Some really excellent nonfiction

I’m not sure at all what I would think of David Shields’s book Reality Hunger, were I to read it. I’m sort of tempted, and sort of feel as though I’ve heard enough about it already. The fact that it’s subtitled “A Manifesto” is a strike against it, as the thought of reading a manifesto makes me yawn. I had only the vaguest idea what the book was about until I read this article by James Wood in The New Yorker, an article that is ostensibly a review of the latest Change-Rae Lee novel, but is really more of a meditation on the novel itself. Wood introduces Shield’s book as an argument “against the traditional novelistic machinery” and includes this quotation from the book:

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always “about what they’re about”—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject.

I feel two ways about this passage. In some ways I agree, because many of the books I love the most are ones that don’t have traditional plots or traditional novelistic devices. These books I love are forms of thinking and consciousness and deal with ideas directly. I’m also someone who can’t remember charaters’ names or plot details. On the other hand, I love stories too and am far from ready to dismiss “traditional” novels. In fact, writing a manifesto dismissing “traditional” novels strikes me as a highly silly and annoying thing to do. Expressing one’s personal preference strongly is fine, but I have a feeling Shields is doing more than that.

Ultimately Wood’s discussion of the book is mixed; he calls it “imprecise and overwrought” but also finds Shields’s skepticism towards traditional narrative useful. (Amusingly, in this interview, Shields says that he hopes Wood will review his book “because he’ll hate it. And it’ll be hilarious.” He got his wish, and I wonder if the review is as hilarious as he expected. It seems that Wood might have pleasantly surprised him.)

So, who knows if I’ll read the book or not. As I read the Wood piece I thought the one really excellent reason for reading it would be to see what books Shields praises, since it sounds like we share similar tastes in some areas at least. And then I came across this list of 26 “shifting nonfictions” Shields recommends. And oh, did this list make me happy. It’s exactly what I wanted. By “shifting nonfictions” Shields means books that explore “our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.” The only thing that would have made the list better would be if he had dropped the nonfiction label entirely and made a list of books, fiction or non, that are explicitly idea-driven and have things to say about truth and reality.

But as it is, it’s a really awesome list, and I know that because it has a handful of some of my favorite books ever, enough to prove that we have similar tastes, and then it has some books I’ve been meaning to read forever, which confirms my desire to read them, and then it has some books I’ve never heard of. Perfect! The ones that are among my favorite books ever are Nicholson Baker’s “U&I,” Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage,” Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” and David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I also loved an essay by Joe Wenderoth I read recently, and his book Letters to Wendy’s is on the list. Other books I’ve been meaning to read forever include Blaise Pascal’s Pensees and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is there as well, and although I’m not a huge Sebald fan, I do admire him. And I’m intrigued by a bunch of other names included there. So much to explore!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Some really excellent nonfiction

  1. I like both fiction and non-fiction. The best book I ever read about spousal abuse was fiction (The Kitchen God’s Wife) and what astounded me was that none of the descriptions of the book I’d read even mentioned it though it’s central to the novel. But that’s not so much about ideas as about a social and psychological situation.


  2. There are times when picking up yet another traditionally structured novel makes me tired, but inevitably if it’s a really great book I’ll get sucked in to the story. So I think I’m with you on the fence between traditional and the experimental.

    I’ve always said I’m not a visual reader, so descriptions of places, objects and people whizz by me as I’ve not the patience to sit and imagine from scratch everything the author describes. So I’d love to read some novels that chuck out all that visual scene setting and replace it with something else, without losing any of the power of the writing.


  3. I hate to admit this, but these sorts of books tend to make me feel a failure as a reader. The more books I try that are ‘pushing the boundaries’ (and not that I really read that many) make me see just how conventional a reader I am. If I didn’t have stories/traditional novels I think I would be lost quite frankly. But maybe there is hope for me as I saw several names on that list that I’ve recently read and got on very well with (Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace), so maybe it’s okay to pick and choose.


  4. I like ALL kinds of novels, traditional and experimental. What I particularly like is moving from one kind of writing to the other – the variety makes me appreciate both kinds even more. What I’m not so keen on is the notion that one’s personal reading preferences should be considered a prescription for literature per se. But it’s an awful temptation for critics and one that they fall into all too often! Still, that is a most intriguing list of non-fiction books, and one I should print out and go through.


  5. Lilian — how odd that no one mentioned a subject that was so important to the book! The Reality Hunger author doesn’t seem to like books that work through ideas fictionally, but I’d definitely disagree with him there.

    Jodie — I really enjoy traditional novels, but the books that I find most satisfying and that make me the most enthusiastic are ones that do something interesting with ideas and language. But still, there’s no need to knock “traditional” novels. I know what you mean about description. I’m happiest reading other sections of novels!

    Danielle — it’s definitely okay to pick and choose, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with liking novels that are more traditional! From what I can tell, Shields is taking a personal preference and universalizing it (but perhaps I should read the book first before I pronounce judgment on it!?). I would ignore Shields’s book entirely, except that I think our taste overlaps a bit, so I consider him a good potential source of book recommendations. I’m sure that there are a few on the list that I wouldn’t like, and there are probably a bunch you would love, so I think it’s absolutely fine to pick and choose. But most importantly — you are definitely not a failure as a reader!!

    Litlove — I just learned that Shields includes a list of recommendations at the end of his book, so I may have to track it down, if only for that reason. I agree absolutely about turning one’s personal preferences into a prescription for others. I suppose I should refrain from drawing conclusions about Shields since I haven’t read his book, but if that’s what’s going on here, then that’s too bad. And with the subtitle “manifesto,” it’s probably what’s going on here!


  6. Shields’ “definition” of nonfiction is intriguing. I can understand your hesitation to read his manifesto though if it does have a list of books in the back it might be good just for that. His list in the article is really good. I like that he included Alphonse Daudet on it. In the Land of Pain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking sort of meditation on illness and pain. There are also several books on the list I’ve been meaning to read for ages.


  7. “writing a manifesto dismissing “traditional” novels strikes me as a highly silly and annoying thing to do.”

    You’re cracking me up! It strikes me like that too, despite sharing your affection for idea-driven narratives. That said, I wouldn’t want to subsist on a steady diet of ONLY non-traditional, idea-driven books. If I get too much of one thing I’ll start feeling tired of it, even if it’s my favorite kind of reading (hence why I’ve been trying to read more realist fiction this month after an orgy of modernist experimentalism during the two months before). Personally, for me it’s all about balance.

    I am intrigued by his list, though.


  8. I’ve enjoyed reading Wood’s article and the list of ‘shifting nonfiction.’ We’re getting more and more new terms to describe our ‘shifting reality’. And the line between fiction and non-fiction has become more blurred. After the controversies of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, maybe authors are playing it safe. Like this latest title by The Glass Castle writer Jeannette Walls, she adds a ‘disclaimer’ behind the title Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel.

    Seems like books are heading down the road like movies, which we see the ubiquitous description: ‘Based on a true story.’


  9. I have no interest in Shields, but I did want to put a word in for Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Utterly marvelous.


  10. Stefanie — I’m hoping my library gets a copy of the book so I can see the list without having to pay for the book (and maybe I’ll read the whole thing, just to see what I think). I’m glad to know you admire In the Land of Pain. I seriously put every book on that list on my TBR pile, so perhaps I’ll get to all of them someday!

    Emily — I so agree with you about balance. I tend to go back and forth between challenging and comforting books, between old and new, so dismissing one major form of writing makes little sense to me. I want to enjoy it all! Now, if someone doesn’t enjoy a particular form of writing, that’s fine, but writing a manifesto about it feels too extreme.

    Arti — I don’t really have a problem with ambiguity when it comes to fact or fiction, and I don’t really agree with those who get upset when people fabricate in their supposedly factual fictions. But people really do get upset about it, so I’m not surprised authors like Walls are writing disclaimers.

    Richard — thank you! I am looking forward to reading it.


  11. I don’t like it when people generalize too much about fiction and nonfiction reading. As far as I’m concerned, good story telling shows up in both (I’m bored by nonfiction that doesn’t tell a story), and so does the opportunity to learn all about something I don’t know (I don’t like fiction that doesn’t explain in detail some concept or idea or fact that not everyone knows, just assuming that everyone knows it). That list, though, does look terrific. Not much on it that I’ve read, but lots that I’ve been meaning to read.


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