Customer Reviews: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
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on March 1, 2010
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?

6. "Elizabeth Costello," a book Shields recommends several times, would surely create much less cross-genre frisson (would be much less interesting in Shields' own terms) if it was just a series of lectures, if it didn't have its so-called fictional rigging. The fictional elements of it are what create the epistemological uncertainty -- a fact that was certainly remarked upon when Coetzee delivered the stories as lectures at universities.

7. It's funny that a writer tries to be au courant by citing 40-50-year-old quotes announcing the death of fiction. Doesn't this undermine the case a little? No doubt he's right ... about fiction's irrelevance to the culture, anyway, but surely it will be displaced by more meaningless chatter, social networking, and noise, not the lyric essay. Actually this book seems to be in many ways a manifesto for the blogosphere. I kept thinking, blogs are what you want to read, man. Brevity, appropriation, truthiness, the self in all its mangy glory.

8. The part where he tells his writer friends what their books are really about is insufferable. Even the original recipients must have winced when they got these letters, and it is painful to eavesdrop on them. The chapter is of a piece with Shields' bewildering theory that fiction has a sort of extractable essence. If only Ballard did away with all those drained swimming pools and crashed cars and told us what he really meant about technology and modernity! If only Kafka cut the atmospherics and philosophized! Surely Shields thinks "The Zurau Aphorisms" is Kafka's best book.

9. I realize I am getting carried away here. This is to Shields' credit. He has not instructed but provoked my soul, to paraphrase him paraphrasing Emerson. Ultimately this is a book about the lit David Shields likes, which is stuff I also like. I don't define it the way he does. I resent the sophistries and the posturing. I suspect his argument against fiction is more personal than I understand, much like Franzen's jeremiad against difficult books. But the aesthetics here seem pretty egocentric and narrow in the end. (When you read a novel you are participating in someone else's imagined reality, and it amazes me that someone so averse to this generous, beautiful act would comment on fiction at all.) However, "Reality Hunger" is a seriously intended book and it should provoke a serious debate. Let's stop essentially blurbing this book -- it's been blurbed more than enough already -- and actually discuss it.
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on February 19, 2013
"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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on May 1, 2010
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:
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on February 24, 2010
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. It is certainly possible for the same person to love all of that stuff at the same time, but the actual pleasure derived from each experience is quite different, isn't it? This book celebrates and exemplifies the kind of expression that resides in the murky but exciting territory between reality and artifice. But once we get beyond that abstraction, is there is enough in common between the many different works of art that David Shields loves? I am not sure. That is not meant as a criticism. It is one of the fascinating questions provoked by this brave, interesting and important book.
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on April 15, 2010
Great as this book is--and make no mistake, it is--I'm a little flummoxed by how straightforwardly it's being read, in some cases. Shields, rather tellingly it seems to me, selects as one of his epigraphs a remark from Graham Greene: "When we are not sure, we are most alive." The epigram appears--again--deeper within the book's pages, and seems, fittingly, to half-contradict the notion of this book as "manifesto." Sure, Shields has keen arguments against certain contemporary conventions--the drab and by now familiar ropes-and-pulleys of "realism"--but for Pete's sake, this book IS a piece of fiction: a giddy, imaginative, bold, immensely pleasurable whirligig that does anything but trot out a set of pieties about how things 'ought' to be. Rather, Shields' book engages a fundamental paradox: how these books that we (yeah, I'm one) fiction writers fashion out of seemingly original clay are inexorably rooted in the works of others, and how our obligation to represent some form of 'reality' might be better served by work that necessarily acknowledges its own artifice. Is that so radical? I kind of doubt it, but Shields' playfulness, accuracy and bristling intelligence make this book delightful from end to end. "Manifesto?" Well, sure. But the book is way too alert to get pinned down by even its own orthodoxies. Ignore the doubtful: this book is an unremediated joy from end to end.
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on March 11, 2010
I know David Shields' other books and I know that he's known for his bold confessions which occasionally make a body squirm (and no doubt make his family squirm), but I think Reality Hunger is his boldest confession--in the old sense (St. Augustine, James Joyce); it's a confession of faith (and doubt). It says next to nothing about his usual locations (bedroom, bathroom, locker room) and everything about the inner sanctum in which he must write. At first I had the impression that I might have walked in on a rehearsal, that I was listening in (behind the arras) on a fairly private meditation or a writing class. This must be what they talk about among themselves and to themselves. A writers'retreat. Readers, keep out. Then, I have to say, the aphorisms and the reflections and quotations (there are about 600 of them) drew me in. I sat down and stayed. I winced a little--embarrassed--sometimes irritated, and captivated. I mostly kept my mouth shut. (Is this what priests feel on their side of the confessional? Priests, I say, not shrinks this time.) Then, I have to admit, I added a few of my own notions in my own little notebook, thought a lot about my own reading and writing. Turns out there's no screen, no wall, no curtain, no division: fact/fiction; memory/invention or readers/writers.
Reality Hunger won't drive me to Reality Television, but it has driven me back to Proust--and, more to the point, to Shields' book which I read with greater and greater fascination, from A to Z (the names of the chapters). And I stopped fiddling with the footnotes. By the way, if you want to jump right to the True Confessions, go to chapter "t", subtitled "ds."
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on November 29, 2013
1. David Shields has revolutionized literature, art, and, really, reality.
2. Even the things David Shields “stole” from other people are made more poignant, relevant, and insightful by David Shields’s use of them.
3. David Shields’s intellectual curiosity has destroyed and remade all that is.
4. I would like to carry David Shields’s children within me.
5. The above statements were excerpts from a novel I’m writing, entitled, David Shields on David Shields.
6. Unfortunately, David Shields will never read my novel, or, if he does, he’ll read it backwards.
7. Then, when he talks to his friends about it, he can tell them he guessed the ending right away.
8. The ending is David Shields attending an orgy held in his honor. The very last scene involves him ejaculating pure literary and philosophical brilliance onto the chest of a shapely blonde who promptly explodes into pure light. David Shields, unimpressed, remarks that exploding into pure light is a dead genre.
9. I once read a book called You’ll Never Guess the Ending, and I guessed the ended based on the teaser on the back.
10. When David Shields read You’ll Never Guess the Ending, he tore out each page, rearranged them into the shape of a pentagram, spun around three times, and read only the prime numbered pages.
11. David Shields might be an idiot.
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on April 4, 2010
To enjoy Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, you need three things: 1) a love of abstraction, 2) an interest in contemporary art and culture, and 3) a willingness to keep turning pages even though you don't have the best grasp on what's happening. If you have these, you're in for a treat.

Shields brings his customary intelligence and expansiveness to a dizzying array of topics, including Oprah Winfrey, independent filmmakers, Thomas Jefferson, America's Next Top Model, Facebook, and Plutarch. He says he looks increasingly to literature to offer all the epiphanies but none of the machinery (like that dowdy old matron, plot) that storywriters typically use to produce them.

Form preoccupies him, especially as it applies to nonfiction. In a few passages, he considers a current trend: the lyric essay. Some lyric essayists seem not to be writing essays at all; they fabricate details and leave events unexplained--usually the privileges of the fiction writer. Some lyric essays flirt with becoming poems, and some make collages. Shields favors collage in particular, describing it as "not a refuge for the compositionally disabled" but as "quite simply an evolution beyond narrative." Reality Hunger itself takes a collage-like structure, and there are noticeable gaps between some sections. All this cutting and pasting can annoy. It's lovely, though, for what Shields wants to do.

Shields is "over" the traditional novel, and he implies that those of us who aren't are behind. While I am not about to throw away my McEwan in order to hold myself to some arbitrary standard of postmodern hipness, I think questioning the norm, seeing what's possible in the arrangement of words, is ennobling. We all gain from the energy such questioning releases, and I'm glad this insightful, entertaining book is here to do it.
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VINE VOICEon May 13, 2010
We've suddenly entered an age of choices - as least it seems sudden in retrospect - and this book is not so much a manifesto as a proclamation of the author's personal choices regarding literature.

It seems here that society suffers, not from an overdose of reality, but from a desperate need for a dose of such magnitude.Reality Hunger is a collection of loosely linked epigrams, sound bites, and personal vignettes that extol Shields' perspective on the field of fiction versus non-fiction. The best way to depict this book is though Shields' own pithy statements:

"Painting isn't dead. The novel isn't dead. They just aren't as central to the culture as they once were."

"Everything processed by memory is fiction."

"Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one?"

"...I still feel that the writer and the reader can jettison the pages leading to the epiphany."

"I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation."

The above bon-bons are only a sampling of where Shields wants to take us in this book. Some of his insights are philosophical, some leaning heavily on cutting-edge literary theory. But most, to this reader, are his wave at the flag of social trends.

He wants to skip the traditional story in literature - this bores him - and get right to the depth of what story has to tell us. He wants this to be concise enough to read on one's iPhone while on hold between phone calls.

He favors - and here I offer little in the way of argument - something he calls the lyric essay, a literary form that presents the "hungry pursuit of solutions to problems."

This is the way an over-caffeinated world wants to work today. But is Shields' manifesto viable? I think not. While the body of humanity seems to feel that instant gratification isn't quite quick enough, such urges hardly resolve problems, whether they be personal or political.

Literature works only because it presents specific cases of the human condition in ways that lead us to understand that condition in a much more general sense. Fiction, poetry, and the newbie on the block - non-fiction - get our attention, despite Shields' condescensions, because they entertain. This isn't my thought - this idea is as old as story itself.

Reality Hunger is hardly an answer to such yens - it's Shields' way of attempting to cut though the discord of a world in flux, a world perhaps too full of choices of all sorts - perhaps a symptom of a new Axial Age in the making - and arrive at the businessman's bottom line. While we'll all likely to continue to debate the nature of Truth - that's with a capital "T" - we won't find an enduring literary presentation in such a pell-mell rush to the depths of understanding.

Despite all this, I like much of what Shields says here. His is a creative, parsing mind - and we see too little of that today. I can only wish he'd hadn't felt the dogs of trendiness nipping so feverishly at his heels.
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on July 14, 2015
Not horrible, but it doesn't really flow well. A book like "This is not a Novel" or "Speedboat" show that seemingly unconnected short segments can work together to form a unified whole. This book does not do that.

The unattributed quotations are a mistake. It makes the tone and diction too choppy and confusing. I had somehow forgotten about the unattributed quotations and was super confused when he would talk about films that he made and stuff. I felt like a sucker when I found out.

There is something interesting about the actual autobiographical parts.

He is right that the memoir and even reality shows seem very alive. They are disreputable (and culturally feminized) forms so weirdly for his argument, but unsurprisingly, he doesn't really embrace either. He doesn't intentionally watch reality shows (but if they are on...). And memoirs are good when they lie for some reason? he just seems pissed at Oprah.
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