David Shields’ Self-Fulfilling Manifesto

With his tenth book, Seattle author David Shields urges a new reading of reality.

written by Joe Darda, special to City Arts


Realism is boring. Reality is not. Or so David Shields proclaims in his latest genre-resistant book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, due out this month.

In 582 vignettes, the Seattle author argues for an end to straight-ahead fiction: “I want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out,” he writes. His vision of a new artistic movement incorporates everything from television and documentary film to hip hop and the graphic novel, a movement characterized by a shared raw material: reality.

The twenty-first century, Shields points out, is not tidy, not plotted. We are bombarded by information – e-mails, text messages, podcasts, tweets – every second of the day. Reality Hunger is both an open call for art to match this complexity and, simultaneously, an example of how such a goal can
be achieved.

The book includes so many quotations and excerpts printed without citations that it reads like the transcript of an impossibly diverse roundtable. Charlie Parker, Picasso, Kierkegaard, D. H. Lawrence, Goethe and Emerson all have their say. For Shields, this is part of the game: “Many (most?) of the passages in this book are taken from other sources,” he writes. “One bonus point for each identification.”

Although raising questions central to (often dry) literary criticism, Reality Hunger is a readable, entertaining and frequently funny series of observations and pronouncements. In discussing user-made content, Shields explains the appeal of karaoke as linked to our perpetual desire for the imperfections of reality: “And within the space of the original hit, anything goes: squealing, shouting, changed lyrics, wishing friends happy birthday – whatever the singer chooses to do with his three minutes of spotlight.”

Applying this desire for rawness, this reality hunger, to literature, Shields makes his case for a reassessment of nonfiction. He claims, in effect, that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is beside the point; that nonfiction should not strive for fact-checked truth but a well-imagined interpretation of reality.

Shields’s manifesto is embodied in the most recent of his nine previous books, particularly the 2008 New York Times best seller The Thing about Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead. A meditation on death mixed with human anatomy and memoir, The Thing about Life is precisely the type of nonfiction Shields endorses in Reality Hunger.

More interesting, though, is Shields’ own artistic evolution over the past twenty-five years. His first book, published in 1984, is precisely that carefully plotted novel Shields now admonishes against. But, he writes in Reality Hunger, “I wanted to write a book whose loyalty wasn’t just to art but to life – my life. I wanted to be part of the process, part of the problem.” He has since moved increasingly towards collage, fragmentation and self-reference.

Reality Hunger may be the complete manifestation of this growth. Shields is at once author, critic, protagonist, compiler – and just another guy in the crowd. As he describes his medium, “Reality-based art is a metaphor for the fact that this is all there is, there ain’t no more.” Luckily, in Shields’ case, this is plenty. •


Keep up with Shields on his Web site: www.davidshields.com