Wednesday, April 27, 2011

REALITY HUNGER by David Shields

To paraphrase Woody Allen: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach (or write), teach writing. David Shields teaches writing--or tries to--somewhere near the western edge of the Great Flyover, and Reality Hunger is this university professor's not-exactly-angry manifesto. (Because we all know the next revolution will be led by English professors, right?) Shields's manifesto-as-mixtape consists of 618 Wittgensteinianly numbered aphorisms, some as brief as a single line and most, mercifully, extracted from the works of writers much better than the credited 'author.' Shields's own contributions are no better than the bland and boring book in which he attempted to put the ideas manifested here into academic 'praxis,' The Thing About Living Is That Someday You'll Read A Book As Boring As This And Wish You Were Dead (as it should've been titled). The best stuff here--and there is a surprising amount of thought-provoking wisdom stuck between the whining and banalities--is without exception stolen from writers like W. G. Sebald, William H. Gass, Nietzsche, Emerson--in short, writers who drink Shields's milkshake and beat him senseless with a bowling pin. Shields's own 'aphorisms' might have been condensed into two or three lines:

1.I am lazy, hear me whine.

2.The contemporary literary novel is in a state of formulaic exhaustion, and if any good ones exist I'm too lazy to read them.

3.What is to be done? Hybridize novel and memoir into a fragmented form of novella length.

The author's intellectual laziness and proud unoriginality (the academic's version of the lowbrow's proud ignorance) are on display even in the work's central thesis. Any intelligent reader can see that what publishers call 'literary fiction' has hardened into a genre (I attempt to outline the rules of this genre in my post on Jennifer Egan's Look At Me, below), so this Newtonian revelation deserves a big fat "Duh!" Nor is Shields's favorite answer to the current impasse in any way original: in essence he suggests an Americanized version of European Late Modernism (Robbe-Grillet, Barthes, Sebald), a nonsolution that would set Emerson spinning in his echt-Yankee grave. (One might also note that the very project of manifesto-writing is an unoriginal exercise in Modernist nostalgia, evincing a conservative, traditionalist impulse to return to a time when 'the novel' supposedly mattered more than it does today.)

Shields's prescription for the "next big literary thing" is so mild, so tame, so (say it!) academic as to be essentially worthless. We don't need more vapid novelistic memoirs or memoiristic novels or pale imitations of Sebald. No, the only thing that will save American literary fiction today is a rediscovery of the wild energy that has always been the best and strongest and strangest part of American literature. The next American novelists should seek to be the children of Melville and Faulkner, of Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, of Ralph Emerson and William Gass, of Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg, of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, of Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth, of Robert Stone and Anne Sexton. The last thing American literature needs is a generation of David Shields's vapid toadies telling us what to think.

Reality Hunger is just barely worth reading--for the parts that aren't written by Shields--and worth arguing with, but any reader will find much more that is worthwhile in Shields's source materials. Before wasting time with David Shields, spend it wisely with the essays of Emerson (some of the greatest prose ever written by an American), the essays of William Gass (especially those in Fiction and the Figures of Life, The World Within the Word and Finding A Form), and Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil. With that toolkit, you'll be able to compose a much better manifesto than the originality-starved Reality Hunger.

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