18 March 2011

Reality Hunger Artists (Part 1?)

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:38 am

“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.




  1. at least you’ve finished your novel. This is your ‘curiosity killed the cat’ tendency, your absolute determination to cultivate self-doubt at almost any cost to yourself. these are worth skimming, and one might see some glimmer of an idea, but they’re not worth anything more, and neither are Badiou’s Art Theses.

    My basic policy on these things is to ignore them completely by now, and I do. You ‘do what you do’ or nothing at all. If you find the ‘shock of recognition’ in something one of these Manifesto Assholes INTONES, then do so, but you’re lucky you didn’t discover this merde until after you’d finished you ‘My love to Wendy and the boys’. That was interesting to me personally because it was like one of my own lines in my first book, and then used as a caption, but you might not have gone ahead with it if you’d read this preacher first. Some Japanese Lesb’an got up and told Joan Didion in 2001 at Barnard ‘you don’t really write any fiction, just reportage’, and she was rather roughly finessed with ‘I just do what I do, I don’t have any hierarchies about these things’. Curious to remember that early on in Proust he says something about ‘having hierarchies about these things, as the silly people say’…but, frankly, she was right even if it was a cliche about the ‘hierarchies’, and he was just doing the toffee-nosed number. This he does many times, and afterwards feels guilty about it, denying he meant it, and/or saying he wasn’t sure what the fuck he meant, since she was ‘so fascinating’ and then ‘I was finished with her’ once I discovered that she was a ‘mediocre woman’. But, it’s very possible to be a genius and ‘often mediocre’, now isn’ t’it? Proust proved that point very well. Later that same evening in early 2001, I asked Didion in the Q & A about how she automatically expected the ‘person to get run over in the street’, and said something about how in the second volume of Proust, they ‘really didn’t get run over in the specific street’, and she said ‘no, I don’t mean that, but rather when it’s falsified to make them ‘not get run over’ when they obviously WOULD have. Once again, hyperbole has to be used to get any point across. I recently read some of her very old non-fiction again (and some more recent that I’d inadvertently overlooked), and as early as 1965, she was talking about Sacramento, her home town, and how its character disappeared in 1950, even when the character of bigger cities didn’t (yet). But what was interesting was that she had met someone on one of her trips back home who said ‘well, he never amounted to much’, and the man had, in fact, one a Pulitzer Prize for his writing in the NYTimes, which Didion’s mother pointed out to the woman. The woman replied ‘but he never amounted to anything in Sacramento’. This is the kind of thing I’ll find occasionally in her work and nowhere else, although that might mean nothing to most people: What it told me was that what happens in small towns and is understood to be the case by everyone, also happens in small CITIES, where we wouldn’t identify it so quickly, most often. So that–if you take one of the anomalies of movie history, Jean Seberg, who made it big with Godard and married to Romain Gary and all the rest of what she did before killing herself, you have a freak situation: A Swedish Midwesterner (the infernal, always-calling-attention-to-itself Iowa) who, after she became a kind of Parisian low-life and hit the skids, was herself the name of an award given to Marshalltown Iowan high school seniors each year–the ‘Jean Seberg Award’–and they never knew the grotesque decline and factual failure that eventually befell Seberg. Nor were they interested. They knew it was vaguely prestigious and that was all they cared about, not the ‘dirty movie’ Gary made on her ‘Birds of Peru’, nor even ‘Breathless’.

    But that is the extreme version. The idea that cities like Portland, Sacramento, Cincinnati, and maybe in the past, Boulder and Denver, might have this attitude, which would never be the case even among the most provincial and die-hard-proud Brooklynites or Queens-dwellers, or even Staten Island dwellers, if their son or daughter ‘made it big in New York’. But Boulder and the others may have also been different and more characterful in the old days, just like Sacramento. Probably so. The most prestigious places, as with Paris, are always the last to go. Cleveland? Who knows about that anymore? New Orleans always had character, even though it was poor. It still does. Things like that. Or it could be pure fluke: All the defense industry layoffs of the 90s in SoCal are fact, but happened seemingly suddenly, and with assurance for a long time that it was impossible, but still ‘Santa Monica had its beach’, so that made it so that Santa Monica, for one, never went on hard times in the same sense that Lakewood and Long Beach did. The ballerina Suzanne Farrell, one of the inspiring ‘deities’ of the current book, is from Cincinnati, a suburb called Mt. Healthy (yes, literally), and I met someone in 1997 from Mt. Healthy who had never heard of her, even though she was the most famous American ballerina of the late 20th century. People think ‘making it in New York’ is a big deal. And then you find that there is something deeply ingrained in the smaller CITIES, just as in the small towns (I’m from one of these, and even those will go a distance with you, but after you’ve gotten too cosmopolitan, forget it, too much sex, too ‘worldly’, etc., they don’t read it and they’re not going to ever do anything but remember that you were a pianist), that is a resentment of all worldly success on what is generally thought to be a given in terms of American fame and celebrity. Yes, they’ll love it if it still works within their context (like, say, even somebody falling apart like B. Spears was till she got renovated and went back to the tops of charts–that’s still understandable, she was ‘mentally ill’, and yet ‘we still love her’, that sort of thing.)


    Comment by idnyc — 18 March 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  2. Shields would like your books, idnyc — memoirs and personal observations about movies, released from the rigid factual and historical constraints of autobiography or film studies. Your cine-musique is an intriguingly idiosyncratic literary form. As you say, it’s what you do. Self-doubt is part of what I do. This pompous Shields manifesto isn’t dissuading me from continuing this fictional project to the “second season.” Apparently Shields wrote “traditional” novels then had an epiphany. I believe I read about this book in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of weeks ago and reserved it at the library, and it just came available. Shields drops in many quotes from diverse sources, self-consciously emulating hip-hop sampling as means of smuggling reality into art. The result is a series of self-contained epigrams strung together into a composite, their unity imposed by himself as the literary DJ. He expresses resentment that the publishing company’s lawyers insisted that he include the sources of his quoted materials.

    Making it big in the small town… A couple of years ago my high school (in a middle-class Chicago suburb) started some sort of hall of fame to recognize graduates who had succeeded in the larger world. The first recipient of the award was a guy I’d gone to school with since the first grade. He went to Harvard, PhD’ed in agronomy, cultivated some new variant of hops or some such thing that increased yield for third world farmers, and is chair of an academic department in the Midwest. He graduated top of the class in high school — have I talked about this before? — and gave his valedictory address in a faux British accent, much to the mocking disdain of the rest of us. The salutatorian went to Columbia, worked in advertising, quit and moved to LA to become a screenwriter, and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge (I know I’ve written about that before). He too should have gotten recognition from my high school.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2011 @ 5:21 pm

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