“Reality cannot be copyrighted”

The other day an email was forwarded to me by David Shields, whose “Mimesis” appears in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The author of the email was another writer (and reader of the journal) who found “Mimesis” inspiring; it helped him, he said, to think about his own work.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece we published:
The novel has always been a mixed form; that’s why it was called “novel” in the first place. A great deal of realistic documentary, some history, some topographical writing, some barely disguised autobiography have always been part of the novel, from Defoe through Flaubert and Dickens. It was Henry James (especially in his correspondence with H.G. Wells) who tried to assert that the novel, as an “art form,” must be the work of the imagination alone, and who was responsible for much of the modernist purifying of the novel’s mongrel tradition. I see writers like Naipaul and Sebald as making a necessary postmodernist return to the roots of the novel as an essentially Creole form, in which “nonfiction” material is ordered, shaped, and imagined as “fiction.” Books like these restore the novelty of the novel, with its ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts, and restore the sense of readerly danger that one enjoys in reading Moll Flanders or Clarissa or Tom Jones or Vanity Fair—that tightrope walk along the margin between the newspaper report and the poetic vision. Some Graham Greene novel has the disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction. No person in it bears any resemblance to any actual person living or dead, etc., etc. London does not exist.”
An endnote adds: “[Jonathan] Raban assures me that Greene’s disclaimer... exists, but I can’t find it.”*

“Mimesis” is part of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which will be published in February. The book consists of numbered sections of various lengths (the one above is roughly medium-sized; some are a few lines, some a page or two), and, according to the jacket copy, it “argues that our culture is obsessed with ‘reality’ precisely because we experience hardly any.” According to Zadie Smith, on the other hand, who wrote about the book recently in The Guardian, the book “argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real—of what we might call ‘truthiness’—over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives.” (Smith says the book is “thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.”)

However one chooses to summarize it, the book certainly argues (hence that subtitle), and many readers will argue with it in return—something Shields clearly welcomes, striving as he does to provoke thought about fiction, writing, and modern life. Some readers, like the one I mentioned above, will feel not simply provoked but inspired: “Reality Hunger,” another reader writes, “has got me excited about thinking about novels and about the possibilities of fiction, in 2009 no less, and that’s more than worthwhile in my book.”

If, like some people, you can’t wait to read it, get started with what’s already out there: first, this 2006 essay from The Believer; then “Mimesis,” of course, in PEN America 11; and “All the Best Stories are True,” from issue #9 of A Public Space. After supporting those three literary magazines, you might check out two online excerpts: “Collage,” over at Kneejerk magazine, and “DS” (a PDF).

You should also check out this short essay by Shields, with video accompaniment, about a fight outside a Vietnamese restaurant, captured by videophone and uploaded to YouTube. Not to mention Shields’s contribution to the great “Year in Reading” feature over at The Millions, along with this footnote to that list from John Williams at The Second Pass.

Happy reading.

* A note about this note, and others from the book: Among the many subjects Shields explores are plagiarism and originality; one of the places he addresses those subjects is a preface to the endnotes—which he was apparently disinclined to include:
This book contains many unacknowledged quotations; it contains little else. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs had but that we have lost. The uncertainty about whose words you are reading is not a bug, but a feature.... Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Reality cannot be copyrighted.
Shields seems to be thinking along lines similar to Jonathan Lethem (who has written a blurb for Reality Hunger), who considered the matter in “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”

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