Who knew a craving for authenticity could be so easily satiated? David Shields’ new book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a fascinating though failed experiment in redefining a new theory of art, based on a cultural trend Shields is confident will wipe out those old concerns for the nature of truth.
Shields argues that a new reality-loving aesthetic is permeating what were once regarded as hard-and-fast barriers between forms and authors, from rappers employing samples without clearing copyright to Shepard Fairey’s Obama prints and reality-show producers editing thousands of hours of footage into narrative arcs. Shields tenuously connects these phenomena under the header of “reality,” but devotes himself to studying it in literature, where, he asserts, writers whose work travels along the border between fiction and non-fiction (should they even acknowledge such a border exists) have the potential to invigorate what Shields sees as a moribund genre.
Shields’ thesis isn’t groundbreaking, but the form in which he constructs his argument is: Hundreds of quotations and longer passages from sources as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Luc Godard, and Sonny Rollins, numbered and assembled into chapters, frame his commentary on the evolution of entertainment. (Source purists will appreciate the index at the back of the book, although Shields indicates that he included it under pressure from lawyers, and instructs readers to tear it out.)
In attempting to construct his thesis out of parts of others’ arguments, Shields is bold but unconvincing. He places himself in the role of curator and editor, but attempts to turn this position around in the service of what he has just dismissed as antiquated ideas of rhetoric. A chapter titled “Collage” takes this commitment to the extreme for a meta-commentary that approaches meaninglessness; beyond that, he shows no compunction about rearranging points for his benefit, not always successfully. More scrapbook than manifesto, Reality Hunger could, as Shields must have realized, act as an exhibit against the new reality genre he’s promoting.
Shields flaunts his superior understanding of the material in Reality Hunger in ways that sometimes bury his most salient points, particularly the dissection of memoirs which leads off the book. Still, for those who can withstand his criticism of the novel as “a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set,” exploring and grappling with his arguments is an exercise in productive frustration.