Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reality (Sound)bites

In most of the books and essays that I've read regarding the state of literature (no matter which direction one wants to take such a generalization), there's really no happy medium, as I'm fond of saying. From Jonathan Franzen's essay "Perchance To Dream" (better known as the Harper's essay) to Italo Calvino's Six Memos For the Next Millennium, writers both new and old seem torn between literature's possibilities of change and growth and its stagnation and continually diagnosed death. Of course (and I say this without having read his non-fiction, but merely since he's been cited more than once in my readings), even the most wary critics of contemporary fiction must have at least some optimism. Given these polar opposite views, David Shields' newest book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a refreshing critique. Instead of giving in to either side, Shields has compiled a fascinating combination of ideas, problems, and hypotheses, taken from quotes, passages, and writings that span multiple art forms. Taking his manifesto at face value, literature and non-fiction writings could become obsolete, but the current need is both an understanding and a need for the ideas of reality in a given text. Before I get into more concrete examples, I stumbled upon a passage from Alain Robbe-Grillet's For a New Novel, a paragraph that works extremely well as an introduction to Reality Hunger:

"For, far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader's cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work--and the world--and thus to learn to invent his own life."

Shields divides up Reality Hunger into twenty-six chapters, each dealing with a certain ideal that is central to writing and literary studies in the 21st century (these ideals include "reality," "thinking," "collage," and "risk," among others). Some of these are less than obvious, and I'll return to them later (namely "trials by google" and "hip-hop"). Every piece of this numbered manifesto is either an original thought by Mr. Shields, but primarily an uncited collection of hundreds of competing quotations and thoughts. In the book's appendix, he states that his original intention was to not include any citations at all, but a full list appears at the back for legal reasons (but noted with an urgent appeal to either disregard it or to physically cut it out of the book). To honor the book's intentions, any citations that I use will go uncredited. I originally found the format to be mildly irritating, seeing that, no matter how you slice it, the majority of the quotations are soundbites. However, that idea alone is the heart of the thesis. The passages are supposed to be soundbites, and not in the negative sense. The opening chapters are almost groundbreaking themselves, since Shields devotes quite a few pages to actually defining various terms, and offering quotations that highlight the origins of the written word. In most literary criticism texts, the basics are not covered, since the general assumption is that the reader will already know the foundation; however, seeing that Shields wants to connect ideas to vast change, it's essential that he begins with the basics.

20: "The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning 'to shape, fashion, form, or mold.' Any verbal account is a fashioning and shaping of events."

29: "...The novel feasted on the unimportant, mimicking reality. Moll Flanders and Clarissa Harlowe replaced Medea and Antigone. Instead of actual adventures, made-up ones were fashionable; instead of perilous voyages, Crusoe carried us through his days; instead of biographies of ministers and lords, we got bundles of fake letters recounting seductions and betrayals: the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life. Historians soon had at hand all the devices of exploitation."

Again, these may seem painfully obvious, but these are only parts of Shield's grand scheme. Whether a reader realizes it or not, Reality Hunger analyzes the entire history of literature, and as much as this is a cliche, those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it. This is not to say that the history of fiction and non-fiction have been lacking, but the necessity for change has always been a constant. Also, the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction (especially the ever-growing memoir genre) are blurring (I'm not entirely sure I agree with this assertion). Even in the cases of plagiarism and fabrication, the acts of memory and the blending of genres can be a defense.

104: "What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision. It isn't really me; it's a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction in. I think you're obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination."

Granted, I personally can't excuse blatant plagiarism, but Shield's sections on "hip-hop" and "collage" are equally compelling. The "hip-hop quotes" highlight the history of the genre, with both originality and the art of sampling and distortion being ways for fiction to explore new grounds. This also goes for other art forms, and it's not to say that the idea hasn't already been done before with the written word. It's also a hint that, like music, literature is headed to an era of free expression and acquisitions. Quite a few of today's literary journals have been founded upon these fundamentals, especially in the zine and blog formats.

269: "Lil Wayne, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead are hugely popular artists who recently circumvented the music business establishment by giving their music directly to their audience for free on the web. The middle man has been cut out."

340: "Found objects, chance creations, ready-mades (mass-produced items promoted into art objects, such as Duchamp's 'Fountain'--urinal as sculpture) abolish the separation between art and life. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen."

A lot of the passages I'm citing seem to be going from one idea to the other, but that's part of the idea. Shields makes no apologies for filling the book with such a wide range, and I believe that the unspoken goal of Reality Hunger is to fill people with so many ideas that it's impossible to not be left feeling provoked, thoughtful, and disagreeable. With technology making everything instantaneous and available, even the written word has to keep pace. The idea of reality isn't necessarily about literature being consistently "real," i.e. "everyday," but to keep mutating and reflecting today's speed. Readers can still sit down with a book and enjoy it at a leisurely pace, but as a whole, the establishment needs to be shaken up. I've never agreed with a dust jacket summary as much as I do this one: "People will either love or hate this book. Its converts will see it as a rallying cry; its detractors will view it as an occasion for defending the status quo." I believe that literature today and tomorrow will be about storytelling at its core, but this book is simply begging for readers and critics to be more actively engaged in thought. For such a dizzying work, its message is simple.

Work Cited:
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Copyright 2010 by David Shields.

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