We’ve been sold a bill of goods. The original crime was committed a century and a half ago when literary romanticism was kicked to the curb by Flaubert, Tolstoy, Twain, and other disciples of a new religion: realism. I’m not claiming that I prefer romanticism to realism. I do not. But if I’m going to invest my literary capital, I want to know what I’m buying, and I think I’m a victim of a fraud. The ol’ bait and switch. I paid for realism, but what I got just isn’t very much like reality.
Realism tends to frown on spirituality (a faith in the unseen), but it has its own dogma that its acolytes follow blindly. A major article of realist faith is a certain “statistical assumption”: that is, the broader the statistical sampling addressed, the more realistic the work. I sometimes give my students what scientists call a “thought experiment.” Suppose I fly over to England and somehow convince Queen Elizabeth to come back with me. While she’s recovering from jet lag, I call up my friend Trixie Snodgrass who clerks at Wal-Mart and ask her to drop by my World Lit class that afternoon. I bring along the queen, stand her side-by-side with Trixie. Suppose I did that, I ask my students. Now tell me, which one, the queen or the Wal-Mart clerk, would be more real? Few take the bait. They’re equally real, they say. Okay, I continue, let’s say we write short stories employing both as characters. Which story would be the more realistic, the one with Queen Elizabeth as our central character or the one with Trixie? Among those students still awake, nearly all vote for the Trixie story.
Then I spring the big reveal on them. But I don’t know any Trixie Snodgrass, I tell them. She’s a pure invention. Is her story still more realistic than Queen Elizabeth’s, who truly exists? Sure, right, whatever, who cares, they mutter, gazing longingly at the door. I care because I’m a literature wonk, and I find it interesting that the answer is very definitely, yes, the Trixie story would still be considered more realistic by virtually all of us. Trixie may not be real, but she is more realistic, and that’s because there are thousands of Wal-Mart clerks but only one Queen Elizabeth. In the realism game, numbers count.
Realism abhors rarity. One of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s greatest works of fiction is a wonderful little tale, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” Handsomest drowned man in the entire world? Preposterous! We can’t possibly accept this as realism after a title like that. Indeed, the subtitle, “A Tale for Children,” underscores how far we apparently are from adult fare (realism).
If realism shuns superlatives (handsomest), reality does not. Another thought experiment. We somehow get our hands on all the drowned men in the world, lay them side-by-side on the beach, stroll past examining them for vestiges of pulchritude, then cast our ballots. One of them would indeed be judged the handsomest of all. Absurd? Sure, in literary realism it is, but it’s still true. (Garcia Marquez has it both ways, though—or maybe three ways. The more closely we and the villagers in the story look at that handsomest drowned man, the more ordinary he becomes until we wind up pitying him, not because he drowned but because the poor slob was just one of us after all. And then that marvelous son-of-a-gun Garcia Marquez throws us for another loop by causing the clumsy oaf’s very ordinariness to somehow magically transform him into a mythic being capable of bringing color, freshness, hope to the villagers and their drab world. Realism? You bet, but the magical variety.)
Realism’s “statistical assumption” governs setting, too. I daydream about being a writer of detective novels with a whole series set in various exotic locales. My publisher, bless his heart, would require me to travel to each locale (on his dime, of course) to soak up the local color, do a little research, get the details right. For “Murder at the Taj Mahal,” I’d fly to Agra, sample the food, observe the dress and manners, tour the Taj Mahal a number of times, take photos, study the architecture, decorations, and furnishings up close so that my detective and murderer would inhabit a world that corresponds in every detail to the actual one. While I’m enjoying myself in Agra, some other poor jackass of a detective story writer still kicking himself for not beating me to the exotic-locale idea will have to content himself with setting his “Murder Next Door” in a nondescript bungalow in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Peoria. He won’t have any specific bungalow in mind—it’ll just be “a bungalow”—and won’t spend much time describing the details. Which setting will be considered by nearly everyone, including me, to be more realistic? “Murder Next Door,” of course, even though the specific setting is invented and not very vividly described while my Taj Majal is right there for all to see, assuming you can afford the airfare. There are millions of nondescript bungalows but only one Taj Majal, however, and realists get jittery around those “only ones.”
The detective novel hypothetical is interesting because, if I’m right and of course I think I am, the conclusion is counter-intuitive. That is, it would appear logical that the more specific and accurate the detail, the greater degree of realism. Such is clearly not always the case.
Take dialogue, for instance. As an undergrad, I had a professor who said that his idea of hell was to be condemned to live forever in a room where he was forced to read dialogue written in colloquial language.
I feel his pain. I’m a Dickens fan, but I’d gladly take a beating rather than read Hard Times again and be subjected to Stephen’s colloquialisms: “I ha’ coom . . . to ask yo yor advice. I need ‘t overmuch. I were married on Eas’r Monday nineteen year sin, long and dree. She were a young lass—pretty enow—wi’ good accounts of herseln.” Dickens is hardly the worst offender at this sort of thing. Read a few of the American local colorists if you dare.
For dialogue, I vastly prefer Raymond Carver, master of the American short story and leading figure in what was then called “the new realism” (now the old new realism). Carver is also sometimes called a “minimalist,” a label I find unhelpful if not downright wrong in reference to his writing in general. “Minimalist” works pretty well for his dialogue, though. Simple, direct, shorn of all frills, never an ostentatiously colloquial gesture, certainly no phonetic spellings. From “A Small, Good Thing”: “Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m not any longer, if I ever was. Now I’m just a baker.”
I would guess that nearly all readers today would prefer Carver’s dialogue and would consider it more realistic than Dickens’ and that of all those other local colorists who favored the sort of colloquial dialogue that sets our teeth on edge and we might even find laughable.
Here’s the funny thing, though. Those writers who employed colloquial dialogue thought they were writing realistically. We can picture them listening to and thinking about the way people actually talked as opposed to the way they spoke in nearly all books and plays before them, and they tried to reflect this speech accurately as possible using phonetic spellings, repetitions, etc. I think it could be argued that the way those writers recorded speech was closer to the way people actually spoke than the way Carver records contemporary American speech. Consider:
“Did you eat yet?” “No, did you?”
“Jeet yet?” “No, jew?”
The first exchange is Carveresque. He would never inflict the second exchange upon his readers. I would submit, though, that the second exchange (which the local colorists might employ if they were still around today) is much closer to the way we really talk.
We actually speak in repetitions, slurred words, dropped g’s on ing endings, and so on. None of this is found in Carver, yet we find his dialogue more realistic than the local colorists’. What gives? The language itself has changed, of course, but that’s not the answer. The answer is that the fashion has changed. In other words, we don’t like Carver’s dialogue better because it’s more realistic; we like it better because we like it better.
Another instance of fashion in realism changing over time involves the way many earlier writers identified the city where the action transpires: that is, a capital letter followed by a blank. “There occurred in the town of B______,” for example.
What the author employing this strategy is insinuating is something along the lines of There is an actual city whose name I could supply if I wanted to, but to protect the innocent, avoid libel suits, etc., I’ll just hint at the identity. In other words, the writer wants us to infer that the city is real, hence the story itself is true. It’s an effort at realism.
The practice was superseded by a newer generation of writers who did indeed provide actual place names. Joyce didn’t set his stories in D______ but in Dublin, even entitled his collection of stories with his hometown’s name and while working on the stories on the continent would write to his brother Stanislaus back in Dublin and ask him to check on the name of such and such a street, such and such a café, and so forth. He wanted to get the details right.
Compared to Joyce and his contemporaries, the capital letter-plus-blank of earlier writers seems quaint, maybe even comical. Still, I’m not sure we can say that the modernists were better writers, or even better realists. It’s more accurate to say that the fashion in realism had changed. It will change again.1
Realism not only denies what fiction really is (writing), but it distorts what reality really is.
There are few things realists abhor so much as coincidence. Let’s take just one example, Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I have a writer-friend who detests the story because the action turns on a colossal, totally improbable coincidence. The story opens with a family getting ready to set out on a vacation. The father and mother want to go north to Tennessee, the grandmother arguing for south into Georgia. As it happens, in the same scene they read in the paper about a killer escaped from prison in Florida, reportedly heading north. Grandma gets her way; they drive south, take a wrong turn, get in a wreck (because Grandma quite literally “lets the cat out of the bag”), and are happened upon by the killer and his cohorts, who slaughter the entire family.
To get the family to meet up with the killers on that lonely road, at least five major steps are involved, any one not transpiring exactly as it did and the story doesn’t happen. Coincidence? Sure. Big coincidence? Yes sir. Statistical chance of it happening? I don’t know, probably several million to one. Not very realistic, right? Most definitely not.
My friend may scoff, but neither he nor any of the rest of us would bat an eye at the same story in real life. Say you get up in the morning, open your newspaper, and over coffee and toast read about a family slaughtered on a country road in Georgia by escaped convicts. Authorities still haven’t determined what the family was doing on the road. Do you slam the newspaper down, say, “I’m not reading this rag anymore if they’re going to publish preposterous crap like that!” Of course not. It may not be realistic in fiction, but similar coincidences, countless coincidences of all kinds, transpire all around us every day. One might argue that life is made up primarily of the exasperating things.
The final example of the “unreality” of realism that I’d like to discuss is perhaps more philosophical, or at least thematic, than the foregoing. That is, realism is characteristically pessimistic whereas earlier fiction trended optimistic. Wait, though. Now that I think of it, maybe it’s just that ol’ statistical assumption in another guise.
Life as it’s actually lived is more often bad than good, the realists apparently assume; therefore, realistic fiction should also be. Hence, in realistic fiction we see poverty more frequently than wealth, hunger more than satiety, illness more than health, death more than life, unhappiness more than happiness. And please, no weak-kneed happy endings here.
I’m not exactly a Pollyanna. I can wax cynical with the best of ‘em. I’m quite aware that some people are born with the shitty end of the stick in hand, and it remains firmly lodged there for the rest of their lives. Even the lucky ones better keep looking over their shoulders because Life can stomp the living crap out of them any time it decides to. And of course no one gets out of here alive, so if you’ve concluded that death is the ultimate bad, bad enough to cancel out all the good, then, yes, you should take your realism straight with a hemlock chaser. Even so, based on my three-score-years-and-ten experience, I’d argue that all the bads-versus-goods cited above have the statistical assumption backwards: It’s the good that’s normal, prevalent, the bad that’s uncharacteristic of everyday life.
The closest call is poverty versus wealth. I suppose it depends upon how one defines the two. Certainly there are more poor people than wealthy. But if we recast the terms as “People who live in poverty” versus “People who do not”—which I think is more useful in reference to the choices that the writers faces—the conclusion is different, at least in the United States and most of the Western world. A large majority of Americans do not live in poverty, yet the feeling we get from our fiction is that the greater the poverty, the more realistic the story. I fail to see the logic.
Hunger versus satiety? Maybe I’m just naïve, or pathetically insensitive to what’s right in front of me, or maybe I’ve just been incredibly lucky, but I’m not aware of knowing a single person in my entire life who endured chronic hunger.
No author in my experience has written more vividly about hunger than the Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski (who tells us that you’ve never been truly hungry until you look at another man and think, food). It’s hard to imagine that it could be taken to a more ghastly extreme than the brain-eating scene in his short story, “The Supper.” No doubt we’d all conclude that the story is intensely realistic whereas a story featuring, let’s say, a grand banquet with a dozen courses is less so. But why? I’ve been to I couldn’t tell you how many banquets in my life, if not a dozen courses food enough that the leftovers filled garbage bag after garbage bag. It’s generally foolish to tempt fate, but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict I’ll go to a few more banquets but never see, much less take part in, a brain-eating scene. Now, you could accuse me of falling into the statistical assumption trap, this time I being on the side of the “broad,” but no. I’m not arguing that the brain-eating scene is “unreal.” In fact Borowski’s stories are autobiographical, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if “The Supper” was based on an actual incident. I’m just not sure why such stories should be considered more realistic than banquet stories since banquets do exist in reality.
In this case, though, it’s not really a matter of rare versus frequent. It’s the grimness of the story that strikes the reader as realistic. We think in those terms, though, because writers over the last century and a half have caused us to do so. Why is grimness necessarily more realistic than whatever the opposite of grimness is? I don’t get it.
Let’s broaden the terms a bit. Call it happiness versus unhappiness. I’ve always thought that the great realist (until he went God-crazy) Tolstoy got it exactly backwards when he famously said that happy families are all alike but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. No, it’s the unhappy families that are depressingly (and sometimes, frankly, boringly) familiar. Without knowing a thing about a given unhappy family, we can between sips of our Diet Coke rattle off seven probable causes of that unhappiness and be right on at least six of them. It’s the happy family that we stand before, stunned, amazed. How on earth do they manage it?
If I’m right about that, does that mean that unhappy families are in reality more common and therefore more deserving—if you buy the broad statistical sampling thing—of a place in realistic fiction? Not at all. Again, from my experience, I conclude that the majority of families are happy. I’d extend that to say that the majority of people I know and have known, if you asked them a simple question, Do you consider yourself a happy person or unhappy?, would answer happy. I don’t think it’s even close. I’m trying to think of a single relative of mine, close or distant, whom I’d describe as unhappy. Can’t come up with one. What about me? I admit to being an envious, crotchety old bastard, an insomniac and hypochondriac. I’m also, when it comes right down to it, happy. I tell you it surprises the hell out of me, too.
Illness over health, death over life, bad ending over good ending. Let’s draw them all together with one example, Tolstoy again, his great story, “The Death of Ivan Illyich.” I’m not aware of any writer who has more powerfully dramatized dying than Tolstoy here: the sights, sounds, smells, and pain, physical and psychological. Then the great man very nearly blows it by tacking on that ridiculous ending. What’s wrong with it? It’s happy! After all that misery, happiness? Like the fellow says, you can’t get there from here. The only way Tolstoy could have bungled it even more egregiously would have been if he’d caused Ivan to recover from his illness. No, Tolstoy is God-crazy enough to allow Ivan to find spiritual peace (happiness) but too much of a realist to allow him to live.
But why is death, the bad ending in physical terms, at least, more like reality than life? True, every living thing eventually dies, but in fact, unless we work in a hospital or funeral home, we rarely encounter death in our lives. I’m seventy years old, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the dead bodies I’ve seen outside of funeral homes. Fingers and toes would probably take care of the number I’ve seen including in funeral homes. It’s not even that common for us to see a dead animal. We see birds fly, almost never fall.
Let’s say I’m writing a story about a couple with one child. The child gets sick. Becomes sicker. The doctor is called in, examines the child, says this is the crisis. If the child makes it through the night, she’ll probably make a full recovery, but it’ll be a close call. The mother and father sit beside their poor darling’s bed, doze, awake when the dawn light beams through the window, look at their child and—alas! alack!—find her dead. Or, same situation, parents rush to their child’s bedside, look, her eyelids flutter. Mama! Daddy! Hurray, the child lives! Do I opt for the second ending? Of course not. We’re all adults here. No one buys that “Hollywood ending.”
I used to describe the foregoing scenario when I discussed realism with my students. Then I’d ask them to apply the test of reality to the ending. How many of you have been sick?, I’d ask them, and of course all hands would go up. Okay, put your hands down. Now, how many of you have been seriously ill? Several hands go up. Okay, hands down. No tell me, how many of you have ever died from it?2> All hands stay down. And they’d get the point: death may be realistic, but we don’t see much of it in reality.
If realism isn’t as close to reality as its adherents would have us believe, what is it? Like any other genre or variety or school of literature, it’s a set of conventions, of expectations grounded less in reality than in the expectations themselves. That is, it’s realism because we call it that; realists do things in a certain manner and avoid doing things in other manners because that’s the way previous realists did it. Just like romanticists, classicists, and all the other literary ists, realists are makers, creating worlds out of words. And if they insist that their fiction represents a true picture of the world, well, so did the classicists and the romanticists. All of them are subjective fashioners, choosing certain aspects of actuality as worthy of imitation, rejecting others. And even picking and choosing as they will, realists hardly wind up with a simulacrum of reality as solid, concrete, accountable as they would have us believe. Their worlds and methods shift as fashion shifts. Their truths are contextual. Their logic is often suspect. Sometimes they get things flat wrong.
Wait a minute. Maybe that is just like reality after all.
1 It could be argued, for instance, that the post-modernists’ self-referencing is an attack on modernist realism. That is, efforts to cause us to suspend disbelief, to draw us into the “reality” of the fictional world by using actual place names, increasingly dense specificity of detail, that broad “statistical assumption,” and so on—all the tricks of the realist’s trade, in other words—constitute no more than a rather silly deception. Fiction is created, written, that’s the reality, and the closer we get to the author at his desk, the closer we get to actuality. Why not acknowledge it? It’s more realistic to do so, isn’t it?
2 One of my favorite memories of teaching occurred during one of these sessions. By chance it fell on Halloween. There were always a few students who’d come to class in costume. On this day there happened to be one wearing a skeleton costume. I described the story with the two endings, then asked the usual series of questions. When I got to How many of you have ever died from it?, without an instant’s hesitation the “skeleton’s” hand went up.