Monday, July 26, 2010

Reality Hunger Gives Me Heartburn

Bravo to you if you're reading this blog. Clearly you understand that personal opinion is the only true form of literary expression worth reading today.

I jest, but David Shields does not. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, released earlier this year, Shields touched off a firestorm of commentary with his assertion that the novel is dead, long live the essay/memoir. Of course, that's just his personal opinion.

It took me awhile to get around to reading the manifesto, partly because there was a bit of a wait to obtain what seems to be the Chicago Public Library's only copy. Apparently a number of us want to read Shields, we just don't want to buy him.

Reality Hunger is a collage of quotes and epiphanies--many of them not by Shields--in support of his general thesis that the lines between fiction and non-fiction are blurring, with non-fiction gaining the upper hand due to its general "truthiness." He spends 205 pages arguing this same point 618 times (the quotes and epiphanies are numbered), which is ironic, given that Shields devotes an entire four-page chapter to the art of brevity.

As someone who writes non-fiction, I was bolstered by his assertion that the form be allowed room to breathe. That when it comes to creative non-fiction, the creative part be given as much sway as the non-fiction. This is not journalism, people, he says. Memory is by its nature unreliable and the mere ordering of a life's event into a narrative suggests creative license has been taken. To which I say, hear, hear. Let the redemption of James Frey commence.

What I can't abide, however, is his insistence that the novel is no longer worth reading or writing. Simply because Shields himself prefers to read and write non-fiction. OK. That's his choice. I'm just wondering why this personal preference bubbled up to the level of national (possibly international) debate. I don't like goat cheese, but I don't see a publisher offering me a contract for a book that declares the superiority of cheddar.

Shields' primary argument against fiction is that it doesn't feel authentic--that readers can (or should) see the wheels of the plot turning. That novelists are working to invent what for essayists already exists--true experience. That knowing that a story is true makes it infinitely more powerful than knowing that a story is a figment of someone else's imagination. I couldn't disagree more.

Before I cracked open Reality Hunger, I finished reading Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer, the sequel to his earlier novel,
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. Both center on the character of Paula Spencer--Irish, alcoholic, battered wife. There are scenes in the first book of such utter devastation and brutality, as Paula describes beating after beating, that I found myself wincing in pain. In those moments, I knew what it felt like to be dragged around by your hair, to be kicked and hit and smashed until you're curled up like an animal, covered in your own blood. I read the second book because, as I told my husband, "I have to know that Paula is OK." "You know she's not a real person," he said. Oh, but you see, thanks to Doyle's astounding powers, she absolutely is. Perhaps not to Shields, but most definitely to me.

My question to Shields would be, why must it be either/or? Non-fiction but not fiction? I know the answer. It's that polarization sells. It's not enough to argue that non-fiction deserves greater respect and creative leeway (which is likely what he's really after), you also have to state that the rising popularity of one form completely negates the validity of the other.

That's the reality of the culture we live in. Pardon me for wanting to escape it.


Blogger About Jen said...

RH didn't give me heartburn, but at the same time, i didn't finish it, and the potential was there.
great post. i agree, extremism is especially stifling in the arts.
what's more, if there should be no regard for intellectual property, then why did put his name on the cover?

4:55 AM


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