Friday, December 17, 2010

David Shields, Reality Hunger 2010, pt. 2

A continuation of my responses to David Shields' assemblage of numbered quotations on nonfiction as a question, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

#73 Shields or an unidentified source writes in rebellion against the niche marketing of Hollywood movies, comparing his preference to a dinner party at which he and his guests together will serve tacos, cordon bleu, and "perhaps some Japanese food as well. I want to mix it all together, because I think that's what life is like."

My response: Shields and those he approves of spend so much time doing things because they think "that's what life is like." Don't they know? Is their only access to life through their reproduction of it as an idealized pastiche of pop cosmopolitanism? Are they conflating life and commercial media?

#74 Cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, writing in Wired, plays the part of a 19th century railroad booster on behalf of the internet, declaring it "the opposite of broadcast... with as many senders as receivers." Well, that's just not true, but it's hard to hold Gibson responsible for such misinformation without knowing when he wrote it. Which we don't, because Shields, angry about being forced to source anything, fails to include dates in his begrudging citations. Maybe "because that's what life is like" -- if life, for you, is comprised of nothing but wit and irony. Gibson, whose fiction is more than that, offers even less in his attack on citation: "The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art." So once again these brave pioneers of genre crossing insist on the preserving the gated sanctuary of "art," into which the genres they raid are never to be allowed entry, lest art's purity be sullied. Which is to say: Lurking beyond all this pop art piracy is the same old regime of fauxhemian capitalism the would-be pirates say they're decrying. "Reality can't be copyrighted," concludes Gibson; it's worth noting, though, that his novels are. I suppose that's the kind of quibble Gibson might dismiss as pedantry akin to citation; I think it's just reality, no more, no less.

#78 The old regime resurrects another one of its dearest ideas, dressed up in the drag of techgnosis: "It's important for the writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms," argues an unidentified writer who may or may not be Shields.* "You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don't think it's a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves."

Only if you're a social darwinist. Implicit in this statement is the idea that art is a form of progress, that it "moves forward" -- that art is, by definition, a social good. But there's no suggestion in Reality Hunger that Shields or those he subsumes into his manifesto believe that all art is a social good. Indeed, most use "art" as a term to indicate that which they believe "evolves," that which serves the greater good of social darwinism. I suspect Shields would strongly reject this notion, as I've rephrased it. Hence, I'd argue, the veil of "art" drawn between genres even as these writers declare their own transgressions.

* Eager to evolve, I turned to a "more technologically sophisticated" form of citation, Google. This remark from Reality Hunger is widely cited, and usually sourced to Shields, himself. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

David Shields, Reality Hunger, 2010; Milton Rogovin, Portraits in Steel, 1993

I've been slowly reading David Shields' recent book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto for awhile now. I'm not sure if I recommend it -- I keep reading out of annoyance as much as pleasure. I've decided to try blogging it, a reasonable response, I think, to a book that is comprised of 618 numbered quotations related to the question of fiction vs. nonfiction. Or maybe simply fiction/nonfiction. I'm sympathetic to the not-very-new idea that it's difficult to draw a sharp line between genres, and I'm grateful for many of Shields' selections, but I'm bored by the book's cleverness (the quotations are only identified in an index he says his publisher forced him to include) and dismayed by the tired old conventional wisdom of "art" masquerading as genre-bending transgression.

But I can't stop reading. So I'm going to start taking notes on the the entries I find most provocative, starting with #45*:
"After Freud, after Einstein, the novel retreated from narrative, poetry retreated from rhyme, and art retreated from the representational into the abstract." In the margin I wrote, "glib & false." What bothers me in this statement, representative of a tone throughout the book, is the definite article: "the novel." 
Such grandiose statements remind me of the singularity with which some fundamentalists speak of gay people: "the gay man," as Pastor Ted Haggard used to say, before his regular male escort outed him as one. For Ted, the definite article elevated his enemy; for champions of the novel, the definite article elevates their sense of themselves as at the center of the only conversation about fiction worth having. The novel doesn't exist; only novels, many of which remained firmly committed to narrative.

#47** galls me for a similar reason.
"I listened to a tour guide at the National Gal'ery ask his group what made Rothko great. [Various possibilities follow.] The tour guide said 'Rothko is great because he forced artists who came after him to change how they thought about painting.' This is the single most useful definition of artistic greatness I've ever encountered." 
To which I responded in the margin: Each entry sillier than the last. Their problem is the distraction of "great."

But thinking on it now, I realize I'm disqualified from judging this commentary, since I don't believe there can be a "useful definition of artistic greatness." Such a definition isn't very useful, since it can only be definitive in the cliquish imagination of those who accept it. "Imagination" is perhaps too generous a word for those who cannot conceive of art beyond the world in which Rothko looms large. Poor Rothko; held captive by little minds for which size really matters.

#62*** concerns Brian Fawcett's Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, which, in my youth, was a book for young men who wanted young women to know that the A&P -- that'd be Art and Politics, capitalized -- left them no time for anything less than maximum sexual and romantic intensity. Nonetheless, Fawcett can't be blamed for this remark about his book, in which the top two thirds the pages are filled with fiction about media consumption and the bottom third features an essay on the Cambodian genocide:
"The effect of the bifurcated page is to confront the reader with Fawcett's point: wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge."
Why stop there? How about: "TV, lacking greatness, represents as thorough a destruction of humanity as Auschwitz." Or: "Pop stars who aren't quite trashy enough for me to celebrate ironically represent as complete an assault on our ears as the machetes of the Rwandan genocidaires."

See, that's the great thing about insisting on no distinctions between fiction and nonfiction: you're free to draw on both in the service of literal idiocy at once.

#65****, on the preferred genre label of these bold pioneers, the "lyric essay":
"In fiction, lyricism can look like an evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it's apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real, that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know."
I believe this is from an advertisement for a penis pump called The Real.

#72***** More on the lyric essay.
"What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?"
The short answer, of course, is easy: kitsch. But I'm also reminded of a comparison my friend JoAnn Wypijewski once drew between the photographs of Milton Rogovin and Sebastio Selgado, both of whom set out to document the lives of workers. Selgado's work looks like fashion photography: it is lush, beautiful, lyric -- "a lovely sideshow to The Real, that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know."

Pretty, no? Get that bit in the center, where the nameless worker looks almost like he's on a cross?

Rogovin, who recently turned 100, has been taking pictures in his adopted hometown of Buffalo, New York, since 1942. My favorite book of his is Portraits in Steel, images of steelworkers whom he has come to know over decades. Each is photographed at home and at work, and many are interviewed, as well. The steelworkers collaborate in their portraiture, especially at home, where many pose with favorite items. Yes, they "pose," but there is nothing artificial about the process. Each pose, for that matter, might be considered a form of reportage, on the part of the worker, and of observation, on the part of Rogovin, more truthful than the capture of brutal elegance on display in Selgado. Here is a sample that gives only a limited sense, since most of these images are stripped of their companions and their identifying details. Even so:

* Shields thinks citations are a distraction from Art. I don't, but I've tried to give his book a fair shake by commenting on his commentaries without immediately identifying their source, as his wish. In the index required by his publisher, he provides some scant bibliographical data, with the caveat that he "forgot" some it "along the way." Shields suggests you cut all of it out of the book. He presents this notion as a rebellion against the ownership of art (why, then, attach his name to the book at all?), but it strikes me more as an evasion of the specificity he seems to believe would reduce his Art to the lowly status of information. Here, then, is as much information as he could bring himself to provide: #45 is taken from Lorraine Adams, "Almost Famous: The Rise of the 'Nobody' Memoir,"Washington Monthly. Shields doesn't include such trivia as dates, for what hath Time to do with Art?

**The source of #47, on Rothko, is unidentified.

***Likewise #62. Just as well. The asshole who thought it witty to equate big media with actual murder is probably left unnamed.

****I was wrong. The source for #65 is Ben Marcus, "The Genre Artist," The Believer.

*****The source for #72 is lyric essayist John D'Agata, though Shields doesn't distinguish whether this quote is from D'Agata's anthology, The New Essay, or from Shields' conversations with him, also mentioned as a source. I happen to be reading D'Agata's About a Mountain right now, too, which has raised some related questions I'll have to blog tomorrow or the next day, after I've moved on to the passages from Reality Hunger about which I have sweeter things to say.

The Falls Church (Anglican), 2010

About a month ago I posted a strange bit of spam I received that seemed connected to my work on the Family and a very conservative, and very influential, church to which it has ties, The Falls Church (Anglican). Falls Church isn't what most people think of when they think fundamentalism -- it's old, it's upper crust, and its membership includes some genuine elites -- Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, former CIA director Porter Goss, Rep. Robert Aderholt (a Republican Family man from Alabama), and others. Here's a 2004 portrait by liberal evangelical writer Ayelish McGarvey, "Evangelical Elitists," written before Falls Church broke away from the Episcopal Church USA, which it viewed as too tolerant of homosexuality.

No real news. Just the arrival, this evening, of a pungent little defense of Falls Church, a response to my small critique.

"You typical demonizing Jew."

This is, I believe, what the Falls Church Anglican schismatics call "traditionalism."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Style Sheet, 2010

After four books, I've a good sense of what I like and don't like about publishing. What I like is writing the book. What I don't like is publication. The best part of the latter process, I've come to think, is the style sheet. This is a document prepared by the copy editor to let the author know how the publisher spells or presents terms about which there might be some debate. It reads like a grocery list from the author's subconscious, the particularity of the author's interests stripped of sentence and story, laid bare without meaning. It's organized alphabetically. Here are my favorite letter lists from the style sheet I just received for my next book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, coming from W.W. Norton in August 2011:


alef (Yiddish)
American Top 40
Acquire the Fire


feng shui-ers


Garden (for MSG)
Geimende aud dem Weg
Golden Arches
goyish, goyishe
Ground Zero


halfsies (n.)
Harold and Maude
head shots
hell house (n.)
hell-house (adj. before n.)
holy-spirit (adj. before n.)
homeschool (v.)




KISS (band)


Walmart (no hyphen since 08)
Western (for movies, books, and “attitudes,” etc.)
Western Edge
West Texas
wolfangel (1 word)