February 7th, 2011 / 12:27 pm

At the Electronic Book Review, Curtis White pretty much nails the problems with David Shields’s Reality Hunger: ‘At best, it is the sort of call to arms that comes from an editor saying, “Why shouldn’t we do a call to arms this season? I think it’s time for that again. In the spring, of course. I don’t see this as a Christmas book.”‘


  1. Lincoln Michel

      I like that quote, but the review as a whole read as half-thought out as Shields’ book. Like Shields, Curtis White seems to be imposing his own personal beefs and concerns onto the topic at hand (for him, Shields’ book and for Shields, contemporary American culture.)

      I think he is quite wrong that Shields is arguing for anti-realist fictional writers to become more popular. Shields really is arguing for essays and memoirs over fictional forms.

      I’m with White 100% that I’d much prefer a return to more exciting and experimental writers of the Donald Barthelme vein than the more boring realist writers that populate most of the major presses. However, his weird conflation of the major New York publishing houses with all of New York sounds as ill informed as so many of Shields’ arguments in reality hunger. Lots of the great smaller presses and magazines publishing more interesting fiction are based in New York and tons of the authors on the presses he mentions live in New York as well. I mean, this guy spends the whole review crying about New York even though it really doesn’t have anything to do with Reality Hunger or even the point he wants to make.

  2. goner

      I agree with you. It’s kind of like generalizing the film industry in L.A. based strictly on what’s coming out of the big Hollywood studios. Like saying there are no filmmakers making challenging work in L.A., or there’s not a robust indie/experimental or whatever scene, because that’s not what’s being bought up by the studio machines. I found that part of his piece to be somewhat strange as well.

  3. Tadd Adcox

      It’s true that there’s indie press work going on in New York (and quite a bit in the boroughs), but I think his real point here is that there’s not indie press work going on in “New York”: that is, New York as an economic/institutional/cultural center. (This is kind of like the difference between what you can say about what Catholic churches are doing and what the Catholic Church is doing, for example.)

      He really seems to nail it with: “the kind of work that he claims to want already exists in abundance. It’s just that it’s in Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, California, Alabama, and hundreds of basement operations in the provinces and off the grid.” I’d add that the kind of work he’s talking about might happen, as well, in New York, just not in capital-N capital-Y “New York.”

  4. stephen

      i love j.d. salinger

  5. stephen

      oh haha wrong post

  6. Lincoln Michel

      I’m afraid I still disagree. First off, New York as a cultural center is just as notable (if not more so) for its long history of counter cultural movements. Think punk rock, hip-hop, the beats, American dadaism, and so on. Indeed, many of the people White mentions in the article lived in New York (The Beats, Barthelme, Ishmael Reed, etc.) I would certainly say New York is far more famous and notable for this type of thing than the places he mentions.

      Again, I don’t think that quote nails anything at all since most of those presses he is referring to are filled with New York authors. It isn’t just that some indie press work going on in NY, but more of it goes on there than any other city. (Hardly a shock when it is the most populated city, of course)

      But the real point is that it has nothing to do with what Shields is talking about. It just reads like some personal hang-up that White has that he is injecting without reason into a book about something else entirely.

      ETA: Which I find ironic because Shields book is filled with his personal hang-ups that he is trying to project on the culture at large.

  7. GB

      I think he would say that the indie scene in New York has more in common with the indie scenes in Minneapolis or Austin or Birmingham than it does with the big New York houses. When he says “New York,” he is referring to the big players (at least in my understanding), the people who run the big book reviews and publish the bestsellers, not the people who hold readings in Brooklyn or Queens. It’s not really a question of geography. Obviously quirky, independent stuff happens in New York. But that’s immaterial to his argument.

      Also, White’s mimicking of Shields’ form (i.e. injecting personal experience into what should be an argument of ideas) appears to be intentional: the title, in case you didn’t notice, is, “A Review in the Form of a Memoir.”

  8. Lincoln Michel

      See where he makes comments about how the east coast is vs. the west coast. He does indeed seem to be talking, at least in part, about geography.

      I won’t keep going on about this though. Just thought it a was weird that a review about a book on the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction ends up mentioning New York two dozen times and not talking about the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction at all.

      Only thing I want to clarify is that I’m not saying Shields and White are injecting personal experience into an argument about idea, but that they are confusing personal biases with what is actually going on. Shields, for example, states that he personally doesn’t like either fiction or long-form narratives, I think he even says he mentally has trouble processing them, and is more interested in fragmented memoirs and essays based on “reality.” That’s fine. But he then writes a book that tries to project that on the entire culture, claiming that everyone wants that and everything is moving that way, despite the obvious counter evidence. Of course, much harder to sell a book that is just one guy’s personal tastes than a book that proclaims to be a “manifesto” describing radical changes in our cultural consciousness….

      White calls Shields out on this as well:

      “Much of the book feels like an argument about “taste”: this kind of memoir/essay fiction is “better” than realism/plotted fiction. But what kind of manifesto is that?”

  9. deadgod

      White does foreground cultural geography in framing his criticism of Shields in a personal way: Cali ‘burb hippie v East-Coast urbcentric intellectual — but this device is not, in my view, by way of neglecting the substance of Reality Hunger itself.

      Indeed, the quotation Blake uses to encapsulate the book’s “problems” discloses one aspect of White’s critique of the book itself: Shields is inveighing against the absence of a counter-cultural anti-realist presence in the recent past, and White is asking ‘whaddah ya talkin about’.

      But White is advancing an even sharper attack: the way Shield’s has gotten “New York” to publish and take seriously his book is not to say that there has been a vigorous American counter-cultural anti-realist tradition, one that connects “Proust and Nabokov” continuously to Right Now and should be supported for reasons 1 through n, but rather, to say that the Big “New Idea” that there should be such a thing is being expressed “for the first time“.

      White is calling Shields a hypocrite, one who tilts bravely at “New York”/literary Gigantotitans in a way that Shields has calculated – accurately (?) – that those Gigantotitans will celebrate. As I understand him, White is saying that Shields is someone who sneers and rages at literary celebrity so as to obtain it.

      Whether or not this is a reasonable perception of Shields, it’s surely directed right at a genuine perception of ‘what’s going on’ with Reality Hunger.

  10. Anonymous

      biggie v pac, but i prefer doom.

  11. Anonymous

      Earth people/ New York and California/ Earth people/ I was born on Jupiter