March 14, 2010

Reality bytes

'We live in a completely artificial culture,' says author David Shields, who in 618 short statements posits how 'reality' so often isn't.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

David Shields' latest book has caused a firestorm of controversy and an eruption of online chatter.


DAVID SHIELDS, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Robinson Reading Room, Miller Library, Colby College, Waterville.

Shields, a West Coast author of three novels and seven works of nonfiction, sets out to shake the foundation of literature in his latest effort, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto."

In this book, the author argues that fiction has taken a perilous turn across the board, and that our society has lost its compass when it comes to distinguishing fact from fiction. We live in a time when the line between reality and fiction is beyond blurry, when the truthfulness of "facts" are open to debate.

We watch real-time news on TV, then learn later that what we watched didn't really happen. Case in point: the boy in the balloon in Colorado. Reality TV shows are the rage, and yet those are staged and rehearsed, which begs the question, "Is reality really real?"

"Reality Hunger" is witty, engaging and provocative. Shields has written his manifesto as a series of short statements, each marked by its own numeric entry -- 618 in all. He says that one overseas publisher offered to "publish" the book as series of tweets.

Perhaps best known for his previous book "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead," Shields is on a speaking tour across America. He'll be in Maine for a talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Robinson Room at Miller Library at Colby College in Waterville.

We spoke with him by phone last week before one of his engagements in New York.

Q: What is your definition of reality, and how has that definition changed in recent years?

A: For me, it seems important that when I say reality in the book, reality seems to me to be in quadruple quotation marks. Reality is one of those words that means nothing without quote marks around it. I am not so naive to think that I have unique access to reality. What I am saying is that we live in this unbearable artificial world and simulated world. We are completely mediated by 24/7 media, digital technology and the Web.

We live in a completely artificial culture, compared to how we lived 200 years ago, let alone 20 years ago. Because of the highly artificial world in which we live and because we are human animals, we crave the real.

We want to touch the earth. We want to touch something real. The books I seem to want to write, to read and to teach, at the least, seem to be trying to gesture toward reality even if we can't quite get there. We have an unbelievable hunger for the human and for, quote, the reality. But the human mind being what it is, we can't quite get to the real. 

Q: You write, "The life span of a fact is shrinking." That's a fascinating observation, and I would like you to expand on it. What do you mean by that?

A: Because of the speed and the way in which information changes, every single fact can run through a media filter such that every fact seems terribly, terribly slippery. Without being too nostalgic, there used to be a sense that facts stayed in their place a little sturdier. The world seemed to be built in a sturdier way. Today, every fact is arguable and plastic. It means that everything can be disputed. We live in this very subjective and disputed territory of the real. We don't even seem to be able to agree on what the facts are that we are going to argue about. 

Q: In this day and age, how can we distinguish fact from fiction?

A: The work I seem to love the most probably takes place between the fictional and the factual. I would be very wary of any too-easy, black-and-white distinction between fact and fiction. The things I seem to like is work that acknowledges the uncertainty principle. The works that I find trustworthy and candid are those works that acknowledge their own subjectivity.

Q: One of the most interesting sentences in your book is this one: "Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any." Does that begin to explain the popularity of reality TV and made-for-tabloid news stories that increasingly pass as legitimate, important news?

A: To me, that's maybe the crucial line of the book. That line gets quoted a lot. That's it. I don't know if I can improve on that. That paradox is very moving to me. We experience hardly any reality, and ironically we are obsessed with reality TV, etc., because we are trying to get to the real. But the way culture is built, it seems like this tragic-comical wild goose chase. We will never get to the real. Watching reality TV is preposterous. People want complete drama, but tell themselves they want something real. There is something heartbreaking and tragic about wanting reality fed through a cathode ray tube. 

Q: You observe that painting isn't dead, nor is the novel. But neither is central to our culture anymore. In your opinion, what has taken their place? What is central to our culture these days?

A: Well, I guess in my fantasies, this book would trigger a revitalized literary aspect. What is central to the culture? Well, it's not the novel. It's not the painting. Not even particularly music, it seems to me. It's probably obvious. I'm just very aware that attention deficit disorder is the form that dominates us. YouTube, Twitter, et al. We live through these little manufactured crises of whose wardrobe just malfunctioned. Obviously, TV, film, Twitter and YouTube seem to have the culture's attention right now.

Q: Am I correct in understanding that you have a book about J.D. Salinger coming out?

A: I do. I signed a confidentiality agreement, so I cannot talk about it. A little bit of information has gotten out about it, so I can say that I have spent much of the last five years writing and researching the book. Information about the book should be out extremely shortly. I hope you allow me to zip my tongue a bit until then. 

Q: How has your current book been received?

A: It's gotten an awful lot of discussion. Some people really love the book, and some people are pushing back against it. I would be naive to expect anything else. It's called a manifesto, which are fighting words. I feel like the galleys for this book have been out a long time, and I feel, "Let the fireworks begin." That's my feeling. This book has generated an awful lot of discussion and a lot of heat, and that is all I could possibly ask for. 

Q: How are your talks going? What is the format?

A: I tend to give a 35- or 40-minute talk and then open it up to questions. I am just starting them, and the first few that I have done are in Seattle, where I live. So they have been relatively friendly. I try to engage people when I give a talk. It's not a dry reading. I open it up for discussion, and people push back, and that's what I want. What's the line? "You never learn anything when you are talking?" So I want to hear what people have to say. I encourage people to bring their best arguments. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:


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