Throwback Throwdown

Katja Mater, Build #3, from the series Book Buildings, 2007. c-print, 24" x 28". Courtesy the artist.
  • David Shields. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Knopf. February 2010.

As usual the intellectual herd is rushing backwards towards a mirage and as usual under the banner of Forward to Reality.

—Harold Rosenberg, 1959  

Polonius: What do you read my lord? 

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: But what is the matter my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

When the book under review is composed almost entirely of quotations from other works, editors usually skeptical of such antiquarian affectations might allow me to start a review with a pair of epigraphs. Neither appears in the book in question, although perhaps they should have. Reality Hunger consists of 618 aphorisms, some short and witty in the true aphoristic style, others informational or anecdotal, organized, not alphabetically, but in loose thematic sections labeled A–Z. Only a handful of the 618 are by David Shields himself—I didn’t calculate the exact number, but I’d bet it’s fewer than 150. The rest are quotations, the provenance of which are acknowledged only in grudgingly appended endnotes: “If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read,” Shields tells us in a preface to his critical apparatus, “simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 by cutting along the dotted line.”

The temptation is very much to play Shields’s game by not doing what he says. Why stop at cutting out pages? Why didn’t he publish the whole thing as magnetic fridge poetry? It can be a fun game, a seductive game, this repurposing of the past. But what are we playing for? As a motto, Shields claims the slogan “Reality cannot be copyrighted,” and his work makes an extravagant case for what copyright gurus call the “creative commons.” His goal, however, appears to be something else. “Why can’t literature catch up with the other arts?” Shields recently complained to the New York Times. To which a reader of literature might wonder when exactly it was that “literature” fell so far behind, or where Shields feels most deeply the wound of literature’s lost ground. Aphorism 270:

In 2008, Damien Hirst, the richest visual artist in the world, sold his work ‘directly’ to buyers through a Sotheby’s auction rather than through the time-honored method of galleries; it was the largest such sale ever, 287 lots, $200 million.


Reality Hunger is very much a book of our age of confusion about books, their future, their intents and effects, the meaning of intellectual property, and the worth and the self-worth of those who produce them: a manifesto in search of a movement; a polemic in search of an argument. Self-consciously avant-garde in a comfy retro way, an outsider work brought out by a major publisher, Shields’s book simultaneously revels in and is tormented by the paradoxes it generates—sincerely inauthentic yet looking everywhere for authenticity, obsessed with originality in an all-too familiar way, but an original act of copying. It advertises its own sense of importance everywhere, beginning with a dust jacket design composed entirely of blurbs, like an invalid’s room pasted with get-well cards from so many friends: Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum, Tim Parks, Jonathan Raban.

We know there’s trouble ahead when Shields takes, as one of his own trio of epigraphs, a Walter Benjamin line that has become an avant-garde commonplace: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” Great or only willing greatness, Reality Hunger neither dissolves nor founds but slips into a growing mode of authorial self-presentation, an instance of what I’d call either the fallacy of “hipness by analogy,” or “the fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.” The fallacy has its roots in Jonathan Lethem’s smooth and erudite essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which appeared in the February 2007 issue of Harper’s. Lethem was targeting the Walt Disney corporation and the Supreme Court’s strict construction of copyright in “Elder v. Ashcroft,” but he attacked them by way of an account of the “open source” traditions of blues and rap, with their fluid notions of intellectual and personal property. He also made sure that almost every paragraph contained several unacknowledged citations, to which he then helpfully provided a “key.” Unfortunately, Lethem also intended “a rebuking play” on Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. “What exactly is post-modernism except modernism without the anxiety?” Lethem wondered. The hypothesis was intriguing. Could all those worries about our historical and cultural belatedness, the struggle to become what Bloom called “a strong poet,” really be disarmed with a rhetorical flourish in favor of a shrugging passive resistance to the canon? The agon would henceforth be replaced by the cooperative, but we still required brave pirates who would begin the work of collectivization.

Lethem mentioned Shields as a vital influence on his thoughts and experiments with the quotation game. As with any attempt to trace influence in literature, the waters are muddied from the beginning. According to Shields, or Lethem, when writers use other writers’ sentences it’s “sampling,” not plagiarism or fusty academic “citation” with its own long history (cf. recent academic work like Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote or Antoine Compagnon’s Second-Hand: the Work of Quotation). “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize,” says Shields (in his own voice) in a section on hip-hop. Of course neither Lethem’s essay nor Shields’s book are really plagiarism or theft or hijacking in any common-sense way—neither author runs any real risk of getting sued, expelled from school, or challenged to a duel. The important thing, however, is to make the reader believe they are witnessing a transgressive, transformative act. It’s no accident that Shields places this aggressive-sounding riff in the section devoted to hip-hop. The aura may be gone from the original work of art, but it reappears as a “personality cult” of the author as trickster figure, what Harold Bloom might call “the weak post-Nietzschean outlaw.” To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly “nice” work of churning out novels, poems, essays, and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of “copyleft,” Proudhonists of the ghetto.

The image of the rapper grants the writer a license to ill, even as Shields and co. implicitly deny rap lyricists any originality of their own. But there’s something else behind this sudden glamorizing of what is, essentially, advanced note-taking. That something else, once the pose is stripped away, starts to sound a lot like anxiety. Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all “ready mades.”

The interesting formal and thematic qualities of literature mostly take place in-between simple imitation of an out-there reality and simple quotation of an out-there text: there are things called “tropes,” a word that comes from “turn” in Greek, and implies the transformation of something into something else: metaphors, metonymies, catachreses, metalepses, for instance. On a thematic level, there’s Milton turning Homer’s council of the Achaeans into a cavalier council of devils, Wordsworth and Coleridge identifying the modern self with Milton’s Satan escaping from Hell. Percy Bysshe Shelley called this system of appropriation “The Great Cyclic Poem,” from which all poems come and to which all poems return, a gene pool or expanding universe of poetry. But Shelley’s vision also required authors to accept a large degree of impersonality. They were catalysts, or “unacknowledged legislators,” not celebrated privateers.

When Shields and Lethem replace the history of literary influence with a term like “plagiarism,” they reveal themselves to be secret “originalists,” yin to the copyright absolutists’ yang, part of a bad dialectic of American authoritarianism and anti-authoritanism that goes back, at least, to the Yippies versus Nixon’s “Pig Empire.” Each side needs the other to validate the caricature, and likewise each side takes on aspects of the caricature accorded by its enemies. To the partisans of creative plagiarism, or “sampling,” the problem is less that Walt Disney will sue you if your novel features a blonde princess, a glass slipper, and a charming prince, but that they won’t unless you try really, really hard to get their attention. “Hey look, we’re ripping you off! Over here! Yes, us!” That’s to replace artistry with publicity, creation with provocation, the work with the personality of the author, and to condemn literature to the fate of the permanent, expressionless “conceptualism” that has befallen the visual arts.


Shields’s angry antiquarian posture makes it harder to appreciate the considerable hard work and skill it took him to piece together his book. He’s clearly one of those people who not only reads as much as he can, but always reads with a notebook or computer at hand, ready to type out, index, and archive quotations for potential future use. His method is more fascinating to contemplate than the product is to read. He is, in a sense, a scholar in willed exile from the academy, albeit one more interested in collection and arrangement than argument. From the appendix he wants cut out and thrown away you could construct an excellent curriculum in the theory and practice of non-fiction.

Ultimately, in this canon-shaping way, Reality Hunger comes to resemble one of the few earlier works to have escaped the book’s voracious appetite for sources. Shields (in his own voice) states his intent “to write the ars poetica” for a new movement of appropriation literature. His parallel to Augustan Horace seems off by at least three centuries. In the late third century A.D., a teacher of rhetoric, what we’d now call “a writing instructor,” put together a treatise On the High Style, making heavy use of quotations, often broken into fragments, or creatively “misremembered” in a way to make the reader draw connections between the construction of a literary “corpus” and an actual breathing body. Remembering is body-building. To the author of On the Sublime, as the work has been commonly translated since the Renaissance, when we encounter an instance of great writing we become possessed by it, almost literally. “We feel that we have created what we have only heard.”

I bring up this ancient parallel not to hit Shields with the heavy hand of “oh, it was all done in the third century A.D.,” a blow he would presumably welcome in any case, but because this distant echo is an instance of “the anxiety of influence” triumphing over “the ecstasy of plagiarism.” It’s entirely possible that Shields has never read Longinus, the convenient name for the Sublime’s unknown author—although it seems he’s read almost everything else—and that any resemblance is purely coincidental between a late imperial Roman, who wrote in part because he was concerned that the loss of liberty under the Roman Empire degraded writing style, and a twenty-first century imperial American, fearful that corporations will soon usurp control over the very language of his thoughts. Yet the accidental resonance of unintended influence can be more powerful and ultimately more interesting than intentional sourcing. Although Shields thinks he’s doing one thing, he’s only protecting himself from doing or thinking something more interesting or risky than what he thinks he’s doing. The supposed freedom from anxiety that comes with unrestrained plagiarism is just a form of anxiety medication that soothes without solving.

The full sense of the Longinian sublime rears up in Reality Hunger’s last aphorism, a quotation from Anne Carson, translator of Sappho, one of the poets Longinus helped preserve for modernity: “Let us see who controls the danger?” To reduce the question of literary influence to a battle with corporations over copyright is to make the feeling of the sublime, the struggle to “control the danger,” into a comparatively low-stakes sport, like skateboarding. Such choreographed battles with “the man” deflect from the ongoing struggle with oneself, as a writer, to look out on the world, a real world which also includes the ever-lengthening history of the arts, and staring at this reality, not flinching from it, not turning away, to undergo the odyssey of transforming that reality and being transformed by it.

Related Articles

July 10, 2006
Death’s Sky Blue Bag
Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.

Issue 17 The Evil Issue

I suspect that the disillusionment of the editors is also common to many of the magazine’s readers.

September 9, 2010

It may seem paradoxical, but shameless candor can serve as a barrier to intimacy between the writer and the reader.

More by this Author

Issue 6 Mainstream

A lowered voting age might just be the catalyst to help release our stalled democratic, revolutionary energies.

October 24, 2011

Never mind democracy, this is what a “lost decade” looks like.

October 31, 2005

They call us by the polite but uncanny name of “fellow travelers,” though no one is condescending.

January 11, 2011

Soon people might stop writing altogether, becoming curators, montage artists, tasteful arrangers.