The myth of realism (1)

January 17, 2016

I’ve often found myself thinking about this idea or concept; it sometimes came up when I was teaching. It’s a very elusive term, which we often use without really thinking, vaguely, to mean that something is life-like, true to life, convincing. And then the discussion will move on, without really engaging with the idea at all.

What we might mean by realism has changed with time, too, particularly since the advent of photography, cinema and television: these visual media have shifted our imagination from the verbal and auditory: far fewer portraits are painted, and most art has shifted to experiment with being less representational (sweeping statement, yes, but sufficient for my purpose here); what we call realistic often means a true but superficial representation.

When I was studying literature, I was introduced to a more political definition of the term, which made some sense politically, though was also rather tortured, in a Marxist sense, to mean a work of art or literature that somehow truly represented the class structure and struggles of its time; this was later developed into the concept of socialist realism that deadened a lot of creativity in Soviet times…

Finally, the term becomes confused with naturalism which developed towards the end of the nineteenth century; superficial representation seemed to become even more important.

Writing and literature is my interest, so from now on I’m thinking and writing about realism as it relates to fiction. Here again, its meaning and intentions shift. At the start of the rise of the novel, with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), authors were very keen to convince their readers that what they were writing (which was obviously made up) was true fact, a kind of journalism, if you like (and Defoe was a journalist). So their books are supported with maps, diagrams and other apparatus which might convince the reader of that time that Robinson’s story was true. Defoe had based it on a real story. Similarly, Swift would convince us that Laputa, Brobdingnag and the other places Gulliver visits are actually out there in some unexplored part of the globe. And even nowadays, anyone reading Journal of the Plague Year is perhaps surprised to learn that the events related took place long before Defoe’s time; separating out the fact and fiction in this documentary novel is immensely difficult.

to be continued]


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