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Originally published Saturday, February 27, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Book review

'Reality Hunger': David Shields' manifesto for ceaseless change in literature

A review of David Shields' new book, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto," which examines accepted forms of literature — memoir and fiction; biography and literary nonfiction; poetry and photo captions — and argues that when it comes to reading and writing, the only constant is change. Shields discusses his book Monday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Tuesday at Seattle's Richard Hugo House.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David Shields

The author of "Reality Hunger" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or He will appear at 8 p.m. Tuesday with several other writers as part of the Castalia Reading Series at Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; free (206-322-7030 or


'Reality Hunger: A Manifesto'

by David Shields

Knopf, 209 pp., $23.95

As I work my way through a review book, I often stop and picture the sort of people who will fall in love with it. By the end I've assembled a roomful of imaginary party guests. Sometimes it's festive; other times I just want them the hell out of my living room.

The folks conjured up by the writings of Seattle author David Shields are always a smart bunch — funny, tolerably neurotic, well-read. We all like sports, love language and are traditionalists who nonetheless enjoy journalism and other nonfiction that reveal the writer's opinions. I've assumed this crowd to be middle-aged, like me.

When I finished his new book, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto," the group defied easy literary profiling: That young rapper in deep conversation with an old guy whose life was revolutionized by Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. A gaggle of elbow-patched Proustniks trading insights with novelists who are grafting paragraphs together on their iPhones.

I figure they share Shields' fascinations: the evolution of literary genre; curiosity (or skepticism) about the canon that sets down boundaries between memoir and fiction; biography and literary nonfiction; poetry and photo captions. This book doesn't call for reshaping writing conventions; it insists that they've always been protean.

"Reality Hunger" is an indulgent exercise, more about the author's evolution as a thinker, reader and writer than it is about pleasing his fans. (And with nine strong books and countless articles into his career, Shields has plenty of fans.) The phrase "paradigm shift" is one that induces my gag reflex, but that's what he's up to here. And, dear readers, shift happens.

The book is divided into 617 sections — perhaps "measures" or "stanzas" are better terms. The shortest is just a sentence; one of the longest runs to 600 words. He groups them under lowercase chapter headings such as "reality tv" and "in praise of brevity."

The arc starts with "Writing began around 3200 b.c.," passes through "The origin of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality" and ends around "To loot someone else's life or sentences and make off with a point of view ... is exciting and dangerous."

Most of the quotes were written or spoken by others, but all are presented in the same unattributed form. (Some lawyers in the woodpile at Knopf forced Shields to include an index of sources, but he hopes readers will cut those pages out.)

The author questions and rejects much of the conventional rules on sourcing, attribution, plagiarism. He makes his readers do the same. He exhumes Plutarch, who apparently liked to paraphrase when "quoting" those Spartan women. He gathers string on James Frey and his wild Is-it-a-novel-or-not? mess over "A Million Little Pieces." A few years ago no one wondered where memoir gave way to fiction, now readers and writers alike sit around and argue about it. Shields made me defend/upend my views as I read along through his stanzas. That sort of engagement is energizing; I looked forward to picking up "Reality Hunger" over the few days I took to read it.

Shields also has a gift for acknowledging the value of tradition and tracing changes — such as the rise of Internet content — without playing a tiresome dirge for the good ol' days. "User content is the new folk art," writes Shields. (Or maybe someone else said it first.) "If an 18-year-old girl in Delaware can't be in a Hollywood movie, she takes pictures of herself dressed how she imagines a movie star would dress and posts them on her MySpace page ... Everyone knows there is nothing original going on, but somehow the whole thing becomes original in its dizzying amateurness."

"Reality Hunger" will resonate with some readers, as it did for me. It will alienate those who think there's nothing to debate regarding genre boundaries ... or who wanted Shields to produce another of his more conventional narratives. The thoughtful, willful and curious will read and re-read it, turn over the rocks in their own yards and scrape away at the ways they evaluate originality and authorship. Shields throws a good party.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett lives, writes and blogs in Portland (

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