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.

18 thoughts on “Reality Hunger — David Shields”

  1. Consumers of books, films and music demonstrate an appetite for less obvious artifice. Shields is on the scent but misses the bulls-eye. Reality Hunger is a decent contribution to what will inevitably be an ongoing debate.


    1. I might’ve been a bit harsh…I wrote the review almost immediately after the “Manifesto” chapter, and I was pretty much worked into a furor by that point–I wanted to argue with Professor Shields, I suppose. I think that there’s always value in a book that can elicit that kind of reaction.


  2. thank you! i can’t remember how i ended up in your blog (referred by bookslut?), but you’ve just gained a reader. you’ve hit on the most important problems i had with this book, even the tiresomely trendy hip hop section.

    except that i’m not finding Reality Hunger at all enjoyable.

    in fact, it’s kind of a slog.

    shields’s own interjections are either melodramatic, pompous, or so banal that i have to re-read them sometimes to figure out if he’s being ironic or not. he’s not. i’m also not impressed with the fragments he’s culled from other sources. none of them are really surprising: they make me think of what someone whose main reading fare is the new yorker might collect.

    it also seems that his idea of the novel is limited to boring middle class realism — and only american realism! — in spite of the references to the nineteenth century novel — hell, i’m not even sure what that might be. there are so many amazing things being published, not only in the US, but in other countries, in other languages, and in translation!

    i’ve never really understood the obsession with realism and authenticity . . .


    1. thanks for your kind words, mitchell. i wonder if you’ve read sam anderson’s review at nymag — it’s pretty much spot on:

      or lincoln michel’s at the rumpus:

      again, pretty great. but my favorite review of the book is at amazon of all places. tom badyna:

      i happen to have all of these up because i was going to put together a review of the book using other people’s citations–y’know, like shields, because that would be oh-so-clever–but it seems like there’s a lot of redundancies. and it would be disingenuous to use other reviews simply to validate my own opinion.


  3. I am trying to enjoy it. i just cant seem to really grasp what im supposed to be learning. infact with it being a bunch of quotes, simply reading through feels cheap. i want to eally feel like im getting somewhere with it. So i dnt mean to sound like an air head but how did you go about reading the book?


    1. Jamison, as you may be able to tell from my review, I too had a hard time grasping what Shields was trying to say. As far as reading the book–I read it very quickly over one weekend, re-read a few parts, and then wrote the review. By the middle of the book I was going to the index to see who Shields was quoting–trying to figure out the original context of their words. I don’t think you’re missing much, to be honest–my real theory is that Reality Hunger is Shields’s bid to make a name for himself as a gadfly.


  4. […] The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis. […]


  5. […] Phew. Under this lexical onslaught, abetted by translator Anthea Bell, Ghana begins to tire slightly. And it isn’t just relentlessness they’re facing, it’s deception. Austerlitz is only superficially the story of a sedate academic—between the lines it’s an excoriating indictment against Nazism and the institutional mentality that systematized horror and produced it more efficiently than anyone ever had before. Sebald very calmly paints an unforgettable picture of Europe as half factory, half charnel house, and Germany takes control of the game by exposing the rot in its own cultural roots. Nicely played. As the clock winds down to the 90th minute, the crowd is silent, dwelling on its own mortality and awestruck by Sebald’s dominance. By masterfully marshaling facts and mixing them with fiction, he’s godfathered a hybrid form that’s going to freshen literature for decades. Just ask David Shields. […]


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