Last week I had the chance to participate in two separate discussions about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, the first with members of the Working from Life: Writing Creative Nonfiction workshop and the second with two members of the Future of Publishing Think Tank (FOPTT).
Shields’ book contends that shifts in perception—of self, of the world, of the nature and function of art—are changing the ways in which content is created and consumed. The book is loosely assembled as a collage of quotations by writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural critics—and occasionally Shields himself—that allows disparate points of view to bounce off one another and vibrate in proximity. The structure supports one of Shields’ assertions—that a tidily structured narrative is so unlike the way we experience our lives, barraged with information as we are, as to be an obsolete way of structuring a work of art. Instead he argues for breaking form and for barely mediated content and he challenges the notion that one can originate content. As his subtitle indicates, he intends to be provocative.
Among Working from Life participants, two points garnered huge pushback. The first is Shields’ flagrant appropriation of the words of others (he does cite sources but only at the insistence of his publisher’s attorneys and suggests one might just cut out of the book those pages of citation). One of my students is a board member of the National Writers’ Union and a vigorous defender of artist copyright protection. While it’s self-defeating for any artist not to be a defender of these laws, I’m also not in favor of sacred cows. I’m willing to at least imagine a world without intellectual property, one in which ideas and their expression are not owned by anyone, just as many indigenous societies did not have any concept that land should or could be owned. What would that be like? It would mean artists would need to find other ways of supporting themselves, but most artists do anyway. What would it mean for the kind of art created or the way we regarded such creations—not as the result of the effort of a single, exceptional individual but arising out of a collective and communal pool of values, ideas and experience.
The other point of resistance, also shared by one of my FOPTT colleagues, is Shields’ dismissal of fiction. He clearly believes that nonfiction is the more honest and relevant form (though he does acknowledge that nonfiction contains a health dose of fictionalizing.) One of my students and one of my colleagues were both passionate in their defense of the pleasures of the novel, of losing themselves in an invented world that could nevertheless reveal potent truths about this one.
Shields is especially scathing about the element of plot, which he feels is artificial and tidy and serves to narrow the perception of the world rather than expand it. Anyone who has worked with me knows I am an avid proponent of plot as an engine that can move the story forward and as a device that helps to shape meaning. To me, plot provides the bones on which a story can be hung; Shields may be proposing that we move beyond story itself.
To me this is the value of a work like Reality Hunger. The opportunity to engage with bold ideas—whether one agrees with them or not—is expansive, and nothing is more valuable, I think, for an artist, is whatever facilitates that expansion of mind and perspective. When I teach at Antioch, I tell the students, “I’m here to mess with you.” By that, I mean I want to help them broaden perspectives, undermine assumptions, open to greater possibilities. In Reality Hunger, Shields intends to mess with us, and in the best possible way.
The idea that loose structure more closely approximates real life feels true. Our days do feel like a patchwork of random and disparate happenings. The shopping cart with the wobbly wheels at the grocery feels totally unrelated, for instance, to the choice of decor for a new home, and the wait in traffic for a shuffling pedestrian seems structurally insignificant to the ripening lemons that smacked us in the head on the way to the laundry room. It seems that the artist’s job isn’t just to collect the events, but to explore or illuminate the relationships between these things.
Like you, I believe in plot. And it does occur in real life! — we plot the course of our days and years all the time. Sometimes we get the climax and denouement we’d planned; more often, though, it’s the unplanned that give the narrative arc its drama and comedy. But that sure doesn’t mean that it’s loosely structured, does it?
As most memoir writers will attest, it’s often a challenge to perceive the pattern or plot that occurs in daily life. It can feel like a series of random or repetitive events. One has to gain the 30,000-foot perspective, I think, before the structure begins to reveal itself. Great to see you here, Marya!
If art exactly mirrored our actual experience of existence, would it be art? Isn’t art – any art – meant to be representational and not specific? Art is the expression of humankind’s inner environment, not outer, and since each and every person’s interior landscape is different from every other person’s interior landscape, no one can rightfully draw conclusions about what’s relevant and what’s not relevant. Only the reader, the listener, the see-er can decide that. Art is parable, even contemporary fiction.
I may be skeptical about Mr. Shields’ “Manifesto,” but it’s certainly fun and interesting to think about. And to have a forum in which to discuss it is ….. well…. exciting. Thanks.
You raise an interesting issue about the nature of art. I won’t attempt to speak for Shields but what he seems to be in favor of is not representation but a kind of documentation. His book asserts that we have “reality hunger” not representation hunger, even as he acknowledges that there is no objective reality. Where as representation might seek to tame or define or make order, Shields seem to admire art that best reflects the disorder in which our culture seems to be plunged at this time.
That’s exactly the point I’m arguing: I don’t believe we do have a reality hunger. Not in art, anyway. I’d agree we have a spiritual reality hunger – that we’re all really looking for the essence of our lives – why we’re born, why we have to die. That kind of reality, yes, I’d say we’re hungry for it. But when it comes to what we read, what music we choose, what paintings we want to look at, what photographic images move us, which sculptures we find power in, which films we enjoy, I think our hunger is for understanding, not reality per se – – that we’re not seeking a reflection of the disorder our society and our souls are in but a path to comprehending the disorder, and then to creating order and peace both in the world and internally. Reality exists; peace and order do not. We’re not hungry for what exists; we’re hungry for what does not exist.