David Shield’s Reality Hunger has been making the rounds of blogs, reviews and radio interviews lately, but everything I’ve come across just makes the book sound one long bore. This is in part because I like stories and fiction and find articles or books that claim story is over premature, if not unfounded (as are most screeds about the coming collapse or death about any subject). Zane’s commentary is apt and squares with other criticisms I’ve heard.
If Shields took his critique of memory and his hunger for reality seriously, his book would make an argument not for the memoir – whose inherent subjectivity makes it unreliable – but for reportage or history. Just as the stock market assigns the value of stocks through the wisdom of crowds, the reality of any experience is best approximated by collecting and sifting through multiple versions of events. It is often collective memory that replaces confusion with clarity, establishing the facts on the ground.
“Reality Hunger” would be easy to dismiss if its wrongheaded ideas weren’t resonating in the culture. Its assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s. It also highlights a growing contradiction in liberal thought. Generally speaking (liberalism is not groupthink) even as some liberals extol the importance of community and government action, others, like Shields, are promulgating ideas that loosen our bonds to one another. When all truth is personal truth, when there no facts, only art, conversation and true understanding becomes increasingly unrealistic.