Wednesday, June 9, 2010

#25: Reality Hunger

I really need to stop reading manifestos. First it was The Communist Manifesto. Then, earlier this year, it was You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. "Workers of the world, unite!" yielded to much ado about the "hive mind." Like any manifesto, both were distinctly aware of their characterization as such; hence, the grandiose language and sweeping world vision. (I suppose Karl Marx's received a bit more attention than Jaron Lanier's, however.)

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by virtue of its self-descriptive subtitle, belongs to this same (decreasingly exclusive) club. However, David Shields, whose other books have titles like The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, hardly looks like a kindred spirit of the communist revolutionary or the cautious Internet pioneer (based on his photograph on the book's back flap, at least). The bald and bespectacled author appears better suited for a dignified study of poetry, or perhaps as a caption writer for a nature-themed daily calendar.

Neither of these subjects is what Shields is interested in writing about, however. In what the author describes as "twenty-six chapters; 618 mini-sections," a case is made for an emerging writing form. "An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming," Shields writes. "What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: 'raw' material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional."

Or did Shields actually write this? Aha, he would reply, but that's just the point: who cares? Each of these hundreds of fragmentary "mini-sections" operates as a unique thought, yet also as an integral part of the whole. What if section three were written by David Shields? Or what if it were David Mamet, or David Carr, or David Markson (all of whom are also quoted in Reality Hunger)? Does knowing the identity of the author -- or, for that matter, evaluating the authenticity of the text itself -- alter the experience of reading the work? And if so, is this for the better or the worse? In short, why the big fuss over intellectual property?

Well, for one, most writers struggle to scrape together the requisite means to make a living out of their dreams. When someone else comes along and irreverently plucks a quote here and a passage there wholesale, a drop in royalties is the result. This would appear to be an understandable reason for approximately 618 authors, speakers, and public figures to be very angry with David Shields. Thanks to the lawyers at Random House, however, the author was generously spared this fate. Lamenting the loss of a "freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted," Shields explains, in a brief note following the main text, that his publisher's dutiful attorneys "determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations," but that readers may easily "restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read" by cutting out these very citations with a pair of scissors.

"Reality cannot be copyrighted," Shields declares. He is right, it cannot; but its various expressions can, and do, warrant legal protection. The author, in an online defense of his book, claims that "numerous bloggers appear to think I'm the anti-Christ because I don't genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property." But I suspect theirs is merely a case of disenchantment, not stupefaction. The starving masses may be hungering for reality, but it is doubtful that a hardcover compendium of reprocessed ideas will provide the necessary protein. The last sentence of Reality Hunger reads, "Stop; don't read any farther." I'm assuming it was David Shields who wrote this line; regardless of the author, this advice would have been far more useful in the book's earlier pages. Even reality hunger disappears when confronted with enough junk food.

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