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Posted on Feb 25, 2011
By Shaun Randol
On a lighter but equally thoughtful note, in trying to untangle what is real and what is not in autobiography, we come across this provocative gem in “Reality Hunger”:
The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what’s going on in his imagination. … We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we’re almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we’re always constrained from considering alternative scenarios; there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.
This point makes a lasting impression. When an author of, say, a war story describes an act of cowardice, we accept it. The soldier was a coward. He failed to act not because he was held back or was incapacitated, but because he was simply afraid. The author says so, we accept. Done.
If, however, the story is an autobiographical record of wartime exploits, and the writer says he had to stay hidden in the trench rather than attempt a rescue because he, say, thought his friend had already perished. Well … did he really think that? Or is he just saying so to make himself look better for posterity? Did he actually chicken out and is too embarrassed to say so? In other words, we are skeptical of the account. The author might have actually thought his friend was dead, but he also might have been a coward. We are free to question this material. With the novel, this interrogation is not an option. And so, novels can be seen to be more truthful and honest than an autobiographical account ever could.
Shields knows memoirs are fictions, because how we see ourselves is either an approximation or an idealization of the truth. Our own autobiographical reflections, no matter how hard we try to temper the act, are truly fictions. Shields knows this; he just wishes the rest of us would accept it and move on so that truly great works can be created … or fabricated. For Shields, nothing could be truer than fiction, and nothing is more questionable than autobiography. I find myself to be extremely drawn to this argument.
Talk about vertigo. …
Books (and other art forms) that combine the three foundational elements just discussed are nothing short of exciting and invigorating, both for the creator and for the reader (or listener, viewer). Lines between fact and fiction, reality and unreality, must be blurred, because our lives are amalgams of truths and lies. Nonfiction is an art, and therefore it must cease to be held to the same standards of proof and verification of journalism. Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” a founding document of Western civilization, is chock-full of quotes of generals the author entirely invented.
Inasmuch, fiction can speak truth, a concept with which many readers are already intimate. The novel “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac is a truer account of a young man trying to find himself than many memoirs will ever be. Fiction and nonfiction—need we even have the genres distinguished anymore? Shields would eliminate the labels in a heartbeat.
“Reality Hunger” is not a cataclysmic piece (or collection) of writing. Yes, it bends genre and bucks tradition (who is speaking? Shields? Beckett?). Rather, much like plastique in explosives or the powder in a keg, it is an enabling agent. Or, to use a more contemporary likening, “Reality Hunger” is an improvised explosive device (IED): It is improvised with its collage-like construction. It is explosive in its call to arms for the subversion and re-creation of artistic norms. And in bound pages or electronic form, the book is a device that delivers an explosive, potentially damaging message.
Perhaps, though, Shields should have titled his manifesto “Honesty Hunger,” as it seems his book is not so much a paean for reality, though it is, but a call for and an acceptance of Truth. And if that cannot be had, then the acknowledgment of such, and the acceptance of the second-best form of existence: reality.
I am captivated by “Reality Hunger” because I cannot form a definite opinion on Shields’ work. The problem for me does not lie in praising and expounding collage or sampling as mediums (though I am a fan of hip-hop), nor does it come in the call to blur the lines between reality and unreality (Larry David is a genius in such mixology). It’s the call to arms to constantly reinvent (or demolish entirely) the novel as a form of storytelling that draws me.
Nevertheless, I am consistently captivated by what Shields determines to be long, protracted, contrived novelistic forms. “There’s inevitably something terribly contrived about the standard novel,” he says, “you can always feel the wheels grinding and going on.” But why is that necessarily problematic? I may have been taken by Garrison Keillor, but before I realized it was untrue I enjoyed “Lake Wobegon Days,” despite its traditional construction and unsurprising format. I like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Moby Dick” and “Things Fall Apart”—novels that are explosive because of their lyricism, not because they are genre dissolvers.
If every book destroyed a genre, reading might cease to be a pleasure, and instead become a chore for the mind. Predictability of formula can be satisfying—it is why we watch Disney films and “Law & Order.” We know and like the arc of their dramas. Save the laurels for those that do defy expectations, just don’t demand that the reader make equally heroic efforts every time a page is turned. To do otherwise may prove exhausting.
Asked by radio talk show host Leonard Lopate about what books we would be reading in a hundred years, Shields hadn’t the faintest clue, other than to note that we would not be reading the novels we are reading today. His words will be prophetic only if the literary world takes to heart his manifesto. For according to Shields, if we are to be reading anything remotely different in 100 years, our literary canon must be obliterated and created anew. One wonders if “Reality Hunger” will be the spark for this explosive demolition.
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