A Hunger for Reality Hunger

August 20, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 10 3 min read

coverIn our all flash, no substance age, manifestos aren’t usually the subject of much popular interest, but essayist and author David Sheilds’ forthcoming book Reality Hunger bears “Manifesto” as a subtitle, and it may break the mold.  What this book is exactly is another question entirely, and not a surprising one considering Shields’ background as a genre bender.

One thing that’s clear is that the book, which will be published in March, has accrued an impressive roster of blurbers. Charles D’Ambrosio first piqued my interest with  his entry in our Year in Reading last year:

One of the best books I read this year won’t be published until next year but I think it’s insanely great so here goes: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields. It’s a kind of chrestomathy that seems to come from one author but in fact is a compendium of quoted passages from writers, rockers, poets and whatnot, all of it traversing the disputed terrain of the real. It’s got a cranky, manifesto feel, its generous, serious, ridiculous, subtle, its ambitious but with a nonchalant throw-away feel like a Lou Reed lyric, its parts are so tightly strung together that you can’t pick a single thread without involving yourself in the whole shivering web. Anybody who writes or thinks or breathes is already living inside the questions raised by Reality Hunger. This book will drive me nuts for years. I think it’s destined to become a classic.

That actually became an official blurb for the book (or D’Ambrosio had already written it and reused it for our series), and in offering praise for the forthcoming book, D’Ambrosio is joined but other literary luminaries like Jonathan Lethem (“It’s a pane that’s also a mirror; as a result of reading it, I can’t stop looking into myself and interrogating my own artistic intentions.  It will be published to wild fanfare…”) and Nobel-winner J.M. Coetzee (“Reality Hunger is…an all-out assault on tired generic conventions, particularly those that define the well-made novel.”), among others.

Knopf, in its publicity material says “David Shields has produced an open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century.”

If you’re like me, you read all of the above (and perhaps more; Richard Powers, Charles Baxter, and Lydia Davis are among several others who offered early praise) and had to know more about this new… whatever it is.

The literary journal Willow Springs has published the most substantial excerpt, and it offers (in what will seem like a counterpoint to all the non-specific but glowing praise) a handy editors note telling us:

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, from which the following is excerpted, is made up of 563 numbered entries, organized into twenty-six lettered sections. Constructed as a collage of voices and ideas, “Reality Hunger” establishes early on that “genre is a minimum security prison,” from which David Shields has already escaped.

Nine pages of the collage ensue, and they are somewhat underwhelming but oddly mesmerizing as well, with autobiographical recollections that give way to intellectual revelations.  “When I was growing up, The New York Times was air-mailed to our house every day,” he writes near the top of one of the numbered sections, and a few lines later we’re at “My father reminds me that Walt Whitman once said, ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ Not, though, the daily paper as it’s literally published: both straight-ahead journalism and airtight art are, to me, insufficient; I want instead something teetering anxiously in between.”  The numbering of the chunks and mundanity of the recollections followed so soon after by the intensity of revelation give the whole excerpt a bloggy, if not Twittery, feel.

A briefer excerpt in another literary journal, Lake Effect, shows something different, though, aphorisms mostly: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.”

An interview in an early Willow Springs touched on the book and offers some more clues, which I don’t quite know how to place, for example, “Reality Hunger contains dozens of unattributed quotes from various writers, filmmakers, philosophers, and other people.”

And then there is Sheilds’ essay in the March 2006 issue of The Believer, also titled “Reality Hunger,” which begins “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me.”

This all doesn’t exactly clear things up for me, but it points to the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest early next year.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.