Home > Blog > Driving Cars in Clown Suits: David Shields Terrifies Novelists
Published: Tue Jan 30 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Driving Cars in Clown Suits: David Shields Terrifies Novelists

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. 240 pgs. Knopf, 2010. $24.95.

Whenever writers of a new era question the purpose of literature, it takes a poet to declare the old aim dead and make the new aim live. In our time, such a poet, or, more accurately, such a prose collagist, is David Shields. His Reality Hunger is an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative. Its troubled, prickly unease is palpable. Hewing to the self-reflexive tenor of our age, Shields provokes us as much as he interrogates himself. Neither nasty nor narcissistic, he makes his case with 618 nuggety fragments, half in aphoristic style, half in the paragraph vein.

As I read, I was mesmerized by Shields’s originality. Until he pointed it out, midway through, that his content was barely his own: “Many (most?) of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. One bonus point for each identification.” In effect, he outsourced actuality, then pushed it, with much subterfuge, back into Reality Hunger. The trick is reminiscent of Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 Harper‘s essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” The piece seems to be Lethem’s but is, by his in-the-end admission, a rigorously seamless presentation of others’ ideas and quotations as his own. Shields fesses up to his sleight-of-hand in an addendum. Some of his citations are specific, others are not, as in “Montaigne.” Alas, their inclusion wasn’t his decision. He fought to keep his sources out but Random House lawyers won. His riposte is to tell the reader to tear the pages out on the inscribed dotted line.

Most early reviewers of Reality Hunger have worried over this question of attribution and authorship. The jury is summoned when critics find an author who paraphrases, amends, changes, and foregoes quotation marks, then commingles them like Thai protestors dressed uniformly in red. Foucault asked, What is an author? Shields asks, Who is the author? I’m less interested in the mask of a collective voice than I am in its effect. The aphoristic style can be rakishly impenetrable, full of paradoxes and lapses, and—as Ralph Buechler writes in the Encyclopedia of the Essay—”essentially dictatorial.” The aphorism is useful, Buechler says, because it “simultaneously implies an Other, a contrary order of the ‘not yet realized.’” What’s unrealized is what readers and critics make of its suppositions and whether writers will rally to Shields’s cause.

“My intent,” Shields announces on page one, “is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” The target is vast, but Shields mainly zeroes in on his bailiwick: narrative writing in general, and the novel in particular. Shields largely refrains from documenting how “reality” is pestering, let alone transforming, our art’s content. Some readers may see this Big Claim as unsubstantiated and, therefore, a flaw. But I don’t think we need proof. The old world of print and genre separation is transmogrifying before our eyes, and Shields wants to awaken us to this radical change. An anarchic technology, whose “reality” is sampled and fragmented and mashed-up all at once, is calling the shots, not the artist.

It’s menacingly difficult to define this “reality.” (I regret using quotation marks around reality, but the term’s looseness is endemic to this book and reflects a hunger for something we can’t quite define.) All we media dependents know for sure is that we are too-often engaged with the representational “reality” of TV, film, YouTube, and the Internet. The fact that we increasingly live with what’s on a screen confuses our senses of the real and the artificial. Things get extra messy when walking in a virtual forest and walking in an actual one are equal options. In a society where “real-life” and “reality TV” collide, authorial certainty and narrative suasion are gone.

For two hundred years, the novel has ruled literature; before it, poetry and epic. For Shields, the novel’s anachronistic presence in our media-engorged lives is the problem. Two decades ago, he quit writing novels (three published) and swung to nonfiction (seven books in all). Fiction bores him, in part, because its quasi-social blueprint that coded other generations fails to code ours. The novel—not to mention other plot-driven narratives (four-movement symphonies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) whose suspense-laden dramas now seem permanent in our DNA—is worse than false for Shields. It’s insufficient and irrelevant to our time. He illustrates his disdain for fiction in many borrowed apothegms. “All the best stories are true.” “Making up a story or characters feels like driving a car in a clown suit.” “The world exists, why recreate it?” “I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation.” “…the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life.” Novels and paintings aren’t dead, he argues. “They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.”

Shields believes the novel is a “mongrel tradition” that misleads us, and is designed to mislead, with its lulling fog of fairy story and hero’s tale. Such fables may have once provided moral instruction in pre-electric, uni-dimensional cultures. Appositively, Shields seems to argue, the novel is as outmoded as religion. The novel’s classic elements are authorial omniscience, dignified style, and resolute endings; in religion, the tradition is echoed by church doctrine, cathedral splendor, and an absolving heaven.

What’s more, novels carry a “pretense of actuality,” which, Shields says, no longer serves us: with fiction, with “Celebrity Rehab,” with the eco-friendly cartoon simulation of Avatar, we are being fattened, even addled, on artificiality. In an “unbearably artificial world,” Shields believes the novel brings no critical voice to our era the way memoir, essay, documentary film, and hybrid art forms do. The novel is no longer oppositional, no longer dialogical (in the Bakhtinian sense), no longer effective.

The novelist’s current presentiment is to create occult characters few of us recognize. More and more novels these days are populated not by the flawed hero, the neighborly everyman of yesteryear—Harry Angstrom or Atticus Finch. Instead, their leading lights are nothing like us but, rather, shape-shifting or disembodied protagonists—the dead girl in The Lovely Bones, the vampire-loving Bella Swan of Twilight, the wizarding Harry Potter and crew. (This is also true of film “characters,” though the movie star who plays herself playing her role breaks the real into the art that Shields finds fascinating.) For the most part, novels are removed from the actual artificiality of our mediated life. Novels fail to mirror how we see and experience the world today. Their characters occupy a planet of fantastic beings who wake and sleep in another time, another place.


Shields names the first-response form of a new literature the “essay.” That’s unhelpful. Essay comes with its own baggage. “Lyric essay” doesn’t cut it either. That sounds like professors weekending in a national park. Whatever we term this new narrative, it’s an amalgam of essay-memoir-reflection-analysis whose point-of-view arises out of the chameleonic interplay among these forms, each of which comes with its own pre-existing condition. In fact, Shields’s book is an example of the new literary form he’s manifesto-ing for. (Another is Shields’s last elastic work, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.) Reality Hunger is performative literature, jazz improvisation mixed with hip-hop sampling. Its energy lies in Shields’s search for an ism: What is this nonfictional, memoiristic, essayistic thing writers are already practicing? We know we’ve read it—in Joan Didion, W. G. Sebald, Nicholson Baker, Geoff Dyer, Renata Adler, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Stephen Elliott, even James Frey. We also know we’ve seen it, cinematically, in the composed real-life dramas of Larry David, Ross McElwee, Marjane Satrapi, Sarah Silverman, and Spalding Gray.

The form Shields is after must reveal as well as exemplify his insecure central maxim: “‘Fiction’ / ‘nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” It’s insecure because Shields only half means it. Once he makes the “useless distinction” claim, he next says they are distinct. “These categories are plastic. But they aren’t. Ah, but they are.” “Good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I’m not bothered at all by this artifice.” Which? The artifice of the comparison or the artifice of the shaping? Will labeling a work, “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events,” give writers and their publishers, fretting copyright suits, plausible deniability?

Shields says that nonfiction’s fictive element differs from fiction: fiction is invented, nonfiction (memoir or hybrid narrative, for example) is composed. The difference is that an author shapes both made-up and real events via the needs of the story. Thus, even before a writer gets to story, the distinction between what’s imagined and what’s remembered does matter. What I think Shields should articulate is simple: “literal truth” does not exist. As a result, there’s no sense in his being categorical, claiming that fiction denies the true and nonfiction embraces it. It leads to further contradiction. “You adulterate the truth as you try to write,” Shields notes in the section called “Blur.” “Poetic truth,” which the literary-minded say supersedes factual truth, “can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylization.” Such semantic juggling is endemic to Shields’s reasoning over the real and the true. There’s always a burr in the saddle of the gloriously inexact noun truth, especially when modified by other gloriously inexact adjectives. Acknowledging this wouldn’t ruffle the manifester’s persona.

Shields stands on firmer ground discussing how much deception, especially when it’s artfully rendered, drives contemporary writing. “Deception is more the state of nature than not deceiving.” Artifice, which we over-associate with the novel and which is busy being born in current collage nonfiction, needs much sunlight. Until now, critics have been unaware of deception’s role in many forms of nonfiction: documentary, memoir, creative nonfiction, even history and biography. Shields wants a nonfictional or essayistic art that is supra-conscious of its deceptiveness, an art whose purpose is to make the minefield of misrepresentation between author and culture the story. Here, from film, is an example.

In Todd Haynes’s 2007 I’m Not There, we have the cross-border, gender-bending play of Cate Blanchett (a woman) playing Jude Quinn (a man) in a shot-by-shot improvised replication of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, a 1965 cinema verite about a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota (Robert Zimmerman) playing/being the world’s greatest self-invented folksinger (Bob Dylan). Jude Quinn is one of six different Dylans depicted by six different actors in the film. With Quinn, Haynes also limns Dylan’s self-destructive tour of England, before which he had abandoned his acoustic and political self for an electric and existentialist one. No novel could ape the self-myths Bob Dylan created and discarded and that Haynes’s film re-fashions, nor could it include actors whom we recognize from roles on screen and in life playing various incarnations of “Napoleon in rags.” Haynes’s homage to Dylan’s self-creation is neither novelistic nor literary, despite the singer’s purloined name. It is the province of live and recorded music, film, and cultural history.

For Shields, the writer’s subject becomes increasingly the funhouse mirror of representation we are beguiled by and trying to escape from. Our individual persona is shaped by the paradoxically desirable deceptions of media—the notoriety every artist on a career path feels he or she must have—far more than we know. We need a new literary means to get at this.

One means is imaginative nonfiction. This form asks readers to “behave more deeply,” in Shields’s phrase. To record and compose. To think critically, to write nonfiction creatively. To be drawn to the moral dilemma of the author, and not to the made-up conundrum of a character. As readers, we may be more drawn to and distracted by the actual others of nonfiction (real people depicted or disguised in books) than we are by the invented others of fiction. No matter how intimately alive he feels to us, Holden Caulfield remains the boy in the bubble, living in the polyurethane of literary assemblage. Though our opinions of him may change, his character does not. Like all cultural icons, he has become mythic.

Contrast that with a historical personage like actress/film producer Rielle Hunter, who first inhabits Jay McInerney’s novel, Story of My Life, as a sexually voracious twenty-year-old, and then reappears, minus the “pretense of actuality,” as the kept-quiet mistress of would-be Democratic presidential nominee John Edwards and the mother of their “love child.” I’m not sure what it means to emerge out of one’s literary manifestation into the sordidness of life—and vice versa—but there is something fluidly multi-dimensional about actuality intermingled with myth that fascinates Shields.

Regarding the 2006 James Frey fray, Shields believes that we set him up: “The whole huge loud roar” that greeted Frey’s public flogging “has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.” The idea that the dilettante Frey was excoriated because he violated the trust of his readers proves that, at least for Americans, being a liar is a hundred times worse than being a lousy writer. Frey’s charring ended up with an unexpected singeing of Oprah Winfrey, which—and this is what we really wanted—cracked her self-assigned authority about books. The Frey debacle vanquished her literary wisdom but vindicated her moral acuity, or what was left of it.

That books fit our culture, Winfrey frying Frey, is what books today are all about—more valuable, I’m sorry to say, than the poetry of the writing or the insights of the author. Books must compete with the 24/7 news cycle, bolt out of the gate, grab the fleeting authenticity of the moment. (Thus, the popularity of blogs, more for writers than for readers.) At the same time, books must take place in—and take on—a non-veracious culture. This is one of Shields’s lessons: If authors are to be heard, let alone read, they must make our culture’s duplicity part of their subjects. One way to think about what’s new about nonfiction is its epistemological scope, its ability to essay knowledge. I believe we will see more books that feature a dialectic between the authority of the author and the authority of the “reality” whose conundrums and changeableness the writer cannot ignore.

Writing that undermines the media’s hold on reality is supplanting the novel and other meta-narrative forms. Sure, we can argue about the aesthetic meaning and value of literature. But it is the sociobiology of writing—the forms writers are employing to adapt to the Blitzkrieg of electronic culture—that determines literature’s aesthetic. In the age of information, art’s highest aesthetic is its use-value. One reason why the composed memoir and the collaged essay have become the voices of our generation. One reason why the savvy Shields is one of those voices.


Writing’s quickening in our culture now feels high-strung, in part because we authors are unsure what the “reality” we live in and should be covering is. How can we, when we skirmish at the borders between fiction and nonfiction, which grow blurrier every day? How can we, when the actual, the mediated, the fantastic, and the false—think media coverage of the Iraq War, before and after the fighting—seem interchangeable? How do we respond to this inalterable rewiring of our culture? As writers, we morally oppose the artificial and yet take advantage of that artificiality. We live in the dizzying live-dormant app-grid, seduced by video, tweet, social media, and phone. It’s all some kind of real. To explore the wilds of the digital Amazon enlists only the most irony-prone of authors.

In such a jungle, it’s finally nice to have a guide. I’m glad Shields the manifester has unsheathed the machete. His call to transition away from the novel, to awaken from the dreaminess of literature, reminds writers that we are the stewards of dissent in America, our role from Thomas Paine to Irving Howe to Lee Siegel. Since our path lies in the thicket between fact and representation, between self and media, we need fresh narratives and counternarratives to hack through the vines. We especially need mashups that undress the manipulative genius of TV and movie producers, bank heads, politicians, mass entertainment pushers and junkies. Imagine books and documentaries that do not allow corporations and media conglomerates and their toadies to escape seeing and feeling their own deceptions.

To spur artists to use and critique new technologies is what manifestos are for. Manifestoes remind us of the need to keep up with the explosive speed of mass culture and mass media and to navigate the many forking streams of genre-bending ahead of us. Reality Hunger declares that either we co-captain the reality we live in or we are rolled under it. Its latest bulldozer: online culture. We have to understand that the expressive means of electronic technology will not stop doing what it’s been doing for a century: become the art so as to beguile the artist.

A hope: that writers do more than invent another Crime Scene Investigation detective who outsmarts with her microscopic analysis those cleverly handsome fiber-shedding criminals. Authors might follow Shields’s lead and take a stand, reveal to ourselves and our readers how this culture, and not the one we grew up in, is using the duplicitous nature of humankind to suit itself.

Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” coming in September from Pegasus Books. His book The Memoir and the Memoirist (Swallow Press) is in its third printing. He is also a journalist for San Diego Reader, as well as a critic, essayist, and memoirist. (6/2010)

Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” coming in September from Pegasus Books. His book The Memoir and the Memoirist (Swallow Press) is in its third printing. He is also a journalist for San Diego Reader, as well as a critic, essayist, and memoirist. (updated 6/2010)

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