David Shields is half-sick of shadows. Like the Lady of Shalott he no longer wants fiction’s embroidery but real life, or so he writes in Reality Hunger: A manifesto (2010). In response to his call to arms, Zadie Smith in “On the Rise of the Essay” says she, too, is “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings,” and is drawn to literature as “a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.” She, too, likes “novels that don’t look like novels.” As though to prove her point her latest release, NW, tries not to look like a novel, (though is a novel nevertheless), and after reading it, I pondered both books in unison – attempting to untangle my thoughts about the aims and constraints of fiction.
On publication Reality Hunger was greeted with both plaudits and groans (for an articulate, nuanced response read Bob Shacochis’s essay “What Everybody in the Room Knows“), and I concur with Smith that it’s “thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it.” Shields’s manifesto contains 617 bullet points articulating various historical, current, and radical views on the nature of fiction, ‘truthiness,’ and the lyric essay. It is a deliberately hodgepodge provocation designed to trigger heated debate. The majority of the points were made by other writers, and of those authored by Shields, some are very silly indeed (my comments in brackets):
107: “What I want to do is take the banality of non-fiction (if you find non-fiction banal, David, you’re reading the wrong non-fiction) and make it a staging area for investigation (ahem, I think a lot of writers have already been there done that)… and the lyric essay is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity…because its theater is the world, the mind contemplating the world….” (Can’t argue with that, though the term ‘lyric essay’ feels fancy-schmancy. However if a novel is not the mind contemplating the world, then what the heck is it?)
133: “I’ve always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit….” (Just because one has a hard time doing something, doesn’t mean everyone else should stop doing it.)
142: “There isn’t any story. It’s not the story. It’s just this breathtaking world – that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff…” (A single moment bearing witness to the world – with the exception of an absolutely extraordinary image or a breathtaking voice hitting one perfect note – won’t make you feel stuff. One moment compared or contrasted with another to produce allusion or metaphor, or one following another in a cleverly constructed order may, however, make you feel stuff. Humanity can’t live without stories – it is how we endure the incomprehensible. Outwith stories madness lies.)
310 “The success of (reality TV) reflects our lust for emotional meaning. We have a thirst for reality, other people’s reality….” (Reality TV reflects our lust for story, drama and shadenfreude. We watch it not just to see what happens, but to see what happens next. And do we really believe reality TV is real? More real than Tolstoy, than Nabokov, than Ballard? Given he argues that it is acceptable for non-fiction to be fabricated, how can it be any more real than fiction?)
321: “Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No it doesn’t.” (True, it doesn’t, and the best stories and novels don’t imply that it does.)
322: “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting. I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of progress.” (How terribly sad. Would he do the same with a great symphony?)
370: “If fiction has a main theme… it is time itself. One basic meaning of narrative: to create time where there was none. A fiction writer who tells stories is a maker of time (therefore) time must die.” (Jings. In fiction, non-fiction, journalism, poetry, film, in almost every art form, in life itself, time is ALL there is. If you are in the business of editing images, words, or light, then you’re in the business of time. I suspect what he actually means is that the standard chronological narrative must die, that writers must manipulate time in more revolutionary ways. I assume he has read Hazzard, Sebold, Spark etc, but has conveniently forgotten.)
523: “I come… to disparage fiction, which has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself. I’m drawn instead to ‘confession’ because I like the way the temperature of the room goes up when I say, ‘I did this,’ (even if I really didn’t).” (Well, if he really didn’t, then it’s fiction. Like a teenager threatening suicide in order to get what she wants, this reeks of adolescent narcissism, and implies Shields prefers writers to say ‘look at me’ rather than ‘look at this’ and I don’t think, deep down, that’s what he wants or means at all.)
On the other hand… (like Shields, I will have my cake and eat it too)…Reality Hunger must be affecting how I think about my work, because it’s been scuttling around my desk for at least six months and whenever I consider shelving it, I leave it be. Furthermore, I found myself nodding in enthusiastic agreement to such statements as (163) “Memory: the past rewritten in the direction of feeling…”, and (181) “The essay consists of double translation: memory translates experience; essay translates memory,” and (104) “I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you’re as obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination,” and (126) “the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit detector.” When I scrambled for my notebook to jot down such profundities, however, it transpired these were uttered by someone other than Shields (in order, Mark Doty, Bonnie Rough, Susan Cheever, and Ernest Hemingway). And although I’m grateful he looted the world’s best minds for inspiration and I share his appreciation of the well-wrought mosaic, his casual condonation of plagiarism gives me hives.
So back I go to Zadie Smith’s essay because she captures best the flighty nature of Reality Hunger. With apologies to my non-fiction peers, I agree with her that writing a good essay is easier than writing a good novel, and perhaps Shields wishes the novel would bugger off because it’s simply too damn hard to do well! She notes that while detesting fiction’s flights of fancy Shields, paradoxically, yearns for non-fiction to be more imaginative. Smith doesn’t attempt to feed his hunger for ‘reality’ in NW, but she does give conventional fiction a good kick up the arse.
Smith’s first novel since her excellent On Beauty (2005), NW is foremost a meditation on the effect of geography, racial heritage, and class on personal identity. Two women bound by close friendship and circumstance grow up in a council estate in the north-west of London – the NW of the title. Leah Hanwell is Anglo-Irish. Red-haired and freckle-faced, well-intentioned if bland, she marries Michel, a French African, whom she loves but fails to honor with honesty over the thorny issue of children. Her friend Natalie (formerly Keisha) Blake, an Anglo-West-Indian, escapes the narrow stereotypes of class and race to become a smart but conflicted lawyer, burdened with guilt for stepping up the economic ladder and wary of being perceived as the beneficiary of political correctness. She marries an Afro-Italian, has two children, then conducts a double life so bizarre and unbelievable it jeopardizes not only her family and career but the entire novel. Still, what intrigued me was not the effectiveness or otherwise of its storyline and characterizations – and for a deeply considered, non-slap-dash review that unpacks NW and its Joycean roots, read Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Review of Books – but how Smith constructed it.
Present tense and past tense, monologues, first person, second person, third person, and omniscient narrations, stream of consciousness, dialogue and argument, rhetoric, billboards, declamations and word associations, sometimes punctuation sometimes not, map directions, white space, concrete and prose poetry: Smith opened the writer’s toolbox and used every last damn nut and bolt. It is a fictional narrative (sorry, David) but its descriptions snap with biographical authenticity (NW is Smith’s stamping-ground) and though she doesn’t slaughter time, she does chop it up and rearrange it. The architecture above sentence level supports three sections: the first contains numbered chapters, the second a bullet-point list (hat-tip, David) of 184 expositions or scenes, and the last, a more ‘conventional’ narrative.
For the reader who is a writer NW is catnip: oh, look what she’s doing here! (Would a reader who is not a writer be quite so enamored? That’s a can of worms for another day…) Her ballsy, exhilarating approach allows content to dictate form (and by form I mean the voice and style of prose) each step of the way – and surely that’s the critical hurdle of the writer’s art, regardless if they are writing fiction or non-fiction? How can I best serve the material? What brings me closer to truth? When we need to hear Leah’s husband’s point of view, Smith lets him speak in an extended monologue. If Leah daydreams in the sunshine, her wandering thoughts become concrete poetry. The mock-serious jibes Leah endures from her workmates are the disembodied dialogue of a chorus. Nevertheless, every time as readers we begin a new section or bullet point, we must reposition ourselves in relation to the text, discover anew who is speaking here? Where are we in terms of place and time? Such frequent re-calibrations can change a reader’s relationship to a text from emotional ‘participant’ to ‘spectator’ – the role I think Shields prefers – because story tends to become subservient to style and voice as the reader waits to see if the writer can pull it off. Those familiar with postmodernism will not find NW radical, and Smith’s primary inspiration is Joyce, not contemporary practitioners. What makes NW ‘newsworthy’ is that a writer of Smith’s visibility should take such risks, which may explain the diverse breadth of critical responses it has received. I’m perpetually in awe at the size and scope of Smith’s talent, but for me NW resembles a series of more or less successfully executed workshop exercises (‘write a dialogue using phone-text’), and the price Smith pays for her intermittently triumphant marriage of content and form, is overall cohesion.
Turning full circle: my schizophrenic difficulty with Reality Hunger stemmed from the fact that I could never quite work out why Shields’s underpants were in such a twist. What does Shields want? One minute he didn’t like narrative, then he did. He demanded facts, but worshipped imagination. He yearned for a documentary frame around prose but couldn’t care less if the contents were true. He wanted absolute clarity about stuff, but didn’t mind if the stuff was made up. I think now I understand. His obsessive poking at the hot button issue of ‘real’ versus ‘not real,’ of ‘truth’ versus ‘truthiness’ was only so much sound and fury over nothing – (I think everyone knows that fiction and non-fiction are both effective at revealing the ‘reality’ of the human condition) – the actual issue is what Smith has called, accurately, “the transcendent importance of form.” Shield yearns (I think, but heck, I could be wrong) for a radical shift in the way that novels are constructed: that is that the content should marry the form, and that the content should evince the researched density felt in the personal essay. My dear David, why didn’t you just say so?
“Perfect essays abound in this world – almost every one of Joan Didion’s fits the category,” wrote Smith, but “perfect novels, as we all know, are rarer than Halley’s comet.” So I trust she will forgive me for saying that though NW is good, it’s too self-consciously ‘craft-y’ to be perfect. Regardless of its imperfections, it’s legacy may be its wholehearted attempt to advance literary form. Shields may be able to talk the talk, but Smith (gutsy if a little clunky) walks the walks.