Wag’s Revue #6 Features Stephen Colbert, David Shields, and More

Issue 6 of the online literary journal Wag’s Revue is out now, and features interviews with Stephen Colbert and Reality Hunger author David Shields. They’re calling it the “Truthiness” issue, which I guess is appropriate. Here’s Colbert actually talking about Shields:

WG: Despite your professed aversion to books, you often have guests on the show from the world of literature. In fact, David Shields, who we recently interviewed, was on your show shortly after we spoke with him.

SC: Yeah, you guys should get a nice Colbert bump out of that.

WG: How do you reconcile that, though?

SC: Reconcile what? Having Shields on the show? I nailed Shields. You can go to the tape and see that. I mean, the guy’s book is the equivalent of you guys putting clips from my show on your website and calling it “The Wag-bert Report.” It’s—basically, it’s Wikipedia. A bunch of unattributed, slapped-together quotes. Mostly taken from Britannica.

“A bunch of unattributed, slapped-together quotes”–that’s about right, although it’s always a precarious position to agree with Colbert’s persona. As for the Shield’s interview, well, he manages to say a number of embarrassing things. Here he is explaining why he’s too busy to actually read the novels he’d love to see extinct:

What I find tedious are works that genuflect at the altar of narrative. What happens with so many books by supposedly intelligent writers is that the intelligence gets tamped down: ‘I’ll tell this story and the meaning will crawl through the cracks of the narrative at six crucial points.’ That’s not worth it. Part of my conversion, you could say, resulted of becoming aware of mortality. This is what I focused on in my previous book [The Thing About Life is One Day You’ll Be Dead]. This is it. This is my entire life. We are mortal beings watching the earth for a short time. I don’t have time for a 600-page novel that tells me that crime doesn’t pay.

Interviewer Sandra Allen has the intelligence to call Shields out on this. Observe:

SA: But doesn’t this dismissal also potentially dismiss art? Dismiss a reader experiencing the glorious immersion in the art that is Crime and Punishment, or for that matter Swann’s Way or Ulysses or 2666?

DS: First of all, most of the books that you mentioned were written a long time ago. I love Proust above all else pretty much. Of course if you want to read Crime and Punishment, Swann’s Way, these glacially-paced novels that have no place in a 21st century universe, you can. Even the Bolaño was written ten or so years ago. I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to write now.

Shields then blathers about how Reality Hunger, like Monet or Ulysses or Beethoven’s 5th (!) is really renewing art, claims that all of the critics who hated on Reality Hunger merely proved his point (Shields offers no support for this argument), and generally poses as a would-be revolutionary/college sophomore who just read half of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. The interview is basically great ammunition for anyone who saw through Reality Hunger.

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Biblioklept Interviews Adam Langer about His New Book, The Thieves of Manhattan

Adam Langer’s newest novel, The Thieves of Manhattan hits bookstores across the country this week. It’s a smart, funny hybrid that blends and bends genres with startling results. Adam was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept over a series of emails about his new book, truth vs stuff that actually happened, literary hoaxes, and being mistaken for the author of The Magicians. You can read more about Adam Langer at his website, including info on his previous novels Crossing California, The Washington Story, and Ellington Boulevard, and his memoir My Father’s Bonus March. The Thieves of Manhattan is available from Spiegel & Grau.

Biblioklept: Your new novel (or novel-posing-as-memoir-posing-as-novel-posing-as-memoir . . .) The Thieves of Manhattan is about a con game, a literary hoax, and the problems of art and truth, love and theft. It’s also a send-up of the publishing industry and a clever adventure story with a noir flavor and a self-referential sense of humor. I want to talk about all of that, but let’s begin with your protagonist, Ian Minot, a barista with literary aspirations. Early in the novel, he attends a Manhattan party crammed with literary types, most of whom he thinks are poseurs and hacks. At the same time, under his bitterness, we sense that he’d love to be a part of that world. How much of Ian’s experiences correlate to your own with the publishing world? How much hyperbole is in your satire?

Adam Langer: Looking back on writing Thieves, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember exactly where the reality ends and the satirical hyperbole begins. At some point, fact and fiction fuses in my mind, which is, of course, one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, it’s totally true that, as an editor of Book Magazine, I attended many a literary wingding in which actual events described at the book took place. Yes, just as Francine Prose happily greets our hero until she realizes she has confused him with someone else, I too was happily greeted by Ms. Prose until she realized that she thought I was Lev Grossman (Argh). On the other hand, though, a majority of Ian’s experiences and Ian’s biography emerge completely from my imagination—my resumé has a lot of odd items on it, but New York barista isn’t one of them. I liken this experience of melding the actual with the fanciful to one of those live action/animation movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Mary Poppins, in which the two coexist to create another reality.

B: At the beginning of Thieves, Ian is writing “small,” realistic, character-based stories that no one wants to read. He enters into a literary con with a man named Roth to produce a big adventure story that they will sell as a memoir–as “true,” despite how improbable and fantastical it is. Thieves is in many ways an analysis on our modern obsession for true stories (and the way that “truth” can unravel). Why do people demand truth–even when it might not be what they really want from a narrative?

AL: I think we, or at least speaking for myself, I do want truth from a narrative. When I read a book or see a movie, I do want it to resonate; I want it to either connect with my viewpoints or to challenge them and make me rethink them; I don’t like when my BS-o-meter is constantly going off. But I think people often get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened. Tim O’Brien has an awesome essay on this topic that kind of blew my mind when I was in college. As for me, I’d much rather read a story of space aliens or baboons or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog that rang true than a self-aggrandizing purportedly-true memoir or celebrity autobiography. There’s a line in Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, which I quite liked–”If someone said to me, ‘I’ve got this great story to tell you, and every word of it is an absolute lie!’ I’d be on the edge of my seat.” That line has stuck with me. Also, more prosaically, in the publishing industry, there’s a perception that, with the decline of traditional book coverage, a good novel isn’t enough anymore, that the author needs a compelling biography as well. Ian certainly has this perception and part of his frustration is that he assumes his lack of success is directly related to his lack of an interesting autobiography. He later learns he was wrong regarding just about all of his
perceptions.

B: In his recent book Reality Hunger, David Shields makes a point similar to yours that audiences “get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened.” Shields also calls for the extinction of the “novelly novel” or the “novel qua novel” — he wants hybrid or “remix” novels. Thieves strikes me as such a novel, clearly in its treatment of memoir vs. novel, but also in its self-aware incorporation of genre fiction tropes from adventure stories and crime noir. Had you tried your hand at crime fiction or adventure tales before Thieves? Were there any difficulties you faced in crafting your hoax story?

AL: I haven’t read Reality Hunger, but my sense is that Shields is probably a lot more dogmatic in his views than I am. I’m not particularly interested in rendering any particular literary form “extinct,” except maybe the genre of Manifestoes That Declare Certain Literary Forms Extinct. I’m a fan of novelly novels just as I am a fan of remix novels or hybrid novels. I love writers who experiment with form and writers who hew to the “well-made-novel” and haven’t advanced past the 19th Century. Though Thieves probably does fit the definition of hybrid or remix, I don’t think that’s all I’ll be writing from now on. As for crime fiction, I’ve dabbled. In fact, the first novel I wrote after moving to New York in 2000 was a thriller of sorts set in the publishing world and concerned a research assistant to a crime novelist who becomes chief suspect once that novelist disappears. It had a lot of problems, and I haven’t taken it out of the drawer in about nine years. Although I have other crime/genre fiction ideas, I think my tastes and skills tend more towards character-based, comic social novels. But putting together the hoax plot was really a blast or a hoot or something like that. It was really incredible fun to try. Normally, when I’m writing, I read certain books to inspire me; while writing Thieves, I was religiously doing New York Times crossword puzzles.

B: Speaking of crossed-words, your narrator Ian uses a rhetorical device that will stand out to many readers: he substitutes the names of famous authors, alter-egos, and literary characters for words he associates them with–so, sex becomes “chinaski,” after Bukowski’s stand-in, a bed becomes a “proust,” a thick head of hair becomes a “chabon,” and so on. How did you come up with this idea?

AL: Well, it seemed to me that so many thrillers I’ve read are filled with jargon, whether hard-boiled patois or technical procedural details, that I thought my narrator needed his own lingo. At the same time, the lingo worked for me because it established Ian’s mindset, one completely immersed in the contemporary literary universe. Before I even started Thieves, I heard this voice that spoke in this literary slang, much of which I didn’t wind up using because I didn’t want to overdose on it. The idea of the slang is that it should be understandable in context without anyone needing to understand or even care about what is being referenced.

B: There is an “answer key,” though–a glossary at the end. Was that your idea? Or was that a publisher’s or editor’s inclusion?

AL: My idea, and I was just having fun with the glossary. I don’t like when readers can flip to the last page and see how it turns out. So, my previous books have featured glossaries, an index, and in the case of Ellington Boulevard, song lyrics.

B: Like you, I’m a big fan of literary hoaxes–so one of my favorite passages in Thieves was a detailed list of various literary forgeries and hoaxes, many of which I’d never heard of, like Li-Hung Chang or the works of Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. How much of Thieves was born of your interest in literary hoaxes, and how much research did you do along the way?

AL:: I’ve always been fascinated by literary hoaxes and, while editing Thieves, I was reading as many as I could including the titles you mention, as well as watching great literary hoax movies such as Orson Welles’s F For Fake and Forbidden Lies, the documentary about Norma Khouri, and some awesome YouTube footage of “Margaret B. Jones.” I was slightly disheartened to note how many literary hoaxes have been forgotten. My personal favorites are the Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in 1764-5 by Madalen King Hall aka Cleone Knox, an incredibly fun read, and the poems of the fictional “Ern Malley,” who has some great turns of phrase no matter how nonsensical. I have no idea what “I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters” means, but man, it sounds cool.

B: While we’re on literary hoaxes, one of my favorite things about Thieves is that both Clifford Irving and Laura Albert (aka JT LeRoy) blurb it, and then, in the plot, a hoaxer agrees to blurb Ian’s book. How did the Albert/LeRoy blurb come about?

AL: I actually take a very active part in soliciting blurbs for my books, which is partially related to control freakishness and partially related to the fact that, as an author, I much prefer hearing from other writers than from editors, publicists or agents. Clifford Irving’s was the first blurb I got for the book, and getting it was remarkably simple. I found his agent, wrote her a letter that she forwarded to him. We had a very gentlemanly correspondence. I sent him the book and he provided a very generous endorsement. As for Laura, we were introduced via a mutual friend and, after I sent her a galley of the book, we traded dozens of e-mails back and forth and had a number of hilarious, wild and profane telephone conversations. She’s a lot of fun to talk to and correspond with.

My initial idea was to have writers blurb as their alter egos or writer characters in their books—Steven King would write as Jack Torrance, Gary Shteyngart would write as Jerry Shteynfarb, Michael Chabon would write as Grady Tripp, and so on. But I was advised that this would be confusing and most readers who got the joke would think that the blurbs were fake.

B: Have you ever stolen a book?

AL: When I was about eleven, I shoplifted a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Rosen’s Drug Store on Devon Avenue a few blocks away from my house in Chicago. But I felt guilty about it, so the next day, I actually wound up sneaking it back.

“Plugging Literature Into Other Literature” — Tom McCarthy on His New Novel, C

British Cover for C

Surplus Matters has reprinted last week’s edition of The Sunday Times interview with/profile of Tom McCarthy about his new novel C, our favorite new novel of 2010 (The Sunday Times is not free, so thank you, Surplus Matters). The author of the article, Robert Collins, situates McCarthy’s C as an indirect answer to David Shields’s argument in Reality Hunger that the successful modern novel must be a synthesis or remix. We’ve been critical of Shields’s argument, which ultimately rests on aesthetic assumptions that allow Shields to pick what texts will count in his reality canon. To put it another way, great works of literature, from Homer to Ovid to Shakespeare to Henry Miller have always been appropriating and recontextualizing the texts that came before them. McCarthy’s C doesn’t respond to Shields’s would-be manifesto; it obliterates it, following in the (counter)tradition of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and William Burroughs, writers who navigated the treacherous straits of history, art, representation, and reality. C is rich and inventive, telling the life story of Serge Carrefax in the early part of the 20th century. We follow Serge through his strange youth, where he experiments with wireless technology, to the skies of WWI, where he maps the terrain below him; we follow him through his drug-soaked twenties in the ’20s and eventually to the tombs of Egypt. C isn’t a response to the demands of a marketplace that increasingly demands gimmicky concepts and reality-soaked memoirs; instead, to use McCarthy’s term, C plugs into the reservoir of literature that precedes it. From the article:

If McCarthy — as [Zadie] Smith has suggested — presents a radically fresh prospect for the future of the novel, it is probably, paradoxically, because he has instinctively ignored contemporary literature almost completely. He would argue, in fact, that it is only by immersing oneself in all that has gone before that any contemporary novelist has even the faintest chance of coming up with something new. “I don’t think most writers, most commercial middlebrow writers, are doing that,” he says. “I think they’ve become too aligned with mainstream media culture and its underlying aesthetic of ‘self-expression’. I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.”

Self-Ironizing Anti-Satiric Culture and a Juggalo’s Sense of Wonder

Last year, Saturday Night Live ran an unfunny parody of an infamous viral video. SNL sought to mock the 2009 Gathering of the Juggalos Infomercial which advertised the tenth anniversary spectacular for that venerable event. The Gathering of the Juggalos is an annual outdoor music and culture festival initiated by and starring Insane Clown Posse. The best way to (try to) understand it is to watch the infomercial. You can watch the infomercial and SNL‘s parody at Current, which I suggest you do now. Done? Okay.

SNL‘s parody is not funny, it is merely observational; that is to say, it doesn’t ever approach satire. It is unfunny mimicry of something far funnier. There is no topping the riotous authenticity of the thing in itself. The original Juggalo infomercial’s joyful exuberance resists SNL‘s ironic aims–it can’t really be satirized. It is beyond kitsch, and eventually even schadenfreude. It does not seem real. Can the ICP enterprise be in earnest, though? Take their new video “Miracles,” for example–are these guys for real? Take a few minutes to watch this. I insist. (NB: Lyrics NSFW).

The video, apparently directed by Lisa Frank, communicates a sincere adoration and sense of wonder and possibility in a world of shit that’ll shock your eyelids, like: long neck giraffes, pet cats and dogs, fucking shooting stars and fucking rainbows, UFOs, crows, ghosts, moms, kids . . . you know, pure motherfucking magic. There’s a paradox in Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J in full malevolent get-up vamping in front of rainbows and stars and expressing anger at scientists who would dare to explain how fucking magnets work. Even more perplexing, earlier this year, ICP released the trailer for their Western film, Big Money Rustlas the deadly tale of debauchery, hedonism, and family love set in a small town of Mudbug. Again, I insist you watch the trailer. (NB: Language NSFW).

How might one go about satirizing that? It already seems framed as a parody of a parody. It’s anti-satiric. It self-ironizes. But again: How sincere are ICP?

Thomas Morton’s “In the Land of the Juggalos” (Vice magazine), the authoritative, in-depth investigation into the 2007 Gathering, reveals a close-knit culture of rejects reveling in “the worst aspects of goth, punk, gangsta rap, rave, nu-metal, and real metal to create a sub-culture so universally repulsive as to forestall any attempts at outside involvement.” Equally good, and more immediately accessible is Derek Erdman’s photo essay documenting the 2009 Gathering–the one advertised in the promo video. His marvelous, grotesque photos show a sincere audience, eager members of the Psychopathic Records “family.” Take a few minutes to suck it all in. These people are serious in their Juggaloness. But again, what of ICP themselves? They can’t be art-pranksters or scammers, can they? They are clearly serious about ICP as a money-making enterprise but what about as a form of art or cultural commentary? Can they be serious about the absurd sentimental content of “Miracles” or their woefully dumb Western film? Are they for real?

There is a radical authenticity about ICP’s project. It’s an autochthonous monster engendering a legion of mutant fans. Yet it also seems potently aware of its position. ICP/Juggalo culture strikes me as a form of ritual theater assuring a sense of belonging and even meaning in life to a group of people who choose to see themselves as outcast or othered. It is inconceivable to suggest that they are wholly or even partly unaware of how others see them; indeed, awareness of how others perceive them is exactly what gives meaning to being a down-assed ninja, a true Juggalo. They see you seeing them (seeing you seeing them).

Hence a condition of post-postmodernity, of a ludic and labyrinthine culture that produces subcultures resistant to irony, to parody, to the defenses of Modernism and the techniques of postmodernism. If we contrast the gap between SNL’s parody and the real thing, we might be led to what I think David Shields is trying to describe in his book Reality Hunger, a situation where the narrative techniques of modernity (and their counterparts in postmodernism) are no longer tenable forms of discourse and analysis in an increasingly technologically mediated world.

Experiment: Imagine that you wish to satirize (or parody) Walmart. Envision the details and observations you will use to mock the behemoth, its customers, its gross place in America. Then go to a Walmart. You are trumped. Hyperbole and irony are beyond you. There is no way to top the thing in itself. You are left merely with a set of observations, not insights. An ironic viewpoint does not cease to exist, but it can’t be supported via the traditional methods of Modernism or postmodernism. Contrast South Park‘s Walmart satire with the website People of Walmart. The former attempts to justify an ironic viewpoint through the logic of satire and mimesis. The latter is an ironic viewpoint of an objective reality. It’s not even parody. It’s “real.”

And this is why SNL’s Juggalo spoof signals the limits of parody and cultural parody’s satirical, mimetic aims. Like People of Walmart, it’s just an ironic viewpoint of an objective reality. The postmodern distortions of ICP (their clown paint, their mythos, their argot, their identities, their Faygo) and the surreal, trashy carnival of the Gathering present an objective reality radically open to a host of ironic semiotic machinations delivered in an earnestness that trumps satire. ICP have already done the work for you. Their world hosts ironic oppositions; their nihilistic anthem “Fuck the World” directly contradicts the sugary magical wonder of “Miracles.” The weird identity-symbiosis they share with their fans is wholly defined by radical otherness and alienation. If you take the time to wade through comment boards on ICP related videos, news, and articles (you shouldn’t do that, btw, dear reader), you’ll find a fierce hatred of Juggalos–a fierce hatred that paradoxically defines and confers identity upon the Juggalo. This is a priori irony. ICP’s aesthetic identity resists mockery, renders mockery moot. A recent internet video, “The Juggalo News,” attempts to satirize Juggalo culture. It’s mildly amusing but ultimately offers no insight. It’s failed satire.

Far better to dispense with pointless parody and enjoy ICP’s works for whatever they are. Re-watch “Miracles.” Around 1:09 or so Violent J raps: “I fed a fish to a pelican at Frisco bay / It tried to eat my cell phone” and Shaggy responds: “He ran away,” kicking a leg back and thrusting an arm forward in a pose evocative of Superman to illustrate the action of his bosom companion’s narrative. This is more precious than gold, Shaggy’s gesture, a miracle in “Miracles,” and I will take it as an earnest gift. ICP has brought me some measure of joy, and yes, tears (of laughter) in my time, so I do thank them.

The Delighted States — Adam Thirlwell

This weekend, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States (new in a handsome trade paperback edition from Picador at the end of this month). The word “volume” seems to imply multiple, discrete editions, but really the term has more to do with Thirlwell’s sense of humor. Like an 18th century novel, The Delighted States comprises chapters, books, and volumes. That playfulness also echoes in the book’s subtitle: “A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.” Despite the mock-serious tone there, the subtitle is a pretty accurate description of the book. Not that Thirlwell is pompous or long-winded. Rather, he’s the rare literary critic who manages to show authority without being didactic, who balances scholarly insight with playful humor and a willingness not to answer to every little detail.

But what is it about? From Thirlwell: “This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel. It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.” Thirlwell, a translator himself (the book flips over to his version of Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Mademoiselle O”) uses translation (of books, of styles, of ideas) to relate a history of the rise of literary modernism. The first volume finds heroes in Gustave Flaubert and his would-be mistress, James Joyce and his French translator, Denis Diderot, Marcel Proust, and Balzac. There’s Gogol and Nabokov, Tolstoy and Borges–not to mention their characters, major and minor. It’s a lot of fun, but even better, it’s the kind of performance to which every literary critic should aspire. It makes you want to read the books you haven’t yet read and re-read the ones you already have.

Thirlwell, like any good avid reader, reads his books (and authors) in dialog with each other, and I can’t help but do the same. The hardback edition was published in 2008, but I can’t help read in Thirlwell’s work a response to David Shields’s new “manifesto” Reality Hunger. Both authors recognize that novelists attempt to represent or even re-enact “reality” in their works (despite Plato’s claim that mimesis was not the business of the poets). However, where Shields for some unclear reason nihilistically argues for the death of the novel, Thirlwell repeatedly demonstrates why a novelist’s depiction of reality is important. Thirlwell realizes that “The more a sign looks as if it’s real, the more it will have to be artificial,” citing Joyce’s interior monologues as an example. “The less artificial a sign is, the less likely it is to be convincing,” Thirlwell writes. Put another way, novels — and by proxy other narrative art forms — must use artifice to achieve reality. Like Shields, Thirlwell cites Joyce’s famous quote — “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man” — but the effect is far more satisfying in The Delighted States, where it is contextualized evidence used to bolster a point, and not mere solipsistic indulgence. But maybe I’m still holding a grudge against Shields. And maybe it’s not fair to use Thirlwell’s work to rap at his (metaphorical) knuckles. Unlike the sensationalism, negativity, and gimmicks of Reality Hunger, Thirlwell’s argument for the novel is measured, patient, well-researched–and thus far less likely to cause as big a stir. In a single parenthetical aside he reveals more about his critical subjectivity than Shields is ever willing to admit in an entire book: “Good novelists (or, maybe more honestly, the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are also morally avant-garde as well.” It’s a good thesis on its own, but what’s really wonderfully refreshing is Thirlwell’s honesty about bias in criticism–that “Good novelists” are really “the novelists I like.” Fantastic stuff so far, and I’m itching to read more.

Kakutani (and The Onion) on Sustained, Analytical Reading

In her recent essay “Texts Without Context,” New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani argues that web two-point-oh innovations have led to a world where–

More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

Kakutani’s piece seems to be prompted by David Shields’s recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger, which she points out is a symptom of “a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.” She continues–

Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime.

Kakutani keenly points out the stakes of such a facile media-land, even as she posits the real good that can come from technologies. In short, we seem to be heading into a future obsessed with immediacy to the point that sustained, analytical reading will not only no longer have place or merit with the general public, it will also be increasingly difficult as we learn to “read” new media in new ways. Put another way, we are becoming shallow.

I see this first-hand every day. I teach Advanced Placement high school English courses, mostly to kids aged 16-18. I’ve noticed that in the past seven years my students are less and less able to sustain concentration on challenging–or even particularly unchallenging pieces of rhetoric or literature in the classroom. My current students are less likely to read for pleasure than the kids I taught at the beginning of the last decade. They have all bought into the fiction of multitasking, the belief that one can frequently interrupt one’s reading of Shakespeare or Henry David Thoreau (or hell, even Stephen King or a Harry Potter book) with a quick text message, or, worse, a change of the channel (I have to literally begin each year by explaining to students that it is basically impossible to read something by a writer like Herman Melville or Cynthia Ozick with one eye on the television screen). You can imagine what how these shallow reading habits affect their research abilities. It’s not just my students though. Nationwide, the NCES reports that almost a third of high school graduates need reading remediation courses in college and that remediation classes are necessary for those students to earn college degrees. It’s pretty much an open secret in education that these numbers are drastically under-reported, with remedial classes often given euphemistic names to hide the appearance of shared institutional/student inadequacies. As Kakutani points out in her article, shallow attention spans, weak readers, and poor research skills could lead to drastic balkanization, cultural inertia, and just plain ole stupidity.

Kakutani’s article points to a future where “the blurring of news and entertainment” is normalized, so what better way to end than with an article from The Onion, published a week before “Texts Without Context.” The headline: “Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.” The first paragraphs:

Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

“Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”

“Ow,” Thomson added after reading the first and last lines in an attempt to get the gist of whatever the article, review, or possibly recipe was about.

Reality Hunger — David Shields

Just what, exactly, is David Shields’s Reality Hunger supposed to be about? He’s brazen enough to slap the subtitle “A Manifesto” right there under the title, suggesting a work of sustained principles calling for something to change or happen for some reason, but after reading the damn thing, I still have no real idea what he really wants or why I should care. If I had to venture a guess, it seems that Shields is suggesting that we quit reading, writing, and publishing “standard novels” and that “realism” in letters can only be located in lyric essays and other works free from genre constraint (even the memoir is too artificial for Shields, and autobiography ultimately represents facts without truth).

I think what he really wants is authenticity, which repeatedly gets called “reality,” a term he (repeatedly) fails to satisfactorily define. Reality Hunger seems to argue that authenticity in the 21st century must take the form of synthesis, must chop up and recombine disparate elements, genres, cultural artifacts. To that end, Shields’s book is a tour-de-force of citation and appropriation. Aspiring toward an aphoristic tone, Shields organizes the book into 618 short sections over 200 or so pages; most of the sections are not his work, but come rather from myriad sources across different cultures and eras. I have no problem with this (c’mon, this is Biblioklept!) and Shields clearly demonstrates that the practice is hardly new in the history of story-telling, rhetoric, or philosophy.

My real problem is the self-seriousness of it all. Shields aspires to “break” reality into his text by reapportioning and recombining varied citations, but this bid for authenticity is, of course, utterly artificial, often stolid, and not nearly as fun as such a playful medium would suggest. Even worse, it’s not really a proper synthesis; that is, in stacking bits of other people’s work together with some of his own thin connective tissue, Shields hasn’t achieved an authentic blend or, to use a term he’d hate, anything novel, anything new. The jarring stylistic shifts between sections will lead serious readers repeatedly to the book’s appendix to find out who originated the words Shields is copping.

If Reality Hunger approaches having a point, it comes in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Manifesto.” Here, he attacks “standard novels.” The term is appropriated from W.G. Sebald, a writer of marvelous and strange novels that Shields would love to be essays. In one of the few original lines in the book, Shields dismissively writes that “Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.” He goes on to argue that the personal/lyric essay is more closely aligned with philosophy, history, and science than novels, and that novels no longer have any legitimate response to these more “real” concerns. Which is utter bullshit, really, and seems more than anything to prove that Shields is probably not that well-read, despite his massive cut and paste catalog. Not that I think that he’s not that well-read. He just picks and chooses, according to his taste, what novels get to escape being “standard.” How can one read contemporary masterpieces like The Rings of Saturn or Infinite Jest or 2666 or Underworld and honestly say that they don’t hold value? Shields, of course, does/would presumably find room for these in his “manifesto.”

The most embarrassing chapter of Reality Hunger, “Hip-hop,” also reveals the most about Shields’s program. It’s also one of the few chapters to feature long sections of Shields’s own original prose. In a turgid, humorless, overly-analytical “defense” of hip-hop and “sampling culture,” Shields describes how hip-hop works, riffing on the function of “realness” in hip-hop, and grasping at the larger implications of a normalized recombinant art form within modern culture. And though I agree with pretty much everything that Shields has to say about piracy and copyright laws, the drastic artificiality of his style and tone is really too much here. It’s like someone trying to explain why a joke is funny.

The worst though is Shields’s assertion that “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” The sentence itself is a clever bit of sophistry that falls apart under any real scrutiny. I can name a dozen “real events” that I experienced in the last few hours alone, including eating dinner with my family, talking with my wife, and putting my daughter to bed. Complaining that we are denied “real events,” like the mopes Shields cites from Douglas Coupland’s Generation X who lament their “McLives,” is a way of excusing ourselves from the intensity of being present–at all times–in our own lives. The vapid philosophy of the spoiled whiners in Reality Bites wasn’t attractive back in the early nineties and it’s downright repellent now.

So what does it all add up to? I think that Reality Hunger works well as a description of post-postmodernity. And as much as I’ve ranted against it here it’s actually quite enjoyable as a compendium of clever quotations. As a manifesto though, it’s an utter failure. To be fair, he had no shot of convincing me that the novel is or should be dead. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary.

Reality Hunger is now available in hardback from Knopf.

David Shields’s Post-postmodernism

I’m halfway through David Shields’s much buzzed-about manifesto Reality Hunger, and it seems to me that the work is really an attempt at defining post-postmodernism, a term, I should clarify upfront, that he has not employed so far in the book. Shields tells us at the outset that his

intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)

Putting “reality” in quotation marks, under suspicion, or ironic scrutiny is one of core moves of postmodernist thought, and Shields relies on his audience to accept this premise, even as he repeatedly attempts to define what it means to break reality into art. The paradox inherent in the self-consciousness of the “burgeoning group” that Shields identifies evinces as a yearning for authenticity coupled with the need for the essential artifice of narrative. In a self-reflexive move that at once engenders and exemplifies the post-postmodern tension between authenticity and art that he is trying to describe, Shields comprises Reality Hunger out of hundreds and hundreds of citations from other authors. These quotations, literary samples, reconfigure into a new synthesis. Shields’s project is at once steeped in ambiguity–are these authors’ citations now his work? Do they simply lend credibility or actually create a new authenticity? Post-postmodernity then must always operate with “reality” under radical scrutiny but also primary privilege. Irony inheres but must be overcome somehow–winking at the audience is not enough. Artifice is necessary but must also be surpassed somehow. Shields’s post-postmodernism (again, I must stress that he does not use this term–he refers instead to an unnamed, organic group, a movement that is not a movement):

A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, unprofessional . . . Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a burring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

If Shields has possibly described two of his favorite examples throughout the book here, David Foster Wallace and W.G. Sebald, he’s also approached describing Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century (anti-)classic Tristram Shandy (a problematic volume thus-far unmentioned in Reality Hunger Shields cites in section 298).

I can’t help recalling the dreadful film Cloverfield here (again, so far unmentioned by Shields but hardly out of his scope). The film exemplifies the paradox between artificiality and authenticity that Shields sets out to carve-up: a major Hollywood monster-movie (could there be anything more unreal?) that predicates audience response on the “realism” of its medium–namely, the pretense that the entire film is shot on a hand-held digital camera by an amateur witness to the events. The film’s “art” then is to enact a manipulation of “authenticity”–the very “realness” and “rawness” of the document an utter construction. Reality Hunger traffics in whatever problems such a narrative construction might pose to a twenty-first-century audience. Full review when I finish.