« WSQ Meets M'Boom: Another "Grand Collaboration" | Main | The Drop Edge of Yonder »

From Hunger

By Scott Spencer

Nothing lasts forever. After several decades of dire warnings about its frailty, what if the novel — long the linchpin of print culture - has finally died? It can happen; one day, it will happen. We novelists used to have the public by the nape of its collective neck, dependent on us for the lion’s share of its entertainment and enlightenment. Now, newer modes of communication compete with books for attention, and in the meanwhile attention spans of our friends and neighbors seem to have shortened, having been lulled into withering inaction by newer, less effortful forms such as TV and the Internet, and one day those, too, will be out-moded and curiously antique. (Maybe we will have transistors embedded in our brains that give us a certain pre-programmed experience; maybe we will be too exhausted by hiding from flesh-eating zombies to have time for any culture whatsoever.)

It has become commonplace to place the responsibility for literature’s retreat on a populace too distracted or too shoddily educated or simply too tired to do the heavy intellectual lifting a decent novel requires. But what if the cause of the novel’s current difficulties is not the shrinking of its audience? What if what is most deleterious to the novel’s future is the refusal of those entrusted with its furtherance and renewal to continue their work in the medium? In other words, what if the novel were to one day die not because it had run out of readers, but because it had run out of writers?

Which brings me to a Seattle-based English professor and writer named David Shields, who is releasing a compendium of provocative remarks with the somewhat tin-eared title, Reality Hunger, a self-described “manifesto” that applies Shields’s considerable, contentious vigor to the proposition that what readers crave, and what he, as a writer, feels most drawn to, is reality, a famously slippery term which Shields, in his weaker moments, attempts to link to Personal Expression. For Shields the frisson of reality occurs when the artifice of the novel is jettisoned and the novelist forgets about characters and plot, and his or her opinions and thought processes show through without anything between them and the reader, when the writer is speaking to us face to face, as if over a couple of beers.

To Shields, the best thing Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote is the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five, and, in a similar spirit, Shields's cites Geoffrey O’Brien’s intro to a new edition of Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick with these words of praise: “As is so often the case, I like the book but I like the Introduction as much or more: concision.”

He not only likes intros more than what they are introducing, he is interested in so-called reality TV, and he gets a kick out of stand-up comedy. Lest the reader start to wonder if Shields’s standards might be softening, and that culturally he is taking the path more travelled and less effortful, he occasionally reminds us that he a devoted reader of Proust. Nevertheless, his impatience with the written word is, in fact, one of Reality Hunger’s animating forces; his nervously drumming fingertips supply the rhythm to the entire performance.

“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,” Shields says.

At least I think it’s Shields saying this. One can’t be totally sure since the work of at least one hundred other authors are incorporated into his argument, and they are used without quotation marks or attribution in paragraphs numbered from 1 to 617. (This numbering of the paragraphs is what poker players might spot as a “tell,” a device that exposes the basic unsustainability and insubstantiality of the argument. And it is also part of Shields’s Contract with ADD, a promise to the reader that nothing will last very long.)

Yet for all its bluster and palpable hostility to writers who can still practice their craft – e.g. “The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to Elizabeth Strout for Olive Kitteridge. Have I read it? No. Will I? No.” – Shields's book comes to market wearing a kingly robe knit from the names of fourteen well-known writers, all of them presumably willing to join Shields’s assault on traditional narrative. (I am told by someone in the book business that Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, the biggest of the fish caught in Shields’s and Knopf’s publicity net, has asked for his blurb to be removed from the mix, reducing the amen-corner to a possibly unlucky thirteen, possibly making my advance copy with Coetzee’s name on it a valuable commodity, like a misprinted stamp!) Charles Baxter, Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, are just a few of the accomplished authors conjured by the pre-publication roll-out for Reality Hunger, and, if the blurbs are to be believed, all of them are almost as hungry for reality as Shields himself. Lethem claims to be astonished, intoxicated, and overwhelmed, Hempel vows to put the book on her syllabus, and Wayne Koestenbaum likens the experience of reading it to being socked in the jaw or receiving an electric shock in his solar plexus.

Here is a book not so much written as curated, a chorus of snippets that Shields has ordered just so, with each paragraph numbered, and each chapter adorned with a letter of the alphabet. The numbering of the paragraphs – reminiscent of an executive’s Power Point presentation – makes a certain sense, since the numbers conform to loose attributions in the back of the book. (The purpose of lettering the chapters, however, remains mysterious to me.) On the first page of the text, paragraph number 1, chapter heading A, Shields, after placing his work in the same boat as Chekhov’s diaries, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-up, and John Cheever’s journals, puts on his game face (snarl, wink) right away: “My intent is 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.”

But what do Shields and his admirers mean by reality? On the basis of this “manifesto,” reality includes diaries, memoirs, reality TV, advertising, virtually everything that our media drenched moment presents us with, perhaps even blooper reels. And artists who are attempting to express the zeitgeist are encouraged to use what used to be called second-hand images, or that which goes by the name of sampling, appropriation, or, frankly, plagiarism. (Oh, those impressionable students, who one imagines absorbing Shields’s rap!) If you have written a poem and Shields takes a few lines from it and tries to blend it into, say, an essay about himself, he may argue that he has allowed the “reality” of your poem into his work, even though you may feel disrespected and annoyed. If you are one of the writers whose work Shields has woven into the argument put forward in Reality Hunger you may give him a blurb, a sort of thank-you card for inviting you to the rave, as several of the writers cited in Shields’s manifesto have, or you may wish your work had never crossed his desk.

Reminiscent of a performance ably pulled off by Jonathan Lethem a year or so ago, in which he wrote an essay using only the words of other writers, Reality Hunger is a book full of previously published work, a kind of gallery of remarks, a new kind of authorship in which the man taking credit for the book appears and disappears like the Cheshire cat. It is late in the game to continue arguing whether appropriation is appropriate or if it is an act of theft. (In David Shield’s own website, however, there is a prominent warning: “All material on this blog is the property of its owner. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited.”) Sampling is everywhere, and though much of it is arch and soulless, lacking the intimacy, energy, and, I would venture, the durability of true creation (which, like good bread, is tastier and more nutritious when made from scratch), it has nevertheless become a staple of our diet.

Yet Shields argues that this incorporation of previously existing work is the best way to capture “reality.” Why? Because “reality” is simply too swift and various to be captured in any other way. In Power Point #319, he says: “Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fashionable whole that concludes in a neatly wrapped up revelation. Life though – standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night – flies at us in bright splinters.”

But is this necessarily true? It’s certainly not true that good novels insist that “life” (or anything else) is coherent or neat, and the assertion raises serious concerns about Shields’s reading list – especially since he is meant to be educating young students at the University of Washington. And it isn’t even true that experience for the conscious writer is a series of overwhelming, mind-blowing events. Standing on a street corner if you are actually paying attention to what’s happening around you, or if you are there on the look-out for a missing cousin can be a highly focused endeavor, and if you are experiencing the faltering of a relationship as a somehow random explosion of bright splinters you have not only failed to pay attention to your relationship but you have also missed out on an event that has been the progenitor of many fine novels and stories. I will, however, concede the validity of his observation about channel surfing – it is bewildering and I would recommend he stop doing it.

After 200 pages of Shields’s sly obituary for narrative fiction, I began to wonder if the doom of the novel in the eyes of the beholder? It might be that some writers, growing older, find it difficult to continue the frankly labor-intensive carpentry needed to build a piece of narrative fiction, to do the intense and sustained work that goes into making something that is original, nor do they care to risk the self-exposure that comes with presenting a work of art that is not an ironicized grab-bag of things they have read, seen, and overheard. Proclaiming the death of narrative is not for young writers – it is for the aging, who might be tempted to confuse their own waning powers with literature itself coming to an end. Some stalled novelists might go so far as to posit that their very inability to sustain even the reading of a novel is proof that they are on the leading edge of an evolutionary trend, like those lucky people who don’t have wisdom teeth. Collage, aphorism, confession, rants, riffs, jottings, false-starts, quotes and thefts – all of these things strike some struggling writers (i.e. writers who are struggling with their own writing) as more conducive to life in the 21st century than the creation of characters and the accumulation of incidents and all of the other traditional accoutrements of the novel, which in a couple of decades will be celebrating its 400th birthday. (Everyone’s invited! Dress optional.) And still, as politicians like to say: the work continues. The novel changes with its readers and writers, as it must – and as all living things do. And while exhausted writers may seek rejuvenation in attacks on the form, on the very idea, the very possibility of the novel, this year (as in every year) good novels will be written and read –and once in a while a truly great one will appear. As the novelist Richard Price once put it: no more talk about the death of the novel; the novel will be at your funeral.

From January, 2010

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference From Hunger:

» vakantie in egypte from vakantie in egypte
De mooiste vakantie aanbiedingen voor egypte [Read More]

Tracked on May 4, 2010 01:39 AM

» Hauling St. Louis from Dump Trucks St. Louis
Hauling St. Louis [Read More]

Tracked on March 22, 2011 01:43 PM

» Man what an interesting post. from Computer Repair St Louis
I saw this really great post today and I wanted to link to it. [Read More]

Tracked on August 2, 2011 03:12 PM

» Man what an interesting post. from Concrete Overlays St Louis
I saw this really intriguing post today and I wanted to link to it. [Read More]

Tracked on August 11, 2011 04:15 PM

» DLL Error Solutions from DLL Error Solutions
DLL Error Solutions [Read More]

Tracked on August 12, 2011 11:21 AM

» Man what an interesting post. from Mortgage Brokers St Louis
I saw this really intriguing post today and I wanted to link to it. [Read More]

Tracked on September 3, 2011 09:29 AM

» become a dentist from become a dentist
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 31, 2012 02:55 AM

» λευκανση δοντιων from λευκανση δοντιων
Awesome post.Much thanks again. Really Great. [Read More]

Tracked on February 21, 2012 07:09 PM

» best fridge freezer from best fridge freezer
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on December 2, 2012 02:00 AM

» Flex Mini from Flex Mini
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on June 16, 2013 08:29 PM

» prada outlet from prada outlet
prada outlet First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on July 20, 2013 06:26 AM

» louis vuitton factory outlets from louis vuitton factory outlets
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on July 26, 2013 07:02 PM

» top side socket surge protector review from top side socket surge protector review
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on October 5, 2013 08:54 PM

» adidas superstar originals from adidas superstar originals
I expected.

Without the actual instant need for air, We systematically doffed the Kevlar jacket, and connected it around my equip. I checked out my cousin as well as waived my personal middle hand in the Kevlar jacket.

My pal took out th... [Read More]

Tracked on January 4, 2014 03:13 PM

» click through the next web page from click through the next web page
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on March 5, 2014 10:49 PM

» sacs michael kors soldes from sacs michael kors soldes
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on June 7, 2014 03:06 PM

» https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5ELZO_dD3w from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5ELZO_dD3w
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on October 27, 2014 12:57 PM

» Moncler Outlet Online from Moncler Outlet Online
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on November 27, 2014 11:39 PM

» marcas moda mujer espana from marcas moda mujer espana
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on December 13, 2014 11:49 PM

» marcas moda mujer espana from marcas moda mujer espana
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on December 13, 2014 11:52 PM

» Moncler Outlet from Moncler Outlet
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on December 28, 2014 04:05 PM

» Zapatos Louboutin from Zapatos Louboutin
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 1, 2015 06:07 AM

» botas ugg baratas contrareembolso from botas ugg baratas contrareembolso
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 7, 2015 02:40 AM

» Scarpe Basket Jordan from Scarpe Basket Jordan
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 23, 2015 03:16 PM

» Scarpe Basket Jordan from Scarpe Basket Jordan
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 23, 2015 03:18 PM

» Louboutin Sneakers Donna from Louboutin Sneakers Donna
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 27, 2015 08:47 AM

» Nike Air Max Saldi from Nike Air Max Saldi
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on January 29, 2015 05:37 AM

» Botines Christian Louboutin from Botines Christian Louboutin
First of the Month [Read More]

Tracked on February 10, 2015 09:38 AM