Head Dust



A review of REALITY HUNGER, A manifesto, by David Shields (Knopf/Hamish Hamilton)

When I was eighteen years old and thought that the world could be improved I kept an exercise book in which I wrote down passages that I found to be inspiring or at least inspired from authors I came across in my reading. Sometimes I even added a line or two of my own. People have always done this. Such things have even been published. Edifying compilations such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations were popular in Victorian times, but much earlier, before the idea of the ‘author’ became sacrosanct, and before the technologies of printing fixed texts as definitive, much of literature was generated in this way, snippets of diverse origin agglomerating perhaps around the name of the compiler or seeder of the work (we shall never know, for example, how many of Aesop’s Fables were composed by someone called Aesop). Ex-novelist David Shields has done much the same thing with his ‘manifesto’ Reality Hunger, 617 numbered shards of opinion and nice phrasing, many of which seem sort of familiar until you realise that Shields is not the first person to have expressed these thoughts in exactly these words; most of the book consists of quotations from anyone from Burroughs to Barthes, from Plutarch to Picasso, from Thoreau to Joyce, but without the attributions that would allow a reader to read further should anything take their fancy. It took the hard word of Shields’ publisher’s lawyers to persuade him to acknowledge the quotes (at the end of the book in tiny print on pages that Shields asks us to cut out and destroy) because, for Shields, anything that exists belongs to all of us: “Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”

If Shields is correct and individual authorship and personal intellectual property are fallacious or at least outmoded concepts, and if all cultural expressions are the product and property of the whole swarm of us working together like a community of digitally interlinked insects (the internet perhaps providing the structure of the supra-organism), then the idea of the individual per se is a fallacious or outmoded concept also, and the name “David Shields” on the cover of the book is not only a joke on the idea of authorship but a joke on the idea of identity too (he would, presumably, be pleased if I were to reprint Reality Hunger verbatim with my name on the cover in place of his). There is something to be said for thinking of culture as the primary organism, pulsing and mutating, self-consuming and evolving, and us individuals as merely the monitors upon which culture fleetingly displays aspects of itself, but David Shields doesn’t seem to be the man to say it in any clear sort of way. In any case, it is the irresolvable tension between our communalising and individualising instincts that underlies and impels all cultural innovation.

Like Shields, I am excited by the possibility of taking existing works apart and putting them together in ways that produce new works that release some of the unseen potential dormant in the originals, but for all Shields’ celebration of collage as a hip creative enterprise in literature and other cultural production, his book is not like a collage at all, more like a scrapbook of discreet snippets, and he displays none of the hacking, blending and ‘mashing’ that can make the re-use of cultural flotsam so creative. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a blending of Jane Austen with genre cliché), or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or Ronald Johnson’s erasures of Milton in Radi os, or the rigors of the Oulipo or Kathy Acker provide examples that are altogether more innovative in their fiddling with literary genetics. What strikes me when I read these, and what struck me in my own involvement in a literary hacking project (see http://radicalediting.blogspot.com/), is their supple exploration and vitalisation of the basic elements of fiction (character, plot, narrative), elements that Shields, in the central but least consistently developed part of his thesis, vehemently dismisses.

Shields’ intent in Reality Hunger was “to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, though just what this ‘reality’ consists of and (more interestingly) what it excludes are ambiguously sketched at best. What are the key components of this ‘movement’ for which Shields is the wannabe Confucius? “A deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional”. Shields is bored with the novel, he is fed up with the made up, he wants more immediacy, less artifice, more pace, he wants to be a ‘wisdom junkie’, he wants to feel really alive, he longs to escape his jaded state in the arms of the lyric essay or the memoir. Shields is against fiction (at least in the way it is generally understood). Like some fuming Calvinist he preaches against the “veil of ‘let’s pretend’” and the “never-never lands of the imagination”, though he defends James Frey’s fabrications in A Million Little Pieces as “merely a device to get a point across”. “There are no facts, only art”, says Shields (channelling Emerson, rather confusedly). He spends half the time denigrating fiction in favour of non-fiction, and the other half blurring the distinction between them. The more I read of Reality Hunger, the more uninteresting and unconvincing it became.

“The world exists. Why recreate it?” asks Shields (or someone). “What I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported”. I really don’t know what Shields means by ‘reality’, but certainly any attempt to gain a conceptual foothold on whatever actuality impresses itself upon us involves the making up of verbal models that we call ‘stories’, which may be fictional or non-fictional (if we want to draw the distinction). Narrative, which Shields rejects as irrelevant to something he calls ‘the human condition’, is just a verbal model of change. Well, yes, identity may be less certain than we think it is, and yes, our ideas of agency and time may be limited and limiting, but I would assert that fiction provides some of the best tools for exploring the possibility of more flexible models.

When Shields says “there is more to be pondered in the grain and texture of life than traditional fiction allows”, he fails to see that fiction (even ‘traditional’ fiction (whatever he means by that)) exists precisely to allow us to ponder such grain and texture. Fiction allows us to have a wider and more varied range of experiences than we could ever have or want to have in actuality, and to draw benefits from these surrogate experiences just as we draw them from actual experiences. Fiction allows us to be someone else temporarily, gaining us empathy, understanding and flexibility without commitment or risk. Fiction allows us to become both more individual and more connected, to share our differences, to gain understanding even where knowledge is impossible. Fiction enhances the diversity and viability of the cultural gene pool to meet circumstances that are challenging or changing.

Yes, there is a lot of uninspired and uninspiring fiction around, but there is a lot of uninspired and uninspiring memoir and lyric essay around too. If we see Reality Hunger as an impassioned if ultimately confused call for relevance, excitement and innovation in literature and the other arts, then David Shields has made a challenge that deserves to be met.
(26 March 2010)

No comments:

Post a Comment