What is the difference between ‘realistic fiction’ and realism? Both speak to our desire for a practical interpretation of life. Yet ‘realistic’ is a subjective term, that has different meanings for different people. As well, realism does not suit every story.
When a fiction novel is called ‘realistic’, that is often a compliment. For example, A Song Of Ice And Fire gained plenty of readers by exploring power in a realistic manner. In cinema, war movies are encouraged to depict warfare as ‘realistically’ as possible. Part of what makes science fiction successful is that it could occur in the distant future. Thrillers pride themselves on a ‘realistic, gritty feel.’ Yet no genre loves realism as much as literary fiction. Authors portray reality in a mundane and ambigious way, from The Virgin Suicides, Wolf Hall to Gilead.
A good recent example is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s depressing, with many commentators calling it a ‘realistic’ portrayal of depression and pain. In the Academy Awards, the prize-winning films have social themes, like class (Parasite), racism (Crash), discrimination (Moonlight), sex abuse (Spotlight), and history (Argo).
Realism itself, is a literary and art movement dating back from the mid 19th century, aims to portray life as ‘truthfully as possible.’ There is little room for speculation or the stylish dressings one expects from a Turner painting. As realism is partially a response to romanticism, realism feigns superiority over the former movement by acting more mature, or, well, ‘realistic.’
But there’s a problem. A story isn’t closer to real life because it has a realistic aesthetic. There are realism texts that are shallow. This is a problem I have with Neil Gaiman. In American Gods, he draws from rich mythology and American life. However, I don’t find his story any more meaningful or profound than a book from romanticism.
Although I appreciate Middlemarch by George Eliot, I don’t think it’s necessarily better than Wuthering Heights. It’s clear that Eliot prefers depicting banality and ordinary life, as opposed to the Gothic excess of Bronte. Yet a talented author can use imagination and speculation, and still make a profound and realistic statement on humanity.
For example, Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are hopelessly escapist. There’s an almost fairytale like sense to them. Yet within the literature, is a sophisticated grasp on theology, history and language. Much is said about how Tolkien used the Shire as a comparison to rural English life. Although The Shire has hobbits, wizards, magical rings and dark, cloaked beasts visiting, that doesn’t take away from the importance of Tolkien’s work.
The Lord of the Rings has alot of wisdom and sophisticated depth that modern readers can learn from.
It also doesn’t make Tolkien inferior to Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. Narnia is a clear-cut children’s tale. Yet authors like Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) are offended by Narnia’s moral theology. C.S Lewis is very forthright in what he considers as good or evil, and because his views align differently to Pullman, he is lambasted as an old-fashioned religious preacher.
That’s certainly a frustrating part of realism. Many critics and authors who work inside it presume that there is only one correct way to portray ‘life.’ (Although not all).
However, there are terrific authors who work well in realism, such as Tolstoy. Even though magical realism is sometimes too chaotic for its own good, there is meritious fiction within it. It’s also important to distinguish between magical realism, postmodernism, surrealism and modernism. Yes, there are some overlaps. Yet they focus on the mundane, the ordinary, the real. It’s almost as if literature is shameful of its baroque impulses, or romantic flings with the supernatural.
But neither of those things make for a shallow story, or replace insight into the human condition. A favourite author of mine, Victor Hugo, is a shameless romantic. His novels, mainly Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame are great keys into understanding other human beings. In the latter of those two novels, he meditates on medieval architecture. This would seem ‘fluffy’ and ‘a waste of a word count.’ Yet its a delight to read, because I believe Hugo wants a personal conversation with the reader.
I’m not arguing to abandon realism, or realistic fiction all together. But it has overstayed its welcome (in its current form). We must understand that ‘realism’ doesn’t always mean realistic. As said prior, a novel can be realistic, but not have realism aesthetics. As with any other literary topic, readers must dig deeper. Look beyond the descriptions of modern surburbia, and ask yourself: what is the meaning of this novel? And is it meaningful?
For now, we must have an openness to other artistic and literary approaches. Realism is not better, it is ultimately, just another moment in art history.
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