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‘Reality’ Revisited

Posted on Feb 25, 2011

By Shaun Randol

(Page 3)

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.


book cover


Reality Hunger: A Manifesto


By David Shields


Vintage, 240 pages


Buy the book

We act astonished, even dismayed, when we find out that the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts. We know that’s not the case, but we’re constantly struggling with this inevitability as if with the transgressions of a recidivist pedophile. We need to see the genre in poetic terms.

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. …

Finding Meaning

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.

Shaun Randol is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mantle ( He is also an associate fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City ( and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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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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