The question was rhetorical but the Emerson students and faculty could not help but debate its implications: “What if America really isn’t really the kind of a place where a street urchin can charm his way to the top, through diligence and talent? What if, instead, it’s the sort of place where heartwarming stories about abused children who triumph through adversity are made up and marketed?”
It is an excerpt from New York Times bestselling author David Shields’s latest work, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. On October 13 the fiction–writer–turned–essayist read from the book as part of Emerson’s Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing Reading Series. Afterward he participated in a lively Q&A session.
Shields, a successful fiction writer who found his true calling in nonfiction work, had much to say on the subjects of “real” and “fabricated” storytelling.
“We are storytelling animals and we create the real. If the stories that we tell are no longer getting us anywhere near reality, that’s kind of a big deal.”
Reality Hunger is what Shields describes as a “poison-penned love letter” to fiction. After authoring three successful novels between 1984 and 1991, he felt drawn to other genres. He published his first nonfiction work Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity in 1996 and never looked back. Now, Shields’s topics span everything from sports to politics to reality television. “In Reality Hunger,” he said, “I argue that we are obsessed with reality, precisely because we experience hardly any. We live in a completely mediated, artificial, simulated culture. And as a result, I think it renders us somewhat numb and bored.”
“In the highly simulated world that we live in, it’s hard for me as a reader and writer to have more fiction,” Shields added. “The works that I am trying to write and the books I find riveting to read are those that try to have as thin a membrane as possible between the author and the reader.”
After the reading, Shields encouraged the audience to challenge his claims. Several WLP undergraduates, graduates, and faculty joined in the discussion. Shields also signed copies of his latest work.
Shields is working on a biography of J.D. Salinger and co-editing a collection of essays titled The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death.
Pictured above, Shields with Emerson Writer-in-Residence Christine Casson