Because of its premature birth, the critics who reviewed the book when it first came out largely missed the point. They generally took it as a manifesto of nonfiction over fiction, and it provoked an odd defensiveness, rather embarrassing in hindsight. James Wood, in The New Yorker, read the book as little more than a critique of a bad year for the novel: “His complaints about the tediousness and terminality of current fictional convention are well taken: it is always a good time to shred formulas. But the other half of his manifesto, his unexamined promotion of what he insists on calling ‘reality’ over fiction, is highly problematic.” Similar remarks praising the virtues of the good old-fashioned novel appeared in the Guardian, The New York Times, and elsewhere.
Even without the advantage of hindsight, this angle on the text was a bit silly. Reality Hunger was not anti-novel. Shields obviously loved novels deeply. He was diagnosing a phenomenon that was already well underway: nonfiction was increasingly serving the functions that the novel once served.
Shields’s prophecy has been proven. The essay is the form of the Facebook age. I tell a friend to read a novel maybe once or twice a year. A couple of times a day, at least, I recommend a piece of nonfiction to my social network, which shares pieces of nonfiction with me. If all of my social interactions were totaled up, a significant portion of them would be recommending essays to people and having essays recommended to me in turn. The podcast, which is, in its most sophisticated expressions, morphing into a form of recorded essay, has made itself a truly mass medium in a few short years. “We all need to begin figuring out how to tell a story for the cell phone,” Shields wrote in a feat of premonition. “One thing I know: It’s not the same as telling a story for a full-length DVD.”
The merely literary questions, however, the questions for readers and writers, are not what distinguish Reality Hunger as the truly necessary book that it has become. Shields identified a spiritual state that has come to dominate American culture as a whole. Think of it as the ultimate trend: “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” Nabokov famously said that the word “reality” is meaningless without quotation marks. We are all living inside those quotation marks now. Reality Hunger is an artifact from the birth of the post-fact.
It was only through a glass darkly that Shields could see what was happening, but he did see it. He saw it, but he did not know quite what to make of it. “Facebook and MySpace are crude personal essay machines,” he wrote. “In 2009, more votes were cast for American Idol than Barack Obama for president: 97 million for American Idol and, on Election Day, 70 million for Obama.” Of course Shields could never have predicted that Facebook would swallow most other media, or that reality television would be the vehicle to the presidency. The vast serpent he was describing had only forced its jaws over our feet and had not yet begun to digest us whole.
Like an archeological relic, Reality Hunger provides essential information about the crumbling of meaning in our time, showing that, as recently as 2010, it was still possible to discuss facts as if they existed. A key part of Reality Hunger is Shields’s defense of the batch of fact-bending memoirs that emerged in the first decade of the 21st century, most notably A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. Shields defended Frey and various others on the grounds of artistic license — epistemological fluidity as an aspect of the essay’s facility with assimilation, collage, and pastiche. “There are no facts,” he concluded, “only art.”
It’s a line that reads very differently after the 2016 election. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of rereading Reality Hunger is how its most sophisticated and nuanced ideas of the interplay between memoir and reportage, between facts and identity, have been utterly assimilated into everyday life. You don’t need to explain to the alt-right, or to most college students for that matter, that “the illusion of the facts will suffice.” Everyone understands, implicitly and instinctively, that you have your identity first and you make up your facts after.
The reality hunger is a hunger for a shared worldview, a shared identity around which a reality can be fashioned, not a hunger for facts or for policy. That’s what Shields understood so clearly, so presciently. Nobody wants the truth. They want reality. The market, and even the legal system, increasingly obeys this principle. Remember: Gawker Media went out of business for presenting a fact. The audience for Alex Jones’s InfoWars has swollen to 7.5 million unique readers a month, even as his own lawyer described his journalism as the work of a “performance artist.” Shields dreamed of a post-fact world, and it has come to pass. He imagined it as the purview of a cadre of bold literary experimentalists; instead it belongs to a Republican president of the United States, who happens to be a reality television star with the world’s most elaborate comb-over.
But you know all that. If you’ve been paying the slightest attention to any media whatsoever, you know it all too well. The question is what to do now that the very categories of relevant and irrelevant, meaningful and meaningless, are slipping away from lived experience. What is the role of those who make meaning in a world of its slippage? What does it mean to write post-fact?
One central contradiction is becoming apparent: narrative nonfiction is increasingly dominant, as Shields predicted, but it has, at the same moment, failed more or less completely at its most basic task. Nobody believes that journalists are communicating reality. We live in the greatest age of information the world has ever known, and the information is not received. Less than half of Americans believe that climate change is man-made. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe in angels. The rise of nonfiction has become a vehicle, in a hideous irony, of a great mystification.
The reasons for that mystification are partly technological, partly intellectual. Facebook is the vehicle of the triumph of the essay but also the vehicle of its defeat. It “democratizes” the essay, which means that it bends the production of nonfiction toward purer and purer capitalism. The creator is entitled to nothing, the owner of the means of production is entitled to everything, and the market is served ever more faithfully. Information grinds to indistinct mush because, for the owner of the means of dissemination, what counts is simply bulk of exposure, and for the market, as Shields recognized, “the illusion of a fact will do.”
The intellectual failure has been, at least, more avoidable than the technological change. The Trump period has revealed a critical paradox. For at least a generation, the foremost pursuit of the intellectual class — both academic and journalistic — has been radical skepticism, the production of ever-deeper forms of critique about institutions and people in power and their motives. But the joy of dismantling institutions requires strong institutions to take pleasure in dismantling. The childlike glee of thumbing your nose at the grown-ups who run things requires grown-ups to be running things. What happens when the grown-ups are gone?
Again, Shields articulated the crisis before it happened: feeding the reality hunger leads to deeper illusions. In a small book crammed with great insights, the greatest may be that only new approaches provide the sensation of the real we crave. Journalism is mistrusted because the audience feels they know how it works. They don’t know how it works, at all, but they feel that they do, which is what matters. They feel that they have it figured out so they don’t believe it.
Cliché is anesthetic death. Only the unfinished building lets in light. Fiction, in its greatest period, was deeply unfinished as a genre. It was written for the rich or possibly the poor, for reasons of high art or possibly low commerce, by radical invention or antique saga-spinning, about the everyday or the extraordinary, through modes of parody or preaching. Social media has thrown nonfiction into a similar happy confusion. What is simple reportage? What is memoir? What is a blog post? What is an essay? What is high and what is low? What is commercial and what is art? All of the standards and distinctions are melting; old forms, superheated in the furnace of the internet, may be molded into new.
The recent explosion of interest in the podcast must be attributed in part to the fact that people are not used to them yet. Podcasting hasn’t yet found its ideal form. Once it has, everyone will consume them as banally as they consume all other media. Podcasts feel real now. Soon they will feel like just another format and everyone will be ensconced comfortably in their silos. Everyone wants reality but nobody wants reality — the same old story.
A whole new range of literary problems has emerged that no one could have imagined even five years ago. “My task […] is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.” That’s how Joseph Conrad defined literature. First you have to see. Then you have to share what you’ve seen. Then you have to be willing to see what others see. Every step in that equation is now up for grabs. The essay as a genre will have to be reimagined from the ground up.
We live in dangerous times and need dangerous writing. How many pieces do you read that feel dangerous? The stakes could not be higher. The loss of the possibility of sense is at stake. The content of human connection is at stake. Logos, ethos, and pathos have been stirred into a hot sticky mess. The willingness to blur fact and fiction, in a world of fulminant identity-creation, turns out not to be revelatory at all. It turns out to be stupid — unimaginably stupid, profoundly willfully stupid. The fundamental question for writing today is how to make the world less stupid. That is also the fundamental political question of our time.
The reduction of experience to identity, and speech to performance, and thought to language games has resulted, not in a more sophisticated and nuanced appreciation of ourselves and others, or in more compassion, but in near-total myopia and self-absorption. Post-fact is, first and foremost, a turning away from the mess of the world and the unspeakable complications of human reality. We have closed rather than opened.
In a world turned upside down by reality hunger, Reality Hunger needs to be turned upside down too. The post-fact world no longer demands, as the condition of creative fluidity, a rush away from the tyranny of facts, as Shields imagined. Rather the opposite: the moment demands an art of focused observation. The essay is the theater of the brain, but it is also a harvest of vision. We need a new art of information. We need to start building it right now.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a columnist with Esquire magazine.