Monday, April 25, 2011

Feeding on reality hunger

Originally published April 7, 2010.

It's hard to know where to place David Shields' latest book, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto."

Chocked full of pilfered words of wisdom from other artists -- such as "Art is theft," from Picasso and "Good poets borrow; great poets steal," from T.S. Eliot -- "Reality Hunger" seems either an attempt to update the commonplace scrapbook for the era of YouTube and reality TV or a literary throwback to a time when writers could steal freely from one another without being labeled as plagiarists.

Divided into a primer that has nothing to do with the alphabet, "Reality Hunger" makes the argument that, in today's cultural environment, works of straight fiction or straight fact are just not as compelling as works that explore the complicated intersections between fact and fiction.

"My misreading of David Remnick's New Yorker profile of Bill Clinton as the first page of Miranda July's short story was more interesting to me than the story itself," Shields writes.

Following (and stealing from) Nietzsche -- "It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what everyone else says in a whole book" --Shields distills his arguments into 618 pithy points that range from one-sentence aphorisms, to short essays, to reading lists long enough to fill entire college semesters.

The result is not unlike reading the long list of blurbs that fill the dust jacket. A host of famous writers testify to how "Reality Hunger" is a "pane that's also a mirror." How it is a book that "tells us who we are and why we read." How it "has goosed the zeitgeist." How Shields daringly has combined "montage and essay" to produce a work of "imperious, comic, menacing," "playful, forthright, devious" "argufication."

But even with all the high praise, it's still hard to know how to evaluate Shields' utter dismissal of the straight fiction novel -- especially given that Shields is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is the author of "two linear, realistic novels and dozens of conventionally plotted stories."

Take Shields' 1984 college basketball novel, "Heroes," for example. Published a few years after Shields graduated from the workshop, the linear plot involves a fictional take on the business of college basketball in a thinly fictionalized River State University in River City, Iowa. The storyline raises real and historically appropriate questions about the exploitation of "student-athletes" in college sports -- as well as questioning about whether local sports reporters should be cynical journalists or just knowledgeable fans. But reading "Heroes" would not be enough to abate the 21st-century reality hunger Shields describes today.

"Perhaps under the influence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop," Shields writes in Section 513, "which when I was there in the late 1970s was a citadel of traditionalism (as, for that matter, it still is), my first novel couldn't have fit any more snugly inside the rubric of linear realistic novel and is the only book I've written that is pretty much whole-cloth invention. But I wanted to write a book whose loyalty wasn't just to art but to life -- my life. I wanted to be part of the process, part of the problem."

Yet Shields' arguments still should be received well in Iowa City. He quotes often and approvingly from University of Iowa nonfiction professor John D'Agata (author of "The Next American Essay"). And he hails former workshop director Frank Conroy's "Stop-Time" for how it deliberately undermines "the traditional and largely spurious authority of the novelist" and for how it narrows "the gap that exists between fiction and autobiography, a gap that is artificial to begin with."

To hear more about non-existent gap, come listen to Shields read at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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