A representation of David Shields' Reality Hunger,
a manifesto about remixing, plagiarism, non-fiction,
reality, and the culture of appropriation.

E - reality



These are the facts, my friend, and I must have faith in them.


D'Agata, The Next American Essay

What is a fact? What's a lie, for that matter? What, exactly, constitutes an essay or a story or a poem or even an experience? What happens when we can no longer freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience?


David Shields

During the middle of a gig, Sonny Rollins sometimes used to wander outside and add the sound of his horn to the cacophony of passing cabs.


John Mellencamp (!?)

Have you ever heard a song that makes you feel as good as Ste-vie Wonder's "Fingertips–Part 2"? I haven't. It's so real. When you listen to the song, you can hear a guy in the band yelling, "What key? What key?" He's lost. But then he finds the key, and boom. Every time I hear that guy yelling, "What key?" I get excited.


The Commitments (the movie version); I haven't read the novel.

Soul is the music people understand. Sure, it's basic and it's simple, but it's something else 'cause it's honest. There's no fuckin' bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. It grabs you by the balls.


Hemingway, interviewed by George Plimpton, Paris Review

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.


David Shields

Ichiro Suzuki, the first Japanese position player in the major leagues, has unusually good eyesight and hand-eye coordination and works extremely hard at his craft, but his main gift is that he's present in reality. If he's chasing a fly ball, he doesn't sort of watch the ball; he really, really, really watches the ball. When sportswriters ask him questions, he inevitably empties out the bromide upon which the question is based. Once, after running deep into foul territory to make an extraordinary catch to preserve a victory, he was asked, "When did you know you were going to catch the ball?" Ichiro replied, "When I caught it."


First sentence: Lynn Nottage, quoted in Liesl Schillinger, "The Accidental Design of Rolin Jones's Career," New York Times

Don't waste your time; get to the real thing. Sure, what's "real"? Still, try to get to it.


Jenni, quoted by Steven Shaviro, Stranded in the Jungle–29:

Jennicam first went up in 1996; it went offline several years later. Every two minutes of every hour of every day, an image from a camera in Jenni's apartment was loaded onto the web. In her FAQ, Jenni said, "The cam has been there long enough that now I ignore it. So whatever you're seeing isn't staged or faked. While I don't claim to be the most interesting person in the world, I do think there's something compelling about real life that staging it wouldn't bring to the medium."


Otto Preminger, (apocryphal?) advice to Lee Remick

Act naturally.


Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner

Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction, whereas the truth, as everybody knows, is nearly the direct opposite. Moreover, contrary evidence was all around me, though I chose to ignore it, for in fact the fiction both published and unpublished that moved and pleased me then as now was precisely that which had been made luminous, undeniably authentic by having been found and taken up, always at a cost, from deeper, more shared levels of the life we all really live.


Ross McElwee, interviewed by Cynthia Lucia, Cineaste

People are always asking me when I'm going to make "real movies." These are my real movies. Nothing could be more real than the movies I make.


Dave Eggers, interviewed by Tasha Robinson, Onion; Eggers reminds David Shields that he said this ten years ago in a conversation about semi-autobiographical fiction, and that he no longer subscribes to the sentiment expressed here.

I've always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You're going somewhere, but you're in costume, and you're not really fooling anybody. You're the guy in costume, and everybody's supposed to forget that and go along with you.


"funny": title of Rick Reynolds CD; "pretty": title of Steve Martin album

Only the truth is funny (comedy is not pretty; definition of comedy: pulling Socrates off his pedestal).


Frank O'Hara, quoted in Jim Elledge, Frank O'Hara

Nicholson Baker is a comic personal essayist disguised, sometimes, as a novelist. His work is most appealing when he lavishes more attention upon a subject than it can possibly bear: broken shoelaces, say, in The Mezzanine or an innocuous line of Updike's in U and I. It wouldn't work if, instead of a shoelace, it was the Brooklyn Bridge, or if, instead of Updike, it was Proust: Baker's excessive elaboration wouldn't be funny or interesting. His style feeds upon farcical and foppish topics (e.g., his essay on the history of the comma). Baker is an unapologetic celebrant of gadgets, appliances, contraptions, machines, feats of engineering. His pseudo-scientific lyricism serves him well–seems oddly illuminating–when he's over-analyzing the physics of straws or the opening of Pigeon Feathers. His point appears to be that nothing is beneath interest.


David Shields

Attention equals life or is its only evidence.


Janette Turner Hospital, The Last Magician

Why do you take photographs so constantly, so obsessively? Why do you collect other people's photographs? Why do you scavenge in secondhand shops and buy old albums of other people's pasts?

So that I'll see what I've seen.


Robert Lowell, "Epilogue"

We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.


Robert Towers, review of my novel Dead Languages in New York Review of Books

In the end, I missed the pleasure of a fully imagined work in which the impulse to shape experience seems as strong as the impulse to reveal it.


David Shields

Plot, like erected scaffolding, is torn down, and what stands in its place is the thing itself.


John D'Agata, The Next American Essay

–praise for matter in its simplest state, as fact.


Frederick Barthelme, The Brothers

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. That's what puts you there.


Dogme 95 manifesto

Shooting must be done on location, and props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found); the sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa (music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot); the camera must be handheld; the film must be in color, and special lighting is not acceptable; optical work and filters are forbidden; the film must not contain superficial action (murders, etc., must not occur); temporal and geographical alienation is forbidden (that is to say, the film takes place here and now); genre movies are not acceptable; the director must not be credited.



The most political thing I can do is try to render people's lives, including my own, in a way that makes other people interested, empathetic, questioning, or even antipathetic to what they're seeing–but that somehow engages them to look at life as it's really lived and react to it.


Last line: Nietzsche

Verboten thematic: secular Jews, laureates of the real, tend to be better at analyzing reality than re-creating it: Lauren Slater, Lying; Harold Brodkey, most of the essays; Phillip Lopate's introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay; Vivian Gornick, pretty much everything; Leonard Michaels, nearly everything; Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl; Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André Jonathan Safran Foer, "Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease;" Salinger's later, consciousness-drenched work. And, of course, less recently, Marx, Proust, Freud, Wittgenstein, Einstein.


David Shields

The first Resurrection of Christ is the heart of the backstory for the holiday of Easter and the original deification of Jesus. On the cross, he said that he would rise three days after his death. After he died of crucifixion, disbelieving Pilate and the Romans placed him in a cave and sealed the door with a boulder. On the third day, the boulder moved; Christ emerged and thanked his followers for their devotedness. This is where Doubting Thomas gets his due. The risen Christ has Thomas actually feel the mortal wound (see the painting by Caravaggio). Jesus proves to all disbelievers that he really is the Son of God. He will return on Judgment Day. Up to heaven he goes, and he hasn't been heard from since. The last Christian died on the cross.


David Shields

The writing class met every Wednesday afternoon for the past few years: twenty women, a retired dentist, and my father, in his mid-nineties (he died last year at ninety-eight). Although he was plagued by manic depression for sixty years and received electroshock therapy countless times, in almost every piece he presented himself as a balanced okaynik, Mr. Bonhomie. He always threw a stone at every dog that bit, but in one story he sagely advises his friend, "You can't throw a stone at every dog that bites." His children from his first marriage, from whom he was estranged, didn't attend his ninetieth birthday party, but now they did, bearing gifts. After forty, he was bald, but now his hair was only "nearly gone." My mother, who died at fifty-one, died at sixty. His voice in these stories was that of a successful tough guy: "She was dressed to the nines in flame-red shorts and a low-cut halter that showed her heart was in the right place." My dad, Sam Spade. His Waterloo was failing ever to see or call his childhood sweetheart, Pearl, after he had lost his virginity with a woman he met at a Catskills resort (the woman who became his first wife). In real life, at age sixty-eight, when he was visiting his sister, Fay, in Queens, Fay bumped into Pearl at the Queens Center Mall, got Pearl's number, and suggested that my dad call her. Again, he couldn't bring himself to call–which is a great, sad story. But in the story he wrote, he calls her, they get together, and "Eleanor" tells "Herb": "Please don't be so hard on yourself. It happened. It's all water under the bridge now. You did what you thought was right for you then. I understand. Maybe I didn't then. But it's all over now. That year, Joe and I got married, so I guess it's all worked out for the best, right?" This was, according to my father, the "toughest thing I've ever written–painful. It hurt deep down just to write it, more than fifty-three years after it happened." I wanted it to hurt more. My father and mother divorced shortly before her death thirty years ago, and they had, by common consent, an extremely bad relationship. But it was now a "solid-as-Gibraltar marriage." My father, asking for time off from his boss, tells him, in a story, "I'm faced with a palace revolution, and the three revolutionaries at home are getting ready to depose the king." The king he wasn't. I wanted him to write about forever having to polish the queen's crown according to her ever-changing and exacting specifications. I wanted to ask him, What did that feel like? What was it like inside his skin? What was it like inside that bald, ill dome? No aerial views or easy glibness. Please, Dad, I wanted to say: Only ground level, which at least holds the promise of grit.


David Shields

Daniel Johnston, a manic-depressive singer and songwriter whose early songs were recorded on a sixty-dollar stereo, has a cult following (recipient of praise from Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder), due primarily to the unglamorous, raw, low-quality production of his music, which chronicles his mental illness.


Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny

All the best stories are true.


David Shields

If Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin hadn't been based closely on verbatim transcripts of Palin's performances, it wouldn't have been remotely as funny, and it wouldn't have affected the election; the comedy derived precisely from its scrupulous reframing of the real.


Martin, quoted in Bruce Weber, "An Arrow Out of the Head and into a Shy Heroine's Heart," New York Times

That person over there? He's doing one thing, thinking something else. Life is never false, and acting can be. Any person who comes in here as a customer is not phony, whereas if a guy comes in posing as a customer, there might be something phony about it, and the reason it's phony is that he's really thinking, How am I doing? Do they like me?


Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination

He is to be accepted and forgiven because his faults are the sad, lovable, honorable faults of reality itself.


Adam Gopnik, "Optimist," New Yorker

A didactic white arrow is superimposed on the left-and right-hand panels, pointing almost sardonically at the dying man. (These arrows, Francis Bacon's favorite distancing device, are sometimes explained as merely formal ways of preventing the viewer from reading the image too literally. In reality, they do just the opposite and insist that one treat the image as hyper-exemplary, as though it came from a medical textbook.) The grief in the painting is intensified by the coolness of its layout and the detachment of its gaze. It was Bacon's insight that it is precisely such seeming detachment–the rhetoric of the documentary, the film strip, and the medical textbook–that has provided the elegiac language of the last forty years.


First two sentences: Jonathan Goldstein, performing on This American Life; I could listen to that self-generating/self-demolishing voice of his forever.

Life isn't about saying the right thing; life is about failing. It's about letting the tape play. Bio/autobio: Boswell's Life of Johnson. Jean Stein, Edie. The Education of Henry Adams. Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot. Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception (compare G. Wolff's multivalent, self-contradictory contemplation of his childhood with T. Wolff's na–vely straightforward account of somewhat the same childhood: in This Boy's Life, dialogue is recalled verbatim from thirty years earlier–ironic, since the book is about a pathological liar).


David Shields

After his family and psychiatrist sued for defamation, claiming that much of his depiction of them in his memoir Running with Scissors was invented or exaggerated, Augusten Burroughs agreed not to refer to the book as a memoir in his author's note. It would simply be a "book," identified as neither fiction nor nonfiction. Burroughs's older brother, John Elder Robison, wrote a memoir, Look Me in the Eye, in which their father is portrayed as a very different kind of person.


David Shields

I want books to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir). In Search of Lost Time, Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Slater's Lying foreground these issues by emphasizing the flawed processes of recollection of their narrators.



The world is everything that is the case.


Walk the Line

If you were hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song, one song people would remember before you're dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, you telling me that's the song you'd sing? That same Jimmie Davis tune we hear on the radio all day? About your peace within and how it's real and how you're gonna shout it? Or would you sing something different? Something real, something you felt? Because I'm telling you right now: that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believing in yourself.


David Shields

Reality-based art is a metaphor for the fact that this is all there is, there ain't no more.