Second-Hand Prose

By Greenberg, Susan H. | Newsweek, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Second-Hand Prose


Greenberg, Susan H., Newsweek


Byline: Susan H. Greenberg

"David Shields thinks of 'reality hunger' not as a sickness but as the defining spirit of our age, with its yearning for the music of what happens. His book is a spirited polemic on behalf of non-fiction--a manifesto in 618 soundbites."

Does it matter who wrote that? David Shields thinks not. (I'm less sure, so let's reveal that I took it from Blake Morrison's review in The Guardian.) Shields's kaleidoscopic treatise, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is composed almost entirely of numbered, unidentified fragments of other people's work--a sentence from Yeats, a paragraph from an Elvis Mitchell movie review. He amends T. S. Eliot, channels his 6-year-old daughter, mashes Picasso and Virginia Woolf together: "Art is real. I make it real by putting it into words." Divided into 26 chapters built around themes such as "doubt" and "reality TV," the quotes, when read together, dizzily embody his argument that literature should be appropriated, adapted, and remixed to create new meaning, like art and music. "I'm trying to recover the freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs have enjoyed, but which we, as victims of a very litigious society, have sacrificed over the past 30 years," he says.

Shields, a former novelist, came to see genre as stifling, and he found that his favorite books--Camus's The Fall and Renata Adler's Speedboat among them--belonged to none. The reality he hungers for is the embrace of life's uncertainty, and he sees no better way to make his point than by leaving unclear who said what. His publisher's lawyers had other ideas. Despite his strenuous objections, they forced him to include footnotes. But Shields fights back, urging readers to "grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or a box cutter" and excise the entire footnote section. …

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