Posts Tagged ‘realism’

My A-Z of Reading: R is for Realism

December 9, 2016

The ability to superficially capture an exact and accurate image – a photograph, a film, a recording of any kind – seems to have created the idea that ‘realism’ is a thing, a ‘reality’ as it were, and one that is important, if not paramount, in many aspects of our culture. And yet, the ability to film or to photograph has not eliminated other kinds of representational art: they may have changed and developed in response to the new challenges, but they are still very much there.

And there is the unconscious expectation on the part of most people that literature shall pay tribute to the realist fallacy. (Here I must deliberately exclude science fiction and fantasy, which are, of course, minority interests anyway, in the greater scheme of things.) And we never really go on to ask ourselves what we want or expect from ‘realism’…

True to life? In how much detail? Do people clean their teeth, cut their toenails, wipe the kitchen worktops in novels? We ordinary mortals do such things most days… James Joyce had Leopold Bloom sitting on the toilet, reading and enjoying doing what one does there, in Ulysses, and shocked many people… realistic, though.

What I’m driving at is that ‘realism’ is in many ways a myth. I used to have fascinating discussions about this with students. Writers are creators and manipulators: they choose situations, characters, events to write about, they choose storylines, they leave out and include stuff as they see fit, because the novel or story is theirs, created by them… and we must take it or leave it. Think of the times you have reached the end of a story and thought, “But they can’t leave it like that!” or “That’s the wrong ending!” or just “No!” Why not? Characters may act in physiologically or psychologically plausible and true-to-life (whatever that means) ways, but so much is not done, not said, not included.

When we move back in time – let’s say, for the purposes of illustration the time of Shakespeare – things become both clearer and less clear. Students were prone to exclaiming that such or such train of events ‘wasn’t realistic!’ in any number of his plays. And they were right. Once it was pointed out to them that ‘realistic’ didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, that audiences didn’t have the same expectations as us, things made more sense to the students: what Shakespeare was interested in showing his audience was certain characters in certain situations, how they behaved, and the consequences of their actions. And to do that, the situations didn’t need to be narrowly ‘realistic’. Thus, Othello is about sexual jealousy and its corrosive effects, which we know in our minds can lead to violence. That the time-scheme of the play seems to suggest Othello becoming insanely jealous within a day or two of his marriage, and suspecting Desdemona of committing adultery a thousand times in that time-frame, is neither here not here; if we waste our time thinking about such details we miss the point of the play, and the dramatist’s greatness…

Story – novel or play, film or TV show – is largely about manipulation of the reader or audience, for certain effects, and we are aware of and complicit in that manipulation to a greater or lesser extent, or completely unaware of it, because we crave the escape, the emotional stimulation, the excitement or whatever the writer or director is offering us. And thinking about what’s actually going on – as I’ve tried to outline above – can enhance our experience and enjoyment.


The myth of realism (3)

January 17, 2016


So, it’s pretty clear that realism is a bit of a myth. Our response is to suspend our disbelief for the duration of our reading; it’s a psychological adjustment, unconsciously undertaken, to allow us to enjoy a work of fiction as entertainment without getting too bogged down by nagging implausibilities; we just accept certain ‘unreal’ things for the sake of the story.

Writers’ control of us as readers therefore fades or disappears from our awareness; we have to make a conscious effort to notice what they are up to. A writer chooses, deliberately, certain characters, a particular setting, frames and shapes a plot and has a particular ending in view (usually) – remember those times when you either felt cheated by the way a story ended, or felt that the author had got it wrong? The writer excludes certain possibilities, omits boring and mundane things (usually), telescopes events (usually – though alert readers may have just had Joyce‘s Ulysses leap into their minds. We are nudged, our response is shaped, we are manipulated throughout, and don’t normally notice. For example – and I’m being deliberately outrageous here, perhaps – how long does the cringe factor in the denouement of Jane Austen‘s Emma take to hit us? The happy couple are finally united, Emma and Mr Knightley; then think about their respective ages, and the fact that Mr Knightley dandled the baby Emma on his knee as a young man…

There are writers who toy with their readers in different ways, conversing with them in their pages, to remind them that they are there, in controlled of the story, puppet-masters. Fielding does this openly in Tom Jones, Jane Austen (a couple of generations later) is much more subtle; hints and comments from her to her reader come through her oblique style, as we realise that certain observations cannot have come from that particular character. Some writers break off to preach to their readers – Tolstoy in War and Peace, Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Where does all this get me, in the end? I like a good story as much as anyone else. I suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be drawn in and manipulated just like the next person. But I find it interesting, eye-opening even, to step back and look at what is really going on every now and then, sometimes in the middle of a novel, sometimes after I’ve reached the end. Words are very powerful things.

The myth of realism (2)

January 17, 2016


One of the things that is interesting to follow in the history of the novel is how, over time, novelists collectively learned and developed their craft. They learned to write detailed description to create a convincing and vivid sense of place. Nowadays, in our much more visual world, equipped with a vast stock of visual images stored in our memory, many readers tend to find these sections of early novels dull or boring, tiresome or tedious, but in their day they were very necessary. Writers learned how to write life-like dialogue, getting the tenses right, separating out the verbs of saying from the actual words spoken, focusing on how people actually spoke with each other. Just ask yourself, did people in Jane Austen’s time really talk to each other like that? And, as psychology began to develop as a science, writers began to strive to create psychologically plausible characters, and to explore their inner worlds. (Did you notice how many times I avoided using the word ‘realistic’ in that paragraph?)

In some ways, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch strikes me as a decent example of a realist novel, in the sense of attempting to portray a full cross-section of the society of its time: there is a place, and people from all walks of life, all social classes. The focus narrows down when you turn to a more naturalistic novel like Zola‘s Germinal, where the detailed picture of nineteenth century miners’ life and working conditions is no doubt impeccably accurate, but rather more in isolation from the rest of society, apart from conflict with the bosses.

Twentieth century writers zero in on the psychological angle because it is something new, something which fiction hasn’t had the chance to explore before: they take us inside the minds of characters, trying to portray their motivations, and their darker sides, too. I have always found Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a wonderful example of this. He successfully takes us inside the mind of a would-be artist, someone who sees himself as different from others around him, a Catholic boy wracked with torments about the penalties for his sexual sins. And the idea of the stream of consciousness, the mind pouring itself uncensored, unedited (which, of course, it isn’t) onto the page is a very powerful one.

Novelists are always in search of something new to explore, some angle on a story no-one else has yet developed. But is there anything left? Has the novel run out of steam and ideas? Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will probably realise that I think it has. It’s a long time since I came across something genuinely new. Ben Marcus‘ superbly surrealistic The Age of Wire and String was probably one, but travelling too far down that route exposes a writer to the risk of becoming incomprehensible…

And then there’s SF and fantasy. The more into fantasy you stray, the fewer holds are barred, the more one can invent, but however fantastical the creatures or the location, writers are hemmed in and restricted by the fact that they are human. Thus, Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky, loses us in an alien world rather than exploring and enlightening us.

to be concluded]


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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