“Reality Hunger”

I’m a big fan of David Shields’ work, going back at least ten years now, maybe longer. I think he’s one of the most inventive and ambitious and original writers around. So I had high expectations for Reality Hunger, which I read in galley form a couple of months ago. I was not disappointed. It’s excellent. In fact, when the final copy of the book arrived in the mail the other day I was actually excited to think about reading it again.

The book is billed as “an open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the 21st century.” The official description:

Shields’s manifesto is an ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists who, living in an unbearably artificial world, are breaking ever larger chunks of “reality” into their work. The questions Shields explores—the bending of form and genre, the lure and blur of the real—play out constantly around us, and Reality Hunger is a rigorous, radical reframing of how we might think about this “truthiness”: about literary license, quotation, and appropriation in television, film, performance art, rap, and graffiti, in lyric essays, prose poems, and collage novels.

I may write more about it later, with my more specific reactions to it. Also: I may not. Meanwhile, if you are interested in these subjects, I recommend the book. More information here.

“Payback,” by Margaret Atwood

payback A while back I promised I’d start writing some about books on this site, since I get so many email requests from people looking for book suggestions. I should clarify that I’m not going to review or even recommend books, per se. I’m just going to write, on occasion, about stuff I’ve read lately — whether for pleasure or for work-related obligation. Hopefully I’ll say enough, coherently enough, that you can decide for yourself whether any given book I bring up is something for you to pursue further on your own. I’ll try a couple of these and see how — or if — you react, and decide from there whether to change it up (or even whether I should keep it up).

I’ll start with Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. I read it while preparing a recent-ish column. Adapted from a set of six lectures she gave in 2008, it’s very entertaining, full of interesting information, and wonderfully written.

Obviously Atwood’s subject is debt, as an idea. Near the beginning she writes: “We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful.” As she demonstrates, debt as sinful, or at least shameful, notion, certainly has quite a history. But over time, that’s changed — as cultural shorthand examples she notes that while Marlowe’s Faustus was guilty of over-spending, Dickens’ Scrooge was guilty of over-saving. In Scrooge’s redemption via dropping his hoarding, miserly ways, there echoes a new ethos, Atwood argues: “Money … is of use only when it’s moving, since it derives its value entirely from whatever it can translate itself into. … [C]urrency is called ‘currency’ because it must flow.”

She concludes by turning to other sorts of costs incurred and debts owed — to the planet, for instance. She returns to re-examine Scrooge.

[B]eing a creditor of such magnitude in the financial sense, he has himself become a debtor in the moral sense, and it’s this realization that’s at the core of his transformation. Money isn’t the only thing that must flow and circulate in order to have good value: good turns and gifts must also flow and circulate …. for any social system to remain in balance.

And here she posits a contemporary creature known as Scrooge Nuoveau, who does spend money: “On himself.”

“It’s not his fault that he’s a self-centered narcissist: he grew up surrounded by advertisements that told him he was worth it, and that he owed it to himself,” Atwood writes. This figure – who “his own debtor and creditor rolled into one” — is clearly a stand-in for the Western consumer. By and large the point she makes here is the costs being piled up in the destruction of the earth — someday, we’ll pay.

For me that idea of how Scrooge 2.0 thinks about debt — what he owes to himself — is the lasting insight. I think something close to this sentiment did indeed drive a lot of consumer debt-abuse in recent years (and probably still drives a lot of spending even now). I think I’ve said this before, but to me the key question isn’t always what we want vs. what  need, but rather what we feel we deserve.

Ad Naseam: A Survivor’s Guide To American Consumer Culture

41e-wu0eazl_sl500_aa240_From time to time — or really, almost every week — I get inquiries from friendly people and perfect strangers who want book recommendations. They always claim to have read my book, so I can’t suggest that. I’m going to start compiling a list. I swear. I’m really going to do it. And yes, as a matter of fact, I’m going to link everything through an Amazon Associates account. Profit motive.

Certainly Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture, is a book that I can recommend without hesitation — because after all, I was asked to write a forward for it. And I did so happily. (In fact, I did it for free! Profit motive isn’t everything!)

Here it is:

Active vs. Passive:

A Forward To Ad Naseam

Active vs. passive: That’s the crucial dichotomy everybody talks about in discussions of media culture in general, and the commercialized subset of that culture in particular. I believe I first encountered Stay Free! in 1997 (that’s the date on the oldest issue I still have, at any rate). An independent publication produced and distributed and finding its audience against astonishing odds, it was certainly the opposite of passive. I loved it, and remained a devoted reader of the print version and its online successor. It was smart and funny and entertaining and original: Well-researched and serious when it needed to be, and sharply satirical and almost reckless when it didn’t. Extremely informed interviews from scholars coexisted with smart-ass pranks. And the writing, by Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky, and their colleagues, always took an approach to commercial and media culture that was active in the very best sense of the word. Read more