Reality Hunger

23 11 2009

I already blogged about Zadie Smith’s response to David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and I noted my admiration for her courage and insight in criticizing what she saw in Shields’ adherents (many prominent authors have blurbed the book admiringly, including Geoff Dyer, J.M. Coetzee, and Jonathan Lethem) as propping up a defense of what she calls a deficit in imagination among many contemporary novelists (they love that Shields has provided a defense or excuse for not bothering with characters and plot) and a lack of proper historical understanding of the novel and its inherent messiness. She seemed to think that the problem with Shields’ discrediting of the proper well-made novel in favor of a novel that does not resemble a novel, or writing that anxiously blurs the lines between fiction and non-, the problem with Shields’ argument is that he seems to conflate bad writing with the well-made novel or any kind of vaguely traditional novel at all. He seems to say that because too many novels I read are hindered by cardboard characters and stock plots, this must mean that any novel with characters and plots is tired, and we need instead collage-aphorism-genre-less novels, and this is the only meaningful way to respond to our 21st century world. She then says that the problem is bad writing, and that the novel-which-doesn’t-seem-like-a-novel is hardly a fool-proof fix, using J.M. Coetzee’s latest efforts, Summertime and Diary of a Bad Year, both of which blur the fiction/non-fiction line, as examples of failures in this vein (she thoroughly trashes these books, a bold move). She points to various contemporary more-or-less-still-traditional novels (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novels), or at least books with characters and such, as examples to back up her general argument that novel-novels, the ones with characters, are still valuable and viable, and that characters in particular, rather than the author’s self and autobiography variously cannibalized, are still essential in fiction and unique to fiction from non-, and it is these characters that allow the author to explore other people, a potentially very worthwhile pursuit. She says this desire for “more reality” in fiction, for a blurring between genres, for an incorporating of aphorisms and maxims and quotes and collage elements, is really a seeking after the purity of the essay, a form that can be polished until everything sparkles, whereas the novel is a hopelessly flawed endeavor and result, she claims.

All fine points. But, having read this excerpt from the book in question, it’s clear to me that Shields raises very important points about the vitality of fiction and addresses the hunger that has been very clear in our current cultural climate, for, to name a few: the real, “reality TV,” the news, monologues, autobiographical stand-up comedy, comedy news, actors whose off-screen personas are indistinguishable from their on-screen characters (which may or may not be completely dissimilar from who they “actually” are), pseudo-memoirs (Dave Eggers has written at least two), extremely meta and/or improvised TV shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm is the primary, but not only example), mumblecore movies (improvised, more-or-less realistic events and dialogue, some featuring actual unsimulated sexual acts), pseudo-documentaries (the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest as well as Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Bruno)… The list goes on, but the point is, people want to know that something might have, in a sense, “actually happened” to an “actual person” in a way that is not predictable, in an environment in which the line between reality and fiction is blurred. There really is a hunger for this in the culture, and it has only gotten more pronounced as each new wave of multimedia hits us. There are roots for all these things in bygone eras (the 60s and 70s, predominantly, with New Journalism, and cinema verite documentaries, and Hunter S. Thompson, post-modernist fiction, et al.), and of course people still go to see proper dramatic films, and read proper literary novels, and romantic comedies that follow strict conventions, but it cannot be ignored that many people today, perhaps the majority of people today question the surface of any art object, people regard everything with an arch lens, with doubt or with irony, or with earnestness, an earnestness whose motives and origins and agendas may be quite earnestly questioned and examined by someone else. There is a spiral of reflexivity and meta-ness and detachment in our culture that is nearly matched by an insatiable hunger for anything that verifies the reality of some other person in some other life, out there, living how I live or completely different from how I live, but out there, and I want to eavesdrop, to wonder about them, to follow him or her into the realm of the unknown, where I can’t predict the plot, but where I know, even as I know that I can’t possibly know, that all that is going on is “real,” is really happening, and what will happen, whatever it is, feels more palpable or at least more interesting to me because it is a temporarily new frontier. This uncertain zone of semi-reality has not yet been exhausted, even as certain specific genre manifestations, say, the documentary-style single-camera sitcom, have been pretty much done to death, and with diminishing returns (the U.K. Office begets the U.S. Office; Arrested Development begets Modern Family). Any tactic in any art form or genre can be done to death, can be co-opted. And that’s fine, or at least natural. But Reality Hunger seems to be after a wake-up call for novelists, a call-to-arms for greater bravery, more introspection regarding one’s form, one’s approach, one’s viewpoint on what is this thing we call, lest we forget, the novel.

And Shields, excitingly, seems to justify all this blending and blurring and borrowing and various forms of reality by affirming the search for wisdom. He sees his manifesto as advocating a move toward a more thorough and unblinking processing of life and whatever lessons and salvation or just drops of joy may be squeezed from it. He seems to want novels that don’t waste their or our time chasing after plot lines and conforming to conventional expectations when they could be seeking that thing closest to wisdom, that thing closest to reality, that thing that does not completely satisfy (what is it to be satisfied?) but which nonetheless redeems our waking moments, the span of our life, the archives of all our striving. Shields regards Bill Murray as a personal hero, a man whose on-and-offscreen persona never denies the sometimes glum or dour or aching qualities of being alive, but who has so much joy, has so much fun in him, even in his darkest movies, that one can’t help but like him and want to follow wherever he goes. Perhaps the kind of joy Murray gives the audience is the joy Shields’ manifesto is after, and the kind of joy he wishes more writers would provide, the unexpected, unapologetic pleasures of just being human, of thinking and trying and enjoying a fragile grace. Therein lies some kind of zeitgeist.

****Apologies for the length and messiness, but the point is, Reality Hunger has got me excited about thinking about novels and about the possibilities of fiction, in 2009 no less, and that’s more than worthwhile in my book.
P.S. the real path forward in fiction may just lie in J.D. Salinger’s late, rambling work (which deepens by adding to the fictionality of its characters and its composition rather than adding to the “reality” of its characters or its composition, a different kind of post-modernism), I’m thinking especially of Seymour: An Introduction. That title is winking at us, and continues to wink at us as Salinger has remained out of sight for so many years (God, I selfishly hope there will be posthumous books!!!)
P.P.S. Latin American fiction, from Machado de Assis to Clarice Lispector to Cortazar to Bolano, has a lot to teach Western literature.
P.P.P.S. Time to get writing!




2 responses

15 12 2009

Thanks for this explanation of Shields’ latest. This is an exciting idea: “He seems to want novels that don’t waste their or our time chasing after plot lines and conforming to conventional expectations when they could be seeking that thing closest to wisdom, that thing closest to reality, that thing that does not completely satisfy…”

20 12 2009
m k harikumar

hai, the idea is good , but is very diifficult to read .
so please clear the font size or color.
m k harikumar

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