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‘Reality’ Revisited

Posted on Feb 25, 2011

By Shaun Randol

(Page 2)

Breaking Through

A quote from Walter Benjamin sets the first foundation:  “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men. Nadja. Cane. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! ‘The Moon in Its Flight.’ Wisconsin Death Trip. Letters to Wendy’s.”

Examples of other genre inventions include Beethoven’s “Eroica,” or more contemporarily, the advent of hip-hop, MTV’s “The Real World,” the urban art of Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and the abstraction of Kandinsky. These contributions to entertainment are unique and elemental because they not only turned convention on its head, but have also become mainstays in cultures worldwide. They represent genres now unto themselves (and, so, must also be exploded if we are to move beyond them).

Genre fiction, writes Shields, is “novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before.” And so we also need not only inventors, but also genre dissolvers like Roberto Bolaño, whose writing attempts to unchain Latin American writers from the boundaries of magical realism, or David Foster Wallace, whose fiction pleads for the sustained navel-gazing monologue to break the bland forms of postmodern character development, or lack thereof.

As far as literature is concerned, the realization of Shields’ call for genre-breakers and -dissolvers can be achieved in two ways: through collage, and by careful, meticulous, purposeful construction of a false narrative passed off as truth, or the opposite—an actuality so absurd it can only be deemed a work of fiction (the manifestation of “truth is stranger than fiction”). This latter method comes about through the successful translation of the often-disturbing honesty that lies at the core of each and every one of us, the private mind that is inwardly consulted minute after minute (the 99 percent of our mindful existence), but very rarely shared. See David Foster Wallace as a guide for this path.


book cover


Reality Hunger: A Manifesto


By David Shields


Vintage, 240 pages


Buy the book

The successful combination of these two “breaking through” methods—collage and false narrative—may prove to be as seminal as “The Iliad” was to Western literature, as abstraction was to modern art, as the electric guitar was to music.

In-scape Artists

The second foundational element of Shields’ manifesto is a sentiment summed up in Franz Kafka’s famous dictum, “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” Great writing (and great art, for that matter) reveals a kernel of insight as to how the creator handles being. Ultimately, we are all alone, living within our own minds and doing our very best to cope with the material conditions that surround us and constitute this thing called “life.” Any medium, therefore, that helps traverse the abyss of alone-ness (loneliness?) between individuals is a work worth pursuing and engaging. Shields cites Amy Fusselman’s “The Pharmacist’s Mate,” a story that puts the struggle of the self at the center of the novel, as an achievement in this category, one that accomplishes this high level of “in-scaping”—that is, an escape into the deep hollows of the inner self and the successful translation and connection of the inner self to others outside that mind. “So: no more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

Candor is key—being willing to say what no one else is willing to say. The act of writing is inevitably viewed as an act of courage (brave is all over the place). Life’s difficult, maybe even a drag; language is (slim) solace. No one else gets what you’re doing; I alone get it. You and me, babe. Intimacy. Urgency. We alone get life. Let me explain your book—the text—to yourself. Let me tell you what your book is about. Life is shit. We are shit. This, alone, will save us—this communication.

What in-scaping demands, if it is to span an emotional or existential crevasse in order to link to separate souls and minds, is naked honesty.


The third and most essential foundational element for Shields’ manifesto comes from Graham Greene, as previously noted: “When we are not sure, we are alive.” In other words, to be lulled into a complacent, predictable, unexciting existence is to be numb. You might as well be dead. To experience vertiginous doubt, where the dream world is mixed with the real world, where fact and fiction are as gray as London skies, where genres are melted and remolded into new entities, is to truly be alive. When your head spins and your heart skips beats and your stomach drops, you can feel it. You are alive.

Is it possible to foster and sustain this unsurety in literature? “Early novelists felt the need to foreground their work with a false realistic front,” Shields recalls. “Defoe tried to pass off Journal of a Plague Year as an actual journal. Fielding presented Jonathan Wild as a ‘real’ account. As the novel evolved, it left these techniques behind.” And it worked. The audience was often duped. Even outlandish fantasies like Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” with miniature people and giants pulled the same trick. It may not be a widespread conceit these days, but despite Shields’ contention otherwise the concept has not been entirely left behind. The intentional perpetration of fraud has recently been revived by, yes, Dan Brown. The opening page of “The Da Vinci Code,” a global phenomenon and controversial blockbuster, boldly states, “FACT” before claiming that the organization at the crux of the thriller—the Priory of Sion—is a real organization founded in 1099. Never mind that the group is an amalgam of the real and imagined and was created in 1956. Millions of readers around the world fell for it. “The Da Vinci Code” may not be high art, but it certainly spun some heads.

Provocatively, Shields’ call to blur the lines between what is real and what is not extends into autobiography as well, for “the line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit.” Everyone fudges memories, whether purposefully or not. Hillary Clinton did land in Bosnia, but not under a rain of gunfire, as she casually admitted. Relationships end, but easier than admitting fault is convincing ourselves that something else was the cause of the rupture.

And so, in the autobiographical realm, Shields says:

There are two unmistakable and distinctly positive effects of novels-as-autobiography like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes: first, they deliberately undermine the traditional and largely spurious authority of the novelist by depriving him of his privileged position above and beyond the world; and second, they narrow the gap that exists between fiction and autobiography, a gap that is artificial to begin with.

Let us not limit the blurry experience to autobiography, however. Charlie Kaufman’s film “Adaptation” presents an excellent meld of fantasy and personal history. So are rapper Eminem’s albums “Slim Shady” and “Marshall Mathers.”

Here is where Shields and I disagree. The stakes are high. If we accept that biographers and autobiographers are allowed to purposefully fictionalize historical engagements, how are we—as a global civilization—to accurately record, and thus learn from and improve upon, our human experiences? Historical misinformation deliberately delivered for the sake of polishing one’s image or just for the heck of it disservices future generations that seek to continue the progress of humanity. If they cannot trust supposedly historical accounts, how can they build on the foundation thousands of generations before them have lain? Exploding fictional genres is one thing; blurring the “non/fiction” lines of biography and autobiography sets a disturbing precedent.

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culheath's avatar

By culheath, March 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm Link to this comment

Gulam: Precisely!

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culheath's avatar

By culheath, March 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm Link to this comment

oh well…there’s another 10 minutes I’ll never get back.

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Gulam's avatar

By Gulam, March 1, 2011 at 2:36 pm Link to this comment

”  How are we—as a global civilization—to accurately record, and thus learn
from and improve upon, our human experiences?”

Every time someone makes reference to any “universal” norms or rights, any
global village, or global civilization, they are talking colonial arrogance. The only
sense in which there is a global civilization is the extent to which Anglo-
American colonial policy rules the world and makes the rules. The only
universal anything is universal, because the empire makes it so. They run a
sham “United Nations” in which the Americans can veto the rest of the world
and enforce “free trade,” which means predatory economic policies that
continually make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They mandate the
abolition of gender roles that have been at the centre of all major successful
civilizations, and in doing so double the energy needs of nations by doubling
the size of the work force, great for energy companies but suicidal for the

This writer is just another would-be trying to be “creative.” He is not the
creator;  that is not part of the job description for any primate. As finite
creatures our prime mode is failure, for that is the future for every organized
system in the real world. We always take existing forms and either give them
new life or work to kill them. Killing is killing, and deconstruction is essentially
killing, sometimes a useful and necessary activity, an inevitable sub-theme in
this world, but killing is not the main attraction; life is. Positive constructions
are the work of the real intellectual, and the most lasting of these are those that
deal again with familiar formats and age-old themes.

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By Expat, March 1, 2011 at 1:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If “The life of the average American is a continuous, rapid-fire onslaught of information, disinformation and infotainment, in which fact cannot be easily distinguished from fiction” why would I want subject myself to more of this chaos in a novel? 

If I don’t know what’s up or down, or real or not real, I walk away from that book.  If I want that kind of stuff I’ll watch arty foreign films that can do just that and be a lot more interesting with images and sound. 

A novel, above all else tells a story, and that’s what readers will always be interested in, and when a story works it gives a sense of life and a sense of permanence. 

“Writers must catch up to other forms of art (like mixed-media art or hip-hop music). And if they can’t, then the novel as we know it is dead.”  Good writers like Dickens, Twain, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Malamud, Henry Miller, Shakespeare, Hemingway (list is endless) have always reflected the times they live in. So what is Shields talking about?

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By Will, February 28, 2011 at 10:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I might care more about this review if someone else wrote the book (say: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Toni Morrison, Mark Z. Danielewski, Michael Chabon) instead of… David Shields? Who the hell is David Shields and why should I care about what he has to say about the future of fiction? Isn’t it more easy to deconstruct genre than, I don’t know, write good fiction? There seems to be a divide between literature as combating loneliness and literature as this amalgamation of ‘Truth.’ Also, Randol seems to be worried about preserving non-fiction, but what about preserving the best of fiction? Should we debase an entire art form just because the general public watches Jersey Shore?
Also, I think it is in poor taste to summarize David Foster Wallace when he isn’t alive to defend himself. Does anyone else honestly believe that he wouldn’t destroy the arguments in this article? Has Shaun Randol even read “e unum pluribus”? Wallace’s essay from the early nineties has more original thoughts than either of these tools.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, February 28, 2011 at 4:55 pm Link to this comment

There’s a contract between the reader and the writer which David Shields, while
hiding behind the mask of facile postmodern hipsterism, utterly fails to
appreciate, and now proposes to abolish. He ignores the possibility that some of
us enjoy the modern (“Victorian”) novel in part because it represents an
alternative to the incessant self-promotion and blithe narcissism (“in-scaping”)
of some celebrated emerging forms of literature.

And while it may benefit some in the short term to blur the lines of fact and
fiction, the long term result of mainstreaming that notion would mortally wound
the writer/reader relationship.

Like corporate outsourcing, Shields’ Brave New World of literary relativism would
end when there are no more readers (the middle class, in the comparison) to
take advantage of. There would only be “writers”, each living in their
reconstructed and consensus-challenged reality.

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Peter Knopfler's avatar

By Peter Knopfler, February 27, 2011 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

I am a victim of my up bring, growing up with my
CARDS. My Mother said comic books are for retards go
to the library. TV cartoons are for idiots go outside
and play hockey, basketball YMCA activities. WALT
DISNEY IS A RACIST, John Bircher my mother told me,
so was John Wayne. So I did not know ficton only
through studying Shackespeare, Herman Hesse, Homer,
closest I got to non-fiction was Greek Mythology-
Joseph Cambell, now over 60 and I have no time for
non-fiction the days ahead are fewer than behind and
reality is all I can stomach. Other people´s heroes
like Reagan, Well I knew better all along, I wasn´t
fooled by Fiction

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By gerard, February 26, 2011 at 1:02 am Link to this comment

Odd thought:  We are talking about something that is being talked about by someone who is talking about something.  And reality is .....?

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By Karen Haggerty, February 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


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By thebeerdoctor, February 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm Link to this comment

“These are trying times for the would-be novelist.” What in the world does that mean? When was it ever not? When the William Gaddis novel JR appeared, back in 1975, one reviewer said: “It takes a really great talent to write a totally unreadable book, Mr. Gaddis has such a talent.”
I think what Shaun “American” Randol is trying to refer to is whether something has relevancy any more. But this true of much of the arts. Long forms of fiction depend on having readers patient enough to actually read the text. Like much else in the present world, books are mostly vehicles for marketing schemes. Even politics is much the same way. Does it really matter what some dingbat says as long as the numbers are crunching right? Everything becomes eventually a marketing product. Notoriety first, then some seven figure product endorsement. It is not even a question of “selling out”, it has already been bought, from the very beginning.
It is hard to imagine a time when so-called established society felt threatened by art. Hard to believe that an actual scandal broke out when Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck was first performed in Berlin. Opera was relevant? Or take James Joyce’s Ulysses, having been determined to not be obscene by U.S. District Judge Woolsey, in December, 1933; but the question remains: how many people have actually read that famous book, even after all these years? And Mr. Randol is worried about reality television and twitter?
When someone declares any art form as dead, it is… at least for themselves.

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By Flummox, February 25, 2011 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment

Doesn’t postmodernist fiction already meet his demands for the novel’s reinvention? The book may or may not be drivel, but it definitely is 20, 50, even 100 years behind the curve.

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By thebeerdoctor, February 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm Link to this comment

gerard is accurate to ask who exactly is the “we” being to referred to. My late father use to say that “we” is what you find at the back of the barn.

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By thebeerdoctor, February 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment

Please note: someone posted a comment at 3:45 as unregistered, using my avatar. I did not say “I am also a moron”... although pointing out this fraud is also an idiotic, bloody waste of time.

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By gerard, February 25, 2011 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment

”  How are we—as a global civilization—to accurately record, and thus learn from and improve upon, our human experiences?”

What a question!  Who are “we”?  What will (would) a “global civilization” look like—how many similarities, how many differences, of what nature, etc. etc:  Who says it’s “accurate” recordindg?  Recording in what forms? Not to mention the annooying question as to whether or not we “learn” anything from the record (Who is “we”, by the way?) and even if we “learn”, do we “improve,” can we “improve” upon “human experiences”?  What “human experiences?”

Wake me up next Sunday.

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By felicity, February 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

Reality is a waste of time, today.  I continue to live
by and in accord with the saying attached to my fridge
door, “I used to be normal, but it drove me mad.”

Sounds like Shields is suggesting a ‘dada’ movement for
literature.  You remember that - WWI, on backward
glance made absolutely no sense, but it was reality so
artists decided that unreality might make sense and
gave us limp watches and contorted humans that didn’t
look like any humans anyone had ever seen. (One of my
favorite genres.)

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By WorkingClassDemocrat, February 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm Link to this comment

Absolute F*@king drivel!

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By tomack, February 25, 2011 at 10:44 am Link to this comment


And I take exception to the idea that the traditional novel is “passe”. For idiots maybe.

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By Paul Jefferson, February 25, 2011 at 9:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Actually, to me this article makes valid points about our everyday “reality” that we carry with us everywhere. Understand, he is saying that we cannot truly get inside other people’s heads, and how we process this thing called “life” is so very individual, and alone. Re-read the points about a fictional account and an autobiographical account of the same incident and you’ll understand what’s being said in the article.

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By teggenberger, February 25, 2011 at 9:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree with ‘thebeerdoctor’. The book sounds interesting but the article missed.

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By thebeerdoctor, February 25, 2011 at 8:27 am Link to this comment

This article is a pointless, idiotic, bloody waste of time.

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