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Mash-Up Manifesto: Reality Hunger by David Shields

Books spotlighted by publishers as their key titles come with balls of hype trailing behind them. But it seems like we’ve been hearing about David Shields’ barely-200-page treatise Reality Hunger for ages, and it was only released this past Tuesday.

Maybe it’s because Zadie Smith used the book as a crutch for insecure introspection about her own writing. Maybe it’s because it’s already become required reading in university spheres, galleys passed from one student to the next like an illicit hit of crack cocaine. I know I’ve already had spirited discussions about Reality Hunger with friends and critical colleagues. It’s hard to resist the urge to argue with the text, especially when Shields states his intention “to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media…who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work” right there on page one.

What follows is a glorious mash-up of provocative quotations, theories, anecdotes and observations, all unattributed (save for the back endnotes that demand frequent sneak-peeking for orientation’s — or maybe disorientation’s — sake) and from a variety of corners. James Frey tangos with Alain Robbe-Grillet, who switches partners with Jay-Z, reading ad copy from Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s no surprise that one of the writers Shields admires most and mentions often is David Markson, whose work, from Wittgenstein’s Mistress on, extols the virtues of referencing source material out of context and turns disparate quotes into high and readable art. More surprising was that Reality Hunger‘s musical cousin, Girl Talk, was barely mentioned at all; the enterprising DJ accomplishes the same goal, taking sampling beyond natural limits, turning cacophony into patchwork melody.

Loosening the restrictions on attribution, calling bullshit on the novel’s adherence to tired, old formats, and tsk-tsking the outcry when memoirs prove to be “fake” (in an era full of “reality” television shaped and molded by unseen editors) liberates Shields, and in turn liberates the reader. By mixing the obvious with a first scratchy, then beautiful tone that hums, then overrides what we think we already know about the novel, Shields zeroes in on what really matters: empathy, emotional truth, and ideas that crackle and pop.

I came away from Reality Hunger excited about writing, and impatient about books that don’t offer these same thrills. That said, this book is a jumping-off point, hardly the last word; Shields dismisses genre a bit too much (mystery, in particular, its constraints often advantageous for writers seeking to branch out into particular themes and social commentary), and doesn’t always factor in that great fiction can rise out of seemingly stale archetypes. But we do ourselves a disservice, as readers and as writers, by settling for mediocrity, and if Reality Hunger convinces even one person to be more adventurous, more playful, and more ambitious, it will have lived up both to advance hype and its own ferocious fictive objectives.

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