Reality Hunger: a Manifesto

One of the most sustained pieces of writing that David Shields presents us with in this polemic-as-mosaic comes very near the book's close, just ahead of nine tightly set pages of footnotes. Shields urges us not to read further and, indeed, the inner margins that follow feature a dotted line, should we wish to scissor the pages out and "restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read" (that is, without the tedious insistence of copyright lawyers). In short, we will get the most out of Reality Hunger if we embrace uncertainty and choose not to know whose sentences we have been reading over the previous couple of hundred pages. "Who owns the words?" Shields muses, reiterating the book's central thrust, but also referring directly to the 618 aphoristic chunks - ranging in length from a few words to a few paragraphs - that he has gathered, arranged, spliced and manipulated in order to convey both his distaste for conventional narrative and his excitement at what he identifies as an emerging movement of reality-based art.

What to make of a writer - because Shields's own words frequently appear among the quotations from literary critics and academics, film-makers, musicians and writers ranging from Nietzsche and Proust to Jonathan Raban and Geoff Dyer - so intent on disrupting the reading experience? One can't deny that, at a certain level, it works: the fiddly structures (why, for example, is the book divided into sort-of-chapters given both titles such as "mimesis", "risk" and "doubt", and letters of the alphabet?) and the disposition of Reality Hunger are disorientating, maddening and often stimulating. Read it without turning to the forbidden pages at the back, and it becomes a slew of subtly modulating voices, hopping from subject to subject, their aperçus bouncing and resonating off one another. But try to match writer with written, and one immediately becomes a fussy librarian, unimaginatively dotting the "i"s on an index card, enslaved by literalism and blind to the liberating power of authorial ambiguity.

Yet there is something illuminating - beyond the immediate gratification of the swot - in contextualising the book's material; it allows you not only to bring your own knowledge to the party (surely not a bad thing), but also to chart Shields's train of thought; to watch it curve its way around those he admires and steamroll over those he doesn't.

He is "at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice", and his loyalties lie with those who blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, who reject the notion of objective reality in life as much as in art, and who are keen to appropriate new technologies to reinforce their ideas of artistic playfulness and freedom. So the near-impossible-to-classify writer W G Sebald, the photographer Sophie Calle and the memoirist Lauren Slater all get a big thumbs-up. Meanwhile, the novel - or the "conventional" or "traditional" novel, as Shields calls it, without offering much of a clue as to what precisely this might mean - is "unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless", while "'fiction'/'non-fiction' is an utterly useless distinction".

In art, "purposeless" is an entirely movable judgement that depends on what your original purpose might be; and it is in the nature of a manifesto to delineate and justify those criteria. In that regard, Shields succeeds admirably; we are left in little doubt as to his tastes and beliefs. He sees in the novel's omniscient narrator a doomed attempt to mimic a godlike authority; and his solution, by way of the "lyric essay", is to suggest a fragmentary and partial approach that follows the contours of personal experience and subjectivity. We understand also that current innovations that threaten the hegemony of copyright and destabilise the vertical relationships between artist and audience play usefully into a new narrative of democracy and imaginative freedom.

Where it is harder to toe the line, however, is with Shields's covert suggestion that he is breaking thrilling ground or, for that matter, documenting a movement that really is bursting into life rather than evolving gradually and haphazardly. When he writes that a "story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesn't", what I want to say is that you might search a long time to find anyone who thinks it does. Similarly, a chapter on hip-hop that traces a line from the work of Jamaican DJs to identity-­manipulating rappers such as the Game and 50 Cent hints at a genuinely productive subject, but provides little more than an insubstantial and partial overview.

Reality Hunger comes garlanded with ecstatic review blurbs (all of them, interestingly enough, carefully attributed), one of which likens the book to a "miracle". Others fall from the mouths of those quoted in its pages. That in itself tells a pretty compelling tale of how much we have invested in locating the form-breaking, even when we find it in what is an interesting, if mildly overblown, book that doesn't choose to interrogate itself closely enough.

Reality Hunger: a Manifesto
David Shields
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £17.99

Alex Clark is a former editor of Granta.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on