Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fictional Feast

I've been hearing about this book Reality Hunger by David Shields, and then I came across this interview with the author. I haven't read the book, but that never stopped anyone from having an opinion (as we shall soon see very well). The author sounds to me like an overexcited undergraduate taking his first literary criticism course, and the idea of the book strikes me as naive. Since when is a lyric essay or a memoir more true than a novel? In the interview he spends a lot of time putting down a novel by Myla Goldberg for having a story structure with plot points. (He admits he has not read the book, and only knows what he has gleaned from the catalog description.) He criticizes this novel, which he does not name, along with others that actually have a plot, for being outmoded, "antediluvian." Leaving beside the point that Shields has not even read the book (the Second Pass dealt neatly with that), I've read Bee Season, and I recall that it was hardly a formulaic story. And anyway, egads, a novel with plot points! What next, music with melody? Apparently Shields simply dislikes fiction. Therefore, to express his dislike for fiction and disdain for the novel—and to feed his hunger for reality?—he has written a book consisting of quotations from many other authors. At first he did not plan to credit the other writers, but finally did so when his publisher advised him to do so.

I'm finally nearing the end of 2666 by Robert Bolano; it is a digressive, infuriating, simultaneously raw and refined feast to feed my hunger for stories. Nestled deeply within this novel so rich in story, so sprawling in reach, a novel as reality-laden as any I have ever read, near the end (i.e., 152 pages from the end), I came across this passage: "Semblance was an occupying force of reality . . . . It lived in people's souls and their actions, in willpower and in pain, in the way memories and priorities were ordered." So everything is semblance--Shields would seem to agree, since he argues (or rather Geoffrey O'Brien does in writing the introduction to Reality Hunger), "Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one?" Stephen Emms writes that Shields's "arguments fall apart upon further contemplation." It is pointless to argue that there is no need to make up stories, since it is done every day by hundreds of thousands of people, and has been for thousands of years in one form or another. It must fulfill some human hunger.

As I continued to ponder these ideas, I came across the following passage 45 pages later in 2666, in a character’s monologue on the difference between a masterpiece of literature and a minor work: A minor work is the:

shell of literature. A semblance . . . . The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece. 
Our good craftsman writes. He's absorbed in what takes shape well or badly on the page. His wife, though he doesn't know it, is watching him. It really is he who's writing. But if his wife had X-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she's witnessing a session of hypnosis. There's nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading.
And this further on:
Plagiarism, you say? Yes, plagiarism, in the sense that all minor works, all works from the pen of a minor writer, can be nothing but plagiarism of some masterpiece. The small difference is that here we're talking about sanctioned plagiarism.  Plagiarism as camouflage as some wood and canvas scenery as a charade that leads us, likely as not, into the void. 
Interestingly, though, somehow the minor works are necessary; they are like a forest:
There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!
Bolano also compares minor works to cannon fodder, something that must exist in order to be sacrificed,  to protect somehow the true masterpieces of literature. Why do masterpieces need to be protected? Would the "hungry eyes" devour them too completely if they were not shielded or hidden by the minor works? Alas, I have not been able to glean an answer to that question from 2666. Perhaps someone else will. But in any case, according to Bolano's system, I am glad that David Shields wrote Reality Hunger.



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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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