IN AN UNDERGRADUATE creative writing class, I laughed—audibly—when a girl shared that she was into "creative scrapbooking." My experience with that medium was limited to my sister's teenage photo albums, all construction paper decoupaged with soccer ball sticker accents. If memory and pretensions serve me, my classmate's scrapbooks likely weren't much different. But history, yet again, has proved me a close-minded asshole.
David Shields' Reality Hunger, a book I can't stop thinking about, is firmly in Scrapbook Girl's corner, proclaiming—though not as forcibly as his detractors might have you believe—the death of fiction (or, at least, the "novely novel") in favor of work that appropriates the real. He waves the flag of bricolage and, aping Joyce, confesses he's "quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man."
Shields' manifesto is itself a collage (618 numbered sections) of aphorisms, arguments, and anecdotes, some original and some lifted, chopped, and screwed—context free—from his sizeable library (and without in-text attribution). He contends that narrative fiction isn't particularly relevant to our culture—not an outrageous claim for generations that have traded Elizabeth Bennet for Lauren Conrad and John Lennon for Danger Mouse, that prefer to do their reading on friends' Facebook pages.
"Conventional fiction," he—or someone—says, "teaches the reader that life is a coherent fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation." Shields sees the lyric essay, his preferred form, as "an evolution beyond narrative." The novel doesn't cut to the chase, it "sacrifices too much on the altar of plot."
Of course, the novel's been declared dead by many a coroner—that's nothing new. But to group Reality Hunger in with the bimonthly "Is the ______ dead?" article is to miss the meat of the book. Provocations are great for publicity, but the best moments aren't on the offensive front—aren't attacks on fiction—but are when he lays out what can be done in nonfiction, and how blurry the line is and should be. The purposeful shaping of "the real" doesn't have to be relegated to the gutter. It can be Ross McElwee's autobiographical documentaries or Maggie Nelson's Bluets. Nonfiction can devote itself to something higher than disseminating information or making Oprah's audience cry; Shields knows it can be poetry, that it should aspire to art.