Recommended Reading
(May 14, 2010)

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields (Knopf, 2010)

While earlier in his writing career David Shields produced a number of fine works of fiction, he has turned, in more recent years, to non-fiction.

There is, for example, his beautifully-written work, Black Planet (Crown, 1999), subtitled Facing Race During an NBA Season, and his terrific book from 2008, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf), a best-seller.

His latest book, brought out in February, is Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

In the New York Times on-line book feature “Paper Cuts”, by Gregory Cowles, (April 7th), Shields described his new work this way: “My book ‘Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,’ just published, is a call to arms to writers and other artists to overturn the laws regarding appropriation, since creativity is inextricably bound up with ‘plagiarism.’ Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’ comes directly from sources; this is true of most of his other plays as well. Our (misguided) notions of creativity derive from the Romantic period; in Shakespeare’s time, creating ex nihilo was not the model. Embedded in Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ is the French national anthem. Aaron Copeland based a significant part of ‘Appalachian Spring’ on the Shaker melody ‘Simple Gifts.’ …..Genius borrows nobly. Art is theft. Good poets borrow; great poets steal. James Joyce said, ‘I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.’ Who owns the words? We all do, though not all of us know it yet. Art is not a patent office. It’s a conversation between and among artists. Reality can’t be copyrighted, especially in the digitized universe we now occupy.”

Shields and I were friends in college (the 1970s), and we have stayed in touch over the years. Because of that, I first read an advance copy of Reality Hunger about a year ago, and admired it a great deal.

There are 600+ numbered sections in the book (there were 580+ sections, in the version I read a year ago). A number of the sections were written by Shields, yet as the text unfolds, it becomes clear that many were not written by him, but were taken from the writings and words (such as, interviews) of others.

I use the phrase “it becomes clear,” because the book’s citations are not accompanied by quotation marks. They don’t, in other words, look like citations.

The version I read a year ago also did not include footnotes. The provenance of a great many of the numbered sections, therefore, was unclear. Because of this, the book—in its sense of blurring, as regards authorship—had a mysterious, cryptic (and very appealing) quality.

The published version does include footnotes, at the book’s end—at the insistence, Shields writes, of his publisher’s legal department.

In protest, Shields suggests that readers not simply ignore the footnotes, but cut them out of the book (a dotted line is included, to aid in doing so). For as he writes (in section #272 of the book): “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”

Yet Shields, in Reality Hunger, is not simply appropriating—or, sampling—the work of others. He is also reshaping it.

He writes (section #296): “Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little—for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim.”

(There is also a recurring blending, within sections. A footnote about one of the book’s sections, for example, reads: “First three sentences are from Brian Camp’s letter to the New York Times, ‘Is It Plagiarism, or Teenage Prose?’; the rest of the passage, except for the last line, is from Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Annals of Culture,’ New Yorker.”)

Here are other (full or partial) sections, from the book (along with their sources):

Section #44: “Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century .” (from Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy)

From #277: “Hip-hop and dance DJs take snatches of different songs that already exist in the culture and stitch them together to suit their own needs and moods.” (Shields)

A defense of appropriation, from #240: “Anything that exists in the culture is fair game to assimilate into a new work, and having preexisting media of some kind in the new piece is thrilling in a way that ‘fiction’ can’t be.” (Shields)

And this (#102): “I don’t feel any of the guilt normally attached to ‘plagiarism,’ which seems to me organically connected to creativity itself.” (Jonathan Lethem, interviewed in The Boston Globe.)

#92: Shields calls James Frey “a terrible writer”, and says that he doesn’t want to defend him “per se,” regarding the controversy about Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Yet he writes, of Frey, and other memoirists known for fabrications, that “of course they made things up. Who doesn’t?”

In another section (# 116), he cites writer Alice Marshall, regarding Frey. Writes Marshall (or, perhaps—Marshall, with editing by Shields; I don’t know): “I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world. Instead, he showed up for his whipping."

In his defense of non-fiction, of “reality-based art”—in particular, his advocacy of the “lyric essay”—Shields writes of his disaffection with the novel:

From #347: “I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless…I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking…"

From #419: “What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else?”

From #517: “I’m bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters. I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. Everything else seems like so much gimmickry.”

#518: “For me, anyway, the fictional construct rarely takes you deeper into the material that you want to explore. Instead, it takes you deeper into the fictional construct, into the technology of narrative, of plot, of place, of scene, of characters. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place.”


While I was very much drawn to the mystery, the authorial blurring, of the version of the book I read a year ago, I found, in the end, that I preferred the published version—because of the footnotes to which Shields objected.

My viewpoint is admittedly conservative. The presence of the footnotes does, without question, change the nature of the book. Yet I preferred knowing who wrote and said what; I was glad to have the attributions.

And some of the footnotes, indeed, are themselves interesting, enjoyable, even charming. I think they further illuminate (rather than detract from) the nature of the book’s text.

For example (section #510), Shields writes of his college girlfriend, and the summer they shared a house in the Catskills. He writes of her outpouring of writing, that summer: “We’d go to the general store and have a slightly off-kilter conversation with someone about, say, a lawn mower, then in the middle of the night she’d wake me up and ask if I wanted to read, say, a fourteen-page fantasia entitled ‘Monologue of the Lawn Mower.’”

The footnote for that section reads: “My girlfriend and I shared the house with her brother; it was actually he who was wildly prolific all summer. Makes a better story the other way, though.”

Or this, from footnote #242: “ I was certain this [citation] was [from] Frank Rich; I was astonished to find out it was Andrew O’Hehir, ‘The Long Goodbye,’ Salon.”

Or footnote #73: “I’m pretty sure these lines, or something closed to these lines, were spoken by Terry Gilliam in an interview, but I can’t for the life of me find the source.”

I will also say that I am not comfortable with the view, as put forth in the text, that one should be willing to regard memoirs—such as James Frey’s—as being at least partly fictional constructs.

One can indeed appreciate that a memoir is, necessarily, an artful shaping of life and experience remembered.

Yet I am not at ease with/in accord with the belief that a memoirist can (or, should) deliberately reshape/alter memory, to suit the purposes of the text. A memoir, many would argue (and I would agree), represents a contract, of sorts, between reader and writer; one makes certain presumptions about that which a memoirist presents—presumptions regarding remembered fact, remembered experience. I would hope that those presumptions would be honored.

And yet:

Beyond any possible debate about Reality Hunger (methodological, philosophical), the book—Shields’s writing in it, and his assembling of the works and words of others—remains quite beautiful. One of the pleasures of Shields’s non-fiction has been that he is a consistently interesting writer, in the best sense of the word (being interesting is, I think, an underrated virtue). Reality Hunger is a deeply interesting, and striking, work of art.