:: Article

Reality Hunger

By Max Dunbar.


Reality Hunger, David Shields, Hamish Hamilton 2010

‘The book our sick-at-heart moment needs,’ says Wayne Rostenbaum, ‘like a sock in the jaw or an electric jolt in the solar plexus – to wake it up.’ Jonathan Lethem declared himself ‘lit up… astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed… it really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, outrageous, visionary volume.’ Geoff Dyer described this book as ‘a wake-up call that is a pleasure to hear and respond to… reading it, I kept thinking, ‘Yes, exactly, I wish I’d said that.’ But he qualifies his praise: ‘And then I realised I had.’

Believe the hype? Reality Hunger defines itself as a manifesto and takes the form of isolated paras and sections, Nicholson Baker style, laying down examples and epigrams. Essentially it’s a work of literary theory that argues that fiction and reality are merging together – and that this will change the face of writing as we know it.

Shields gives the example of James Frey. His A Million Little Pieces was presented as a personal account of self-abuse and redemption. Frey’s confessions of drug delinquency were widely admired until it was discovered that most of the book’s content was either made up or wildly exaggerated. Disgrace followed. Frey was dropped by his agent, lost a two-book, seven-figure deal and appeared on Oprah to be ritually denounced. Random House disclaimered all future editions and, following a lawsuit, agreed to refund any readers who could send in a torn-off piece of the book and also ‘a sworn statement confirming that they had read the book in the belief it was a real memoir or, in other words, that they felt bad having accidentally read a novel.’

We are all storytellers in our lives. (It’s only a few of us desperadoes who, unsatisfied with the fiction of life, go all the way into actual fiction.) We all have a narrative of ourselves as the good, brave, attractive person leading a life of pleasure and conquest: success, in this world, is measured in the correlation of our internal monologue to the reality of personal existence. Comedy is the best way of highlighting this. Hit sitcom The Office worked so well because it told a story of a deluded man who tries to make life fit his internal narrative. The humour lay in the gap between how Brent saw himself and the way things truly were.

The personal became political. Shields quotes the unnamed Bush aide: ‘People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ Postmodern’s giggling indifference to objective truth had spread from the campus to the corridors of power. Michael Moore was certainly right to say that ‘We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president… We live in a time where we have a man who’s sending us to war for fictitious reasons.’ (The anti-war movement, of course, had its own grand narrative, which bore no more resemblance to reality than did that of the neoconservatives.)

Reality Hunger illuminates a great deal, but the book suffers from one big weakness: the phenomenal self-regard of its author. All manifestos can be edited down to the phrase ‘Look at me!’ and Shields’s work is no exception. This is why his ideas, which would have made an excellent essay, have had to be stretched out into two hundred pages plus. The book sags and flaps. While some of Shields’s paragraphs can almost break your heart with their insight (the first drawing ever produced by an animal depicted ‘the bars of the poor creature’s cage’) others are pretentious and nonsensical, and there is an atmosphere of intellectual smugness on every last page. Reality Hunger is an interesting read; it will stimulate debate; it could just do with a little less David Shields.



Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 30th, 2010.