Call for new kind of storytelling that’s not so new

By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / March 7, 2010

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“I’m not a big believer in major epiphanies,” David Shields writes in “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” “. . . but I had one nearly twenty years ago, and it occurred in the shower: I had the sudden intuition that I could take various fragments of things - aborted stories, outtakes from novels, journal entries, lit crit - and build a story out of them.”

Not exactly an Archimedes moment, thinks the reader, who has by this point spent 170 pages in the aphoristic arms of “Reality Hunger” getting harangued by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Michael Moore about the obsolescence of traditional storytelling and the brave new world of juxtaposing and combining “various fragments” into a “realer” way of describing the world. “Reality Hunger,” like other manifestos, is a call to action and a shout out to like-minded artists. Like other manifestos, it is bellicose, self-important, occasionally witty, and colorfully written. Unlike many, it is long, repetitive, and ultimately need never have been written. Most of the stories it tells and the assertions it bellows have been told and bellowed for decades.

“Reality Hunger” has a number of grievances and goals. Shields, the author of nine previous books, is sick of the traditional novel and calls for a “blurring” of genres, championing what he calls the “lyric essay” as the emerging vehicle of “chunks of ‘reality,’ ” emotional immediacy, and meaningful contemplation. In addition, the author praises the self-referential, ironic, and irreverent as seen in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” karaoke, Sarah Silverman’s stand-up routines, “Borat,” and other contemporary cultural productions.

He also makes a passionate case for the literary “appropriation” of the words of others (as in musical “sampling”). Indeed, he praises plagiarism, and more than two-thirds of “Reality Hunger” itself is unoriginal material, a collection of others’ words. The lawyers at Random House insisted that Shields cite the sources at the end of the book. The “author” reluctantly complies but advises the reader to cut these pages out.

Shields quotes T.S. Eliot: “Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” In “Reality Hunger,” the words are stolen, and the ideas are borrowed. Shields’s call for a “new” sort of writing that defies traditional notions of genre - a studied unsettling of “the boundary between what are roughly called fiction and nonfiction” - is presented as radical and bold, yet it’s as familiar as his equally vehement demand for work that embraces a “deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored . . . randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity.’’

These notions are as old as the hills climbed for the past century by a swarm of “revolutionaries” that includes painter Jackson Pollock, playwright Harold Pinter, composer John Cage, critics Susan Sontag and John Berger, philosopher Jacques Derrida, and anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In 1980, for example, Geertz published a now-famous talk titled “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought,” in which he wrote: “This genre blurring is more than just a matter of Harry Houdini or Richard Nixon turning up as characters in novels. . . . It is philosophical inquiries looking like literary criticism . . ., scientific discussions looking like belles lettres morceaux . . ., baroque fantasies presented as deadpan empirical observations . . ., histories that consist of equations and tables or law court testimony . . ., documentaries that read like true confessions.”

Shields acknowledges that “the novel has always been a mixed form.” He mentions “Moby Dick” and the earlier “Tristram Shandy” as experiments in genre mixing. He could go back further, and beyond the novel - the Renaissance was rife with genre theorists and practitioners of blurring such as Shakespeare. With a little persistence, he could work his way back to Aristotle. Then he might see that his revolt is to some extent against a nonentity - genre as an ideal, rigid category of characteristics. Subtler theorists have long understood genre to be flexible, changing with the times, shedding and incorporating aspects of other forms.

Shields’s disdain for the traditional novel is definitive and without nuance: “I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” These “moves” include plot development, dialogue, setting, and characterization.

The fiction Shields does admire is sly, clubby, and self-referential. A “great” work of fiction, for instance, is Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in Its Flight.” Sorrentino, who wrote ravishing prose, would continually interrupt (and undermine) his stories with knowing nods to the fact that he was “manufacturing literature.” Typical asides include “now I come to the literary part of the story” and “I put the young man in 1958.” These nudge-nudge, wink-wink reminders that we are reading a story are infantile. We know we are reading a story.

“Reality Hunger” is ultimately an unsophisticated tirade against one of our most precious activities. What Shields breathlessly tosses away is what we, as a culture, must cherish: The hunger to hear a coherent story, get to the heart of a character, rest in sincerity instead of strain in unrelieved irony, to find form in seeming chaos. These are things, sought and found, that help us to survive and thrive. As Samuel Johnson wrote (quoted, cited - but not sufficiently heeded - in “Reality Hunger”), “The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

Alec Solomita is a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville.

By David Shields
Knopf, 219 pp., $24.95