On Reality & Its Discontents

Quite possibly the most brazenly insubordinate and thought-provoking book I have read since Walter Benjamin‘s landmark essay “The Work of Art In the Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” is David Shields’s highly hyped “manifesto,” Reality Hunger. (Inverted sentence structure intended, BTW.)

I don’t know if I am yet prepared to follow Shields into the novels-are-not-really-novels wilderness, but I do share his frustration with the reading and writing of fiction nowadays. This frustration, it seems, is infectious: see Zadie Smith‘s bracing Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, in which she questions the purpose of the novelist in today’s world.

As Shields has it,

[Writing fiction] feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody.


Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real.

and even

I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

A deserved slap to the side of the faces of storytellers, perhaps. A conversation starter, at least.

What is more real? So-called nonfiction (“reality”) or so-called novels (“imagination”)? What is the relationship between reality and the imagination? Why would anyone read–or, for that matter, write–novels in this day an age, when oftentimes the reading public will gravitate toward the nonfiction tome over the novel? These are trenchant, age-old questions that harken back to that perennial candidate for the first novel ever, Don Quixote. For me, the fiction/nonfiction debate (“throwdown”?) strikes a personal chord. It’s no secret my first novel came out in the overwrought shadow of that other book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and, as Shields and Smith would have it, it’s also no secret readers devoured the nonfictional version of the story with more ferocity than they did the fictional version. (I don’t mean to imply my book is any better than the other, I-still-cannot-bear-to-utter-its-name book.)

As I feverishly read Reality Hunger–and, earlier today, a frolicsome chat with Shields over at The Millions–I was frequently reminded of something Richard Powers said to me in our Believer interview:

A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

As I’m once again lost at sea with a longer fictional project, I sure hope he’s right.

Most Influential Novels of the Decade

Not the “best,” necessarily, but these are the novels, I think, which will cast the longest shadows to the writers of the future.

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Tie: Ian McEwan, Atonement; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

James Frey, A Million Little Pieces (now that we know it’s a novel)

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas–although I am tempted to say The 9/11 Commission Report: if, as DeLillo alleged, the Warren Report was the greatest novel since Finnegans Wake, then surely The 9/11 Commission Report must at least be a novel (if not exactly Jamesian).

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood