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The Real Housewives of 21st Century Fiction

(This essay was broadcast on WUWM’s Lake Effect program, 89.7, Milwaukee’s NPR affiliate on April 12, 2010. Listen to it here:


Stories—you know, fiction, actual made-up stuff—are dead.

I clicked off the last scene of Jersey Shore on my 52 inch flat-screen dual-quadrasonic surround-sound 5.1 plasma TV and began flipping through my Tivo’d shows and  I came across a new show I hadn’t even heard was in the pipeline but boy did it sound irresistible—the Real Housewives of Brookfield, Wisconsin.

But as the first scenes of the show zipped across my high def screen—fast cut leggy shots of stuffed boutique shopping bags, lunching ladies, snazzy Lexi and big SUV’s on swank Blue Mound Road, my mind drifted from the reality of the show and I thought how did we get here?  We seemed to have moved from TV shows that were stories—you know like 24, (it’s being cancelled) MASH, Mary Tyler Moore or Bonanza to TV that simply follows beautiful youngish women around while they gossip about the other wives or bachelorettes and here we are, indulging in somebody else’s reality as we muddle through our own—here we are in the world of reality television where we love to watch people that look better than we do, wondering what will they do next?

So, stories.

There’s a delightfully maddening book out there right now that’s causing a ruckus amongst writers of any sort.  It’s called Reality Hunger—A Manifesto and it’s by David Shields who is a very smart and accomplished writer.  His intentionally provocative book (manifestos are supposed to do that) is like a live grenade tossed across the table or e-book screen ready to blow up in the face of writers of both fiction—novels—and non-fiction—memoirs.

So. Memoirs—you know, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or more recently Mary Karr’s beautifully written Lit—are real-life tales of writers’ wonderful or (more likely) terrible and wrenching pasts that usually come complete with some sort of epiphany that we can take home and use in our daily lives—these books are known as creative non-fiction—not straight autobiography, but spiffed up to read like fiction. Sorta.  These books, and I’m certainly not knocking them—some of my best friends write ‘em—are selling like hotcakes.  It’s real stuff—it’s reality TV on the page. (Well, not really.) But we seem to have an increasing hunger for it.


Because both TV viewers and readers, as David Shields says, “thirst for a narrative, any narrative and will turn to the most compelling one.”   This is not new.  We are hardwired to love a tale, a good yarn, the what-happens-nextness of a good story—real or not.  It goes back to the Odyssey where Odysseus just wanted to go home—great story.  In the never-ending competition for the attention of readers, writers adapt.

What is new is that these days we’re really digging real lives or those that at least seem like it—maybe some with a dash of truthiness—but it’s a grey area where lives whose reality may be a little fuzzy and may or may not be slipping into fiction or some bit of I-made-it-upness that is where we find ourselves today. Remember Oprah and James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces a few years back where she tarred and feathered him for making some stuff up?

Instead of just enduring Oprah’s wrath, (for which she later apologized) Shields says that Frey should have responded, “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar.  I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.”  Wow. And culturally we probably would’ve been okay with that—after all, we’re okay with Jersey Shore.

So what about, er, real fiction?  Shields says that the novel—straight-ahead fiction, is dying and he has no use for it and that we, as a culture are moving away from invented stories.  He says that most novels require that you “read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written…the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage.”  He says dump the tired old plot of Hamlet and just fork over the seven or eight of Hamlet’s Greatest Hits—the Big Ideas that we came for in the first place—a confessional memoir by Shakespeare.  Shields maintains that fictional flash and writerly pyrotechnics are just that, expendable and are not why people read—Reality Hunger asserts that we read for ideas, in order to better understand what it’s like to be human or as Samuel Johnson said, “to better enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

I don’t know about you, but I love fictional flash—that tingle in the spine that makes me want to keep reading a story that somebody just out and out made up.  For me, that’s where the magic is. Like this little bit of Huckleberry Finn:

“This second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four mile an hour.  We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness.  It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our back looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a little kind of a low chuckle.  We had mighty good weather, as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all, that night, nor the next nor the next.”

New Huck Finns are being written as we speak. So I don’t think that the story is dead—fiction is still a wonderful spinal tap.

But by the way—that stuff about my fabulous flat screen TV and the Real Housewives of Brookfield?  I made it up.

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