Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

April 29, 2010

David Shields has had one or two thoughts. But instead of putting them in a dustbin, he's put them in a book. As soon as I write that, I am overcome with remorse. I know how difficult it is to have to think clearly, to construct a coherent argument, to give evidence for your point of view and to try to persuade the reader of its merit. But Shields doesn't care about any of that. He practically says as much when he writes that the "composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravaganza" when an idea's "perfect oral exposition" can all be done "in a few minutes". Reality Hunger reads as if it took a little longer than that, but not much.

Shields' comment echoes Dr Johnson's observation that "mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically ... grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made". Shields has written 617 aphorisms. But Nietzsche, who practically invented the form, has nothing to worry about yet. He was an innovator; Shields is not. Indeed, he seems to revel in his lack of originality. Much of the book is made up of quotations, which at least means that parts of it are interesting. Shields acknowledges the source of these quotations but only, he complains, because his publishers forced him to.

He tells us that he likes quotations, then he tells us that he hates them. That's fairly typical. This is a book that's always dissolving because every remark is contradicted by another one. But so what if Shields contradicts himself? So he is large; he contains multitudes. This collection of jottings is more about Shields than anything else. "No artist", he says at one point, "tolerates reality" - presumably because it gets in the way of the artist's self, which is a good deal more interesting a subject. In fact, it's Shields' all-consuming interest in his own being that helps to make life interesting for the rest of us. You don't believe me? Check out aphorism 536.

Shields knows nothing "more difficult than knowing who you are and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world". There must be many people on the planet who envy him that particular form of hardship. Perhaps it is the fact that he has never experienced anything much apart from reading books that makes Shields come out with advice such as "act naturally" and apercus such as "the gaps between paragraphs = the gaps between people".

What, you wonder, happened to his "built-in, shock-proof shit detector" that is "essential for a good writer"? These mental dribblings are the sorts of things you used to hear as an undergraduate, after the bars had shut and you were all back in someone's room. It was usually spoken by the bloke with the beard who got all the girls. Damn him.

Here and there Shields pens a line that makes you pause, briefly: "it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen". But on the whole, it's 1960s California topped with the cream of true thinkers. Oh, and Dave - Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is not a Renaissance work, nor did Philip Sidney "fight for the right to 'lie' in literature". He said that the poet told neither truth nor lies but invented.

To sum up Shields' book in a few words, if not minutes: he tells us that the novel is dead and that in its place we must put the lyric essay, which is questing, suggestive and fragmentary. In acknowledging that reality is elusive, always provisional and in part a projection of the writer's self, the lyric essay brings us closer to how life is than any novel ever could. But if you haven't heard all this before, you must only now be starting to thaw out after having been cryogenically frozen sometime in the middle of the past century.

There are three ways you can read the book: from beginning to end, dipping into it, or playing spot the quotation (answers in the appendix). Two and three were my preferred options as, after aphorism 53, I could feel my brain begin to disintegrate. Not the least amazing thing about Reality Hunger is the range of endorsements it has received from the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Raban and Zadie Smith. Why are they writing fiction if they agree with Shields that it has had its day? Still, they are all much cleverer than me, which means this book probably is brilliant. Myself, I can't see it.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

By David Shields. Hamish Hamilton 240pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780241144992. Published 25 February 2010

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