Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, author David Shields is straight up gangster. To call something you produce a manifesto is like posting up, which means standing your ground wearing your colors. In this case the ground is Essayland and the color is the essay, at least as he sees it. And let’s face it, in bookstores, on campuses, and in people’s home libraries the essay is still a second-class literary form, or the “fourth genre.” In fact many people wouldn’t even refer to essays as essays, but as nonfiction, a term that mirrors and reinforces the supremacy of fiction, sort of like when you categorize a person as nonwhite. In his book Shields argues for the dissolution of copyright laws and genre. He is a proponent of writing that is driven by thought rather than narrative. He likes brevity. He loves doubt. He quotes Mobb Deep.
The book is organized into twenty-six sections labeled with the alphabet in its order. Each of these sections is given the name of the subject it will engage, and contains numbered bits that go to six hundred eighteen. There is a frame and it all seems very organized, but the ideas push against this order. One of the strongest threads that run throughout the book is uncertainty. From the very first page in the “a” section titled “overture” number one starts, “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” It is not an attempt to smuggle, but “an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle.” It is not more reality; it is “more of what the artist thinks is reality.” In fact, there is an entire section titled doubt, which seems somewhat strange since doubt is so heavily present throughout the book. The section titled “memory” might as well have been called the unreliability of memory, or doubt II. Even in the very next section titled “thinking” number four hundred twenty four reads: “If I had the slightest grasp upon my own faculties, I would not make essays. I would make decisions.”
Even with all this doubt, Shields seems certain that the essay is the superior literary form. This may seem counter to another thread that runs throughout the book, which is that genre should be obliterated, and that the constraints that separate forms are illusory, but just turn to the “o” section titled “contradiction,” for a possible fix. No? Okay, maybe look to number three hundred eighty six: “‘Essay’ is a verb, not just a noun; ‘essaying’ is a process.” Certainly doesn’t provide certainty, but at least for me is a notion that makes essaying much more exciting than crafting rigid narrative fiction, even rigid narrative memoir. Or four hundred thirteen, “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre, or the means by which other genres speak to one another.” So I correct myself, Shields seems certain that essaying is what writers should be doing, or what writers should be filled with and motivated by.
Shields wants Reality Hunger, to be a collage, or mash-up, or remix of ideas. A collage is an assemblage of different forms, for example a visual collage may contain newspaper clippings, a piece of cardboard box, a lock of hair, and the disparate forms crash into and inform each other. The fragments may have overtones or cultural codings attached, or they may be selected for their texture. In this text the fragments, although gathered from a diversity of sources, seem somewhat homogenous visually, syntactically, and thematically, which doesn’t disqualify them as collage, but leaves me a tad wanting. I wouldn’t call it a mash-up or remix, because that implies a fluidity and continuity present in most music, at least the hip-hop that Shields mentions in the text. When reading the book I often found myself needing to take breaks, but that is to be expected with aphorisms, which take time to savor and unpack.
At times, the text becomes repetitive, seems less like circling an idea than merely repeating. Number two hundred sixty: “Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” And number two hundred sixty one: “Art is theft.” These two seem so similar and in such proximity that they can be combined: “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” When parsed the aphorisms in this book get at a core of truths, the question for me then becomes how many of these numbered sections are necessary to get the point across? My thought is that if you have a section titled “in praise of brevity,” perhaps shaving away some fragments that really syntactically similar or approaching an idea from a similar angle could be cut.
I think Shields achieves something else, which is perhaps not the most important part of an artistic manifesto for the world, but it certainly affects those participating in an artistic tradition: the creation of solidarity and unity among young essayists, which is why I’ll reiterate that David Shields is straight gangster. To my understanding not only does this mean posting up, as in writing something unabashedly and standing by its colors, but also helping to bolster a sense of community for those who essay.