Food for thought

Our generation has lived in a dumping ground for art. We’ve grown up surrounded by cultural artefacts: Beatles songs from the 60s, pop-culture cinema like Star Wars from the 70s, iconic videogames like Pacman from the 80s, you name it and it’s probably been stored in physical or electronic form for all posterity.

Meanwhile, our inheritance has been reality TV, repeats, and a music industry that plants its future in the remixing and sampling of old tunes. Our culture wants the good times of the past, sometimes reworked, sometimes not, and it wants it “real.” But piracy and plagiarism, the brother-sister demons of the media industries, are illegal. This is where Reality Hunger comes in.

Reality Hunger is a manifesto for the future of art. Whereas the Greeks had Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica,’ the Romantics had Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘The Defense of Poesie,’ and the Surrealists had André Breton’s ‘Surrealist Manifesto,’ we have David Shields’ Reality Hunger; or so the book claims.

In its bid to become a text of comparable influence it covers much ground, ranging from novels to photography to the lyric essay to rap. It creates a collage of assorted, individually numbered and separated paragraphs by stealing 75% of its material from other texts, which seems only proper for a book that advocates piracy and plagiarism in art. In a world preoccupied with speed, Reality Hunger’s food for thought has been served in bite-sized chunks.

The Greeks, the book argues, were allowed to utilise their world in their art, including wood-nymphs or the sea or even other people’s stories, which they reinterpreted: that was their art. But the Beatles, Star Wars, celebrities, this is our world. Yet when, for instance, Danger Mouse’s ‘Grey Album’ was released in 2004, and listeners heard the Beatles chopped up and re-presented underneath the contemporary rapper Jay-Z’s vocals, Capitol Records went to court to silence the album. Copyright laws are oppressing creativity, Reality Hunger argues, and this is one of many problems particular to 21st century art.

While the first half is thought-provoking for someone who hasn’t read much criticism on the sweep of modern media forms, it is in the second half that the book puts forward (in the words of other people) its vision for the future of fiction: no character (“I don’t want to be inside the fiction writer’s head unless he first agrees to kill his characters”) no plot (“Plots are for dead people”) less imagination (“The world exists. Why re-create it?”) and, perhaps even, no novels (“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book.”)

All this reduction supposedly serves to create texts of pure epiphany, without the novel’s unnecessary baggage of a beginning, middle, and end. As the book says: “I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else?”

If these proposals were followed through to their conclusion, with plot and characters utterly stripped away, you would be left with a book of maxims. It would be like reading Confucius – unalloyed philosophy, with Story dead at its feet.

But it shouldn’t be a battle between story and philosophy, when in the past the two have united in glorious symbiosis. Take, for instance, Sartre’s ‘Nausea’, a novel that deals with the then-new philosophy of existentialism. Rather than being a collection of philosophical views whose abstract nature would make them difficult to relate to real life, its philosophy is grounded in narrative, immediately making the philosophy more accessible to the general reader. And the story also benefits, as its narrative is deepened by the profundity of its philosophical subject matter. To throw all these boons away for brief statements of supposed wisdom seems inarguably foolish.

Still, I suppose this sort of attack is what fiction now has to contend with in the fast-paced current of modern life. And that’s another issue Reality Hunger raises: what is fiction? Where are its borders? If no-one can remember the past with complete precision, does memoir have elements of fiction? Does autobiography?

Reality Hunger itself continually spreads out into the exterior world of “objective fact” before shrinking back into the nebulae of personal opinion and memory. But if our own lives are uncertain to us, how can anyone write about anything and seriously believe it is a work of complete non-fiction? Has this review been truthful, or has it (unintentionally of course) lied to you?

You’ll have to read Reality Hunger to decide. And while I disagree with many of its claims, it did make me genuinely re-evaluate the art of modern life. Moreover, reading it can feel like a crazy adventure into the future, itself a wild land of daring imagination. It’s like someone once said: “some of the best fiction is now being written as non-fiction.” That’s a line from Reality Hunger: but like a piece of sampled music, I’ve re-contextualised it, and given it new life by giving it new meaning.


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