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.