With this landmark book, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields orchestrates a chorus of voices, past and present, to reframe debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience.
Excerpted from Reality Hunger by David Shields. Copyright © 2010 by David Shields. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
David Shields is the author of thirteen previous books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award). He has published essays and stories in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Yale Review, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.
“A literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre, one that doesn’t draw distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, originality and plagiarism, memoir and fabrication, scripted and unscripted. . . . David Shields [is] brilliant, thoughtful, and yes, original.”
—Cathy Alter, The Atlantic
“Reality Hunger urgently and succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air, have relentlessly gathered momentum, and have just been waiting for someone to link them together. . . . [It] heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come.”
—Luc Sante, The New York Times Book Review
“David Shields draws on a wide range of reference, mixing historical reports, personal events, discussions of new media, and literary quotations (some verbatim, others rejigged), to construct a protean polemic that is also an account . . . of his own mental life. . . . Most importantly, Shields knows how to provoke argument without needing to crush all opposition. Rather, the tussle between reader and writer over the nature of reality, the nature of the text we are reading, is itself the aesthetic experience he is after.”
—Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books
“Good manifestos propagate. Their seeds cling to journals and blogs and conversations, soon enough sprawling sub-manifestoes of acclamation or rebuttal. After the opening call to action, a variety of minds turn their attention to the same problem. It’s the humanist ideal of a dialectic writ large: ideas compete and survive by fitness, not fiat. David Shields’s Reality Hunger has just the immodest ambition and exhorter’s zeal to bring about this happy scenario.”
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Shields’s radical intellectual manifesto is a rousing call to arms for all artists to reject the laws governing appropriation, obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and give rise to a new modern form.”
—Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed. . . . It really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous, visionary volume.”
“Raw and gorgeous. . . . It’s about time someone said something this honest in print.”
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“Reality Hunger is more than thought-provoking; it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer
“Provocative, brain-rewiring. . . . A book that feels at least five years ahead of its time and teaches you how to read it as you go.”
—Alex Pappademas, GQ
“Maybe he’s simply ahead of the rest of us, mapping out the literary future of the next generation.”
—Susan H. Greenberg, Newsweek
“A work of virtuoso banditry that promises to become, like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for earlier generations, the book that artists in all media turn to for inspiration, vindication, and altercation as they struggle to reinvent themselves against the headwinds of our time.”
—Rob Nixon, The Chronicle of Higher Education
“A rare and very peculiar thing: a wake-up call that is a pleasure to hear and respond to.”
“This dude’s book is the hip-hop album of the year.”
—Peter Macia, Fader
“I don’t think it would be too strong to say that Shields’s book will be a sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers.”
—David Griffith, Bookslut
“One of the most provocative books I’ve ever read. . . . I think it’s destined to become a classic.”
“Voracious and elegantly structured. . . . Entertaining, insightful, and impressively broad. . . . An invigorating shakedown of the literary status quo: recommended for readers, essential for writers.”
—Scott Indrisek, Time Out New York
“Shields has put a bullet in the brain of our ridiculously oversimplified compulsion to think of everything as a narrative.”
—Paul Constant, The Stranger
“Might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years.”
“Shields has a point. He gives a damn. He’s trying to make a difference. He’s using the best of his formidable talents to do that.”
—Wayne Alan Brenner, The Austin Chronicle
“Witty, insightful, and compulsively readable. Every page abounds in fresh observations.”
“This is the book our sick-at-heart moment needs—like a sock in the jaw or an electric jolt in the solar plexus—to wake it up.”
“Absorbing, even inspiring. . . . The ideas [Shields] raises are so important, his ideas are so compelling, that I raved about this book the whole time I was reading it and have regularly quoted it to friends in the weeks since.”
—Jami Attenberg, Bookforum
“Brilliant. It keeps the reader alert and attentive and excited through sheer intelligence, epigrammatic concision, wit, and sheer rightness, as when a pronouncement is so correct that it just pulls all the clouds aside. . . . There’s a feeling of the imminence of violence in these perceptions. This is a great compliment.”
“Thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it.”
—Zadie Smith, The Guardian (London)
“Shields says things here that I have thought, wished I thought, wished someone would say. A sparky, brainy, passionate, often very funny, and never small-hearted or pinch-minded book: rigorous, demanding but generous and searching and self-debunking.”
“I love this book and am amused to see some of the hysterical reactions it’s provoked—proof, I think, of its radical truthfulness. Shields is utterly uninterested in providing intellectual comfort; he bravely, uncompromisingly delivers the news.”
1. The book’s epigraph is a statement from Picasso: “All art is theft.” At many points in the book, Shields brings up issues relating to copyright law. How do you feel about an artist using copyrighted material in the creation of a new work of art? Would you call this an act of theft? Or does this practice promote the free flow of ideas between past, present, and future artists?
2. Discuss the meaning of the phrase “reality hunger.” When Shields uses this phrase, what is he attempting to describe?
3. There are many quotations stitched into the fabric of Reality Hunger. While reading the book, were you able to identify the source of one or more of these other voices? Why do you think the author made use of so many quotations? Why did he leave the sources unidentified? How did this technique affect your experience with the book?
4. James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was highly criticized after it became known that parts of his book were fictitious. Why do you think Shields defends Frey? If Frey had published his book as a novel, would it have received so much attention?
5. In what ways does the structure of Reality Hunger reflect the actual subject matter it discusses? Why do you think Shields chose to arrange the book the way he did?
6. Shields writes, “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me.” Discuss what you think Shields means when he calls himself a “wisdom junkie”? Do you agree with Shields when he says, “The world exists. Why recreate it?” What implications does this statement have for literature? For other arts?
7. In the chapter entitled “Memory,” Shields suggests that the “truth” is very subjective, due in large part to the fallibility of human memory. Have you ever remembered an experience differently from how it actually happened? What are some reasons why two individuals could remember the same event in very different ways? Can we trust the “facts” in our memories?
8. Throughout the book, Shields praises the essay and the self-reflexive documentary film. What do these two forms have in common? In your opinion, what makes these forms so appealing to Shields’s aesthetic?
9. Before reading Reality Hunger, had you ever read any of David Shields’s other books, such as Remote, Black Planet, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, or Enough About You? What links these books? How have these previous books pointed the way toward Reality Hunger?
10. On the surface, a reality TV program and a memoir seem to have little in common. However, Shields makes connections between these and other works of art and entertainment. How does Shields’s concept of “reality” and the “real” serve to illustrate these connections? Can you identify any ways in which a reality TV program and a published memoir are similar? It what ways do they differ? Why are both so popular these days?
11. Shields is critical of the traditional novel as a contemporary art form. In the chapter “Books For People Who Find Television Too Slow,” he writes, “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.” Do you agree with this statement? Shields began his writing career as a novelist. Why do you think Shields at this point is so critical of the novel as a genre?
12. Over the last half-decade, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have emerged as a major new communications technology. In the “Hip-Hop” chapter, Shields calls Facebook a “crude personal essay machine.” In what ways is a person’s Facebook page similar to an essay about the self? What can and cannot be learned about a person through his or her social network page?
13. Has this book changed your attitudes toward collage art, sampling, and artistic assimilation? If so, how and why has your opinion changed? If your feelings have not changed, why not?
14. Discuss the role autobiography plays in the book, in particular the “DS” chapter. Did this chapter change your understanding of the book as a whole?
15. The book’s penultimate chapter, “Manifesto,” ends with the line “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” What does this statement mean to you? Why did Shields place this line in such a prominent place in the book?