only if I like the movie that was made.
68. I’m interested in knowing the secrets that connect human beings. At the very deepest level, all our secrets are the same.
Why be interested if they’re all the same? Maybe Shields should try discovering or inventing some beings whose secrets aren’t the same.
71. Truth, uncompromisingly told, will always have its ragged edges.
Well said! Oh, but now I look in the Appendix and see that it’s Herman Melville who wrote this, in Billy Budd.
72. The lyric essay asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank pages, or leaving the blanks blank?
Okay, now I’m starting to get the lyric essay idea. Sure, that’s cool. Why not stick a lyric essay or two into your novel? Wait: that’s been done already. Maybe this is the straightjacketing imposed on the contemporary novelist: maybe readers don’t like essays built into novels, distracting them from plot and character development.
82. Art is not truth; art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.
So said Picasso. I don’t think that Picasso was bent on smuggling reality into his paintings.
105. Proust said that he had no imagination; what he wanted was reality, infused with something else… The book, by being about Marcel, a writer, is as much about the writing as it is about anything that “happens.”
When I read Proust’s book, I’m not thinking about how these characters were real people, or how the events in which they participate in Proust’s narrative once really happened. Maybe I’d like the book better if I did. Certainly A La Recherche is about the writing, and it’s indicative of of my lowbrow literary tendencies that the writing doesn’t captivate me enough to distract me from the tedium of what “happens.” But I keep trying…
So now I’m one-fifth of the way through Shields’ paragraphs. Maybe later I’ll pick up where I left off.