Reality Hunger in the era of the alternative fact

Zachary Ngin, Guest Writer

“The life span of a fact is shrinking. I don’t think there’s time to save it,” writes David Shields in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. In the seven years since those words were published, America has officially entered the post-truth era.

The daily newspaper has become a tasteless thriller show. Plastered above the fold each day is a new and unprecedentedly hideous clown. There are dead Russian men and fabricated terrorist attacks, trial balloons and diversion tactics. Washed-up celebrities also make appearances. There is snark. There are memes. This is reality TV: Who will be fired/bombed/parodied next week? Politics has colonized every area of public life. There is no greater distinction for a cultural artifact than its having, at some point, “predicted Trump.” Dystopian novels like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have experienced a revival. It has become fashionable to quote Hannah Arendt and talk about the Weimar Republic. This essay, which concerns Shields’s 2010 book, is my humble contribution to the discourse.

On the surface, Reality Hunger has little to do with politics. It is a literary manifesto that traces – and celebrates – the dissolution of the boundaries between fact and fiction. Shields wonders, “What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or leaving the blanks blank?” The structure of the book offers an answer.

Much of the book’s content is drawn from other sources and juxtaposed in a “collage” of numbered paragraphs. Shields does not cite his sources in the text. They are listed in the back, but he prefers that we don’t look at them. His text is a willful plagiarism that mimics the formal eclecticism of the Internet: retweeting, anonymous sourcing, the cacophony of voices. We are not sure whether any given “I” belongs to Shields or someone he’s read. He writes (or quotes): “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”

Reality Hunger blurs the lines between writer and culture. Shields disdains most fiction because of its pretense of originality: “No more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.” The top-down narrative model, he argues, does not reflect the chaos of modern reality. Fabrication bores him.

Shields is interested instead in “reality-based art”: written memoir in all its forms, but also hip-hop and reality TV. These forms sample freely from various traditions, styles, and tropes. They follow “the law of mosaics: how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes.” Shields’s preferred artistic instruments are looking, editing, and arranging.

The book devotes substantial space to James Frey, who tearfully confessed on Oprah to inventing aspects of his addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Shields sees controversies about truth in memoir as beside the point. He values artistic truth – an earnest effort “to get to the bottom of the experience at hand” – over literal accuracy. Memory is itself distortive, reality a myth. Sound familiar?

Some of Shields’s pronouncements feel astonishingly prescient. Here’s one: “We’re overwhelmed right now by calamitous information. The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama.”

Which brings us, of course, back to politics. This country’s public sphere has long been starved for truth. The events of recent decades have taught us to distrust politicians and their poses, their denials, their solemnity. Trump’s campaign laid claim to areas of emotional reality – rage, cynicism, irreverence, spontaneity – that conventional politics had long since surrendered. It tore off the mask, gleefully and without regret.

Of course, Trump triumphed by validating a highly specific “truth”: the feeling of being “outnumbered in my own country,” of a former greatness trampled by political correctness. That particular reality is the province, primarily, of men and white people. It may have little corroboration in fact. That doesn’t matter. Shields writes, “In our hunger for all things true, we make the facts irrelevant.”

Nine months in, Trump has not lost his capacity to horrify, to thrill, to surprise. The shock is one of recognition. To his supporters, he is saying what everyone has long been afraid to say. To his opponents, he also represents something real, a distillation of our toxic politics. He has brought the hidden filth – the violence, the pride, the bigotry and crudeness and corruption – to the frothing surface. He says it like it is, and it is ugly.

Trump’s demagogic politics cannot be countered by more fabrication, by more false gods. The seeable cannot be unseen; the mask cannot be reapplied. Maybe that’s a good thing. If we are to survive, politics must grow beyond the top-down narrative model, beyond promises and platitudes. What we need now is a reality-based politics. One that tolerates the truths of a fractured, aching polity; one that deals with parts in the absence of wholes. Shields ends his narrative with an unattributed quote: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”