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Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Paperback – February 8, 2011

4 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Sarah Manguso Reviews Reality Hunger

Sarah Manguso is the author of The Two Kinds of Decay, a memoir, and two books of poetry, Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise. Read Manguso's guest review of Reality Hunger:

"I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels," David Shields acknowledges in Reality Hunger, then seeks to understand how the conventional literary novel has become as lifeless a form as the mass market bodice-ripper. Shields provides an ars poetica for writers and other artists who, exhausted by the artificiality of our culture, "obsessed by real events because we experience hardly any," are taking larger and larger pieces of the real world and using them in their work. Reality Hunger is made of 600-odd numbered fragments, many of them quotations from other sources, some from Shields’s own books, but none properly sourced--the project being not a treasure hunt or a con but a good-faith presentation of what literature might look like if it caught up to contemporary strategies and devices used in the other arts, and allowed for samples (that is, quotation from art and from the world) to revivify existing forms. Shields challenges the perceived superiority of the imagination and exposes conventional literary pieties as imitation writing, the textual equivalent of artificial flavoring, sleepwalking, and small talk. I can’t name a more necessary or a more thrilling book. --Sarah Manguso

(Photo © Marion Ellinger)

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"In his new book, Reality Hunger, David Shields makes a case that a new literary form has arrived. [He] challenges our most basic literary assumptions about originality, authenticity, and creativity. Reality Hunger has caused a stir in literary circles. [The book] has struck a nerve."—Andrew Richard Albanese, Publishers Weekly (cover article)

"Reality Hunger is an exhilarating smash-up. . . . a work of virtuoso banditry that promises to become, like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for earlier generations, the book that artists in all media turn to for inspiration, vindication, and altercation as they struggle to reinvent themselves against the headwinds of our time."—Rob Nixon, Chronicle of Higher Education

"Maybe he’s simply ahead of the rest of us, mapping out the literary future of the next generation."—Susan H. Greenberg, Newsweek

"The driving force behind this entertaining and highly persuasive polemic is a frustration with the contemporary mainstream novel. . . . I can’t stop recommending it to my friends. There is no more effective description (and example) of the aesthetic concerns of the internet age than this."—Edward King, The Times of London

"Shields has a point. He gives a damn. He's trying to make a difference. He's using the best of his formidable talents to do that."—Wayne Alan Brenner, The Austin Chronicle   

"I love this book and am amused to see some of the hysterical reactions it’s provoked—proof, I think, of its radical truthfulness. Shields is utterly uninterested in providing intellectual comfort; he bravely, uncompromisingly delivers the news."—Walter Kirn
“On the one hand: Who does this guy think he is? On the other: It’s about time someone said something this honest in print. . . . [I am] grateful for this beautiful (yes, raw and gorgeous) book.”—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“This is the most provocative, brain-rewiring book of 2010. It’s a book that feels at least five years ahead of its time and teaches you how to read it as you go.”—Alex Pappademas, GQ
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed.”—Jonathan Lethem
“Good manifestos propagate. Their seeds cling to journals and blogs and conversations, soon enough sprawling sub-manifestoes of acclamation or rebuttal. After the opening call to action, a variety of minds turn their attention to the same problem. It’s the humanist ideal of a dialectic writ large: ideas compete and survive by fitness, not fiat. David Shields’s Reality Hunger has just the immodest ambition and exhorter’s zeal to bring about this happy scenario.”—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
Reality Hunger, by David Shields, might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last 10 years.”—Chuck Klosterman (on Twitter)
“The subtitle of David Shields’s Reality Hunger categorizes it as ‘a manifesto,’ which is a little like calling a nuclear bomb ‘a weapon.’”—Don McLesse, Kirkus Reviews
“Thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it.”—Zadie Smith, The Guardian
“I find Shields’s book absorbing, even inspiring. The ideas he raises are so important, his ideas are so compelling, that I raved about this book the whole time I was reading it and have regularly quoted it to friends in the weeks since.”—Jami Attenberg, Bookforum
“A collection of wisdoms and aphorisms, some borrowed/stolen/appropriated from others, some written by Shields himself—which layer one upon the other to shimmer with an insistence on a literature that reflects modern’s life’s many complexities and contradictions.”—Debra Gwartney, Portland Oregonian
“This is the book our sick-at-heart moment needs—like a sock in the jaw or an electric jolt in the solar plexus—to wake it up.”—Wayne Koestenbaum
“It’s already become required reading in university spheres, galleys passed from one student to the next like an illicit hit of crack cocaine. I came away from Reality Hunger excited about writing my own fiction, and impatient about books that don’t offer these same thrills.”—Sarah Weinman, Flavorwire
“David Shields has put a bullet in the brain of our ridiculously oversimplified compulsion to think of everything as a narrative.”—Paul Constant, The Stranger
“One of the most provocative books I’ve ever read. . . . I think it’s destined to become a classic.”—Charles D’Ambrosio

"Thank goodness for David Shields and his new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which, among other things, is a literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre, one that doesn't draw distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, originality and plagiarism, memoir and fabrication, scripted and unscripted. . . . Shields, brilliant, thoughtful, and yes, original, is calling for an 'ars poetica for the burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a variety of forms and media.'"—Cathy Alter, Atlantic

"David Shields’s radical intellectual manifesto, Reality Hunger, is a rousing call to arms for all artists to reject the laws governing appropriation, obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and give rise to a new modern form."--Elissa Schapell, Vanity Fair

"A book that defends plagiarism, champions faked memoirs, and declares fiction dead has the literary world up in arms."—Laura Miller, Salon

"I don’t think it would be too strong to say that Shields’s book will be a sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers."—David Griffith, Bookslut

"This dude’s book is the hip-hop album of the year."—Peter Macia, Fader

". . . a guidebook for where literary writing could go in the future. . . . You might not agree with Shields’s broadside or his hardheaded conclusions, but it’s difficult not to fall under the sway of this voracious and elegantly structured book. Reality Hunger is ultimately an invigorating shakedown of the literary status quo: recommended for readers, essential for writers."”—Scott Indrisek, Time Out New York

“A mind-bending manifesto.”—The New York Times

Reality Hunger urgently and succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air, have relentlessly gathered momentum, and have just been waiting for someone to link them together. . . . [Shields’s] book probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come.”—Luc Sante, The New York Times Book Review

Sam Tanenhaus: “Every once in awhile a loud shout comes from the literary world that tells us that everybody is doing everything wrong. . . . Shields has done something ambitious here, and he has done it in an unusual way. . . . Will Reality Hunger have an impact on the way fiction writers and essay writers go about their work?” Luc Sante: “I think it might.” The New York Times Book Review podcast

“With an assist from others’ quotations, Shields argues that our deep need for reality is not being met by the old and crumbling models of literature.”—Editors’ Choice, The New York Times Book Review

“Give him credit. Here’s a manifesto that goes for broke. His book . . . champions his vision of a new avant-garde by enacting it.”—Wen Stephenson, The New York Times Book Review  

“His complaints about the tediousness and terminality of current fictional convention are well-taken: it is always a good time to shred formulas.”—James Wood, The New Yorker  

“The phrase ‘paradigm shift’ is one that induces my gag reflex, but that’s what he’s up to here. And, dear readers, shift happens.”—Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Seattle Times  

“One of the great books of the year. The book, quite simply, is a marvel, far more provocative and revelatory than annoying . . . and very much a part of the community of writers who are determined to be infinitely smarter than we may all deserve . . . Here’s a guy who actually thinks he knows what’s happening, Mr. Jones. I tell you it’s pretty exciting. Here, at last, is the extraordinary writer David Shields with a book that’s the equivalent of a mall ‘you are here’ map. Reading Shields maybe be the first time I’ve actually liked looking at the map and learning where we are.”—Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

“America is losing faith with its fictions. Such is the thesis of David Shields, whose new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, lays out a compelling case for the prosecution.”—Tom Shone, The Daily Beast

“As is true of any good manifesto, [Shields] clocks or locks a feeling in the air, something already everywhere, familiar but not fully formed.”—Alexandra Juhasz, The Huffington Post

“David Shields has set the culture class abuzz with his attack on an obsession with reality that doesn’t exist. Reality Hunger refuses to sit still, leaping among ideas, arguments, programmatic declarations, aphorisms, personal asides, history, and etymology. For anyone frustrated, disappointed, or confused about the purpose of literature in the 21st century, . . . for anyone who . . .  is a member of the ‘rarefied world of literary culture’ (or would like to join), Reality Hunger is a must-read.—Ryan Bigge, Toronto Star

“A small new book  that’s been making a very big splash. . . . It’s clear . . . why Shields’s self-proclaimed manifesto is making so much noise: its ostensible blast is at the fiction in every novel, but its reverberating echoes can be felt in the facts of any magazine, any newspaper.”—Rick Groen, Toronto Globe and Mail

“How can we create a literature that’s urgent and vital and true to this particular here and now? Practices of writing, and reading, are shifting. None of us should take current modes of expression for granted. I want people to read [Shields’s]  book and passionately debate these issues. I want this discussion to matter. And I want to be part of it.”—Catherine Bush, Toronto Globe and Mail

“Shields is the literary equivalent of a frenetic DJ, trolling through vinyl albums, turning other people’s music into his on-stage creation. … For an egghead like me, he is loads of fun to read. Reality Hunger is a feverish collage of insights, often paraphrased and mashed up from other writers.”—Richard Handler, CBC Canada

“A spirited polemic on behalf of nonfiction. . . . an important book. The fiction vs. nonfiction debate has become intense in recent years, and Shields cranks it up a notch. . . smart, stimulating, and aphoristic . . . a provocative and entertaining manifesto.”—Blake Morrison, The Guardian, “Book of the Week”

“Essential reading for both readers and writers. Bold, entertaining, contentious, it pushes us to think about the processes and future of fiction-making, as well as its relation to nonfiction. In short, it shakes us up a bit.”—Stephen Emms, The Guardian

“He manages to give bourgeois traditionalists a right good kicking. One cannot help but admire his verve as well as his nerve.”—Sean O’Hagan, London Observer

“The book is anything but a monograph; it’s a polygraph.”—Toby Litt, Financial Times

Reality Hunger is more than thought-provoking; it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.”—Jonathan Safran Foer

Reality Hunger is brilliant. It keeps the reader alert and attentive and excited through sheer intelligence, epigrammatic concision, wit, and sheer rightness, as when a pronouncement is so correct that it just pulls all the clouds aside. . . . There’s a feeling of the imminence of violence in these perceptions. This is a great compliment.”—Charles Baxter

Reality Hunger is witty, insightful, and compulsively readable. Every page abounds in fresh observations.”—Lydia Davis

“I think Reality Hunger is absolutely wonderful. Exhilarating.”—Mark Leyner

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (February 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307387976
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307387974
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of sixteen books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and I Think You're Totally Wrong (published in January 2015 by Knopf and forthcoming as a film later this year). He has four more books forthcoming over the next fifteen months: Life Is Short--Art Is Shorter (Hawthorne Books), That Thing You Do With Your Mouth (McSweeney's), War Is Beautiful (powerHouse Books), and Other People (Knopf). The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and two NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
1. Despite this book's praise for collage and appropriation, cutting passages from the jacket copy and/or Shields' own description of the book, then pasting as a five-star Amazon review, isn't valuable in any way.

2. Speaking of the jacket copy, by writing a negative review of this book it seems I will be "defending the status quo." Always useful to caricature your opponents in advance. And I thought the status quo totally depressed me ...

3. What is this "conventional literary novel" Shields keeps talking about? Yeah, I also have no desire to read Olive Kittredge, but my lack of interest in the latest celebrity memoir hardly discredits the genre of memoir as a whole. Is Shields reading Hemon, Javier Marias, Percival Everett, Kathryn Davis? For someone who persuasively writes of the novel as a hybrid genre and wants to stake out an indefinite space for his own work, Shields really likes drawing lines in the sand.

4. When Shields does admire a fiction writer (i.e. Bernhard, Coetzee, Sebald) he pretends the writer is a sort of essayist in disguise. This is bizarre. All of the above writers create imaginary characters and involve them in invented narratives. Photos in Sebald do not make him a documentarian. The reason their books do not seem like fiction is that they are incredibly well executed, that is to say artistic. Fiction that does not seem like fiction is simply good fiction. Shields can't admit that the magic is working.

5. How can a book about reality-based forms of art and writing not mention historical fiction even once? Is it because historical fiction sounds staid and proves that Shields' ideas aren't as new and exciting as they want to be? Anybody remember postmodernism, by the way?

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Format: Paperback
"Reality Hunger: a Manifesto" combines extreme intelligence with extreme silliness, tiresome tech-savvy, and self-regarding irony. The result is as tiresome as the character-drive epic novels the author quite rightly disdains. Reading the book is like being held captive by a half-drunk, know-it-all, newly tenured professor holding court at a grad school after-party. He's read everything, knows more than you do, and is bound and determined to bore you to death with every excruciating aside. He loves himself and wants you to love him too. So much of what the author says in this book (published 2010) already sounds outdated and even passé.
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Format: Hardcover
I don't know Shields's other books, but based on this one, I'd say he's an ambitious, and pretentious, lightweight. Like many another failed or stalled novelist before him, Shields tries to do an end run around the problem of creating something of value by emitting a "manifesto" of How Literature Should Be. Beware of blowhards bearing rules. He doesn't define his terms clearly, and often his ideas, such as they are, are mutually contradictory.

It boils down to this: he finds traditional narrative boring. He's bored reading it, and, perhaps more significantly, he is bored writing it. He talks about how bored he is with the "traditional form of the novel," as if there is such a thing in a genre that includes "Don Quixote," "Tristram Shandy," "War And Peace," "Nightwood," "Middlemarch," "Bleak House," and any ten other good novels you might name.

This is a gimmicky and ultimately pathetic book, in my opinion. There are already all kinds of genre-bending books out there -- "The Unquiet Grave," by Cyril Connolly, any of Lydia Davis' books, Nicholson Baker's "Vox," "Operation Shylock" by Philip Roth... I mean you could go on all day with such a list. None of these writers needed David Shields to give them permission to do whatever the hell they wanted at the writing desk. This book is basically a desperate and opportunistic attempt by an intellectual poseur to claim some shelf space next to his intellectual betters. Sorry, but that's how I read it.

But if you'd like a much more cut-to-the-chase opinion, check out Shields's appearance on the Colbert Report from mid-April. Colbert (literally) tears him a new one. See how seriously you can take him after his unctuous, self-inflated performance here:
4 Comments 59 of 72 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
This book is much more than an intriguing manifesto about art and reality. Most of the laudatory reviews on Amazon and the breathless notices on the book jacket miss the fact that lurking in the background of Reality Hunger is a character/narrator/trickster named David Shields. His praise or derision of various works of art is energized by a wistful sadness about most present moments, about life.

This character -and, presumably, the writer who is telling us about him-- hungers desperately for wisdom because he wants to feel better, he wants to feel real, he wants to feel. Usually insightful riffs and joyfully plagiarized quotes about fiction, non-fiction, music, TV, movies and the visual arts are a cry from a wounded heart. When it comes to reality T.V., he tells us, "the success of the genre reflects our lust for emotional meaning. We really do want to feel, even if that means indulging in someone else's joy or woe. We have a thirst for reality (other people's reality, edited) even as we suffer a surfeit of reality (our own-boring/painful)."

I found myself rooting for this character (as well as David Shields, the writer) to figure everything out, to come up with a coherent aesthetic. Full disclosure: I hung around with the writer 30 years ago and I want him to be happy, and he clearly needs a coherent aesthetic to make him happy. I am not sure that he came up with one, alas, although the attempt is scintillating and heroic.

For one thing, the same David Shields who takes great pleasure in garnering pearls of wisdom and lessons about life from Proust or Kafka also enjoys two songs mixed together by Kanye West, the buzz that surrounded James Frey's book and Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin.
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