(Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields, New York, Vintage Books, 2011, 221 pages, paperback.)
While reading David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, I kept thinking, How true, How true. I couldn’t disagree with anything “he” was saying. (Because of Shields’ discomfort with attribution, for now I’m making a small nod to his philosophical intent of free language and ideas by referring to everything in Hunger as “his,” even as much of it isn’t. I’ll get to the subject of ownership later.) His take on the modern cultural and artistic landscape seems chillingly accurate, his call for new venues of artistic expression, especially in writing, clarionic. Yes, it’s all true. And yet, I don’t want any of it to be. He’s killing sacred cows, and, at first, I couldn’t think of any reason why he shouldn’t.
Simply put, Shields says that singular authorship is dead, and the attribution of words to individual authors is unnecessary and irrelevant, as is the antiquated distinction between fact and fiction. Okay. But as I was reading, contemplating the difference between truth and falsehood, and whether or not someone can own words, let alone ideas, I kept waiting for Shields to address a fundamental component of storytelling: the reader’s involvement. Yes, he does a remarkable job in Hunger of dissecting traditional methods of expression, dealing primarily with the mediums, forms, and structures of storytelling. But I kept wondering, What about the effects of storytelling on the reader?
Human beings aren’t machines, Robert Wright reminds us in The Moral Animal, his book on evolutionary psychology, but we are “designed by a calculating machine, a highly rational and coolly detached process” known as evolution. Embedded in that process are traits and tendencies too numerous and off-topic to go into here, except for the idea of empathy, which is directly related to storytelling. Emotions like “sympathy, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness,” biologist Robert Trivers explains, “are important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system.” They’re a part of our hardwiring. In essence, we don’t like to be lied to. And if we are, our ability to reciprocate suffers greatly (with dire consequences if we’re talking about group survival), no less our praise for an author who claims his story to be true when it’s not.
Empathy, the evolutionary construct which leads to our ability to look out for others, even those not related to us, completely disintegrates in an atmosphere of distrust. As Wright says, in the realm of social animals sympathy is “dished out selectively.” This is because we need to know who’s lying to us and who isn’t. Our very survival depended on it, and is so ingrained in us we have also developed what Leda Cosmides has called a “cheater-detection” function necessary to regulate Wright’s “reciprocal altruism”: we give not because we’re good, but because we expect something in return. “The human sense of justice,” Steven Pinker writes in the blank slate, his study of human nature, is a “simple genetic stratagem.” If you lie to me, I want to punish you. Or never listen to one of your stories again.
Empathy’s appearance alongside truth and fiction rises and falls with veracity’s tide. It swells more with real sadness—the actual sorrows of others—than with fictional woe. Shields would claim there’s no difference, even while acknowledging the more secure grip true events have on our attentions. “I like the way the temperature in the room goes up when I say, ‘I did this’ (even if I really didn’t),” he says. However, if we don’t know ahead of time if the action is true or not, the temperature can only rise to a certain degree. We can only bring the flat eyes of the wary in a squint of maybe to equivocal events, forever stuck not in Shields’ (Graham Greene’s) “alive” ambiguity but in an apathetic distance of aloof skepticism. Real sorrow (or joy) engages us on an almost primal level. Fictional woe (or joy), while cathartic in the classic Aristotelian sense, is tempered by our ability to leave the story guiltlessly if we so desire, knowing the sorrow or joy is invented.
Not so with true stories. Our empathy is sincere, deeper, more potent, more valuable, evolutionarily speaking, when we hear the story of a real person. We have a stake in the outcome; the biological entity is making an investment in the well-being of the species. Our ability to feel for someone’s plight might actually save that person’s life. Such emotions cannot be spent wantonly. Which means the cheater-detector is always nearby and on high alert.
If fact and fiction blend, as Shields advocates, become one on the page, more precisely, become indiscernible, then empathy must come to a leveling point. The temperature must remain tepid. Not knowing if a story is true or not, we can neither afford the luxury of disinterest (because it might be true, and inaction can lead to harm), nor the full, participatory empathy reserved for true misfortune (because we’ve just wasted the currency of genuine compassion on a ruse, tapping our emotional reserves). If done often enough (Charlie Brown and the football), we become exhausted. Eventually, we must palliate both ends toward a middle, neither fully engaged nor fully detached, reaching a comatose condition of emotional blandness Wright sees as a hallmark of the postmodern world: “a powerful inability to take things seriously,” never knowing what’s real or unreal until “life…becomes a movie that we watch with the bemused detachment of an absurdist.”
Shields seems to want our participation as readers, but his claim that fiction and nonfiction is an “utterly useless distinction” seems to belie that desire, because the result of what he’s advocating can only lead to a distancing from, not a participation in, the stories he wants us to find “truthful.” On a certain level, I know what he means. In the same way that myth doesn’t reveal actual truth but psychological truth, he wants us to see beyond the almost pedestrian trope of facts and see, instead, whatever point about the human condition the storyteller is trying to make. “The facts of the situation don’t much matter,” he (Vivian Gornick) would say. I get it. But I believe it to be insincere.
And I don’t think Shields believes it either.
With any theory, it’s always wise to apply Bertrand Russell’s “wall test.” Someone believes that a concrete wall is made up of molecules with spaces between them, as are we. In theory, one should be able to pass through that wall with ease as long as the molecules are properly aligned. So, Russell proposed, if that person truly believes that he can pass through that wall, then he should run toward the wall at a speed commensurate with his belief in that wall’s existence. If Shields truly believes that the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, lying and truth-telling, are “utterly useless,” would he be willing to put his theory to the test in his personal life with his friends and family?
But there’s something else going on here. I wonder how far Shields has gone in contemplating the effects of blurring the fiction/nonfiction line.
Shields clearly states in the appendix to Hunger that the reader’s uncertainty about what she’s reading in his book is “not a bug but a feature.” He would say that plagiarism, “sampling,” it’s called, is irrelevant. He (Malcom Gladwell) says that the “ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences.” Plagiarism is apparently a part of the culture now, and unacknowledged quoting from the works of others should be restored to the rightful place it once enjoyed. Passing off another’s words as your own was once considered a form of flattery, and before copyright laws, was vigorously practiced (much to the chagrin of the exploited writer). However, I see this argument as justification for a lack of creativity and intellectual rigor.
My students hand in “sampled” papers all the time, and in my classes any “sampled” paper receives a zero. I’m happy (and a bit saddened) to do so. I’m not merely applying a personal policy, but am enforcing the institutional policy of my school and every other educational institution, high and low, in the country. Are we wrong? My students aren’t plagiarists, they’re merely ahead of the curve? In my students’ case, I know they’re not blazing new trails or looking for “new, more exciting forms of narration and presentation,” as Shields would claim. They’re merely indulging one of the twin pillars of the muddled mind, laziness, while the other pillar, instant gratification, fuels that laziness, and is echoed by Shields when he says, “I seem to want the moral, psychological, philosophical news to be delivered now.” These two pillars are the underpinnings of a culture where learning has become a non-contextual information delivery system instead of a way to contemplate the continuum and history of ideas.
Shields remarks that “Part of the American character is the urge to push at boundaries,” and he does that, and I agree. But I’d suggest that there’s an even stronger trait in the American character which trumps the frontier chase: a fierce individualism and a singular sense of self. (Also, for good or ill, ownership.) By refusing to quote other writers, by his insistence on non-attribution, Shields is erasing the individual, dissolving the “I” into a collective of ideas and words no one owns and no one can claim the rights to. He’s not only condoning but embracing what Jaron Lanier calls the “universal computational cloud” of information that’s forming on the Internet. Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget and scholar-at-large for Microsoft Research, sees in the negative, as I do, what Shields sees in the positive, that “Authorship—the very idea of the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new ideology” of scrabble-scanned knowledge and dissolving identity, which Lanier predicts will eventually coalesce into an ultimately authoritarian “single book.” True, we all own the words, and Shields is right when he (William Gibson) says, “Reality can’t be copyrighted.” But the interpretation of reality can.
By usurping the greatness—the individual greatness—of others and the unique visions they bring to the world, and probably suffered for, Shields is, in essence, denying their existence. A line like, “…the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” did not magically appear one day on the Tree of Knowledge for anyone to come along and pluck as if he were the creator of that apple. It was conceived by a guy named George Orwell, who, like the rest of us, lived a life of hard-won truths, and who by the sweat of that living came up with some words solely his own yet graciously given to inspire us. To deny the source is to deny the man. If Shields had his way (if the “lawyers” didn’t interfere), we’d never know who said what in his book, probably assuming, because his name is on the cover, that he created everything therein. By not wanting to give credit where credit is due, as we used to say in the old days, he’s disappearing the people behind the words he would so casually appropriate. He’s erasing them from history.
If Shields is so keen on the collectivization of ideas and words and expression, why did he put his name on the cover of his book? By doing so, isn’t he claiming ownership of everything contained in its pages? Why is the copyright in his name? Why didn’t he sign it, Anonymous, adding himself to the immense ether of unassignated works? Run at that wall, Dave.
Who owns the words? “We do—all of us,” Shields answers. So how about distributing to the rest of us some of the money you alone are receiving for our book?
Finally, let’s not forget Reinhold Neibuhr’s warning to beware the “self-righteousness of the righteous.” In the same way that free will was created by a belief in it, as Wright maintains, collage, non-attribution, and appropriation without citation must be viewed as a belief system that is probably self-serving and self-fulfilling. While on the surface Shields’ desire for “inclusiveness” seems to expand the dimensions of expression, in actuality, like most systems extolling the virtues of inclusiveness, they usually promote the self-interest of the proselytizer. While the Ten Commandments purports to be a recipe for getting along with our fellow human beings, it’s real function was to help Moses control his political base and solidify his power, in the same way that the Buddha’s warning against petty bickering kept his own flock from fleeing him. It’s worth noting that manifestos serve primarily socio-political ends, and like Mao glorifying the masses while he enjoys being the one and only Mao, it’s not hard to see the decidedly human motives of the authors of manifestos. As Pinker notes, artists, critics, writers (like all of us on some level), are possessed of a “feature of human nature that drives the arts: the hunger for status, especially their own hunger for status.”
There’s so much more I could say about this, illustrated by everything from The Prisoner’s Dilemma to modern game theory. Perhaps my ultimate point could be best made if I just tell the following “Disgusting Story.”
One of my students writes a story about a woman being raped and killed. For good measure, he throws in a flayed kitten—the terrible mewling that continues after she’s furless—to show the protagonist’s evil prowess. The protagonist enjoys it, and pays no consequences.
Some of the author’s classmates say they don’t understand the story, which is a dodge. They’re terrified of criticism in all forms, having been bludgeoned into mute timidity by an educational system that has outlawed disputation. Some of them comment on the exacting use of detail. Another dodge. One or two, allies of the author, think the story is “cool,” having been brought up on cultural violence and knowing that that’s what he was going for, giving him back-up in case the shit hits.
All of them, even the little Miss Daintys who haven’t lived long enough to write about chewing, kill their characters so easily. They’re “like flies to wanton boys,” disposed of like gum wrappers. Such is the culture. Children immune from pain. It’s fabric softener to them.
Finally, it’s my turn to comment.
“This,” I hold up the story, flagging it in their faces, “is disgusting.”
The author scoffs and eyes his buddies, grinning.
I tell him why—no compensatory draw, no insight into the nature of evil, no deeper subject beyond the obvious glee in carnage. I glare at the author, and then at everyone else, to let them know how serious I am, and that, despite their self-congratulatory presumption, I know a little bit more about these matters than they do.
I challenge them to find some, any, redemption in the story. I ask them to their faces, demanding they look me in the eye. Their mousy souls shrink. Of the author’s allies, I ask what is possibly cool about the rape and murder of a woman. “What’s funny about death?” Isolated and sheepish, one by one they abandon the author.
He sits behind an arrogant grin, trying and failing to shore up what’s left of his bravado. He makes a few tepid attempts at defense of his story. And then, finally, there’s the moment I’ve been waiting for. It’s barely a second, a fraction of fear in the eyes, a slight parting of the lips as he breathes in, and it’s gone. He shrugs.
But he knows what he’s done. And he’s done it in public. It doesn’t happen often, the glimpse—the briefest terror visible—into the bankruptcy of one’s character. When it happens, it’s unmistakable, despite the smirk and re-girding of haught in his shoulders as the bell rings.
That night he goes home, writes a note about his humiliation, blaming others for it (me included), and hangs himself. When I hear the news—just for a moment, barely a second, a fraction for it to rise unbidden—I’m glad.
…If this story isn’t true, it’s disgusting.
If it is, it isn’t.
JLSchneider is a carpenter and an adjunct professor of English at a small community college in upstate New York. His essays have appeared or will be appearing in Studies in Contemporary Satire, Literal Latté, The Southeast Review, The Mochila Review, New Millennium Writings, and Trajectory. His short story collection, Objects of Desire, was awarded the 2012 Sol Books Prose Prize.
Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby (1987) “From Evolution to Behavior: Evolutionary Psychology as the Missing Link,” in John Dupre, ed., The Latest on the Best: Essays on Evolution and Optimality, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York, Alfred A Knopf. 2010.
Neibuhr, Reinhold. An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. Originally published by Harper & Brothers, 1935.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language” (1946), in George Orwell: A Collection of Essays, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981.
Pinker, Steven. the blank slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York, Penguin Books, 2002.
Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1957.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York, Vintage Books, 2011.
Trivers, Robert (1971) “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” Quarterly Review of Biology.
Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, New York, Vintage Books, 1995.