The Muses Are Borrowed: Back and Forth on ‘Reality Hunger’

By Geoff Schumacher and Scott Dickensheets

David Shields’ provocative recent book, Reality Hunger, has generated a great deal of discussion within the writing community. One of the book’s fundamental points is there is too much worry among writers, publishers and readers over the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Shields argues that most fiction is founded on reality, and most nonfiction contains fictional elements, so why get worked up over whether a book is one or the other? As an example, Shields brings up the case of James Frey’s 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. When it was discovered that Frey had made up parts of the book, quite a dust-up ensued. Shields, however, defends the act of incorporating fictional elements into a memoir as a way of getting at a greater truth. More controversially, Shields argues against the time-honored practice of copyright protection for works of art. He thinks writers should be able to incorporate someone else’s work into their own without proper attribution. He puts this notion into practice in Reality Hunger, though his publisher insisted, over his objections, that he provide proper credits for the appropriated quotes in the back of the book. Reality Hunger questions much of the conventional wisdom about the practice of creating art, especially writing. How about we start by looking at where we agree with Shields?

SCOTT: A story: In 2001 (I think), at a conference of city and regional magazine editors, I attended a panel in which Esquire writer Tom Junod read lengthy portions of a profile of R.E.M singer Michael Stipe (including a nice set piece at Hoover Dam). Having gotten an advance copy of the story and shared it with a colleague, I was one of three people in the room who knew what was coming next: Junod confessed that he’d made up those parts. (In the magazine itself, readers were alerted that parts were fictionalized and directed to Esquire’s website for the breakdown.) His point in the story was the unknowability, and general banality, of rock stars, and reality-based fictions were the best way to get at that.

Half the room freaked — simply letting the fiction touch the nonfiction that way, they complained, threw the credibility of journalism itself into question, no matter how well labeled for the reader. (The well-known editor of a well-known regional magazine even asked me to call a journalism watchdog site and snitch on Junod.) The other half saw Junod’s ploy as a useful gesture, however controversial, toward keeping high-end magazine writing lively, evolving and entertaining. It might be the single best writing panel I ever attended.

Where do I agree with Shields? Well, hell, I sided with Junod; I enjoyed watching the traditionalists wig out. Looking at the notes I scrawled in Reality Hunger’s margins — I’ve never had it out with a book the way I have with this one — I agree that it can be fun and vitalizing to dick around with that fact/fiction border; that artful quotation and sampling can zap your work with a new, unexpected tingle; that collage might be the foremost art form of the last century; that memoir, that most disputed of fiction/nonfiction minglings, belongs more to the realm of literature than journalism; that “what I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not just reported”; that sometimes good writing is just good writing and to hell with categories.

But none of that means I think you should fuck with people, which is where I begin to diverge, vigorously and sometimes angrily, from Mr. Shields. What about you?

GEOFF: In recent months, I’ve been reading a lot of classic long-form journalism. George Orwell. St. Clair McKelway. Truman Capote. One of the best such pieces I’ve read is “The Muses Are Heard,” written by Capote and published by the New Yorker in 1956. The novella-length article is about an American opera company’s trip to the Soviet Union to stage a production of Porgy and Bess. It’s an amazing piece of writing, rich in detail and insights about the men and women of the opera company and providing an eye-opening (for the time) first-person look at life and thought behind the Iron Curtain. Unlike some other writers who considered their journalism work to be of a lower grade than their fiction, Capote took his nonfiction work just as seriously as his fiction, and perhaps more so. Although he is best known for his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, people who follow such things also regard “The Muses Are Heard” as a major piece of Capote’s oeuvre.

Yet Capote was infamous for playing fast and loose with what us hacks call journalism ethics. He often didn’t take notes or tape-record interviews. He claimed to be able to regurgitate dialogue from memory. In regard to In Cold Blood, there are differing views. Many consider the book a spot-on work of literary journalism. Others claim half the book was wildly off base — if not outright fiction, at least a poor approximation of journalism.

As for “The Muses Are Heard,” I learned after reading it that a significant character in the book — a Norwegian businessman — was made up, ostensibly a device to allow Capote to insert more of his own opinions into the narrative. There were other literary flourishes as well that call into question the factual integrity of the entire piece.

The question is, does this matter? Does Capote’s mixing of nonfiction and fiction in the article in fact diminish the piece’s value as a work of journalism? My general reaction is to say not that much. I think Capote’s intentions were good. He wanted to give readers the most insightful piece of writing possible, something that would help them to better understand the Soviet people at a time of visceral Cold War tensions. He wanted to get at the flavor and the truth about the individuals of the Porgy and Bess opera company. If you believe that Capote’s intentions were good, then the piece comes off as a huge achievement.

The risk with this kind of nonfiction writing is that the reader must trust that the writer has good intentions. If the writer is altering reality for political or personal reasons, as a form of propaganda or persecution, then the whole enterprise falls apart. Just as readers trusted Joseph Mitchell, St. Clair McKelway and A.J. Liebling to use their literary license with care, they trusted Capote.

As for Shields, after reading Reality Hunger, I don’t trust him one bit. His strident philosophy of overt disregard and contempt for the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction is, to me, a leap too far. His most troubling assertion, of course, is that it’s okay to steal other people’s words without giving them due credit.

SCOTT: All right — stand back, buttercup, I’m bringing the bullet points:

• A lot of this book is composed with other people’s words — if I recall correctly, during an L.A. Times book-fest panel in April, Shields said about 45 percent — with the only attribution being in the back of the book. Here’s my question: So? I simply don’t see how this petty theft improves the book in any way, how it’s better than simply saying what he means in his own words. Indeed, I think it diminished it in some ways. Appropriation works better in art forms like visual art or music, and it works best when the consumer recognizes it (Aha! That IS a piece of the Mona Lisa in that collage!) and there’s a sudden, wholly unexpected transfer — of energy, of intellectual content — between the old work and the new. I love that brain-crackle. However, a beat from a song or piece of an artwork are much easier to identify than a similarly small patch of prose. While I recognized a few of Shields’ samples, most I didn’t, and therefore felt myself at first frustrated by, and ultimately bored by, the task of sourcing each one, hoping to feel that energy transfer. (Why bother sourcing the borrowed material, Shields defenders might ask; why not just roll with the overall point? Precisely because he has borrowed it instead of creating it — that makes me think there must be a significance to that act that I’m supposed to root out.) That ploy might sound “risk-taking” in concept; in practice is dulled the reading experience.

• It seems to me that only a tenured professor would be so cavalier about doing away with copyright laws; creators who rely on ownership of their work for their actual incomes, might have a different point of view (anyone who’s negotiated contracts with top-level freelance writers and artists knows how vital this is to them).

• It seems to me that the logical conclusion of Shields’ argument is a world in which everyone is an amateur remixer, where people no longer anticipate the work of talented artists for the enlightenment and pleasure it offers, but simply because it’s another thing to take apart and rebuild themselves. At the risk of appearing elitist, that sounds like a very unappealing signal-to-noise ratio.

• At some point, I began to wonder if the real appropriation here was Shields borrowing the outlaw bravado of hip-hop to make writing seem more “risky.”

• I think there’s a useful difference between “being influenced by” and “taking.”

• There’s too much stuff like aphorism 157, which reads, in its entirety: “The world is everything that is the case.” Next to which I scrawled in the margin: “pointless, empty ‘profundity.'”

• So when a friend recently asked what I thought of Shields and his book, my snap response was this: “Smart, clever, full of shit.” I should’ve put more thought into it, sure, but I’m not sure I was wrong.

GEOFF: In a recent piece written for the Huffington Post, Shields contends that “the citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger. I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time — feed off one another’s work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new.”

Here’s my objection, which elaborates on something you said above. While it’s certainly true that artists are inspired by other artists, and that to an extent they try to emulate the ones they most admire, I’m not convinced that artists are simply taking other people’s art and refashioning it. Rather, if they’re true artists, they’re striving to create something new and original. They don’t all succeed. But I know this: If I were an artist, and I produced a work of art that people genuinely admired, and I received a lot of public recognition for my work, I would be sick to my stomach knowing that I had appropriated someone else’s work in order to gain that recognition. My instinct would be to give credit where credit is due. “Yes, thank you for your kind words, but really, Hemingway did most of the work. I just rearranged a few things.” My guilt would compel me to do the very thing that Shields despises — provide a citation.

In the Huff Post article, Shields provides a long list of “examples from the history of Western civilization” in which one artist stole  from another. He mentions, among others, Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Muddy Waters, Martin Luther King Jr. and Danger Mouse. But truth be told, Shields’ list is pretty thin.

Meantime, his attack on the copyright laws is lacking in practical merit. More often than not, the egregious violator of copyright laws is not one artist stealing from another; it’s some lazy hack stealing from an artist with the intention of enriching himself by claiming someone else’s labors as his own. In other words, it’s apples (artists) vs. oranges (thieving hacks). This is not a problem that Shields addresses.

A creative work, I would argue, can be called art not by cobbling together other people’s creative exertions, but by being something that stands on its own, that offers something that feels new when it is loosed on the world. Shields repeatedly quotes the James Joyce line, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man,” as if it should be taken seriously that Joyce, one of the most celebrated novelists in history, simply lifted other people’s work and made it his own. Please.

Now, I can’t say that I know the temperature of the literary world, or the narrower academic literary field, but my feeling is that Shields is delusional, or at least lacking in perspective, when he says that “I and many other contemporary writers, musicians, visual artists, and copyright lawyers are trying to think in new and (we believe) exciting ways about quotation, citation, appropriation, and plagiarism.” On the contrary, I think very few people in these fields of endeavor are thinking much about this subject at all. Most of them are working their asses off to earn enough money to pay their bills and to gain a degree of attention for their work. They have neither the time nor the inclination to champion a fringe campaign to repeal the copyright laws so that David Shields doesn’t have to use quote marks. I do think Shields has titillated a segment of the literary crowd, given them something to chatter about. But I don’t think his budding movement has much staying power.

One area where I think Shields has a compelling point is in his assertion that “some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.” I disagree with his general distaste for most pure fiction today, because there is still plenty of great stuff being produced in short story and novel form. But I do think nonfiction in its various forms — literary journalism, memoir, history — can be every bit as literary and artful as fiction, and often has greater impact and import than most fiction. This is not a new idea, though. Seymour Krim, the New York beat essayist, made the case for nonfiction over fiction way back in the ’60s. Krim wrote: “People are hungry and desperate for straightforward communication about the life we are all leading in common; inflated or overwrought theory becomes an almost self-indulgent luxury — perhaps even a crime — under the hammer of the world we live in.”

It’s still sometimes desirable to read forms of fiction that allow us to “escape” from our everyday lives. Even as I make the case for meaningful, artful nonfiction in an effort to speak to the modern condition, I occasionally indulge the desire for escape by reading works of fiction that don’t come anywhere close to reflecting “the life we are all leading in common,” as Krim describes it. But for the most part, as a reader and a writer, I subscribe to the Shields/Krim argument for the relevance and value of nonfiction.

In summary: 1) There are gray areas between fiction and nonfiction, and the best writers know how to successfully navigate these dangerous waters; 2) Giving credit where it is due is important to maintain a writer’s integrity, artistic and otherwise, even if it somehow “domesticates the work”; and 3) Just try to write your own shit, okay?

SCOTT: Loved that Krim essay, by the way. Yeah, the hash in this rehash has been kicked around for years — decades ago, Philip Roth despaired of the novelist being able to keep up with the reality in the streets. Tom Wolfe has played paramedic more than once, feeling for the novel’s pulse — declaring it nearly dead in his introduction to The New Journalism, and later, in his notorious essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” dismissing most fiction except for a brawny realism-of-the-moment based on heavy reporting. (When I suggested as much to a defender of Reality Hunger, he said, basically, yeah, but Shields rephrased it nicely.) So not much of this discussion feels new, despite the fresh coat of hip-hop references Shields applies. “The important thing,” writes Marco Roth in a review of Reality Hunger that appeared in the lit mag n + 1, “is to make the reader believe they are witnessing a transgressive, transformative act.”

Roth very cleverly senses that behind Shields’ bravado, and probably behind the firm embrace this book has received from writers and academics, there throbs a very definite anxiety. High-end letters, the writing of books, essays and stories, has become professionalized and gentrified even as it’s lost its cultural centrality. And so this buccaneering overcompensation — we won’t follow your goddamn rules or ask your permission! — finally feels like at attempt to return to literature a little of the unruly, vanguard excitement we all feel it used to have.

Hey, I’m down with that impulse. But I still want to know what’s true and what isn’t; that’s my reality hunger.

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