It's too soon to tell whether Shields's Reality Hunger will in the long run stand alongside Woolf's "Modern Fiction" and Robbe-Grillet's "Towards a New Novel" as one of the seminal end-of-the-novel-as-we-know-it pronouncements, but those comparisons give the measure of the book's ambitions.
Ever since -- oh, shall we say Defoe, leaving aside for the moment such forerunners as Petronius Arbiter and Lady Murasaki? -- and the rise of the novel, i.e., the conscientious effort to tell one's tale while also creating the impression of the texture of lived experience, moments periodically arrive when the inherited conventions and contrivances for creating that impression begin to seem over-familiar, too obviously artificial, unpersuasive. At such moments, a Woolf or a Robbe-Grillet will say, "all that is not working any longer -- let's try...this!" And so we get To the Lighthouse or La Jalousie, which may not have as many readers as Arnold Bennett or Romain Rolland did at the time Woolf and Robbe-Grillet fired their salvoes, but which so enlarge and reorganize the possibilities of the novel that in the next generation Bennett's and Rolland's novels join the vast ranks of the unread.
Shields thinks we are at such a moment now, and declares that the future belongs to a certain kind of non-fiction, something like what John D'Agata calls the lyrical essay, personal, exploratory, hybridized, marked by a power and suppleness of style, more akin to poetry than fiction, sojourning towards a truth and wisdom the writer reaches only though the process of writing. For instance, Nicholson Baker (at his least novelistic), Anne Carson, Elizabeth Hardwick (Sleepless Nights), George W.S. Trow, Geoff Dyer, Proust, Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello), David Markson.
(Speaking of Markson, Reality Hunger could almost be the fifth in the series that began with Reader's Block and concluded with The Last Novel. It is composed in short segments, and the larger part of the segments are quotations, which appear in the text itself without attribution -- at his publisher's insistence, an appendix identifies the various sources.)
Shields has a point. As he says, a great many novels are based on the author's experiences, with some rearrangement, consolidation of personages, streamlining of events, and so on -- while the same rearrangement, consolidation, and streamlining go on in memoir. So is there really a difference, or just a kind of continuum, with memoir perhaps having the advantage in not having to go through a lot of rigmarole and belabored invention?
I admit, many is the novel I pick up these days, even much admired, prize-winning ones, and as the old weary machinery of exposition begins to grind and shudder, I just want to sigh. Do we really have to go through all this again? Or I read in the NYT Book Review of a "poignant and unforgettable fictional portrait of..." and I just want to cry out, save me from poignant and unforgettable fictional portraits!
Mine is a minority view, I suspect. A good deal of the reception of Franzen's Freedom this past fall seemed to express relief and delight to have a sort of Stendhal/Tolstoy/George Eliot novel about the contemporary USA. But could any serious art or music critic get away with saying, "This guy is great! He's just like Courbet!" or "He's just like Brahms!"?
Truth to tell, I don't think bourgeois-realist novels are going away. Too many people love them. But I'm glad to see the kind of writing Shields is boosting is getting a boost, because I enjoy it and hope it prospers.
How old is the term "creative non-fiction," by the way? Twenty-five years, thirty? I remember the day when essay and memoir were the shabby-genteel poor relations of poetry and fiction, weedy and tweedy and without much prestige in the creative writing curricula of this our republic, but take a look at what fine strapping lads they are now, not about to take a back seat to anyone. John D'Agata (multitudinously cited in Reality Hunger) landed a one-two punch to the canon with The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, and now Shields has provided a declaration of independence, or perhaps of war. CNF is yielding no ground and taking no prisoners, by the looks of things.