Two failures

Lately, though I should be concentrating on other things, I’ve been slightly preoccupied with two books, both of which must be classed as failures. They are the terribly-titled ‘But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury’ by Gillian Freeman and ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields. I think in both cases what has interested me is monitoring my own reactions to these books, more than their actual content.  


‘But Nobody… etc’ is an attempt at a novel about the Bloomsbury group, settling mainly on Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. It is written in short passages, of no more than a couple of pages each, and usually of far less than a page. It manages to be both bad and a bit fantastic at the same time. I try to stay away from reviewing anything negatively because there is an enormous temptation towards rhetorical excess in negative reviews – ‘I would rather eat my own eyes than be forced to read another word of this’ and such. I’m of the belief that it useful to read bad writing, in a way, as you learn more about what makes good reading good, so although I can’t sing this book’s praises I’m going to write about it anyway.  

The image that comes to mind to describe the experience of reading this book is that of skimming a stone – you bounce across the surface of these people’s lives without ever plopping into the depths. If you haven’t read anything about the Bloomsberries I would imagine that it would be incomprehensible; you certainly don’t learn anything new, and the characterisation of Woolf etc is entirely lacking in insight.  

Some scenes are so short they become inadvertently hilarious. The following is an entire section:  

The rose was on the bedside table. Clive and his married mistress were naked in bed together. They had just made love. (Gillian Freeman, ‘But Nobody… etc’, Arcadia, p.30)  

As this illustrates, the writing itself is the main problem. It shows an astonishing lack of editing:  

Vanessa (and nine-year-old Julian, who was listening with almost adult intensity) was no longer pregnant.  

I promise, on my life, that is an actual quote from the book. I may even take a photo of the page to prove it. It is also fast becoming one of my favourite quotes from any book.  

Actually, very little else needs saying apart from that quote. Except for that you get the sense that the publishers have been dazzled by the subject matter, so much so that they haven’t fully evaluated the content; which leads me on to my second failure, ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields, where the same phenomenon has occurred.  


This is a failure on a far grander, more pompous scale. I have developed a fondness for ‘But Nobody… etc’ whereas my feelings for ‘Reality Hunger’ vary between disappointment and irritation. Shields’ subtitle is ‘A Manifesto’. ‘Reality Hunger’ is not a novel, but a non-fictional ‘collage’ of small passages, most of which are quotes from other sources rearranged into a new text. You can see why I was excited: the structure is exactly that of ‘The Arcades Project’ by Walter Benjamin, which the reader(s) of this blog will know is one of  my all-time, desert-island favourite books. He even quotes Convolute N, 1,10:

This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage.  

Shields’ basic premise is that the novel is no longer relevant in today’s post-postmodern society, and instead the ‘lyrical essay’ should take central place as a means of artistic expression. Reality is the new fiction, so to speak. His ‘manifesto’ has garnered an extraordinary amount of praise from various writers, many of whom he uses in the book and none who make the link back to Benjamin. In interviews, Shields says that the form of the book came to him in the shower, when he suddenly felt that this ‘juxtaposition of quotations’ was the way forward. He doesn’t mention Benjamin, or that he must have had the ‘Arcades’ in the shower with him at the time. I find this irritating on a number of levels: 1) because I like it when people talk about WB; 2) because it comes over as either bad research, if he hadn’t heard of the ‘Arcades’, or disingenuous, if he’s trying to take credit for a form developed by WB; and 3) because I’d like to know why, if he had heard of the ‘Arcades’, he chose this form, developed in 1927, as the answer to the problems of post-postmodern literary culture? Elsewhere he quotes someone or other saying ‘Modernism has run its course’, but has it, if this overtly Modernist form provides Shields’ structure? If anything, this book proves that we haven’t yet fully absorbed the revolutions of Modernism. To dismiss something whilst borrowing so heavily from it is completely bizarre.

The blurb, in an astonishingly irritating fashion, tries to create a division between those who will champion this book as a revolutionary call-to-arms and those small-c conservatives who will ‘defend the status quo’ and therefore hate the book. This is false, because Shields’ message is neither new nor revolutionary, which is why I class it as a failure. The only people who will either praise or condemn it in these terms are those who do not fully understand its context.

Like Freeman’s novel, ‘Reality Hunger’ is a failure of form in relation to content: Freeman sets herself the task of writing a novel in fragments and then fails to do anything with it, and Shields repeatedly states the need for revolution but does so within a framework that was developed by WB in 1927. The quotes from other writers merely show up Shields’ own brittle thoughts: his pseudo-aphorisms are empty and weightless. People who haven’t read or heard of the ‘Arcades’ will think this is brilliantly new, and generally brilliant, because the gaps in Shields’ patchy thought will be filled with their own concordant beliefs. People who have read or heard of the ‘Arcades’ will be left with the feeling of a massively evaded opportunity: Shields avoids doing anything new or exciting with this form, and actually manages to coerce his collection of quotations into a fairly monologic whole which doesn’t produce anything of the vertiginous excitement of reading Benjamin.  

However, I’m glad I bought the book, because it has sparked off a lot of thoughts, precisely because it is so badly done. Taking apart different aspects of its failings will provide hours of fun, and probably a good few more posts on here. Shields’ smug assertion of being provocative, of being radical, is, like Freeman’s writing, unintentionally hilarious when brought to bear on the reality of his work; but nevertheless he is provoking, as failures often can be in a way a success could never achieve.


2 thoughts on “Two failures

  1. Dear Jo,

    Just wanted to say that your blog keeps getting better and better. Truly enjoyable and very well written. Could only get better if we were chatting in person with a good cup of tea or a bottle of wine, or both! Detached, as I am, from the academic literary world, these snipets bring back very fond memories. Thank you.

    I am so proud of you. Don’t give it up :)


    Your Spanish friend (am I still the only one, I wonder? haha), all the way from Canada’s west coast ~


    1. Thank you, Beatriz, that’s really lovely. You’ve brought a lump to my eye and a tear to my throat- or should that be the other way round? I miss our conversations in the kitchen at Sydney too. Damn Canada for being so far away!


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