Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reality Hunger's Discontent

The death warrant for the novel always seems to be a celebration. Literary forms grow and transform over time; undeniably, the novel may be the most open, enigmatic and constantly challenging of forms. Why would there be a need to pronounce the novel dead if it wasn’t in fact alive and well? One rarely hears novelists proclaiming the end of the memoir, or the end of poetry.
In fact, so often people have a vehement dislike for and anger towards “the novel”--to which I often think: what did the novel ever do to you? Because it is a difficult form that defeats. Maybe what ultimately defeats is a lack of commercial success.

The benchmark of commercial viability is difficult to come by. Only a few books make it to the darling list. One of the results of this is the attempt to invent a new form. Another is to go meta.

Because the form has existed for so long, so effectively, and in light of technology, it seems viable to question the novel’s means and methods are no longer relevant or somehow wanting. Experimental writers take this up as a badge of honor, subverting narrative in the “traditional” sense (The failure to play the commercial game is to buck tradition, to deny what a marketing machine expects and searches for).

To identify a benchmark as baseline is usually the best most writers can wish for; then, to remain undaunted in the long haul of writing a novel, to say nothing of writing one of originality, is a meager dream. This might explain the proliferation of that type of novel that people supposedly want to read, the block buster, which is usually anti-original, formulaic, genre work.

To imagine that anyone is so in love with “reality” or aching for it, we have reality TV programming. But don’t imagine that those reality narratives aren’t shaped into some from of drama in the editing room (to lesser or greater effect--I’m willing to bet that among the writers on those programs is a novelist or two).

Without the anointment of commercial success, and having failed to live up to the demands of the form, so called re-invention is necessary. This is also known as a good career move.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger appropriates samples, sound bites, other writer’s pithy phrases out of context, and re-contextualizes them. He is utilizing the plagiaristic taboo writ large. This is the nature of the web having its influence on publishing. As with blogs, there is so much work to reference and draw from, to lead the reader to more and more information. One has to get read. The present horizon of the mobile text (the ephemeral written word on the web) means the writer can’t count on anyone getting that far into any one particular book. Yet Reality Hunger is a book, not an online text.

Reality Hunger as a text is a great idea. The style is a gimmick that provokes, seizing on the controversial aspects of recent memoir scandal (the appropriating element), as well as wrecking the house on the way out the door (the death of the novel element). But I won’t call it art.

Providing an antidote to an imagined problem is a proven marketing ploy, its effectiveness is a foregone conclusion once the publisher rallies behind it. Whatever the form of Reality Hunger is, it will never replace the novel.

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