Reality Hunger: A Manifesto


An open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century.

Reality TV dominates broadband. YouTube and Facebook dominate the web. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, his landmark new book, David Shields (author of the New York Times best seller The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead) argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality” precisely because we experience hardly any.

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An open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century.

Reality TV dominates broadband. YouTube and Facebook dominate the web. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, his landmark new book, David Shields (author of the New York Times best seller The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead) argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality” precisely because we experience hardly any.

Most artistic movements are attempts to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art. So, too, every artistic movement or moment needs a credo, from Horace’s Ars Poetica to Lars von Trier’s “Vow of Chastity.” Shields has written the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a variety of forms and media who, living in an unbearably manufactured and artificial world, are striving to stay open to the possibility of randomness, accident, serendipity, spontaneity; actively courting reader/listener/viewer participation, artistic risk, emotional urgency; breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work; and, above all, seeking to erase any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

The questions Reality Hunger explores—the bending of form and genre, the lure and blur of the real—play out constantly all around us. Think of the now endless controversy surrounding the provenance and authenticity of the “real”: A Million Little Pieces, the Obama “Hope” poster, the sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” photograph, the boy who wasn’t in the balloon. Reality Hunger is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about “truthiness,” literary license, quotation, appropriation.

Drawing on myriad sources, Shields takes an audacious stance on issues that are being fought over now and will be fought over far into the future. People will either love or hate this book. Its converts will see it as a rallying cry; its detractors will view it as an occasion for defending the status quo. It is certain to be one of the most controversial and talked-about books of the year.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In his new book, Reality Hunger, David Shields makes a case that a new literary form has arrived. [He] challenges our most basic literary assumptions about originality, authenticity, and creativity. Reality Hunger has caused a stir in literary circles. [The book] has struck a nerve." --Andrew Richard Albanese, Publishers Weekly (cover article) 

"Reality Hunger is an exhilarating smash-up. . . . a work of virtuoso banditry that promises to become, like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for earlier generations, the book that artists in all media turn to for inspiration, vindication, and altercation as they struggle to reinvent themselves against the headwinds of our time." --Rob Nixon, Chronicle of Higher Education 

" Maybe he’s simply ahead of the rest of us, mapping out the literary future of the next generation." --Susan H. Greenberg, Newsweek 

"The driving force behind this entertaining and highly persuasive polemic is a frustration with the contemporary mainstream novel. . . . I can’t stop recommending it to my friends. There is no more effective description (and example) of the aesthetic concerns of the internet age than this." --Edward King, The Times of London 

"Shields has a point. He gives a damn. He's trying to make a difference. He's using the best of his formidable talents to do that." --Wayne Alan Brenner, The Austin Chronicle   

"I love this book and am amused to see some of the hysterical reactions it’s provoked—proof, I think, of its radical truthfulness. Shields is utterly uninterested in providing intellectual comfort; he bravely, uncompromisingly delivers the news." —Walter Kirn

“On the one hand: Who does this guy think he is? On the other: It’s about time someone said something this honest in print. . . . [I am] grateful for this beautiful (yes, raw and gorgeous) book.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
David Shields’s radical intellectual manifesto, Reality Hunger (Knopf), is a rousing call to arms for all artists to reject the laws governing appropriation, obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and give rise to a new modern form.”
Vanity Fair
“This is the most provocative, brain-rewiring book of 2010. It’s a book that feels at least five years ahead of its time and teaches you how to read it as you go.”
—Alex Pappademas, GQ
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed.” —Jonathan Lethem
“For those of us who have been thinking about these issues for a long time, Reality Hunger is an orgy of geekiness, and Shields is the one responsible for everyone getting laid. Much like Dave Eggers, Shields will be repaid for hooking his friends up by becoming a bona fide tastemaker and culture-shaper. Actually, I don’t think it would be too strong to say that Shields’s book will be a sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers. . .”  —David Griffith, Bookslut
“This dude’s book is the hip-hop album of the year.” —Peter Macia, Fader
“Good manifestos propagate. Their seeds cling to journals and blogs and conversations, soon enough sprawling sub-manifestoes of acclamation or rebuttal. After the opening call to action, a variety of minds turn their attention to the same problem. It’s the humanist ideal of a dialectic writ large: ideas compete and survive by fitness, not fiat. David Shields’s Reality Hunger has just the immodest ambition and exhorter’s zeal to bring about this happy scenario.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Reality Hunger, by David Shields, might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last 10 years.”—Chuck Klosterman (on Twitter)
“Entertaining, insightful, and impressively broad. . . . brings to mind an amped-up Nicholson Baker. . . . Most important, it’s a guidebook for where literary writing could go in the future. . . . You might not agree with Shields’s broadside or his hardheaded conclusions, but it’s difficult not to fall under the sway of this voracious and elegantly structured book. Reality Hunger is ultimately an invigorating shakedown of the literary status quo: recommended for readers, essential for writers.”
—Scott Indrisek, Time Out New York
“The subtitle of David Shields’s Reality Hunger categorizes it as ‘a manifesto,’ which is a little like calling a nuclear bomb ‘a weapon.’”  —Don McLesse, Kirkus Reviews
“Thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it.” —Zadie Smith, The Guardian
“I find Shields’s book absorbing, even inspiring. The ideas he raises are so important, his ideas are so compelling, that I raved about this book the whole time I was reading it and have regularly quoted it to friends in the weeks since.” —Jami Attenberg, Bookforum
“A collection of wisdoms and aphorisms, some borrowed/stolen/appropriated from others, some written by Shields himself—which layer one upon the other to shimmer with an insistence on a literature that reflects modern’s life’s many complexities and contradictions.” —Debra Gwartney, Portland Oregonian
“This is the book our sick-at-heart moment needs—like a sock in the jaw or an electric jolt in the solar plexus—to wake it up.” —Wayne Koestenbaum
“It’s already become required reading in university spheres, galleys passed from one student to the next like an illicit hit of crack cocaine. I came away from Reality Hunger excited about writing my own fiction, and impatient about books that don’t offer these same thrills.” —Sarah Weinman, Flavorwire
“David Shields has put a bullet in the brain of our ridiculously oversimplified compulsion to think of everything as a narrative.” —Paul Constant, The Stranger 
“One of the most provocative books I’ve ever read. . . . I think it’s destined to become a classic.” —Charles D’Ambrosio

Luc Sante
To call something a manifesto is a brave step. It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship. David Shields's clarion call may in some ways depart from the usual manifesto profile—it doesn't speak on behalf of a movement, exactly—but it urgently and succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air, have relentlessly gathered momentum and have just been waiting for someone to link them together…[Shields] is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Shields's latest reinvents the "how to" while explaining how the hazy line between truth and lie undermines all forms of modern communication, an understanding that requires accepting the inherent imperfections and idiosyncrasies of a single writer's memory, intent, desire, and point of view. Shields's manifesto reads as a mixture between a diary and lecture-hall notes, each well-thought-out entry (titles include "mimesis," "books for people who find television too slow," "blur," "hip-hop," "in praise of brevity") made up of a series of numbered paragraphs. Incorporated into his consideration of general themes in art are specific pieces of writing and music as well as current events, like the election of Barrack Obama. Shields references a multitude of well-known writers whom he considers definitive (or re-definitive) in literature; one writer that Shields returns to repeatedly is James Frey. Shields considers the Frey debacle, including his guest appearances on Oprah, by way of the imperfect human faculty for memory and communication, finding in Frey's story damning evidence that human beings are doomed to experience life alone. Touching, honest, and dizzyingly introspective, Shields (The Thing About Life is that One Day You'll be Dead) grapples lithely with truth, life, and literature by embracing his unique perspective, and invites each reader to do the same.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Seattle City Arts
Reality Hunger is a readable, entertaining, and frequently funny series of observations and pronouncements.
—Joe Darda
The Guardian
Thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it.
—Zadie Smith
Absorbing, even inspiring. The ideas [David Shields] raises are so important, his ideas are so compelling, that I raved about this book the whole time I was reading it and have regularly quoted it to friends in the weeks since . . . Shields is a funny and sharp writer with a flair for the dramatic. I am grateful for Shields’s sometimes brutal interrogation of what I believe. His critiques led me to reconsider my own creative process.
—Jami Attenberg
Library Journal
Shields's tenth book (following The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead) is intended to rock the foundations of the literary world. This "manifesto" is a challenge to the rigid thinking that seeks to define the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction and redefine truth in art in the 21st century. To signal a departure from convention, the 26 chapters are assigned letters of the alphabet rather than numbers. However, numbers are employed to give order to 617 bursts of thought that range from a single line to several pages in length. Among these entries are remarks from such diverse sources as Emily Dickinson, Michael Moore, and Pablo Picasso. Citations for his numerous references are included grudgingly in an appendix on the advice of lawyers. For Shields, not identifying the sources in the text itself is part of the point that he is trying to make. He challenges his readers to reflect on what the popularity of American Idol, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, tell us about the need for new ways of looking at and presenting reality. Shields demonstrates his point about truth when he makes this simple statement: "This sentence is a lie." VERDICT This book will appeal to a limited audience interested in a modernist view of literary criticism. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—Anthony Pucci, Notre Dame H.S., Elmira, NY
Kirkus Reviews
The subtitle of David Shields' Reality Hunger categorizes it as "a manifesto," which is a little like calling a nuclear bomb "a weapon." In a series of numbered paragraphs, Shields explodes all sorts of categorical distinctions-between fiction and nonfiction, originality and plagiarism, memoir and fabrication, reality and perception. It's a book designed to inspire and to infuriate, and it is sure to do both. In an era of hip-hop sampling, James Frey, artistic collage and the funhouse mirror of so-called "reality TV," Shields maintains that so many of the values underpinning cultural conventions are at best anachronisms and at worst lies. And he does so in audacious fashion, taking quotes from myriad sources, removing the quotation marks, attribution and context, leaving the reader to wonder what is original to Shields and what he has appropriated from others. "Anything that exists in the culture is fair game to assimilate into a new work," writes Shields (or someone). He later explains his methodology: "Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I've clipped I've also revised, at least a little-for the sake of compression, consistency or whim."The mash-up results in a coherent, compelling argument, a work of original criticism that consistently raises provocative questions about the medium it employs. It asks whether everything we know is provisional-and then asks who's asking that question, or if such authorship even matters. At his publisher's insistence, Shields includes an appendix of sources for each citation, but urges the reader not to consult it: "Your uncertainty about whose words you've just read is not a bug but a feature," he insists."A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it."Shields' argument isn't a lone howl from the wilderness. Novelist Jonathan Lethem employed a similar technique in his February 2007 essay for Harper's ("The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism"). Bob Dylan's recent releases have invited copyright sleuths to trace the origins of work he presents as original. The artist who bills himself as Girl Talk has built a musical career on aural appropriation kindred to Shields'. As nonfiction increasingly verges on novelistic narrative and fiction continues to draw inspiration from "real life" (whatever that is), as computer technology makes cut-and-paste far easier than William Burroughs ever imagined, as the same image of Barack Obama informs both Shepard Fairey's art and an AP photographer's journalism ("a watershed moment for appropriation art," according to Shields), the formerly firm foundations of ethical distinctions find themselves crumbling. Or were those foundations ever as firm as we believed? " ‘Fiction'/‘nonfiction' " is an utterly useless distinction," states Reality Hunger. How so? "An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day."Author tour to Boston, New York, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle
The Barnes & Noble Review

Like any good polemicist, David Shields' ideas are provocative, simple to repeat, and deep in their implications. In Reality Hunger he wastes no time in declaring them: we live amidst a movement of artists "who are breaking larger and larger chunks of 'reality' into their work." These artists pursue a "deliberate unartiness"; theirs is an art that's finely crafted to look "seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional." It's "Zapruder's Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination," The Eminem Show, the essays of David Foster Wallace, art that's "at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice." The reality it offers is one fit for the Internet age: fragmented and frenetic, always questioning the line between fact and fiction, as comfortable with mediation as a second skin, happy to glorify the feeling of reality above reality itself. The ethos of this art is what Shields aims to speak for in Reality Hunger.

A spokesman must know how to convey his message without coming off as dull or condescending, and in Reality Hunger Shields uses a tried-and-true method to do so: the book itself exemplifies the very art it means to dissect. It consists of 617 aphorism-like fragments that range from a sentence to a paragraph in length, loosely grouped into 26 sections under headings like "mimesis" and "collage." Arranged to suggest connections but lacking the tissue to make these connections palpable, the fragments create an invigorating reading experience because each one incites us to think -- rather than doing the thinking for us.

Part of the genius -- and the treat -- of Reality Hunger is that Shields gladlydisregards boundaries, whether temporal, cultural, or artistic. Leapfrogging across centuries, continents, and cultures, the book feels sweeping and concise, timeless and timely all at once. That Shields' deconstructions-by-fragment absorb contemporary phenomena like James Frey, hip-hop, and J.T. LeRoy makes it clear that he is interested in our particular historical moment, yet his ability to trace commonalities across cultures and centuries suggests the more fundamental ideas linking our "reality hunger" with previous eras. Thus in fragment 10 we start in Rome, circa the 2nd century B.C., with Terence: "There's nothing to say that hasn't been said before." A few pages later fragment 32 informs us that "the word novel, when it entered the languages of Europe . . . meant the form of writing that was formless, had no rules", and then just a few pages after that fragment 38 seems to prefigure the modernist novel: "Emerson called the new literature he'd been looking to 'a panharmonicon. Here everything is admissible -- philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor . . .'"

In charting this progression, is Shields arguing that writing has continually embraced formlessness as a way of making it new? Or perhaps he's claiming that as human knowledge has expanded, writers have had to create new forms to integrate it into their works. Yet how would your answer change if I showed you fragment 53: "Suddenly everyone's tale is tellable, which seems to me a good thing, even if not everyone's story turns out to be fascinating or well told."

Reality Hunger is such a kinetic read because it's continually opening itself to new possibilities. Though the book can be read straight through, its network-like form works best when readers order the 26 sections as they choose. Shields would likely smile approvingly at such a reading: in a nod to the creative commons that is essential to all art -- and perhaps also as an acknowledgment that his thesis is more novel for its assemblage than its constituent parts -- most of these fragments are quotes whose only attribution comes at the back of the book. Those who insist on knowing everything can spoil the fun and flip back to see which fragments are Shields' and which are not (though Shields' source notes are often purposively vague). These same people will be bothered that Reality Hunger is more of a breathless incitement than a laborious tract; the rest of us can enjoy the rush of thought as we scoop up fragment after addictive fragment and revel in Shields' uninhibited free-flow of ideas. That, after all, is the joy of reading this wonderfully inconclusive provocation. Shields' collage-like book seethes with the electricity of the possible, -- on every page it evokes that wonderful feeling that comes just before the synapse fires and your brain lights up in thought. It makes one hungry to discover the art that lives up to this thrilling manifesto.

--Scott Esposito

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307273536
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/23/2010
  • Pages: 219
  • Sales rank: 362,712
  • Product dimensions: 8.72 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

David Shields is the author of nine previous books, including Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award. His work has been translated into a dozen languages.
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Read an Excerpt




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. Zola: “Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes.” Braque’s goal: “To get as close as I could to reality.” E.g., Chekhov’s diaries, E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (much his best book), Cheever’s posthumously ?pub?lished journals (same), Edward Hoagland’s journals, Alan ?Bennett’s Writing Home. So, too, every artistic movement or moment needs a credo: Horace’s Ars Poetica, Sir Philip Sid- ney’s Defence of Poesie, André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chasity.” My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)


Jeff Crouse’s plug-in Delete City. The quasi–home movie Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit ?Glo?rious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank’s radio show In the Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shel- ton’s unscripted film Humpday (“All the writing takes place in the editing room”). Nicholas Barker’s “real-life feature” Unmade Beds, in which actors speak from a script based on interviews they conducted with Barker; the structure is that of a documentary, but a small percentage of the material is made up. Todd Haynes’s Superstar—a biopic of Karen Carpenter that uses Barbie dolls as the principal actors and is available now only as a bootleg video. Curb Your Enthusiasm, which—characteristic of this genre, this ungenre, this antigenre—relies on viewer awareness of the creator’s self-conscious, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona. The Eminem Show, in which Marshall Mathers struggles to metabolize his fame and work through “family of origin” issues (life and/or art?). The Museum of (fictional) Jurassic Technology, which actually exists in Culver City. The (completely fictional) International Necronautical Society’s (utterly serious) “Declaration of Inauthenticity.” So, too, 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 building an entirely new song on top of it, DVDs of feature films that inevitably include a documentary on the “making of the movie.” The Bachelor tells us more about the state of unions than any romantic comedy could dream of telling us. The appeal of Billy Collins is that compared with the frequently hieroglyphic obscurantism of his colleagues, his poems sound like they were tossed off in a couple of hours while he drank scotch and listened to jazz late at night (they weren’t; this is an illusion). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was full of the same self-conscious apparatus that had bored everyone silly until it got tethered to what felt like someone’s “real life” (even if the author constantly reminded us how fictionalized that life was). At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized. I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can’t abide the network news—the sound of human voices waking before they drown.


An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.


In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.


It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel).


I need say nothing, only exhibit.


It’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many do?
If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.
All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men. Nadja. Cane. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! “The Moon in Its Flight.” Wisconsin Death Trip. Letters to Wendy’s.
We evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention.
Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Jazz is a trace, but it’s not a defining trace. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.
Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of the- mill four-hundred-page page-turner. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.
The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.
Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?
If literary terms were about artistic merit and not the rules of convenience, about achievement and not safety, the term realism would be an honorary one, conferred only on work that actually builds unsentimental reality on the page, that matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form. This, alas, would exclude many writers who believe themselves to be realistic, most notably those who seem to equate writing with operating a massive karaoke machine.
A novel, for most readers—and critics—is primarily a “story.” A true novelist is one who knows how to “tell a story.” To “tell a story well” is to make what one writes resemble the schemes people are used to—in other words, their ready-made idea of reality. But a work of art, like the world, is a living form. It’s in its form that its reality resides.
Urgency attaches itself now more to the tale taken directly from life than one fashioned by the imagination out of life.
I want the veil of “let’s pretend” out. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don’t interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. He wanted to directly address desperate individual existence, which bores many readers. I find him a joyous writer, though; his work reads like prayer. You don’t have to think about literary allusions but experience itself. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice.
This is life lived on high alert.
Nearly all writing, up to the present, has been a search for the “beautiful illusion.”
Nowhere do you get the feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.
Very well. I am not in search of the “beautiful illusion.”
Critics can’t believe that the power to make us feel our one and only life, as very few novelists actually do these days, has come from a memoirist, a nonfiction truth-speaker who has entered our common situation and is telling the story we now want told. But it has.
There’s inevitably something terribly contrived about the standard novel; you can always feel the wheels grinding and going on.
If you write a novel, you sit and weave a little narrative. If you’re a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, give a little narrative here and there, etc. And it’s okay, but it’s of no account. Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.
There is more to be pondered in the grain and texture of life than traditional fiction allows. The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction, more open and speculative.
One would like to think that the personal essay represents basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy.
The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems—The Dream Songs, the long prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five, pretty much all of Philip Larkin and Anne Carson, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Maybe these works succeed, maybe they fail, but at least they all attempt to clarify the problem at hand. They’re journeys, pursuits of knowledge. One could say that fiction, metaphorically, is a pursuit of knowledge, but ultimately it’s a form of entertainment. I think that, at the very least, essays and poems more directly and more urgently attempt to figure out something about the world. Which is why I can’t read novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Kundera’s Immortality. Most of Houellebecq. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe. Lydia Davis, everything.
The kinds of novels I like are ones which bear no trace of being novels.
Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There’s only one thing worse than boredom—the fear of boredom—and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens—e.g., Tristram Shandy, Notes from Underground, Camus’s The Fall, Thomas Bern hard’s Correction, Duras’s The Lover, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang.
What the lyric essay inherits from the public essay is a facthungry pursuit of solutions to problems, while from the personal essay it takes a wide-eyed dallying in the heat of predicaments. Lyric essays seek answers yet seldom seem to find them. They may arise out of a public essay that never manages to prove its case, may emerge from the stalk of a personal essay to sprout out and meet “the other,” may start out as trav- elogues that forget where they are or begin as prose poems that refuse quick conclusions, may originate as lines that resist being broken or full-bodied paragraphs that start slimming down. They’re hybrids that perch on the fence between the willed and the felt. A lyric essay is an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric, a kind of logic that wants to sing, an argument that has no chance of proving out.
An essay that becomes a lyric is an essay that has killed itself.
There are no facts, only art.
What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.
Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and its formal originality.
Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.


2      Sentence about Unmade Beds: Soyon Im, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Seattle Weekly
4      Thoreau
5      Roland Barthes, Barthes by Barthes (who else would be the author?); “minus the novel”: Michael Dirda, “Whispers in the Darkness,” Washington Post
6      Walter Benjamin

588 O’Brien
589 Naipaul, quoted in James Wood, “Wounder and Wounded,” New Yorker
590 First sentence: Benjamin
591 Richard Serra, quoted in Kimmelman, “At the Met and the Modern with
Richard Serra,” New York Times
592 Dyer
596 Marcus, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing,
Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” Harper’s
597 Robbe-Grillet
598 Gornick
599 Hannah
601 Williams, Spring and All
602 Coetzee, Summertime
603 Williams
604 Gornick
605 Sebald
606 All but last sentence: Naipaul, quoted in Donadio, “The Irascible
Prophet,” New York Times
607–608 Lopate
609 First five sentences except titles: D’Agata, Collision interview
610 Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
611 Except for titles, E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
612 D’Agata, The Next American Essay
613 Plutarch
614 Emerson
615 Gornick
616 Marcus, “The Genre Artist,” Believer
617 Berger, G

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Reading Group Guide

1. The book’s epigraph is a statement from Picasso: “All art is theft.” At many points in the book, Shields brings up issues relating to copyright law. How do you feel about an artist using copyrighted material in the creation of a new work of art? Would you call this an act of theft? Or does this practice promote the free flow of ideas between past, present, and future artists?

2. Discuss the meaning of the phrase “reality hunger.” When Shields uses this phrase, what is he attempting to describe?

3. There are many quotations stitched into the fabric of Reality Hunger. While reading the book, were you able to identify the source of one or more of these other voices? Why do you think the author made use of so many quotations? Why did he leave the sources unidentified? How did this technique affect your experience with the book?

4. James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was highly criticized after it became known that parts of his book were fictitious. Why do you think Shields defends Frey? If Frey had published his book as a novel, would it have received so much attention?

5. In what ways does the structure of Reality Hunger reflect the actual subject matter it discusses? Why do you think Shields chose to arrange the book the way he did?

6. Shields writes, “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me.” Discuss what you think Shields means when he calls himself a “wisdom junkie”? Do you agree with Shields when he says, “The world exists. Why recreate it?” What implications does this statement have for literature? For other arts?

7. In the chapter entitled “Memory,” Shields suggests that the “truth” is very subjective, due in large part to the fallibility of human memory. Have you ever remembered an experience differently from how it actually happened? What are some reasons why two individuals could remember the same event in very different ways? Can we trust the “facts” in our memories?

8. Throughout the book, Shields praises the essay and the self-reflexive documentary film. What do these two forms have in common? In your opinion, what makes these forms so appealing to Shields’s aesthetic?

9. Before reading Reality Hunger, had you ever read any of David Shields’s other books, such as Remote, Black Planet, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, or Enough About You? What links these books? How have these previous books pointed the way toward Reality Hunger?

10. On the surface, a reality TV program and a memoir seem to have little in common. However, Shields makes connections between these and other works of art and entertainment. How does Shields’s concept of “reality” and the “real” serve to illustrate these connections? Can you identify any ways in which a reality TV program and a published memoir are similar? It what ways do they differ? Why are both so popular these days?

11. Shields is critical of the traditional novel as a contemporary art form. In the chapter “Books For People Who Find Television Too Slow,” he writes, “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.” Do you agree with this statement? Shields began his writing career as a novelist. Why do you think Shields at this point is so critical of the novel as a genre?

12. Over the last half-decade, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have emerged as a major new communications technology. In the “Hip-Hop” chapter, Shields calls Facebook a “crude personal essay machine.” In what ways is a person’s Facebook page similar to an essay about the self? What can and cannot be learned about a person through his or her social network page?

13. Has this book changed your attitudes toward collage art, sampling, and artistic assimilation? If so, how and why has your opinion changed? If your feelings have not changed, why not?

14. Discuss the role autobiography plays in the book, in particular the “DS” chapter. Did this chapter change your understanding of the book as a whole?

15. The book’s penultimate chapter, “Manifesto,” ends with the line “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” What does this statement mean to you? Why did Shields place this line in such a prominent place in the book?

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Reality Hunger is Not a Book

    Reality Hunger is not a book. It looks like a book-it has pages, a front and back cover, blurbs, etc.-but it's not. Reality Hunger is a documentary. A calendar for a 582-day year. A book of proverbs. A spiderweb. A mess of paper scraps and glue. It's a guidebook to reading, writing, watching, stealing, remembering, imagining, and dying. You will experience a shutdown of mental faculties while reading this book, a nearly full-scale wipe of beliefs of conventions. The blank screen. Then, the motor starts whirring and things come back into focus, not quite the same as they were before. If you write, read, watch, think, or otherwise exist, you owe to yourself to read this book.

    For my full review, visit

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2010

    Compelling - a dive into personal reality.

    Every page of my copy is dog-eared, underscored, and spattered with asterisks. This book is a must-read for any writer, reader, critical thinker, artist, member of society. Not only does Shields present quotes and synopses from contemporary entertainment venues and literary greats alike, but he does so in such a way that the reader is pulled into his own exploration of social mores and individual development. Much more than compelling - this manifesto is a driving force to cultivate one's own ability to live in "reality" through an honest, visceral study of it. As Shields states in the opening pages of Reality Hunger, "I need say nothing, only exhibit."

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:


    Reality Hunger should be required reading for any student of the arts--or anybody wanting their finger on the button of the burgeoning (but also historically omnipresent) phenomenon of artists bringing the rawness of "reality" into human expression. Examining film, poetry, the lyric essay, reality television, or any format where the creator/actor is himself in frame, Shields' "Manifesto" documents both the history and the state of the art--while somehow becoming a part of--the genre of reality literature. Citing everybody from St Augustine to Larry David, it is much more than a work of criticism: it is a treatise on the an artist's highest form of expression: not Cogito Ergo Sum, but Sum Ergo Ars Genero. Reality Hunger can help us tune our ear to "the sound of human voices waking before they drown."

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2010

    What's real, what's authentic, does it matter?

    "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto" is a literary collage, made up almost entirely of the words of other writers, historians, musicians, etc. David Shields has collected hundreds of voices and ideas, mixed them up with his own, and assembled them into a comprehensive, entertaining, and funny narrative. A literary DJ mixing together a symphony of written quotes and utterances, Shields manages to present a unified voice/perspective that solidly supports his theme. With fascinating historic details about writing and literature that go back to the beginning and on through to the first memoir and novels, Shields reminds us that no memoir could ever be completely true and many novels are often rooted in reality. The book has shaken up and transformed my thinking about writing and literature--I have not been able to stop thinking about its message and its implications. Reality Hunger has left me wondering what, in literature, is really real and what is imagined--and ultimately why does it even matter? As Shields quotes near the end of the book: "Once upon a time there will be readers who won't care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and its formal originality." With Reality Hunger, that once upon a time is now.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 3, 2010

    Reality vs. Imagination

    Anais Nin once said, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." What we observe and what we imagine often gets mixed up in the brain. We equate fiction with fancy and nonfiction with facts; realizing fiction is based on real life and nonfiction is largely imagination. Artists of our generation have walked this tightrope: Barbara Kruger. Damien Hirst. Shepard Fairey. The digital revolution challenges our accessibility to information while directing us to it: print and publishing now compete with the Kindle and the iPad. The media bombards us with truthiness and goes to lengths to debunk its own hoaxes: Reality TV. Photo ops. Press conferences for fallen celebrities. David Shields explores all of these ideas, reminding us of our hunger for reality, our insatiable need to be informed and entertained.

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  • Posted March 2, 2010

    David Shields' Anti Fiction Polemic

    I am a fiction writer. The most beautiful word I know is the word invention, and the most beautiful question, in my opinion, is what happens next? So I'm a believer in narrative. I think the human creature needs story; trapped within time and space as we move towards death, we desire a means to escape the inevitable and one way we do that is through narratives about people who are not ourselves. As a fiction writer, I feel a sense of purpose. And yet, given these rather traditional views about fiction, I found David Shields' anti-fiction polemic, Reality Hunger, startling, maddening, and ultimately inspiring. He challenged me on every page. He forced me to know my own beliefs more clearly. The most surprising result is that I came away with an expanded view of the possibilities of fiction. The effect of Shields' ideas and the loose, malleable form he uses so effectively and engagingly was a loosening of my own boundaries and a widening of my aesthetic. I am aware of more options now; I do what I do with renewed excitement.

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  • Posted February 26, 2010

    A must read!

    He will force artists after him to change how they think about writing. A brilliant collage style history, and current status, of blending art forms especially divisions and genres of fiction and nonfiction writing. By exploring ideas of form, style, originality, memory, plagiarism, art and truth the author took me on a ride that I won't soon forget. You've gotta read it to understand and to believe and I suggest you do - soon before the book is taken off the shelves for some forbidden transgression!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 26, 2010

    A great read!

    A great read! Smart and intriguing, an interesting perspective. I would recommend it to anyone!

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  • Posted February 25, 2010

    Exhilerating! A Work of Genius!

    Reality Hunger is an exhilarating read. It could possibly be the best book I've ever read. Certainly it's the most influential to my own work. Shields explodes genre-killing everything in his path like some mad stand-up comic pulling out an AK-47 on stage. It's as if Shields tore up the written word-all forms of the written word-then set down a new broader map of discovery, especially self-discovery. What is truth? This book! I recommend it to anybody who breathes.

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    Posted August 18, 2011

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    Posted June 30, 2012

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    Posted April 19, 2011

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    Posted February 26, 2010

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