Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Shields argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience.
David Shields’s clarion call...urgently and succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air, have relentlessly gathered momentum and have just been waiting for someone to link them together. His is a complex and multifaceted argument, not easily reducible to a bullet-point list—but then, so was the Surrealist Manifesto. Reality Hunger does contain quite a few slogan-ready phrases, but they weren’t all written by Shields, and some are more than a century old ... his book...argues forcefully and passionately, but not like a debate-team captain, more like a clever if overmatched boxer, endlessly bobbing and weaving. And for all that so much of its verbiage is the work of others, it positively throbs with personality. This is so not simply because Shields includes a chapter of autobiographical vignettes; he puts his crotchets on display. He is serious perhaps to a fault ... On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come.
The merely literary questions...the questions for readers and writers, are not what distinguish Reality Hunger as the truly necessary book that it has become. Shields identified a spiritual state that has come to dominate American culture as a whole ... Reality Hunger is an artifact from the birth of the post-fact. It was only through a glass darkly that Shields could see what was happening, but he did see it. He saw it, but he did not know quite what to make of it ... Like an archeological relic, Reality Hunger provides essential information about the crumbling of meaning in our time, showing that, as recently as 2010, it was still possible to discuss facts as if they existed ... Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of rereading Reality Hunger is how its most sophisticated and nuanced ideas of the interplay between memoir and reportage, between facts and identity, have been utterly assimilated into everyday life ... In a world turned upside down by reality hunger, Reality Hunger needs to be turned upside down too. The post-fact world no longer demands, as the condition of creative fluidity, a rush away from the tyranny of facts, as Shields imagined. Rather the opposite: the moment demands an art of focused observation. The essay is the theater of the brain, but it is also a harvest of vision. We need a new art of information. We need to start building it right now.
Reality Hunger...is not just a manifesto for a new kind of genre-blurring 21st-century prose, it is also a series of short, sharp provocations ... For all its supposed 21st-century cut and thrust, Reality Hunger reeks of a certain kind of endlessly referential, post-modernist lit-crit theory from the 1980s that briefly made Barthes and Baudrillard fashionable names to drop whether or not one had read their books. Which is a shame, because there is much here that is thought-provoking ... Shields has a point when he nails the traditional contemporary novel for being, for the most part, not at all contemporary ... Some of the most illuminating sections in Reality Hunger are, unsurprisingly, to do with the memoir, one of the defining literary forms of our time. Refreshingly, he argues for the unreliability of memory as a basis for memoir writing ... your tolerance for [Reality Hunger] may well depend on which side of the great post-modern divide you stand. It is not often that Ezra Pound and the Beastie Boys are celebrated in the same paragraph ... I doubt whether his manifesto will have any great impact beyond the rarefied world of literary culture, but it certainly seems to have struck a chord within it.