Mar 20, 2010

How America lost faith in its fictions

America is losing faith with its fictions. Such is the thesis of David Shields, whose new book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto lays out a compelling case for the prosecution:—

The quasi-home movie, Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank’s radio show In The Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shelton’s unscripted film Humpday (“all the writing takes place in the editing room”)... public-access-TV, karaoke nights, VH1’s Behind-the-Music series, behind the scenes interviews running parallel to the “real” action on reality television shows, rap artists taking a slice of an existing song and blending an entirely new song on top of it, DVD of feature films that inevitably include a documentary about the ‘making of the movie’....”

You’d have to have been living on Mars not to recognize the broad truth underlying that list: everywhere you look, fiction is going into the ring with reality and getting trounced in three rounds. Reality TV shows beat fictional dramas in the ratings. Memoirs outsell novels. More people voted for American idol than for Barack Obama. High school girls write letters to the “real” Juliet, while fans of the Matrix plug into that film’s DVD extras to unravel the magic. This new interrogatory mood may surprise those who cast Americans as a nation of dreamers, fantasists, escapologists seeking endless distraction from the pain of their daily lives in the doughy delights of the 24-hour pop-culture sensorium. It’s called the American Dream not the American Unfomfortable Fact.

According to Shields pop culture has succeeded only too well: wired up the kazoo with high-speed internet connection, punching away at our blackberries and iphones, hooked into our twitter feeds and Facebook status updates, we have more ways than ever to not be paying attention to what is directly in front of our noses. Seqeustered in our electronic eyries, we long for scraps of reality to puncture the fourth wall — SOS notes hurled through our flatscreens. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any,” writes Shields. “We like non-fiction because we live in fictitious times.” Hence our taste for movies like Paranormal Activity which ape the jagged rhythms of documentary; and for TV shows that drop the air kisses of fictional drama for the Darwinian death-match that is the fashion industry (Project Runway), or LA hairdressing (Shear Genius). Shields is not the first to point out that there’s nothing real to these shows; “hybrid mutants of documentaries, games shows and soaps” they offer just as much of an escape as I Dream of Jeannie ever did. I would still prefer to sit in judgment of the hopeful, beavering snouts on The Apprentice than sit down and talk finances with my wife.

As for reality —the stuff happening outside the range of our Wi-Fi connections — well, nobody believes in it anymore. All those whale infanticides and melting ice caps and black presidents. No way. It’s too unreal. Too close to stuff of fiction. “The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of American reality,” writes Shields. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of the novelist.” Well said, Sir.... except.... Hang on. That sounds a little familiar. Hmm. Turn to the back of the book, and sure enough, there in an appendix, we find that that quote actually belongs to Phillip Roth in his famous 1961 essay ‘Writing American Fiction’ for Commentary. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any”? That was Salon’s Andrew O’ Hehir. “We like non fiction because we live in fictitious times”? Michael Moore.

Cut spooky Twilight zone music — Der-ner-ner-ner! Der-ner-ner! —as the reader rocks back in her chair, loosing a silent Munch-like scream, as the fabric of reality itself seem to shift and shimmer around her. It turns out the entire book is a tissue of similarly unattributed quotations, some running on for a page, others pithy little apercus: —

82 Art is not truth; art is a lie that allows us to recognize truth.

318 Resolution and conclusion are inherent in a plot-driven narrative

Which ones are Shields, which are just quotations? “A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean,” he says, “Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.” Random House lawyers were not so convinced and told him to append a complete list of citations at the back of the book. “If you would like to restore this book to the for in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or a box cutter and remove pages 210-218 by cutting along the dotted line,” he says, although the fact that the only argument he deems worth addressing is the legal one is telling. The possibility that the reader might detect something more than just the hard, clean oxyacetelane flame of aesthetic principle at work here — hey, we’d all like to sound cleverer than we are by sprinkling a little Kierkegaard into our coco pops, buddy — doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, even as something to be refuted.

It’s a shame, because Shields of guilty of more originality than he’d care to admit. Amidst the thickets of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Emerson and Nietzsche, are nestled perspicious nuggets from Shields himself on everything from Facebook (“crude personal essay machines... millions of little advertisements for the self”) to the James Frey controversy, which has come to seem one of the emblematic brouhahas of our time. Frey is what happens when you make individual suffering, publically borne, the locus classicus of all literary culture. Frey was not Oprah’s betrayer he was her creature, Caliban to her Prospero, blowback for a million tricked-up memoirs in which people massage their misery into modern-day Penny Dreadfuls. “Memoirs really can claim to be modern novels right down to the presence of an unreliable narrator”, concludes Shields. “I’m not disappointed that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better liar.” There’s more than a touch of the fop to Shields, with his silken paradoxes and plush contrarianism; a century ago he would have holed up in a Parisien opium den, reading Apollionaire pastiches to an audience of wan, tubercular poets.

Like most modern fops he’s best when dancing around the pinheads of pop culture; when it comes to his commandments for those a little higher up the brow, Moses starts to sweat. “I’m bored by out and out fabrication, by myself and others; bore by invented plots and invented characters,” he says. “You read seven hundred pages of get a handful of insights that were the reason the book was written. And the apparatus of the novel there as a huge elaborate, overbuilt stage set.” His recommendation to novelists: cut out the characters and plot and instead just give us a piece of your mind. He’s a little vague on what kind of books might result — a little like Nicholson’s Baker’s, perhaps, or Proust’s, books which “sit on the frontier between genres”; which combine “self reflexivity, self ethnography, anthropological autobiography”; which look like essays but which ”behave less like an essay and more like a poem.” At which point the penny drops: he means books just like the one we happen to be holding in our hands right now. What Shield’s manifesto turns out to be a manifesto for is ta da! — more manifestoes like this one.

T’was ever thus. When Andre Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist manifesto, and Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto were published in quick succession in the 1920s, their work reached such an incantatory pitch that it seemed a shame to break off from the hard work of manifesto-writing and produce some actual, you know, art. There are many writers who would react with horror to Shield’s prescriptions: more novels are killed every year by ideas than were ever led astray by a character or derailed by plot. For every Don De Lillo, there are a thousand scribbling brainiacs convinced that a power-point presentation of their ideas is preferable to the careful cultivation of living, breathing human beings. When Phillip Roth first diagnosed America’s reality surfeit he wasn’t advising novelists to throw in the towerl, but to adapt, keep fighting, finding new footholds, fresh points of ingress in which the imagination can bloom. Shields extended essay on the subject concludes merely that essayists should write more essays.

My review of David Shield's book for The Daily Beast

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