Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reality Hunger

I am reading Reality Hunger by David Shields, which you can find mostly reproduced on the web -- perhaps because so much of the book itself is a collage of stolen quotes that it might be difficult to sustain claims of copyright violation against the poster.  It's a much more slippery consideration of the rising importance of nonfiction than represented by Shields's critics, who universally quote his statement that he will not read the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel because fiction "has never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself" (section 523).  While I couldn't agree more with that sentiment, I am not sure if Shields himself truthfully agrees with it, since he tells us in so many ways that the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction are more blurry than we might want to admit.  

The term "nonfiction," like "truth" or "reality," is almost a word in which we do not believe: as Shields writes, "Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks" (section 1).  The best proof of how slippery "nonfiction" can be is the title of the book currently at the top of the bestseller list for "nonfiction" (New York Times and Amazon): Heaven Is for Real.  This is just one of many such books on the market -- my favorite example of which is The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey -- and it follows in a long tradition of such books, which were already so numerous by the early 20th Century that they inspired Mark Twain to write his comic Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909).

In the end, Shields is so slippery in his defense of nonfiction that you begin to wish for a more coherent defender of that mode of writing.  But his book does remind us that it is difficult to make fine distinctions among nonfictions as we move toward introducing them into the curriculum.  

What sort of nonfiction should we be teaching?  I used to say "fewer first-person narrations" and more "books about ideas, in clear conversation with other voices."  But then I consider this strange book itself, which is a collage of quotations from others intermixed with the authors own writing -- all represented as first-person narration -- and yet so clearly a book about ideas in conversation with other voices.  I'm not sure if that means we need a clearer distinction or if that means all distinctions can inevitably be deconstructed.