Reality Hunger: A Freewriting Review

I find Reality Hunger: A Manifesto , a book calling for “a blurring of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction”, on the new nonfiction table one Wednesday morning at the library. There are things I should probably be reading, but it takes dibs: I love this book by the time I’ve finished the first chapter. Then it starts making me think, with at least one blogfodder quote on every page for the first ten chapters—and then I’m thrown for a loop with one question.

Whose book is this?

Midway through, I realize that these words—these sentences, I love these sentences, and there are some sections I just want to squeal over or engage in deep conversation with the writer on or just argue, back and forth and round and round in circles in hopes that somewhere within the debate as I throw water balloons at the walls and see what patterns stay, I shall come to the kernel of the matter—are not necessarily his. In fact, most of them aren’t; as he explains it, he didn’t consider it right talking about plagiarism without doing something that could be seen as plagiarizing.

This throws me off.

“Art is a conversation, not a patent office.” It was a pretty early quote, and one that got my creative juices flowing; I was ready to fill a week’s worth of posts with a (one-sided, admittedly, but still) conversation with some of the points made. But how do I respond, if I don’t know whom I’m talking to? How do I imagine a conversation, if who I’m speaking to changes constantly and (partly; it’s complicated) without my knowledge?

And yet it works, somehow. For one thing, he does cite his sources—in an optional index, at the end of the book, but there’s a sense in which that’s almost better. Reality Hunger is, itself, a challenge to the idea of the division of books as they stand (and oh do I agree with a lot of the stances on how pigeonholed genres have gotten; I may come back to that later). To get this across, Shields doesn’t present his argument as one very long essay; instead, it’s a long string of clippings, other people’s passages that present a specific point about how we handle the distinction between reality and not in print media, sometimes tweaked a bit, sometimes not, but never direct-quoted.

I felt betrayed when I first found this out. Like I couldn’t tell if he was the one I was speaking to or not. But then I realized—if he didn’t agree with these things, he wouldn’t have put them in the book, so if I still want to post as if holding the other end of a conversation, I don’t have to worry about one-sidedly arguing with someone who doesn’t actually believe what he’s writing. If he’d admitted to his structure at the beginning, would I still have read with such enthusiasm, rather than going in because I’d been intrigued by the ideas and charmed by some of the sentence structures? And would people necessarily listen if he’d cited his three-hundred-some clippings in direct quotation format, rather than encouraging people to think about the idea first and then figure out who first posed it? After all, Predictably Irrational cited a study in which people would try to find falsehood in factual statements (“A camel is larger than a dog” was the primary example) if the statements were credited to a political party, particularly one they disagreed with.

I oppose plagiarism. But is this entirely plagiarism? Clearly the publisher thinks the end product is in the clear. The sources are cited. The lack of immediate citation seems as much a benefit as a hindrance. Should I let its conflict with how I was taught to write destroy the otherwise compelling message it’s trying to give me?

The whole thing gives me great confusion. That, I believe, is the idea.

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