David Shields is hungry, but not hungry enough. So says Curtis White, who argues that by ignoring anti-realism's past and present, Shields writes as if "New York" and "now" are the only contexts that matter.
Reality Hunger is a manifesto about literature that argues against the linear, the realist, the plotted, and the "true," in the name of the random, the fragmented, the collaged, and the "real." The form of the book models what it advocates: 618 fragments, more than half of them quotations, laid out in chapters that are arbitrarily arranged alphabetically and thematically. The didactic point to which Shields returns most often, and most emphatically, is the assertion that all good books are "essays," a "trying" of something that has no necessary formal relation to anything that came before it. This is, for Shields, especially true of the memoir, that superlative form of fictive self-disclosure. (Some critics have claimed that the book is a rejection of the novel, but my sense is that it is not so much a rejection of the novel as it is a rejection of "the novel," that rule governed, form functional "craft." But he seems to have no quarrel with the novel as what the first novelist, Henry Fielding, called a "comic epic poem in prose." The novel too is a "theater of the brain.")
It is impossible for me not to sympathize with this book if for no other reason than that Shields and I are so much alike. We both grew up in the '60s and early '70s in the San Francisco Bay Area; we both went to universities on the East Coast (he, Brown, me, Johns Hopkins); and we both ended up at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the late 70s, where we both felt constrained by Iowa's "Field and Stream School of Realism." His favorite books are my favorite books (he seems particularly fond of Proust and Nabokov, and I am particularly fond of Proust and Nabokov). Even our work is at times alike; we both wrote non-realist, non-linear autobiographical books about growing up in the '50s and '60s in the blue glow of television and movie screens (he, Remote, me, Memories of My Father Watching TV). Most importantly, his argument against realism has for 40 years been for me what Italo Calvino called "the sea within," my own innermost briny home.
Where we are most different is in this: his Jewish family felt that its roots were on the East Coast while I was a pure, pre-fabricated punk from the newly-invented 'burbs. (I will overlook this difference: the grotesque fact that somehow he lived in the Bay Area and rooted for the Dodgers.) My sense is that in spite of his youth in California, Shields grew up into the already well-formed cultural assumptions of New York, especially the assumption that if something is good it will have to make its case in New York. ("Every Manhattan street address is still, for me, a quick haiku of glamour," Shields wrote in Remote.) I, on the other hand, found my aesthetic salvation in San Francisco hippy culture. I learned to love art sitting on the filthy floor of the Fillmore Auditorium listening to Country Joe and the Fish. When I went back east in 1973, I had never heard of Hopkins, had never read the New York Times, and had no idea why publishing in the New Yorker was a desirable thing for a writer.
Reality Hunger has a very New York feel about it. For all its manifesto-making, the book seems to work with a certain dignified confidence in its well-established context. It does not have the disheveled, slouching, skeptical, laughing insolence of the West Coast. I always assumed that the world of New York was a closed shop for me; it was, as Shields himself writes, "a kind of club, with which to beat other regions into prone position." And so I assumed that if I was to be part of a book world, a writer's world, I'd have to help create it. I was fine with that.
This is a revealing observation for me because it illuminates a crucial absence in Shields' book: you could not tell from this book that the anarchic beauties of anti-realist fiction have always before been parts of larger social revolts. The books I loved in the '60s were books that I thought hippies and assorted other counterculturalists loved. For me, the arch, knowing, gleefully ironic world of Donald Barthelme's Snow White was also the world of psychedelia and hippie newspapers like The San Francisco Oracle. This shared purpose was especially true for a writer like Richard Brautigan whose story situations seemed to me to scream "hippies!" (As a longhair in the City in 1969, I used to stand in line with Brautigan at a Wells Fargo Bank on Geary Avenue. He wore that goofy Stetson for which he became so famous. My only thought was, "I'm in line at the bank with Richard Brautigan. Truly, the world is magic.")
A more dispassionate way to put this is to ask, "Who is this book for and what is it trying to accomplish?" Much of the book feels like an argument about "taste": this kind of memoir/essay fiction is "better" than realism/plotted fiction. But what kind of manifesto is that? In writing the "Surrealist Manifesto," did Andre Breton imagine he was trying to correct a mistaken aesthetic? Or was he trying to blow up one world and replace it with another? David Shields would like to correct New York's taste, but beyond that it's hard to say what he wants. Is it simply a call to writers to write differently? He has claimed that it is, but I am incredulous in the face of the claim. We are not suddenly going to be in a world of playgiaristic word assemblages because David Shields says we should. He told Stephen Colbert that his book was a "call to arms." At best, it is the sort of call to arms that comes from an editor saying, "Why shouldn't we do a call to arms this season? I think it's time for that again. In the spring, of course. I don't see this as a Christmas book."
Of course, Shields could turn the table on me and say, "Isn't the same thing true of your The Middle Mind?" It is true. The subversive appeal of that book was made possible by Harper Collins and their only interest was in the book's scandal: I said mean things about Terry Gross.
For me, to consider this book is to say, "This is a familiar argument, not a new argument." Which is also to say, "Why does Shields take so little interest in the American traditions that have worked more seriously, more murderously, in the name of the anti-realist? American modernists like William Carlos Williams. The Beats. Black Mountain poets. The great figures of postmodernism like Barth, Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed. He mentions them now and then, but why isn't he saying, "American book culture should never have abandoned this tradition, and it should never have given up on the counter-world it implied." And why doesn't he account for the rich culture of alternative presses that grew up around New York's abandonment of postmodernism in the late '70s? (It still disgusts me to think of how we were Big Chilled, Moral Fictioned, and generally Kakutanied.) There were and still are Sun and Moon (Green Integer), the Fiction Collective (FC2), and Dalkey Archive Press, as well as smaller operations like The Exquisite Corpse, McPherson, Black Sparrow, City Lights, Semiotext(e) and the American Book Review. (Disclosure: I've worked with and published with most of the above.) These presses were not trying to correct taste: they were trying to blow up a world. New York. They were and are countercultural. They were and are Shields' natural allies, but here in this work it is as if he's never heard of them.
Here's the obvious thing that, for whatever reason, Shields doesn't recognize: the kind of work that he claims to want already exists in abundance. It's just that it's in Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, California, Alabama, and hundreds of basement operations in the provinces and off the grid. His only legitimate complaint is that the anti-realist doesn't exist in New York and that, for him, is the only place that matters. No, the problem is not with the existence or non-existence of anti-realist work; the problem is with New York, American Ideology Central.
I don't think David Shields wants to blow anything up. He wants to be able to inhabit New York differently and yet still benefit from its capacity for creating success. I think this book reflects Shields' visceral ambivalence about living in "the shadow of celebrity" that he rendered so powerfully in Remote. There's a lot about New York and Oprah and the rest of it that Shields finds dishonest, destructive, and morally appalling; but he can't quite bring himself to condemn that culture outright because, as he says in Remote, he can't quite stop wanting to be a "famous author." Oh, that David Shields. He is hostile to New York's book industry, the logrolling of agents, editors, multi-national publishers, entertainment conglomerates, and hapless content providers, but not so hostile that he can't still hope to be a star in the American literary pantheon that New York controls and into which it puts dullards like Jonathan Franzen. I don't blame Shields for this. It's hard to imagine an American writer, myself included, who doesn't understand his predicament.
But if Shields had turned this book into an attack on New York and a resurrection of anti-realist American art traditions, it seems to me unlikely that Knopf, a subsidiary of Random House/Bertelsmann, would have published it. (The fact that some of his backlist is now kept in print by the likes of Graywolf and the University of Wisconsin suggests that he may already have gone too far.) In order to be published by a New York house, the book must act as if it is saying these things for the first time. As if they were the season's New Ideas. You still can't speak in praise of the '60s, the counterculture, or what we have called postmodernism. As far as New York is concerned, and apparently so far as David Shields is concerned, that's all down the Memory Hole into Orwellian forgetfulness. They never existed. For an author whose work is so much about memory, this irony cuts very, very deeply.
To claim that they did exist, and that they could and should exist again, is very dangerous for a writer who wants to keep an agent, keep an editor, and keep a publisher. How sweetly the phrases "my agent," "my editor," "my publisher" float off a writer's tongue. It's a way for us to say, "I'm more than just me. I'm part of the Great American Celebrity Machine. I'm more real than you are." For a writer to lose these things is to feel that she is slipping back into her native condition: irrelevance. That is intolerable for most writers. So the manifesto-makers and the rebels end up arguing, "I want to be a rebel, but it's just as important that I keep those institutions in place that will help me to be a famous rebel." So, hit something but not too hard.
David Shields is not responsible for this appalling state of affairs. It is perhaps too much to expect him to become Delacroix's Lady Freedom and take up the fallen banner of counterculture. (On that banner is "I ♥ NY" with a dagger through the heart.) Still, for the argument he wants to make, it is just the (absent) point.