Blog Post

Reality Overload

When reality seems overrated, steal yourself into some fiction. At least that was my reaction to David Shields’ much hyped Reality Hunger. A Manifesto (2010). Written as an “ars poetica” for a burgeoning “group of interrelated artists in a multitude of forms and media” such as the lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, and graffiti, Shields’s book celebrates an avant-garde that embraces reality at the expense of fiction. In this new movement Shields discovers a yearning for unscripted life, an authenticity all the more necessary today because fiction for him can no longer respond effectively to contemporary reality. (After 9/11 a number of critics and journalists wondered if history, political science, and journalism could do a better job in representing this catastrophe than the novel.)

Trampling upon the ashes of fiction, Shields promotes new art forms, those that cross boundaries, such as the documentary, lyric essay (neither public nor personal but both), autobiography, memoirs and collage – everything from Eminem’s autobiographical rap to Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Since he practices what he preaches, Shields writes his book as a collage of sorts. Half of his material exists as quotations from other authors. Shields attributed these quotations only at the publisher’s insistence. The book then is full of aphorisms, some of which are profound and many terribly bathetic.

Standing at the roof of his apartment building, Shields blares out his bugle for in-between genres, works that borrow from autobiography and the novel, documentary and film. Shields is right, of course, that the most exciting and ground-breaking works in any epoch bend rules, mix, and appropriate. They violate the law of genre and force us to rethink categories. Is Herodotus history or myth? Should we categorize Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a work of investigative journalism or fiction?

But it’s hard to know what Shields wants and what he is fighting against. It is not clear, for instance, how he connects the two strands of his argument: the rise of a new boundary busting-art and the craving for reality. He does not like fiction and the novel and he is in favor of “confession,” because “I like the way the temperature in the room goes up when I say ‘I did this.’” To which one wants to answer with “so what.”

This is the weakness of this type of book, the stitching of preferences together (“I can’t read novels anymore the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays”) as opposed to the presentation of arguments. If we all wrote this way, we would end up with only an amplitude of likes and dislikes. Shields reprints a letter to a colleague about his views on contemporary literary production. But why this is important? Why should we spend any time with his preferences at all?

Perhaps more troubling is Shields unquestioning endorsement of authenticity, the power of the inner experience, the force of confession. Rather than presenting a nuanced analysis of, say, the relationship between fiction and reality, he deifies first person narration. Has Shields troubled himself about the capacity of such narrative to convey an unmediated experience?

It rarely occurs to Shields that this longing for reality can become oppressive. Many articles in the popular press begin with reference to the author’s own experience. Can you write an essay on adoption, Down syndrome, or vegetarianism without examining your own life first?

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong in autobiographical reference, in turning a personal anecdote into a staging area for an extended reflection on a topic, or for that matter in publishing memoirs or letters. But it becomes tyrannical when we are expected to believe that opening up your heart is the only means to truth. (The call for reality, the search for authenticity, the demand for confession is so ingrained in our culture today that to identify a book describing these trends as a manifesto seems like a provocation. What Shields describes is a rigid orthodoxy, as unbending as a brick wall.)

As Artemis Leontis and Elizabeth Bellamy wrote a few years ago and Craig Ireland more recently, this appeal to experience may stifle discussion since it posits intellectual inquiry as a matter of personal discovery or the revelation of private feelings and facts. We have heard the arguments that begin with “Looking at this as a Greek …” or “As a gay theorist, I feel …” Are these statements the beginning or the end of a conversation? (Lest people think that I am against identity, I want to point out that I have written a book in its defense.) Whether it’s identity politics in the university or the fetishsization of confession in popular culture, the petition to the personal secretes the truth somewhere deep where only the “I” can get to it, where it is shielded from criticism. This appeal to experience may lift the temperature in Shields’s room but it can also incinerate discussion.

The quest for reality Shields identifies today gives us a false sense of epistemological certainty, namely that the world can become known because it has been confessed, revealed by that undying individual – the romantic.

Beyond this, it is reasonable to ask how new this quest for reality is. Artists have always played with the tug-of-war between reality and simulation, as Plato himself realized. Postmodernism in all its aesthetic permutations has sought to scrutinize the relationship between fact and fiction.

This is one of the essential tensions in art. It is the task of art to guard this boundary, always porous and movable, between what is actual and what is imagined. How can we know the real if we can’t approach it from the illusory? Can we conduct social criticism without the (aesthetic) distance enabled by art, by its epic struggle to maintain the fence between empiricism and illusion?

It is important to have art because, to misquote Aristotle, it presents the world as it might be. There will always be discourses to describe things as they are. Don’t we need one that tells about the probable, the possible, one that demands a leap of faith into the imaginary?

When art gives up its struggle and is swallowed by reality, then we are left with something literal, deadening, and metonymic. This cannot be art at all. It has to be a fiction.

Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010).  His book, A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet, was published in 2014.