Book review: Reality Hunger by David Shields

Published by Knopf, 240 pp, $28.95, hardcover

Is the novel dead?

Well, not exactly. But in his new book, David Shields sets out to prove it’s no longer relevant. A 240-page manifesto split into 26 themed chapters, Reality Hunger makes the case for why reality-based writing is better than the novel.

So what does Shields, who has written two novels as well as a bunch of nonfiction, hate so much about novels? His main gripe is that today’s rapid-fire culture is moving too quickly, tossing up too many real-life stories that are weird, wonderful, and borderline unbelievable for fiction writers to be able to compete. He also sees the artistic potential of fiction as worn-out; he believes that, as with jazz, whose solos all carry a hint of the familiar, everything that can be said in fiction has been said before. Citing the popularity of reality television and mix tapes, Shields names the novel’s successor: the lyric essay, creative nonfiction without the debt to pure truth that made James Frey a literary pariah in 2006. Shields is vague as to how this new writing differs from previous movements like New Journalism, but he declares that it must be raw, random, and, above all, without a traditional plot.

One of Shields’s most compelling arguments concerns copyright and how it curtails creativity by controlling ideas that have become part of our culture. Shields believes we should be able to sample and remix the work of other writers, freely, without citations, and without repercussions. To drive his point home, he waits until halfway through the book for his big reveal: most passages in Reality Hunger are reworked quotations, taken from various sources (newspapers, the Dogme 95 manifesto, Michael Moore’s Oscars acceptance speech—you name it). Shields just stitches them together to create a sort of patchwork essay, a mashup of the written word.

It’s inspiring stuff. But this book doesn’t aim to entertain, it aims to change the way we think about writing. That’s typical of Shields’s output; he’s only concerned with the novel as an art form. Tellingly, he says of mass-market page-turners: “Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.”

It’s likely they always will: most people aren’t as tough-minded and unswervingly dedicated to the pursuit of art as Shields is. Most people read novels because they’re entertaining. They can be beautiful, transcendent, affecting. But will they ever do anything truly new? Probably not.