Bookmarks Issue: 

A Manifesto

A-Reality HungerAmerican author David Shields, known for his genre-defying prose, has published nine works of fiction and nonfiction, including Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead ( 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2008), a New York Times best seller.

The Topic: Decrying the novel as "unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless" and condemning the concept of genre as "a minimum security prison," Shields issues a call to arms on behalf of a body of literature that validates the complexities of modern life and satisfies the public's hunger for reality-based diversions. The tenets of fiction--plot development, scene-setting, and characterization--are obsolete, and the lines separating fiction from nonfiction, particularly in the memoir, should be reshaped. The future of literature, Shields argues, lies in the collage and the lyric essay, "the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theatre is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door."
Knopf. 240 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307273536

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"By intertwining ideas of popular culture (including snippets of reality television, the James Frey debacle, etc.) with erudite quotes from Plutarch to Thomas Mann and many in between, Shields makes startling observations about the plight of a culture he considers desperate for reality in books and stories because we have so little of it ourselves. ... The book presents its arguments in the style of Pascal's Pensées or Montaigne's Essays, and is equally as scintillating--a thrill to many who'll read this book, a poke in the eye to plenty of others." Debra Gwartney

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This, and I say this as a reader grateful for this beautiful (yes, raw and gorgeous) book, is the voice of a child (or an adolescent). ... Not everything can be seen in a convex mirror." Susan Salter Reynolds

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sometimes Shields can give the impression that he dislikes the novel for the same reasons Cotton Mather might have: its frivolity, its voyeurism, its licentiousness. On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions." Luc Sante

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Shields made me defend/upend my views as I read along through his stanzas. ... [The book] will alienate those who think there's nothing to debate regarding genre boundaries ... or who wanted Shields to produce another of his more conventional narratives." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Boston Globe 1 of 5 Stars
"Like other manifestos, it is bellicose, self-important, occasionally witty, and colorfully written. Unlike many, it is long, repetitive, and ultimately need never have been written. ... What Shields breathlessly tosses away is what we, as a culture, must cherish: The hunger to hear a coherent story, get to the heart of a character, rest in sincerity instead of strain in unrelieved irony, to find form in seeming chaos." Alec Solomita

Critical Summary

Shields combines his own observations and reflections with aphorisms and unattributed quotes to construct a detailed and multifaceted argument against literature's accepted standards. However, he failed to convince all the critics. Several hailed Reality Hunger as a shrewd and thought-provoking battle cry, but others disagreed. While the Los Angeles Times reviewer considered the book stunning, she objected to Shields's puerile voice and unsophisticated conclusions, and argued that fiction serves a greater purpose in the struggle to transcend reality. And the Boston Globe reviewer criticized Shields's long-winded and narcissistic prose. There's no doubt that Reality Hunger will rouse readers as it did the critics--but we hope that Bookmarks readers will not agree with Shields that the novel is, indeed, "dead."