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David Shields to read at Prairie Lights

BY REBECCA KOONS | APRIL 07, 2010 7:30 AM

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With the explosion of social media and reality television in the past several years, much of mainstream society has become accustomed to viewing the world through a TV, computer, or cell-phone screen.

It is this cultural obsession with “reality” that prompted author David Shields to write his latest work, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Shields, 53, argues that this societal fixation is the result of a lack of real experience in personal life.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate will return to Iowa City to read from and discuss this manifesto at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

For him, writing began as a means of establishing clear communication. Growing up with a stutter, he knew he “needed to turn broken language into fluent language.” Inspired by the works of writers such as Marcel Proust, David Markson, and Geoff Dyer (to name a few), Shields continually challenged himself as a writer.

“They taught me to break form,” he said.

UI English Professor David Hamilton noticed this quality in Shields during his studies in the Writers’ Workshop, and beyond. Having published an essay Shields wrote in The Iowa Review, Hamilton noticed his distinctive proclivity towards pushing literary limits.

“He tends to identify a boundary that politeness hesitates to cross and crosses it,” Hamilton said. “Of course, in a culture of university-based art that applauds that sort of thing, it’s less of a risk than it may seem. He can also be quite funny.”

Reality Hunger was a project involving massive amounts of research. Ultimately taking six years to finish, the book was composed in a process that Shields likens to film editing.

Because writing Reality Hunger involved using numerous outside resources, he was set on completing a work that consisted of “thousands upon thousands of pieces,” then edited to create flow and consistency.

“Friends say how personal the book is,” he said. “I love how the book is built from other people’s quotes, but it’s all — in an odd sense — mine. It’s my voice via other voices.”

Because of his penchant for breaking the molds of convention and the strong conviction contained in his most recent work, Reality Hunger may produce a number of reactions, both positive and negative.

Hamilton understands that Shields’ work has been viewed as provocative, and simultaneously thoughtful, in recent years.

“That we prefer ‘truth’ to ‘fiction’ seems significantly evident in the culture around us,” Hamilton said.

Regardless of public reaction, Shields remains focused on a noble cause: renewing contemporary literature and other art forms for the 21st century, the primary objective being to “obliterate boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and overturn laws governing appropriation.”

“So long as we’re in a world of simulation, we’ll crave the real,” he said.


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