The Story is Reality, the Novel is Memory


Reality is addictive. It’s what we want, what we strive to live. We cannot hope to avoid it and, because we are addicted, we cannot help but become desperate, depressed, recklessly anti-intellectual in the face of catastrophe. In a post-9/11, fractured world – one fractured by daily war, daily global warming, daily oil spills and offshore drilling and energy crises – we are faced with a reality that is not reality. We want whole, happy reality, not the splintering, decaying real of the current world. Yet, as much as we believe that this current reality is not ours, we continue to act as though this is the reality we crave. We want more Twitter posts by more people, more iPhone apps to do more of our tedious tasks that we’d rather not have to plow through, more videos of people doing hilarious and insane stunts posted on YouTube. This is identity crisis at its most basic: grasping at any semblance of reality, anything except our own. We are confronted with so many realities at all times, inundated by a deluge of commercials, movie trailers, music videos, and endless forms of reality-like media that we cannot help but feel out of place. In this sense, reality is in a constant state of evolution: ever-changing and always coming-to-be. This seems to be the point where David Shields enters into the discussion in his book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and his recent essay, “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built From Scraps.” Shields says, “We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world.” That is, the story is boring, contrite, because it no longer is able to tell us anything about the human condition or what reality is actually like. The problem is that fiction is not only about revealing something about the human character, about showing us something about the realities we inhabit, but it is reality in itself.


“Biography and autobiography,” Shields writes in his Manifesto, “are the lifeblood of art right now. We have claimed them the way earlier generations claimed the novel, the well-made play, the language of abstraction.” Creative nonfiction, the lyric essay, the prose poem: to Shields, these are the real models of art, not [the “waning authority” of] the novel. “Plot, like erected scaffolding, is torn down, and what stands in its place is the thing itself.” Reality. The real thing, the thing we want to see, to hear, to feel, is, to Shields, not the story. Constructed reality, hence, is not reality, but is merely a poorly-told lie. Shields is happy to be the preacher on the death of the novel, the end of story. He says that forms must evolve, that the novelist must progress towards a form the current culture demands.


How can the current culture, lost in identity crisis, demand anything? Why should the prose essay or the lyric poem or the memoir be forms the culture demands? Is Shields a prophet or is he merely hopeful?


The reality inherent in the novel is the reality created by the reader. The reader takes in the words, the story on the page, and constructs their own realities from the novel. The author does not construct the reality, he/she only implies it. If the novel is dead, if the story is decaying, then reality would be destroyed. We need stories to understand reality. The novel is no less of a real construction than the memoir just because the writer makes it up.


A word about art. The thing about art is that we seek it partly for aesthetic reasons. Literature and literary fiction are about language, about the meaningful construction of words that give the reader an ethereal vision of the world. Art evolves, it does. Indie rock music is different – in sound and structure – than it was twenty, even ten, years ago. The novel, too, will evolve into different types of storytelling, but it will not disappear. Indie music is still rock music, despite the infusion of electronic influence or the use of noise to populate songs. The novel will remain, though of course it will change, grow, and remain malleable over the years.


Shields is certain that nonfiction has to be as carefully constructed as good fiction. What better argument for fiction-as-reality is there?


But, memory, the stuff of memoir and nonfiction, is only representative of reality. It is not reality itself. Memory must be reconstructed as it seemed to happen. Memory is subjective. So is fiction.


Shields is absolutely right. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” Fiction and reality are equally subjective, neither can be remembered or constructed with any degree of actual reality. Yet. They are reality insofar as the reader, the subject whom signifies the art, creates reality from them. We could here go further, look into the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, and say that no reality is reality because we are always only constructing a version of reality through [subjective] language. Memory, created by language, is subjective. Memory is narrative. To murder narrative would be to render ourselves as automatons, devoid of the fantasy of reality created in fiction.

Shields writes [nonfiction] “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” Yet, as a fiction writer, I do the same thing. I am not the first to say this and neither is Shields. We hunger for reality, but we do not know it when we see it, we do not know what reality actually looks like. In this sense, because no reality is reality, everything, including the story and the novel, is real.

Notes: Read Shields’ essay on The Millions here. Then, go check out the book.


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