What is this thing? Because it doesn’t quite feel like a “book” in any traditional sense (and certainly doesn’t feel like a typical ham-fisted manifesto – not that I’ve read many manifestos). It doesn’t present an argument in any traditional fashion, and leaves a lot of the intellectual leg work and conclusion-making to the reader (not that we mind). Reality Hunger (2010) is an collection of unattributed quotations, and easily one of the most important books about writing from the last decade.

David Shields - Reality Hunger

A word on that ugly cover in a moment. The best discussion of just what the hell this book is has to begin with the page that follows the end of the last chapter. Let’s just skip there, shall we? Grabbing a few lines:

This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text[…] Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations[…] If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 by cutting along the dotted line.

Because I know you’re going to ask: no. I didn’t go get a pair of scissors and cut those pages out. Can I get back to the review, now?

The questions Shields tries to tackle in this non-normative form are impressive. There’s a specific image of the American psyche here that explains everything from our obsession with Reality TV (which, of course, is scripted and edited and not “real” at all) as well as a the James Frey (Million Little Pieces) fiasco, in which readers (Oprah included) who had loved the novel were infuriated when they found out it wasn’t “real.” What happens in our heads when the words “Based on a True Story” appear on screen at the beginning of a film? Does that make the story “better”? No. But it makes watching the film better. How many deviations before it’s not “based” on a true story anymore? What is reality and why do we really really really want our art to look like it?

This is a must read for any writer who subscribes to the Ernest Hemingway method of writing (i.e. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”), as well as for folks who thought Tim O’Brien’s treatment of the line between truth and fiction was interesting, and definitely for idiots (… I mean people) who got angry about James Frey. I’m of the opinion that this should be on a short list of required reading for anyone in an MFA program.

You can read Reality Hunger however you want, which makes it particularly difficult to sum up here. Almost every argument is presented with its antithesis, and it could just as easily be suggestions on how to write as well as on how to read. I’d suggest spending five minutes with it in a bookstore (do people go to those anymore?). You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. This reader ran out of highlighter ink.

One more note: I’m not the type to comment on this sort of thing, but this was the worst cover I’ve seen in a long time. I’m reviewing Daniel Orozco’s short story collection next (now that’s a cover).

I give it five missing citations.

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