Really?

Realism according to one dictionary of art is "A highly problematic word with different connotations in different contexts" but to most of us it means showing things as they seem to be. The term is stretched when it's used to described historical novels and some near-future science fiction but both of these forms depend on the creation of believable characters in recognisable worlds. In fantasy and magic realism we're not expected to believe that the events could happen, but the real world is still the springboard for action. Tolkien's world for example is a parallel one, where most things are just like they are here. Even surrealism depends for many of its effects on realism - only those who know what a train is will be surprised when Magritte paints one coming out of a fireplace. All of these genres use Representationalism - they at least in part depict things the way we see them even if they're used in strange or impossible situations. Abstract literature is less common than abstract painting, but Gertrude Stein, for example, gets close. Here's an example

A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt colour and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading

Most of what I read in short story workshops is very much at the Realism end of this spectrum. I'd like to suggest that more of us try a spectral shift. I said earlier that Realism is considered by some to be "highly problematic". For a start, one person's Realism is another person's Interpretation, and secondly the notion that Reality is what we can see has always been controversial. In the arts there's nothing especially natural about realism. Look at children's art, old Aztec or Egyptian art and you'll see that it's not realistic. Western art took hundreds of years to reach the stage where scenes used perspective and didn't have to be taken from a biblical or mythical story. With the advent of photography the desire for painted realism lessened to the extent that now it's distrusted. For example, in the sixties a Hyper-realism school of painters developed in the States. Their paintings are so realistic that it's hard to tell them from a photograph, making people question whether they're art at all. In literature it's a similar tale. Pilgrim's Progress and Gulliver's Travels were not shackled by Realism, and Shakespeare put parody and allegory before realism: Milan isn't by the sea and Verona doesn't have a Pig and Whistle pub. With the rise of the novel, Realism became popular. Roland Barthes wrote about the "Reality Effect" - descriptions added to novels merely to give a feeling of objects existing for their own sake rather than for the sake of aesthetics or plot - an attempt to make the reader believe the make-believe world, but a look through the literary successes of recent years suggests that in serious literature as well as the pictorial Arts, Realism has passed its sell-by date. Only in mainstream cinema and TV (especially fly-on-the-wall documentaries) does it still have a majority holding.

If Realism is so artificial why does it still appeal to many? Why are stories promoted as being "based on real life". Why do factors like "Authenticity" determine judges's decisions, as if the best writers were those who produced the most believable fakes? Perhaps it's because the easily digested content of mainstream Realism satisfies readers in many non-literary ways: providing an opportunity for emotional empathy, the satisfaction of recognition, the pleasure of relaxing and listening to a good old yarn. One can admire a work of realism's precision, but in the end it's just an artifact that's dropped off the conveyor belt of reality, hand-finished in the name of art to make it sufficiently different from other products, something that at its best is so believable that it could be real. Wolfgang Iser in "The Play of the Text" suggests that realism holds sway in societies where, as in the cosmos of Greek thought or of the medieval world picture, there are clear boundaries between the knowable and unknowable. In such societies a realistic treatment of something unknown to many is sufficient to supply something missing from people's lives. Perhaps the same applies to individuals. In particular I suspect that someone is partial to realism if they assume a clear distinction between language and content, believing that if the language is clear enough it will become invisible and pure reality will show through. But to me language isn't a story's decoration or something put between the reader and the content, it's inextricably part of the experience of reading the story.

I'm not suggesting that we should abandon realism, only that we shouldn't always be trapped by it. It's often used thoughtlessly, and used too conventionally. I don't want every tree to talk and dragons to lurk in every airing cupboard. I would like to see more individualistic work, a reaction to the threat of realism akin to that of the impressionists and expressionists up to a century ago - more work that uses language itself rather than the objects it depicts. As well as expressing that which has been expressed before (though perhaps ne'er so well) Art can - indeed should - create new things.

If you listen to real conversation or think through events you'll see that life is very much untidier than mainstream, conventionalised realism. Once you realise that Realism isn't realistic, you'll gain more freedom of expression. Joyce's Ulysses is a set of attempts to be realistic but there are many other ways - realism is in the eye of the beholder. This might mean more work for the reader, but think of it as providing the reader with a recipe plus the ingredients rather than serving up an instant meal. Like Magritte, you can reorganise components of your experience into something impossible yet accessible. Like Van Gogh you can infuse words with your own vision without becoming esoteric. Let language be your clay: mould it into interesting shapes inspired by, but not slave to, the real world. And the next time you write a realistic piece remember that you have to use language so you may as well exploit its uses, which go far beyond imitation. You don't have to go as far as Gertrude Stein, but I think it's worth experimenting. Go for it!


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Updated in March, 2000
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