For a relatively young art form, only a few hundred years old, the novel has always been a sickly kid prone to bad medical reports. With some regularity, cultural doctors pop up to pronounce it dead, or moribund. The latest is David Shields, delivering his verdict in a small new book that's been making a very big splash. Reality Hunger is the title, but this time the prognosis, not to mention the remedy, is different. Shields isn't pronouncing the demise of the conventional novel but a fate far worse than death - he's saying the poor thing is irrelevant, simply inapplicable to the way we live now.
What he's not saying is this: A generation of established novelists - like the late David Foster Wallace, the Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, George Saunders - have long shared his concerns but not his conclusions. Moreover, directly or implicitly, they've been addressing these concerns in their own collections of essays. With surprising consistency, novelists are using non-fiction not just to supplement their fiction but to damn-well justify it. For them, clearly, there's a real occupational angst in the air. No doubt, Shields is onto something, but it won't come as news to his principal targets.
Now you might well ask, "Why should I care? Why is this anything more than just so much artsy-fartsy wrangling among the usual crew of ink-stained wretches?" Easy. Because it isn't merely a debate about the future of the novel. It's a far more resonant debate about how ideas and information (and the "reality" they convey) should be presented and packaged. In fact, its fallout is evident everywhere in today's culture, from music samplings and so-called reality TV to magazines and newspapers - yes, to the very pages you're now holding in your hands (or skimming on the screen).
But back for a moment to Shields, not an academic but a writer himself of nine previous books, novels among them. By turns clever and shrewd, his thesis can be roughly summarized thus: All art, even the most abstract, is a quest to grapple with reality. Amid the cacophony of the electronic age, our reality is especially fragmented, chaotic, asymmetrical, elusive and noisy. The conventional novel, with its linear plot and defined characters and eventual resolution, carves order from this surrounding chaos but, in so doing, woefully misrepresents the very reality we hunger for. Rather, the ideal investigative form is what he calls the "lyric essay" - a first-person, self-reflexive hybrid of non-fiction and fiction, a sort of memoir but one that recognizes memory is itself a tattered tissue of half-truths and lies.
Finally, and most important, the lyric essay must assume the shape of collage, of juxtaposed material that's as fragmented, and often as elusive in meaning, as the reality it mirrors. Explains Shields: "Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in a neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though - standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the Web - flies at us in bright splinters." Collage, then, is the structural equivalent of those splinters, and Reality Hunger is the embodiment of his doctrine - it consists of 618 short pensées, some his own, most swiped from others, all combining to mount his argument.
Early on, Pensée No. 49 throws down the gauntlet to the contemporary novelist: "The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination."
But wait. The voice here isn't Shields. It's Philip Roth who, even with his "hands full" of our culture's zaniness, continued to write novels.
So did David Foster Wallace, perhaps the writer most acutely aware of the challenge to fiction posed by "American reality." In an interview from the early nineties, Wallace discussed that challenge and his purpose in the face of it: "My world consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number of unbelievably entertaining options. [So]I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction. It's just the texture of the world I live in. ... I guess a big part of fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside."
Wallace spent his entire career trying to write the fragmented, self-conscious, pomo book that Shields espouses without losing the emotional weight (the "nourishing, redemptive" weight) of the conventional novel that Shields despises. To his everlasting credit, he often succeeded.
In the first-person essays of other novelists - Saunders in The Braindead Megaphone, Chabon in Manhood for Amateurs, Smith in Changing My Mind, Lethem in The Disappointment Artist - we frequently find them examining their own lives and the disjointed culture that shaped them, sometimes even employing this non-fiction to explicate their fiction. Shields would approve, but then would wonder, "So why bother with the novel at all?"
Actually, in a cri de coeur essay famously titled Why Bother?, Jonathan Franzen asked precisely that question, arrived at an answer similar to Wallace (a "reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness"), and eventually arose from his funk to write the sort of social novel, The Corrections, that Shields can't abide. Pensée No. 594: "I couldn't read that book if my life depended on it."
Well, in an important way, my life does depend on it. Certainly, with its conventional plot and characterization, The Corrections carves order out of chaos, but that order is still able to convey, powerfully so, reality's implacable ambiguities and fragmentation and irresolution. Art can sustain that paradox, and here's the bonus: Shields's essay collage makes me think, but Franzen's social novel makes me think and feel - indeed, to feel "less alone inside."
So it's not as if novelists are burbling on oblivious to Shields's arguments and to the loud pop shards of their time, blind to the crossfire appeal of YouTube and Twitter and So You Think You Can Dance. However, they are questioning his conclusion that the essay collage is the only sensible reaction in print, or even the best.
But now comes an intriguing irony: Although novelists are resisting his logic, journalism is not. The dispensers of fact are responding where the purveyors of fiction aren't.
In magazines and newspapers, the journalistic equivalent of the conventional novel - the conventional long-form narrative - is in decline, shrinking inch by column inch. (For a hilarious spoof on the degree of that shrinkage, check out a recent piece in The Onion: Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.) Complementing, if not replacing, the conventional narrative is exactly what Shields is advocating: the collage. In the journalism biz, it goes by other names, but the structural principle is the same: short bursts of words, or lists or stats or charts or pulled quotes, juxtaposed to convey ideas and information in a fresh non-narrative package.
Now, newspaper text has been shrinking since its marriage to photography, and even this shift toward collage isn't new - USA Today kick-started it way back in 1982. But the change has accelerated with the proliferation of the Internet, which, of course, is itself a giant collage of disparate stuff. So print journalism is responding to the online competition by paying the Web the ultimate compliment - imitating its structure.
In Shields's argument, the collage is designed to explain reality's chaos while simultaneously reflecting it - the goal is expediency (saving the busy reader the time and patience required to navigate lengthy text) and concision (requiring the writer do his job and select the mot juste), all without any sacrifice of nuance and complexity, even perhaps a gain. Journalism's version has identical goals and embraces an identical paradox - using informative fragments to rescue us from the fragmentation of the information age.
It's clear, then, why Shields's self-proclaimed Manifesto is making so much noise: Its ostensible blast is at the fiction in every novel, but its reverberating echoes can be felt in the facts of any magazine, any newspaper. Of course, born about the same time, novels and newspapers have both been subjected to premature reports of their imminent death, as styles changed and technology evolved. Yet each is a wily survivor with a knack for adapting, a theme I'd like to explore. Alas, this is the kind of conventional narrative that's anathema to Shields, who would impose a strict word limit that, if surpassed, might end this piece in midReport Typo/Error
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