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.

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About the Author

Derek Bridges

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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