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2 Reality Checks: David Shields’ Genre-Blurring Books

“A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.”

Reality Check #1: Reality Hunger

The quote from Kafka is just one of innumerable borrowings from collagist, essasyist, manifesto-experimentalist, David Shields. This book shakes my tree–or brings an axe to it. Ever since those first two novels of his, he’s always had a thing for creative ways of exploring “reality,” specifically through the genre lens of autobiographical nonfiction.

Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.”

Shields argues that what all those things have in common is that all these new hybrids of creativity and entertainment express or fulfill a need for reality, a need that is not being met by the old and crumbling models of literature. As Luc Sante writes in “The Fiction of Memory,” for the NY Times Sunday Book Review:

This will remind readers of Jonathan Lethem’s tour-de-force essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence‘, published in Harper’s in 2007, in which every single line derives from other authors—note that Lethem acknowledges a debt to Shields’ essays. But what reality is such magpie business enacting? Shields answers: ‘Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. It is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.’ He is, of course, quoting Emerson.”

The book refers and responds to a vast store of cultural capital. “Reality hunger” is not so much a sickness but the defining spirit of our age, with its anxious yearning for what happens packaged in 618 aphorisms.

The main idea: Every artistic movement attempts to get closer to reality. Today it’s happening in lyric essays, prose poems and collage novels, as well as performance art, stand-up comedy, documentary film, hip-hop, rap and graffiti. He emphasizes randomness, spontaneity, emotional urgency, literalism, rawness and self-reflexivity. His is a loosely defined genre–and one opposed to current fiction.

The ideas are provocative, laced with wisdom, humor, big questions, and a serious candor that inspire and challenge. I agree with him about wanting to delve deeper into the emerging and dynamic opportunities for nonfiction literature–a trend that will continue–but he gives fiction short shrift. I’m a cheerleader on his ideas about how fiction is bound by convention today. Let’s face it: the great majority of civilization is not interested in reading “what isn’t real.” Unless, we really do just want something escapist. Here we are now, entertain us. There will always be a market for that.

At the same time, fiction really has gone stale, almost as some kind of conservative reaction against all the very possibilities the emerging world of opportunities affords. And it’s not fiction itself that’s the problem, in fact Shields revels in the ways in which nonfiction is actually fiction–and “so could anything seen on TV.” But if fiction as a convention largely gives up authenticity, which Shields (and our culture) so highly value, what is it capable of delivering? I would suggest the ability to bring us out of ourselves and into the empathy of understanding others, emotional truths, if you will.

From a creativity standpoint, I highly recommend Reality Hunger for how it opens up “potential literature” and does so without laying down some easily defined polemic. It’s argument by demonstration and accrual, and the way the content and subject matter intertwine is brilliant.

Reality Check #2: The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

By comparison, a book he wrote the year prior to Reality Hunger, and in many ways anticipates the heady claims, is the stylistically similar memoir exploring mostly Shields’ relationship with his “ageless” father. Want to think rigorously or intelligently about life without having to fear “going spiritual”? That’s Shields’ goal here. Combining cultural criticism, memoir, philosophy and popular culture to form a unique investigation into mortality, it’s a different kind of reality check.

After you turn 7, your risk of dying doubles every eight years.”

Morose? Not at all, unless you’re in need of a reality check, that is. The focus is on acceptance of one’s own end, downplaying the drama of day-to-day stresses and struggles, putting them in perspective. While not as rambunctious or ambitious as Reality Hunger, ‘The Thing About Life’ has its rewards, not the least of which is Shields’s signature humorous insight and aphorism.

By your 80s, you no longer even have a distinctive odor…You’re vanishing.”

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