Heidi Broadhead doesn't do all her good blogging for us: she's also the "Arts Nerd" over at our local politics/culture/etc. blog, Publicola, and yesterday she posted an excellent interview with David Shields (also local) about his new literary "manifesto," Reality Hunger. The book has often been seen as an argument against fiction (which it is in some ways) but here's a section from the interview that explains that it's really an argument against genre:
AN: And I wanted you to talk a little bit about
the"”wait, I wrote it down"”"the reality continuum""”somewhere between
J.R.R. Tolkien and a list of facts.
DS: Right. I talk about this guy who actually died a
year or two ago named Shields who live in Eastern Washington. He kept
the longest-running journal ever. He kept a journal of every single
thing of every day. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pages.
That would be close to something quasi-real. And someone like Tolkien
is obviously quite fantastical and even there, people who knew him say
how unbelievably autobiographical that book is if you know how to read
it, because it all just tracks very closely to his own life in a
It's taken me a long time, but some of the work I love has a
nonfictional frame to give the work a sense of urgency or risk or
discomfort or nakedness or authenticity. So many of the works I love
the most want to investigate the world rather than entertain the reader.
But I'm just as much opposed to, say, a straight-ahead memoir as I
am to a conventional novel because they both seem to me to be way too
comfortable with conventions of genre. There's a line in the book where
I say, "genre is a minimum security prison." And also there's a
wonderful line by Walter Benjamin in the book, "All great works of
literature either invent a genre or dissolve one," which I really love.
To me, what happens when you dissolve a genre, you get to this:
"When we are not sure, we are alive." The ones that really knock me out
are works in which we're sort of off the click track and we don't know
where we're going. Again, going back to Maggie Nelson's book
(which we had been talking about earlier): What is that book? Is it a
memoir? Is it a philosophical meditation? Is it a history of the color
blue? Is it a cri de coeur about her breakup? Is it art criticism? You
don't know where you're going from paragraph to paragraph. All that you
do know is that you're going deeper into, you know, a human heart. I
just love that feeling, and I think the best books have that quality.
I'm interested in work that hovers between things because when you
hover between things you can go anywhere you want and your loyalty as a
writer becomes investigating something rather than going through the
One thing that's striking to me: this "manifesto" has to this moment received 21 customer reviews on Amazon: all 5 stars. That unanimity is rare for any book, but especially one that aims to be provocative. I know customer reviews are a noisy piece of data--maybe they're all friends and family of Mr. Shields (surely he has one enemy out there somewhere!)--so I'm not sure what it means, if anything, but I wonder if his provocation is in fact so consistent with the cultural moment that no one disagrees with it (at least no one of the sort who will buy and read a literary manifesto right when it comes out).
Meanwhile, here's the "author video" we have on the site for the book, which captures a bit of Shields's mashup style and his taste for autobiographical reality: