David Shields has a new book coming out called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. I saw Shields read from his manifesto a couple years ago and he sure had the fiction writers in the room riled up. I found myself both nodding along with Shields and growing increasingly annoyed by him. I’m with Zadie Smith:
A deliberate polemic, [Reality Hunger] sets what one could be forgiven for thinking were two perfectly companionable instincts – the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other. Shields likes to say such things as “Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn’t”; to which I want to say, “Bad story does that, yes, but surely good story exists, too”. Anyway, there’s a pleasure to be had reading and internally fighting with Shields’s provocations, especially if you happen to be a novelist who writes essays (or a reader who enjoys both). The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” And: “All the best stories are true.” And: “The world exists. Why recreate it?” It’s tempting to chalk this up to one author’s personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn’t written a novel since the early 90s), but in expressing his novel-nausea so frankly he hopes to show that he is not alone in having such feelings – and my sense is that he’s right.
When our own imaginations dry up – when, like Coetzee, we seem to have retreated, however spectacularly, to a cannibalisation of the autobiographical – it’s easy to cease believing in the existence of another kind of writing. But it does exist. And there’s no need to give up on the imaginative novel; we just need to hope for better examples. (In Coetzee’s oeuvre, of course, we have better examples. The fully imagined artistry of novels such as The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace offer their readers distinct pleasures, not easily dismissed, and not easily found in those impressive but rather anaemic later works, the essayistic and self-referential Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime.) It may be that this idea of the importation of “more reality” is exactly the call to arms a young writer somewhere at her desk needs at this moment, but for this writer at this desk, the argument feels ontologically dubious. When I turned from my own dirty pond to a clear window, I can’t say that I felt myself, in essence, being more “truthy” in essay than I am in fiction. Writing is always a highly stylised and artificial act, and there is something distinctly American and puritan about expecting it to be otherwise. I call on Woolf again as witness for the defence. “Literal truth-telling,” she writes, “is out of place in an essay.” Yes, that’s it again. The literal truth is something you expect, or hope for, in a news article. But an essay is an act of imagination, even if it is a piece of memoir. It is, or should be, “a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking”, but it still takes quite as much art as fiction. Good non-fiction is as designed and artificial as any fairy story. Oddly, this is a thesis Reality Hunger readily agrees with: in its winding way it ends up defining the essay as imaginative at its core, and Shields wants to encourage its imaginative qualities – it seems to be only in the novel that the imagination must be condemned. It’s a strange argument, but I guess the conventional form so many imaginative novels take has been enough to give fictional imagination itself a bad name.