I fall into the latter group. There is something about Tim Ferriss I can’t stand: he’s smarmy and arrogant in his approach. He promotes dubious “hacks” over doing authentic work.
So I got caught up in a conversation about Tim Ferriss with my friend and fellow blogger Jason Braun, who digs Ferriss’ work. (Readers may remember Jason from his post “Naked as a caveman, except for the tools.”) Jason recently lent me his copy of Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup, and that book got us talking about promotion and authenticity.
Handing back Jason’s copy The $100 Startup, I said I buy into Guillebeau’s approach more than Tim Ferris’s because Guillebeau ties it back to ethics and legacy. Then I said this: “Ferriss’ bullshit in last month’s Wired about becoming a superhuman through grey market drugs bothers the fuck out of me. It’s gimmicky, dishonest, and goes against the point of eastern philosophy and his idea of simplicity. I’m starting to realize that he’s a shill, and I’m tired of shills. Instead of taking random pills to wait and see what happens, he should have sat down for an hour to do some real work.”
Fast-forward to later that day, Jason wrote me on Facebook:
Jason: Picking up from our conversation about Tim Ferris before: I mean aren’t you at least a little impressed with the obsession that drove him to do drugs not for getting high and acting stupid, but to become part cyborg and greater than he was before? I mean, he was looking for the philosopher’s stone!
Kevin: My deal with Tim Ferriss isn’t all of his content, but his approach. He is very successful at what he does, I’ll give him that. But a lot of what he writes about is found in other books. In terms of his mix of Eastern and Zen philosophy and seeking fulfillment in work, I’ve read this before. You should check out Leo Babauta, for example. His whole idea is minimalism and breaking life down to the essential for self-fulfillment…so similar to Ferriss, but I guess I just like Babauta’s more subtle approach it’s more authentic–he’s like Yoda instead of the Death Star.
Jason: Just don’t hate me when I’m famous, Death Star or no. The easiest way might be the best way, and that’s what Ferriss does. I’d argue there’s no such thing as authenticity, and not every blog post or book needs to be a manifesto.
Kevin: I guess, but I think there’s something to ethics, legitimacy, and authenticity, however you define it. If everyone did what Ferriss did we’d all be loud asshats blowing things up instead of working together.
So readers, what do you think? Check out some of Ferriss’ work if you’re not familiar. Is he a 4-hour-genius, or another self-absorbed flash in the pan?
Oh, and Jason and I are still working this idea out. We’ll be back with more of our conversation soon.
Last week, I started a weekly “friday reads” roundup of my favorite articles discovered online. I quite like this feature, so for now, it’s here to stay!
There were several engaging articles this week from the online literary publication Full Stop, but the one that stood out to me most this week was Robert Fay’s“T. S. Eliot: Employee of the Month.” Fay’s main thesis in this article is that many successful writers work day jobs and yet are able to sustain a high level of artistry. The example he uses to make this point is T. S. Eliot who, while writing The Waste Land and many of his best poems, worked a 9 – 5 job at Lloyd’s bank.
If Mr. Eliot had to have a day job, why is it that writers and poets today are so cagey about what they do to pay the bills? We all know that book reviews and smart literary novels do not put one on the road to financial independence. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of letters has so much been written, by so many, for so little compensation. And while nobody except maybe Jonathan Franzen and Bill O’Reilly (no political or emotive relationship is implied by this coupling) are making a bundle from book sales, why does it always hurt when you discover that a promising novelist is also the associate editor for Grillin’ Times USA, the official trade publication for the American Outdoor Grilling Manufacturers Association?
This article continues to press this issue, and even compares writers with “real world jobs” to rock stars who get married: if it doesn’t fit the image, it’s not worth promoting. It’s a matter of authenticity or legitimacy — or maybe insecurity — among “working” writers.
The arrival of the Tablet in many ways echoes the invention of the paperback. Most ebooks are cheaper than their physical counterparts, and their ephemeral nature lends itself readily to pulp genres and mass market fiction. As a moderately unsuccessful writer I’ve found that ebook sales now make up around 80% of my book sales. While many readers are unwilling to pay $15 or more for a book by an unknown author, they’re prepared to hand over $2.99 for the ebook. I’d love it if everyone bought my physical book and cherished it, sharing it with friends and discussing it at parties, curling up with it at night in the intimacy of their bedroom. But I’ll settle for an ebook sale and a new reader.
I also shared several articles on Twitter throughout the week. Here are my top favorites:
I’d love to hear from you about your own Friday Reads. What articles have you filled up you Kindles and tablets with this week? Follow me on Twitter to share your own favorite longform reading for the week.
The “self-help” book has changed how we think, and many readers are OK with that. Here are some of my thoughts on why.
Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of popular non-fiction books, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend: many of these books incorporate some level of self-help writing. It doesn’t matter if the book is about neuroscience or running — they all seem to add in some type of life-affirming advice, a classic howto, or an inspirational (yet reductive) conclusion about the topic discussed.
Ever since I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s well-researched Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, I have been wary of the self-help and positive thinking movement. Ehrenreich’s book shows how the current positive thinking movement comes from an American history split between two ways of thinking, one being a Calvinist, “pull-up-your-bootstraps” practicality and the other a naive belief that if you think it up, you can do it. The most successful people, we believe, are able to do both of these things well, and they don’t give up in the process.
I am cynical about this way of thinking, especially after reading Ehrenreich’s expose of the positive thinking movement. There are a lot of gurus and experts out there trying to get me to spend money on things that may or may not help me perform better, get more productive, or succeed in life. There is always a danger that I’ll spend my time and money on these things and delay the work I could do on my own without experts guiding me.
Yet I still find myself drawn to these popular non-fiction titles. I read them because they confirm things I know about myself, or they help me see things I wouldn’t have seen on my own. It’s human nature to want someone in an authority position to confirm something we already know about ourselves. Sometimes, we need to feel like we’ve been given “permission” to move forward. That’s not always a bad thing.
You can be an introvert, too
For example, I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. In this book, Cain dives into the cultural and scientific reasons why some people are introverted and concludes that we undervalue introverts by honoring extroverts, and yet introverts are the ones changing the world. She begins her book with some convincing sociological studies that show an “introvert” is someone who gets energy from being alone, and in a society that honors outward appearances, many introverts get left behind.
I’m an introvert, so I found myself agreeing with almost everything she said throughout the book. But as I read through each chapter, the underlying theme became “yes you, the introvert, can be successful too!” And that’s when I started to realize something: this reads a lot like a self-help book. It might have scientific studies to back up the ideas, but it ends by giving advice to introverts who feel left out in today’s extroverted world.
After I read Cain’s book, it seemed like everyone I who had read it was suddenly an introvert. It was as if people who read the book were associating “I’m an introvert” with “I’m insecure about some part of myself” — two completely different things. Yet Cain seems to do this herself in the book: she sometimes uses “shy” and “by myself” to mean the same as introverted (whether intentionally or not). Here’s an example from one of the most highlighted passages in the book, according to kindle.amazon.com:
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.
This passage does a couple of interesting things: first, it confirms a belief that success comes from independence, not from groupthink (as in the “pull-up-your-bootstraps” ideal); second, it assures the reader that they’re OK (“most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” Cain writes, and therefore like you, the reader — the introvert).
Cain’s book is a great example of what I’m talking about because it was marketed as a psychology book. I started reading it because I thought it’d have some scientific studies to support the idea that introversion is a real thing. I got hooked and read to the end because Cain both confirmed and reassured me that I, the introvert, can be awesome too.
So where does all of this bring us? I guess I should go back to my original questions: have self-help books affected our view of success, and more importantly, have they affected the way we read? In general, are they changing the way we think?
The “tipping point”: Self-help is here to stay
This move toward self-help could be an effect of internet culture. Notice that these books have taken off in the past ten years, and writers like Malcolm Gladwell have pioneered the author-as-marketing-and-self-help-guru approach to non-fiction. Or, it could be a result of our changing economy: if you’re not portraying yourself as happy, successful, and productive, you won’t get noticed (or so we’re told), and as a result, you’ll be left behind.
In order to be successful, we are advised to give off the appearance of success. For example, writers are told to have a “platform” — a website, a social media strategy, a newsletter — in addition to churning out a series of bestselling novels. But in order to have the bestselling novel, it helps to write a lot, and that can only be done alone, away from the spotlight. (And writing is usually a gruelling process full of self-doubt, confusion, and depression, not to mention it’s incredibly anti-social.)
This model of the non-fiction book that is really a self-help book seems like it’s here to stay because it is incredibly successful. Even readers like me, who tend to be cynical and guarded — I went to journalism school, so I was taught the old mantra that “if your mother says she loves you, factcheck it” — find solace and comfort in a book that uplifts and confirms.
What I hope is that this approach to non-fiction won’t lead to intellectual laziness, sloppy writing, or reductive thinking. We already saw this happen to Jonah Lehrer, the young non-fiction writer and speaker who was caught self-plagiarizing and making up quotes.
I also hope it doesn’t lead to a group of 20- and 30-somethings who are too busy reading books and articles about how-to-be-that or the-science-of-this that they stop creating things that lead to the next revolution. That type of future is scarier to me than a future filled with padded non-fiction bestsellers.
In “The Culture of the Copy,” James Panero explores the idea that ideas, literature, and technological advances propagate as a result of innovators copying the ideas from the past until they replace the thing they copied. For example,
One way to situate the Internet is to see it as inaugurating the next stage of copy culture—the way we duplicate, spread, and store information—and to compare it to the print era we are leaving behind. New technologies in their early development often mimic the obsolete systems they are replacing, and the Internet has been no different. Terms like “ebook” and “online publishing” offer up approximations of print technology while revealing little of the new technology’s intrinsic nature.
While this solves problems, it also creates new ones:
With each new stage of copy culture, the ease of duplication is countered by the increasingly complex technology required to produce and use the copies it creates. Just as Twain wrote that the bad of the printing press was “overshadowed a thousand times by the good,” the Internet age presents its own problems even as it solves countless others.
This is a thoroughly researched and excellent article if you are interested in the history and future of print culture.
Jane Friedman also explores the future of publishing in her essay “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and the Future of Fiction.” Analyzing a new movement she terms “commodity publishing” — those writers who produce self-published e-books quickly and frequently in order to maximize sales, despite quality — Friedman breaks down what might be the consequences of this new approach to publishing:
If commodity publishing is here to stay, I can only see its future in the realm of genre fiction, because this is the area where I see sufficient reader demand to drive the kind of volume that leads to a living wage. It’s also the only area where I see authors without qualms about quality, or without any hesitation to produce as much material as possible, with the only limitation the amount of time you can keep your butt in the chair writing.
Most literary authors and nonfiction writers I know are not able to pursue this model. They either cannot produce—or would not want to produce—multiple volumes in a few years’ time.
Friedman poses the question: what will this do to the future of literary fiction or creative non-fiction, which requires more time, development, and patience to create. Will self-publishing authors ever find both commercial and critical success without the backing of a traditional publisher?
Both of these articles are important to read as we consider the future of publishing and the changes to how we read.
Throughout the week, I also collected articles on Twitter about publishing, book culture, and writing. Here were some of my Favorites:
Today’s guest post comes from Jason Braun, a poet, mixed media artist, and musician from the St. Louis, MO area. Check out Jason’s web site at jasonandthebeast.com.
The October issue of Wired Magazine is “The Design Issue,” and it is fruitful to think of this particular issue and theme as being the right time and place for a full-page advertisement for the nuud, a case for the iPad designed by LifeProof. The iPad is produced by Apple, which is a company obsessed with design. Wired’s target market is a white, male, Apple-buying collection of “hackers.”
This target market positions itself in contrast or even at war with the PC users. Apple and PC (or IBM-based personal computers) have been battling for the mind space of business and consumers since the Ridley Scott-directed dystopian commercial, which aired in 1984, that depicted IBM in terms of a Big Brother-like all-seeing despot out of George Orwell’s novel, 1984. This same idea of breaking out of the oppressive forces of society has been picked up by the companies who are making accessories for Apple products. It is no longer a blonde woman running to throw a hammer at the screen that sees all – now man runs naked among women at an adventure race.
The out of shape, naked hero here is like that runner in the dystopian vision, though, because he too is not a number. “We are one people with one will and one resolve…we shall prevail,” says the Big Brother in that 1984 commercial. Whereas in the LifeProof ad, only our hero is without a number, all the others have clothing and racing entry numbers. The fact that all the other runners are women legitimizes the naked hero’s body as masculine, in spite of his round form and its androgyny.
The other runners believe that they will prevail, just as IBM thought they would, because they had been doing the status quo, showing up on time, and following the rules–the naked hero believes in making his own route to victory by using codes, cheats, shortcuts, and loopholes in any given system. This is what “hacking” is all about. It is possible that he might win the race, just because of the spectacle he is making of himself.
Our hero might have read the fine print in the rules of the Mud-Athon and found a loophole stating if a runner arrives late, they may still compete in the race if they remove all of their clothing. This would encourage most runners to show up on time. Or more likely our naked hero did not officially enter the race and is doing this on a dare or merely to test himself after sitting too long in a cubicle.
This advertisement epitomizes hacker philosophy. Hackers do things because they want to see if they can do them. Hackers do things to prove a point. Hackers do things because they like to break the rules. For the hacker, the official trophy handed out at the end is less valuable than handcuffs or a pat on the back from friends at the next indie rock show or even getting props online under an alias or screen name. The philosophy of the hacker is one that always looks for the easiest way to win. The hacker read the rules to find the loopholes. The hacker is always asking, how can this be done faster? While this type of thinking smacks of too good to be true, we should remember that once messages took says to cross the country on the Pony Express, now they are nearly instantaneous in email.
While our naked hero is a hacker and lover of technology, he is not one to be burdened by it. He is not going to be owned by his possession. This is a reaction to the book and film Fight Club when its hero says, “The things we own, end up owning us.” Around the office, he has seen his friends sporting the newest gadgets and gawking and fetishizing them in an un-manly way. This won’t do for our hero.
He may have a new Subaru WRX parked outside his house, but he is not cooing over its paint job. He enjoys it for its turbo and all wheel drive and its attention to design. He looks for function and design that makes his life easier, to allow him to get his work done more quickly than the rest of his peers. This time that he has freed up from the bosses hands will be used in his various pursuits: parasitic entrepreneurialism in creating his own app designing business using the time and resources of his employer unknowingly, hurling, retrofitting old Mercedes to run on biofuel, and volunteering at the local science center to work off some community service hours ordered for a drunken disorderly conduct charge.
Fight Club told men, “You are not your khakis,” and this is clearly true for our naked hero. He is limiting his possession to the tools and technology that will improve his life: eye glasses, a digital watch, and presumable shoes and the iPad. This iPad that many people fuss over, and hold as if it were something from a museum is covered in a simple case that provided protection yet “leaves your screen naked, for unobstructed resolution and touch no matter where you choose to take it.”
Our hero might still be out there in the forest. It’s getting cold. He’s watching a youtube video on starting a fire. He’s hunting for a flint and a dry patch of twigs.
After reading the tech buzz surrounding this new Kindle (which doesn’t come out until October, so hasn’t yet been reviewed), I wanted one bad. It has all the elements of an amazing e-Reader: functional touchscreen, responsive page-turns, crisp text, a front-lit display that is not as sharp on the eyes as an LCD screen, and the best contrast for any e-ink screen on the market. Also, the price is right: it’s only $119. Sure, it’s not the cheapest Kindle, but it’s still affordable.
I was ready to pre-order and sell or give away my current Kindle, the Kindle Keyboard (or Kindle 3 as it was called when it was released). I ordered this Kindle when it came out in Fall 2010. Before this, I had owned the Kindle 2, and while I liked this Kindle, its screen did not have the pixel density and sharpness of the Kindle 3. It was also heavy and wasn’t receiving the same software updates as the Kindle 3, so I sold it on eBay and used the money to buy the new Kindle.
Immediately, I was impressed with my new Kindle’s beautiful screen. It was so sharp that when I opened it for the first time, I thought the start screen was a protective sticker, and I tried to peel it off before realizing it was the e-ink screen. At first glance, I didn’t see pixelation around the text; it looked like a printed page. As I began using it, I would notice some pixelation, but overall, reading on this Kindle was as close to reading on paper as I’d ever come. It was lighter, too, and easier for me to forget I was reading on a device. The pages turned quickly, and I was happy with my choice to upgrade. The Kindle Keyboard outperformed my expectations and made up for the shortcomings and annoyances I had developed with the Kindle 2.
I haven’t upgraded to any of the current e-ink Kindles because they just aren’t as useful or beautiful as my Kindle Keyboard. Yes, 2011 brought the Kindle Touch, a multi-touch Kindle with a faster page-turn rate and a lighter/smaller form factor. But from my tests with this Kindle, it didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve grown to love typing on my Kindle Keyboard, and since I love to take notes while reading, a keyboard seems like an important feature. The multi-touch keyboard isn’t as responsive as a multi-touch keyboard on a smartphone or tablet. This was a deal-breaker for me. I decided to hold on to my old Kindle, even though it was already a generation behind.
I also found the Kindle Keyboard’s screen to provide a much better reading experience. Initial reviews of the Kindle Touch suggested that because an extra layer was added to the screen for touch functionality, the text lost some sharpness. Text looked greyer than on the Kindle Keyboard and the standard $79 Kindle, according to these reports (which, by the way, was ruled out by me because it did not provide an easy way to type notes). Although this has been fixed with software updates, I grew to like the way the Kindle Keyboard felt in my hands and didn’t see the need to upgrade. I appreciated its simplicity and ease of use, and the battery life was still sufficient enough for my needs.
So I kept the Kindle Keyboard, waiting for an upgrade that mattered to me. The core functionality I sought out was screen contrast and resolution (the higher the better), usable touch that doesn’t compromise on readability, and a decent, built-in light. Also, high battery life, light and thin form factor, and decent software to handle reading a variety of publications, not just books.
It seems the Kindle Paperwhite is that device. I want to upgrade, but I keep going back to how much I love my Kindle Keyboard. Amazon still supports the Kindle Keyboard; in fact, it just updated the software, bringing even better screen resolution and updates to the new Kindle book formats.
Now that I’m considering an upgrade, I have to decide: is losing a great keyboard on a device that I’ve learned to love — and that, by the way, still gets software updates — worth gaining some incremental perks, such as touch capability and a well-designed front-light? Some days, I think gaining these new functions makes the upgrade worth it, but then I sit down and read a particularly engaging section of a book on my Kindle Keyboard and fall in love with the device all over again. It seems trite, but it’s true: I love my Kindle Keyboard because it provides the best reading experience.
Ultimately, what’s most important is the act of reading itself. Maybe it doesn’t matter which device I use. If the book is good enough, I’ll fall into it in the same way.
True, but I haven’t had this experience reading on my smartphone or Kindle Fire (which I don’t plan to upgrade, even though the new Fires look pretty cool). LCD screens don’t allow me to “fall in” to books because I’m distracted by apps and notifications. Reading on my Kindle 2, an e-ink Kindle, always felt artificial, although it was an OK experience while reading outdoors. I’ve tried Nooks and Sony readers and have felt the same way: something I can’t name is missing.
For now, the Kindle Keyboard has the best attributes for a perfect reading experience, and I’m not sure I want to give up on that. I have yet to decide, but I think I’ll wait it out and stick with my Kindle Keyboard, even though that Kindle Paperwhite looks awfully tempting.
I’d be interested to know what readers think. Do you have a reading device you’ve grown to like and don’t want to give up? Are you considering the Paperwhite or another device? Should I reconsider the Nook Glowlight or some other device I’ve dismissed? I’m curious to know more.
The Pale King is a novel concerned with meaning and purpose in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Throughout the novel, characters grapple with concepts of humanity and authenticity. What is the role of a citizen? How does work define who we are? In my opinion, this idea of authenticity is clearest in chapter 19.
In this chapter, Wallace focuses on a conversation between employees at the Peoria Regional Examination Center. A discussion about civic duty turns into a discussion about the power of advertising in American life. One of the characters says this:
But corporations and marketing and PR and the creation of desire and need to feed all the manic production, the way modern advertising and marketing seduce the individual by flattering all the little psychic delusions with which we deflect the horror of personal smallness and transience, enabling the delusion that the individual is the center of the universe, the most important thing — I mean the individual individual, the little guy watching TV or listening to the radio or leafing through a shiny magazine or looking at a billboard…that his first responsibility is to his own happiness, that everyone else is the great gray abstract mass which his life depends on standing apart from, being an individual, being happy. (p. 144)
There is a lot to unpack in this long statement, but at its core it suggests that the desire to find fulfillment, propagated by advertising, becomes the thing we think frees us. In this case, we are told that fulfillment comes through the things that we see in marketing and advertising, that the individual “watching TV or listening to the radio” can find happiness through the very things that cause the insecurity in the first place. Freedom and individuality is found by giving into the masses, based on marketing.
This idea contrasts with a larger concept of fulfillment and authenticity presented earlier in the chapter:
But the point is psychological. Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make. But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat. You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat. A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food. (p. 131)
The debate between these characters is centered on how we find authenticity in America: should we do what is best for us the individual or should we do what is best for the larger collective good?
This debate is one more reason why I think Wallace has placed this lengthy discussion about meaning and purpose in the halls of a tax collection agency. With the election in full swing right now, the narrative has focused on the role of government, of civic duty: should we seek out fulfillment by keeping what is ours, or should we give back to the larger, collective good?
Wallace doesn’t seek out an answer to this question. Instead, it seems that he points to how difficult it is to seek fulfillment either way. As the novel continues, Wallace suggests that this confusion brings us to a standstill, and thus we cannot ever find true fulfillment.
As I read David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, I’m reminded that Wallace liked to play with authenticity in narrative. Who is writing this novel? Who is the narrator? Like Paul Auster and other similar, postmodern authors, Wallace is placing a fictionalized version of himself in this novel.
Sixty five pages in, we’re introduced to David Wallace, the fictional narrator of the novel. He is an IRS employee who, until this point, has stayed behind the scenes.
This portion of the novel is called the “Author’s Foreword,” but it’s placed far enough in for the reader to realize it is part of the novel, and it’s fiction. But Wallace is concerned with “reality” — that everything in this novel is real, except the copyright page: “The only bona fide ‘fiction’ here is the copyright page’s disclaimer — which, again, is a legal device: The disclaimer’s whole and only purpose is to protect me, the book’s publisher, and the publisher’s assigned distributors from legal liability” (p. 67)
This is meta-fiction at its most bizarre and complex, and Wallace is both critiquing this po-mo technique and revelling in it. This is how he puts it:
As it moves on, we get the sense that the IRS represents what Wallace could have become if he hadn’t been a writer: a bored, disaffected office worker. These are the people that make up his fictional Peoria IRS Regional office. They are the people who aspired for something larger, but ended up doing what is respectable and “normal.” So, as we read this novel, the things these characters represent, in their own weird way, are the things that we deal with on a daily basis. It’s the mundane, the average, that take up the majority of this text.
For Wallace (the real Wallace), it’s about those dull and boring moments. Maybe there’s beauty in those moments.
We shall see how these characters deal with their perceptions and attitudes about work and social expectations. Wallace wants us to see that these mundane events are an important part of reality, so in that way, it’s semi-non-fictional.
When David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto came out in 2010, it was met with some strong criticism about the role of fiction. Journalists, litbloggers, and book reviewers were split over whether or not fiction could be a pure or true literary genre. The reason for such strong debate was because Shields’s book advocated breaking down established genre barriers: that good fiction shouldn’t be too fictional, and that a good memoir shouldn’t be too true.
I just finished reading Reality Hunger, and yes, it’s 2012 now, but I think Shields’s arguments are still open for debate.
In Reality Hunger, Shields argues that fiction and memoir should not be considered separately. What makes a book great isn’t the genre but the quality of the writing, and Shields makes the case that genres should be blurred and abandoned altogether. Shields’s main issue is with the novel, saying that because it’s so far from reality it does not speak to the things real people deal with daily: “[t]he kinds of novels I like are ones which bear no trace of being novels.” Good fiction, rather, represents reality and blurs distinctions between fantasy and daily life. Shields advocates for “a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” Blurring these distinctions is his main goal: most non-fiction writing is a lie, and most fiction is a lie, so the lie is what is “real.” Good writing is just that: good writing. A writer should not set out to write a novel or a memoir, they should just write, and allow the work to stand on its own.
To reiterate this point, Shields takes on two literary icons: Jonathan Franzen and James Frey. First, he takes aim at Frey’s capitulating to Oprah because A Million Little Pieces was not factual and yet was marketed as a memoir. Shields wanted Frey to take ownership of his method instead of admitting he lied:
I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world. Instead, he showed up for his whipping. (p. 43; itals. in original)
Second, Shields is critical of Franzen for different reasons, targeting the writer’s main approach to fiction:
The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form. (p. 199)
Fiction is successful, according to Shields, when it tells a story well, something at which he claims most modern novelists aren’t successful. Successful fiction, “like the world, is a living form. It’s in its form that its reality resides.” Frey’s admission that he lied represents bad memoir, and Franzen’s insistence that his novels reflect reality represent bad fiction. Truly great writing tries to do neither; it just reflects on its own form and thus transcends genre.
Shields uses pastiche and remixing to create his manifesto. The whole manifesto is actually a string of quotes and clippings from previous books, articles, and essays. By taking these clips out of context, Shields re-appropriates the words to fit within his thesis. Even though he makes it clear that each section is from another source (although he doesn’t want to “cite” these in traditional ways), the reader watches the parts of Shields’s argument come together. The form of the essay is itself reflecting on Shields’s idea of blurring genre distinctions.
Overall, Shields’s approach is interesting, but is his view of what constitutes good and bad art really all that new?
We’ve heard this before
The idea of transcending genre is very important, and I agree with Shields’s main assertions. But Reality Hunger does something to the reader that bothers me: it requires the reader to accept that the novel, in its current form, is the problem. It also requires one to accept Shields’s view of the “reality” of art, which is a highly elitist view. On Hamlet, for example, Shields writes that “I find myself wanting to ditch the tired plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective…He [Hamlet] would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.” (p. 149). Shields suggests in this passage that the problem with Shakespeare’s play isn’t the ideas about life and its ghosts, it’s the damn plot. If only Shakespeare could just take out all of those elements of tragedy, we’d have a better Shakespeare. To me, there’s something false about that view.
Genre allows a framework for writers to talk about the points of “reality” that Shields prefers above all else. I like the idea of mixing of genre to create new forms of art; great artists do it all the time. But that shouldn’t mean we must abandon forms altogether. Shields seems to think that because most writers are already blurring fact and fiction when they begin writing, why not blur the distinctions? I get that, but I also think that most readers prefer an escape from cold reality. Hamlet is successful because it accomplishes both: an escape (a fantastical world with ghosts and violence) and the “real” (Hamlet’s soliloquies on life and existence).
I would argue that Franzen, although not the best fiction writer, attempts to mimic reality through his fiction. Yes, sometimes it falls flat, but his fiction is not as bad as Shields portrays it. By pointing out Franzen, Shields shows just how narrowly he views art. By trying to break down boundaries, he creates new boundaries around “good” and “bad” taste. Instead of a manifesto, what Shields has created is another critical opinion about art, one easily challenged.
Maybe challenging Shields is the point; that his main thesis falls in on itself because finding “reality” is impossible. Believe it or not, people do live like the characters in Franzen’s The Corrections, so it does represent some form of reality. Oh, and people don’t tend to over-soliloquize like Hamlet — that’s not reality. (By the way, I’m totally leaving Frey out of this argument. I don’t know what he’s trying to do, nor do I think he knows. But then again, I’m being elitist.)
Shields’s main point should get us thinking closely about what good writing should do. In that way, I think Reality Hunger is worth a read. But overall, Shields’s dream of the “real” is an impossible dream, and one at which even the best writers tend to fail.
For me, a book, in whatever form it takes—hardbound copy, paperback, electronic version, online instrument, text downloaded on a cell phone, even a story read orally—a book is actually a place, a place where we, as adults, still have the chance to engage in active imagining, translating word to image, connecting these images to memories, dreams, and larger ideas. Television, film, even the stage play, have already been imagined for us, but the book, in whatever form we choose to interact with it, forces us to complete it.
I love this quote and the article because no matter what we say about the future of books (on this blog or anywhere else), the reason we read is “to engage in active imagining,” as Meno puts it. Books allow us to enter worlds wholly created in our minds. The best books fall away, allowing us to “see” the world we’ve imagined, to enter it and to play in it. Great books give us a childlike imagination.
Of course, books do more than this. They also help us conceptualize the world and make connections between what is real and what is imagined.