A reflection on genre, part 2: Realism Rules
by Mike Johnson
THE REALISTS AND THE FABULISTS
Imagine that The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton was not set in NZ’s past but in a post-apocalyptic future. Same character set, same writing skills, same story but adapted. Not only would it not have won a Booker, it would probably not have been published in the first place.
Why is this? Why should one genre be privileged over another? Because serious writers deal with the real world, not imaginary worlds. The past is an aspect of the real. It happened. It has been documented. Stories can be woven from it. The future, on the other hand, is unreal. It hasn’t happened yet. It is speculative. The same applies to parallel worlds and any fantasy worlds: they don’t exist. In contrast to the past they are unreal, and therefore hardly worthy of our attention. Why bother with silly fantasies when you can write about real things?
And so literary snobbery is born, and judgements are made on the basis of what is real and what is not. Or rather, shouldn’t that be, what is perceived to be real?
Did this same realism not usher in the great age of subjective literature in which reality itself is swallowed within a character’s point of view?
Mainstream literature does not necessarily see itself as just another genre. It may see itself as above and beyond genre. Genre is identified with escapism, shallowness, pulp: the writing of such works is at heart a childish pastime. The real world is for real, grown-up writers; the rest is just wish fulfilment. The modernist reaction to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings exemplifies that attitude. “Juvenile balderdash” thundered the American critic Edmund Wilson from his high castle of modernism (see: “Oo, those awful Orcs“), and in 1961 Philip Toynbee wrote, somewhat prematurely, that it had ‘passed into a merciful oblivion.’ Although she had never read The Lord of the Rings, Germaine Greer wrote: “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized.” (citation lacking for this quote)
This conflict between the realists and the fabulists is not new. Despite literature’s deep roots in myth, legend, fairy-tale, scripture and dream, the realist drive quickly attempted to establish itself as the norm: declare itself to be ‘the mainstream’. In 1846, Belinsky (the Edmund Wilson of his day) commented on Dostoevsky’s second novel: ‘[The Double] suffers from another important defect: its fantastic setting. In our day the fantastic can have a place only in madhouses, but not in literature, being the business of doctors, not poets.’ Quoted in Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky – A writer in his time. So, even this early on we have the argument in a nutshell: you are either a realist or you are insane.
While ideological differences may lurk beneath the surface of the realist versus the fabulist approach to writing, I suspect that it has a lot to do with the varying personalities of the writers. In the same way, some writers will write only from their own experience and others will not. If it weren’t for the often mutual intolerance, we might be able to simply celebrate the great diversity of styles and approaches that constitute fiction.
REALISM AS ARTIFICE
But is literary realism itself a contrivance? Certainly, attempts to define it raise more questions than they answer. Here’s a typical attempt by Wikipedia: “Literary realism, in contrast to idealism, attempts to represent familiar things as they are. Realist authors chose to depict everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of using a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation.”
This definition is besieged with problems. What does it mean to ‘represent familiar things as they are? Doesn’t that mean, as they appear (to the protagonist) to be?
The case of the novelist Mark Twain illustrates a few of the problems of identifying realism. Here is a quote from an online literature site. “In America, Samuel Clemens was the early pioneer of realism. Writing under the pen name Mark Twain, he was noteworthy for his faithful reproduction of vernacular speech patterns and vocabulary.”
This sounds all well and good, but it is not true. While I no longer have the references for this, linguists who studied the language in Huckleberry Finn concluded that it could not be attributed to any particular geographical place and time, but is rather a composite, an abstraction of the kind of language spoken along the Mississippi in that era. In other words, no one ever actually spoke that way, it was just very clever artifice. This celebrated realism was a carefully crafted illusion. The same applies to the characters. The character Huck Finn is a generalisation, an abstraction, a typical or representative character, no more real than Luke Skywalker of the Stars Wars movies. The more carefully crafted the illusion, the more realistic the effect. I suspect that much of what we call realism is of this kind: an illusion so convincing we take it to be real.
REALITY HAS MADE SOME GENRE CHOICES
In David Cronenberg’s 2012 film Cosmopolis after a novel by Don DeLillo, the main character’s chief theorist (played by Samantha Morton) says, ‘The problem with the contemporary is that it is just far too…. contemporary.’
The world is becoming a Science Fiction story with distinctly dystopian overtones, and underpinned by a Dostoevskian irrationalism. The real has become lurid. The real has become fantastic. The real has become irreal.
To begin with, we have woken up to discover that we have been terraforming our planet by altering the balance of gasses in the atmosphere. Unlike the SF stories of the 1950s and 60s however, we are not terraforming a barren planet to make it habitable, but taking a habitable planet and making it barren.
This apocalypse is upon us right now, and will only intensify over the coming decades as we continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the air. This is no fantasy, but attested by a full 98% of earth scientists as surveyed: we are heating the planet, and the results are already, and increasingly will be, catastrophic, despite the calming lies we are told. This is the territory explored by SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson in his SF worlds, worlds caught in rapid climate change.
At the same time, in this same world, the surveillance society has reached levels beyond that imagined by Huxley in his futuristic 1984, because he couldn’t have conceived of the technology now available, and the enormous sophistication of brainwashing techniques now being employed.
In this SF scenario world we face the death of our oceans from plastic pollution, the sixth and most drastic extinction event across all species in the history of the planet, as well as increasing volatility and instability of weather patterns. In the face of these realities we have to say that all literature is now post-apocalyptic.
Since the apocalypse is already happening, or has already happened depending on where you live and which species you belong to, and the Long Emergency has begun, all writing takes place in the context of this meta-reality.
If it cannot accommodate the bizarre nature of modern reality, the Mainstream could well become a kind of nostalgic cult literature in which characters live their lives as if none of this were happening, and suburbia might live on in its dream of time forever.
The Mainstream could well become a kind of nostalgic cult literature in which characters live their lives as if none of this were happening.