A Book of Mashups. But Is It Literature?

"David Shields thinks of 'reality hunger' not as a sickness but as the defining spirit of our age, with its yearning for the music of what happens. His book is a spirited polemic on behalf of non-fiction—a manifesto in 618 soundbites."

Does it matter who wrote that? David Shields thinks not. (I'm less sure, so let's reveal that I took it from Blake Morrison's review in The Guardian.) Shields's kaleidoscopic treatise, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is composed almost entirely of numbered, unidentified fragments of other people's work—a sentence from Yeats, a paragraph from an Elvis Mitchell movie review. He amends T. S. Eliot, channels his 6-year-old daughter, mashes Picasso and Virginia Woolf together: "Art is real. I make it real by putting it into words." Divided into 26 chapters built around themes such as "doubt" and "reality TV," the quotes, when read together, dizzily embody his argument that literature should be appropriated, adapted, and remixed to create new meaning, like art and music. "I'm trying to recover the freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs have enjoyed, but which we, as victims of a very litigious society, have sacrificed over the past 30 years," he says.

Shields, a former novelist, came to see genre as stifling, and he found that his favorite books—Camus's The Falland Renata Adler's Speedboat among them—belonged to none. The reality he hungers for is the embrace of life's uncertainty, and he sees no better way to make his point than by leaving unclear who said what. His publisher's lawyers had other ideas. Despite his strenuous objections, they forced him to include footnotes. But Shields fights back, urging readers to "grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or a box cutter" and excise the entire footnote section. Even within some of the citations, he thumbs his nose; one reads, "I'm pretty sure these lines, or something close to these lines, were spoken by Terry Gilliam in an interview, but I can't for the life of me find them."

I have to admit to a giddy pleasure in letting the passages of Reality Hunger wash over me—was that Nietzsche? Woody Allen? Shields himself?—without regard for their origin. But curiosity won out, and I spent the bulk of the book flipping between text and footnotes, which produced a different, but more enriching, experience. Discovering that, say, entry 501 ("Every man has within himself the entire human condition") came from Montaigne and 502 ("Deep down, you know you're him") from an ad for Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasmmakes the meaning more—not less—potent for its resilience. Remixing is a powerful tool, but in an era of rampant intellectual dishonesty, it's weakened by Shields's disdain for citation. Shields would argue that citation may belong in journalism and scholarship, but it has no place in art. Still, if he is ravaging articles and journals to create his brave new genre, it seems reasonable to expect credit graciously given where it's due. Then again, maybe he's simply ahead of the rest of us, mapping out the literary future of the next generation. When 17-year-old German wunderkind Helene Hegemann was accused last month of plagiarizing parts of her acclaimed debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, she told a Berlin newspaper that she didn't consider it theft because she was using the text in a new way. "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity," she said. Shields couldn't have lifted a better line himself.