Back in 2010, the writer David Shields published Reality Hunger, a broadside against the novel that argued that fiction had been outpaced and made irrelevant by the vivid presence of
“reality” in our lives; by the stories and pictures we share on social media, by sampling and appropriation in pop music and art; by docu-soaps on TV. How could books compete with the pace and the sheer weight of information we absorb every day? “The world exists,” he wrote. “Why recreate it?”
At the time Shields struck an isolated note, but half a decade later it looks like more writers than ever are having the same thoughts. A brief list would include writers like Rachel Cusk, whose abandoned fiction because she finds it “fake and embarrassing,” Geoff Dyer whose works weaves dreamily between fact and imagination without bothering to make much distinction and grandest of them all, the best-selling Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard whose six volumes of memoir are so revealing they helped trigger a breakdown in his wife and legal action from his uncle.
The challenge with abandoning fiction though is how you convey reality with the kind of intricacy and honesty of detail that brings fresh insight to the already-familiar everyday world.
This is not just a problem for authors. Throughout the four-decade history of hip-hop, rap artists have been obsessed with “keeping it real”. Yet authenticity in hip-hop often feels like no more than conformity to a set of clichés about life in the hood. Rappers pride themselves on delivering an unvarnished truth, but however honest they’re being, it’s mostly a particular sort of hypermasculine tale they spin with little room for the idiosyncrasies of everyday life.
Miami’s Rick Ross has built his fame on lurid tales about getting obscenely rich dealing drugs before turning to hip-hop, never mind the fact that he previously worked as a Florida corrections officer with a perfect attendance record.
The problem with cliches is that through repetition they dull us to genuine sensation. Words become so familiar, so over-used, they act as a barrier not a window, to perception. That’s why Drake’s new album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is so striking. Drake is a richly talented rapper. But, like titling your album like a suicide note, he’s also given to a level of self-reflection that tips into the maudlin. Sometimes it’s hard listening to a guy moaning about the problems that come with money and fame and the constant attention of too many women.
But like Knausgard or Shields, Drake also seems to have become bored with fictional story-telling. On If You’re Reading This he’s set himself the different task of detailing his life with an unsparing exactitude that even Proust, the writer who waged a life-long war against cliché, might have approved of. The album catalogues his two mortgages, worth $30 million; the rappers he has to act like he likes; the girls round his house asking for the code for his wifi “so they can talk about they timeline/ And show me pictures of they friends/ Just to tell me they ain’t really friends.” With the exception of the outsize mortgage, it’s a small world where petty annoyances and fake friends you’re forced to exchange glassy smiles with are never far away. Drake doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself a huge amount but the songs, strange and meandering as they are, remain compelling. In a genre where honesty has often taken a back seat to hyperbole, Drake’s confessional style of storytelling feels revelatory. Maybe this is finally what it feels like to keep it real.