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Reviewed by:
  • Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
  • Wendy Rawlings (bio)
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. David Shields. New York: Knopf, 2010. 240 pages, cloth, $24.95.

Today the most compelling energies seem directed at nonfiction.

How to convey the massive intelligence and joie de vivre of David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto? At first I thought I'd quote key passages, but this is the kind of book you go back to and discover you've highlighted nearly all of the sentences. For a writer, teacher, or student of writing, this collection of 582 numbered snippets accretes to a boatload of provocative claims about one current dilemma for writers. Writers of conventional narrative forms (novel, short story, lyric poem), Shields says, are in deep-doo-doo danger of being rendered irrelevant by "more technologically sophisticated and visceral narrative forms."

Do you, or does anyone you know, watch "American Idol" or "Survivor" or "America's Next Top Model" or "Top Chef," etc., etc., etc., etc.? Do you update your Facebook status? Do you read the updated Facebook statuses of others? Do you read blogs? Watch YouTube videos? Ever play online poker or wander around in Second Life with people who happen to be sitting at their computers on the other side of the world?

Why is hip-hop stagnant right now, why is rock dead, why is the conventional novel moribund? Because they're ignoring the culture around them, where new, more exciting forms of narration and presentation and representation are being found (or rediscovered).

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Watching old clips on YouTube featuring my favorite soap-opera character, I googled "Monica Quartermaine." Before I knew it, I'd spent the better part of a week chatting online with members of the Official Monica Quartermaine Fan Club, several of whom had authored Monica Quartermaine fan fiction. In the time I spent chatting online, I could have knocked through a couple of novels by the most recent National Book Award winners. But I didn't.

The mimetic function of art hasn't so much declined as mutated. . . . As the culture becomes more saturated by diff erent media, artists can use larger and larger chunks of the culture to communicate.


A colleague of mine at the University of Alabama asks his introductory creative writing students to whip out their cell phones on the first day of class. After a mini-lesson on the haikus of Basho, he instructs students to compose haikus via text message and send them to friends and relatives. My colleague loves to relate this pedagogical triumph. The nature of the triumph? In one sly move, just by giving the nod to the students' technology, he got their attention.

We all need to begin figuring out how to tell a story for a cell phone. One thing I know: it's not the same as telling a story for a full-length DVD.


Working out at a hotel gym on an elliptical trainer equipped with a TV that began broadcasting as soon as I began pedaling, I found myself watching a show composed entirely of amateur video recordings of near-fatal sporting and vehicular accidents, each clip shamelessly replayed several times, though accompanied by a helpful voice-over giving viewers vehicular safety tips like "buckle up." It was as if the producers had gotten inside my DNA and discovered my rubbernecking gene: I could not stop watching.

Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: because they're no longer embodying what it's like to be alive. If reality TV manages to convey something that a more manifestly scripted and plotted show doesn't, that's less an aff ront to writers than a challenge.


I'm a writer who can't help asking people I meet on planes why they're reading the novels they're reading. Common answer: "I like to learn about [End Page 168] foreign places I'll never go." Answer that used to be common, but isn't so common anymore: "It's entertaining." These days, if people want to be entertained, they can watch DVDs or play games on their phones or access their email...


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pp. 167-170
Launched on MUSE
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