I was curious about David Shield's Reality Hunger as soon as I heard about it, intrigued by its title and the fact that it comes wrapped in praise from a host of writers, including J.M. Coetzee and Jonathan Lethem, who have called it audacious and necessary and controversial.
Writers have long been beset by the question of how to snatch reality out of the jaws of life and wrestle it onto the page: What does it mean to say a work of literature feels real or true or has the whiff of the authentic about it? And is that the same as saying that we believe in it?
Shields wants the real on the page, and he wants it now; that is to say, he wants to figure out how to create a sensation of the real at a moment when words on a page must compete with reality TV, not to mention the seismic technological shifts of digital culture as reading migrates to the Web, to the land o' links, where original copies of texts (and movies and songs) are replaced by the endlessly reproducible and easily accessed and just as easily pirated.
Once upon a time, Shields wrote novels, but he has abandoned fiction for non-fiction, and, in Reality Hunger has migrated to a form that is assertively hybrid. In a sense, his book takes up the charge led by Jonathan Lethem in a much-discussed and much-disseminated essay published in Harper's a couple of years ago. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem made an argument for the creative appropriation of others' texts by shaping his essay from the culled words of others.
Reality Hunger does something similar. Here, though, rather than reworking appropriated sentences into a seamless text, Shields offers up something more fragmentary, almost aphoristic, which also simulates flitty Internet reading. A series of shortish chapters with titles such as Reality, Memory, Blur, Contradiction and Doubt are subdivided into short numbered sections. Some sections are a paragraph or two in length, many no more than a sentence, some in his own voice, most taken from other writers. "Nearly every passage I've clipped, I've also revised, at least a little - for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim."
Shields wanted to offer his collaged text without attribution, but his publisher's lawyers told him he couldn't. He suggests that readers who want to read the book as he intended rip out the credits. He doesn't say how the authors whose work he has appropriated feel, but since some are singing his praises, one can assume that those at least are okay about it.
So, Shields wants the freedom to appropriate and create a recombinant literature out of others' words, which gain new meaning in their new relations to each other. He also wants a literature that makes explicit the struggle between "literary form and lived life," one that revels in the hybrid, gesturing emphatically toward the documentary while reserving the freedom to make things up. There's a new movement afoot, he declares, that favours the deliberately unarty and yanks in larger and larger chunks of "reality" - yet, crucially, remains conscious of and up-front about what it's up to.
Shields's ideal literature must stay "true," you might say, to the problems of representing anything. Maybe he'd also echo the words of Germany's new 17-year-old writing sensation, Helene Hegemann, who, when caught lifting whole pages from another in her bestselling, possibly autobiographical, novel, shrugged off the controversy by declaring, "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." As in: If it feels authentic, then it is?
At its best, Reality Hunger is a suggestive, opinionated dictionary of the moment. Even when Shields plays author-as-arranger, the force of his arguments comes through. As with most manifestos, his needs an enemy, or something that it would desperately love to displace, and Shields's bête noire is "the conventional novel." In autobiographical-seeming passages, he writes, "I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it's not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now."
He hates the fakery of characters and the constraints of linear narrative. While he acknowledges the history of reinvention inherent in the novel's name and form, he would really like to shove the novel aside in favour of the essay, and make "essay," from the French essai, with its connotations of searching and striving, the go-to term to describe all hybrid and formally inventive work, even as he particularly favours work rooted in a first-person, subjective exploration of world and self.
If there's something solipsistic about all this, Shields takes note of it, even as he is less aware of the particularly American flavour of his solipsism. There's something straw-mannish, though, in his antagonism to fiction. He fails to account for what fiction, at its most thoughtful and exhilarating, can do: plot as the complex grappling of experience in time; character as a way of inhabiting the deep contradictions of another consciousness; narrative not as string between nuggets of thought but as a sustained way of thinking. And if hordes of younger writers, Reality Hunger tucked under their arms, start writing as Shields advocates, this new literature will quickly become cliché.
What he really objects to is the space that the conventional novel still inhabits in American, and Canadian, literary culture - its simultaneous stamp of the mainstream and the serious - even if that cultural space is shrinking by the day.
Is Shields advocating anything that's genuinely new? Outright appropriation isn't (think Burroughs) nor self-consciousness (think Cervantes, if you want to go further back). Theft has an ancient pedigree. Michael Ondaatje was arguing for the novel as collage more than 20 years ago. Nor are Douglas Coupland or Anne Carson, whom Shields also mentions, lurking unknown in dark corners.
Also, Reality Hunger falls short in its refusal to take the hunger for narrative seriously, or to consider why, culturally, we might not want to abandon fiction's entering of another consciousness through character, an act that many resist precisely because it's difficult and requires sustained attention.
Still, Shields and his collaborators are asking crucial questions, questions that anyone who cares about the future of literature must wrestle with. How can we create a literature that's urgent and vital and true to this particular here and now? Practices of writing, and reading, are shifting. None of us should take current modes of expression for granted. I want people to read his book and passionately debate these issues. I want this discussion to matter. And I want to be part of it.
Catherine Bush is a novelist, author most recently of Claire's Head, and the novel-in-progress The Thief; she co-ordinates the creative writing MFA at the University of Guelph.