Saturday, August 8, 2009

On Realism in Fiction

One of the best and really only reasons not to scrap old copies of Houghton Mifflin's Best American Short Stories annuals: the introductions.

Robert Stone edited one in '92. That's almost twenty years back, if you're counting. He worked a lot harder in his intro than most people do, offering a full and pretty enjoyable consideration of the first story in Dubliners, "Araby." Next he said this:

"As of the last decade of the twentieth century, the pleasures and principles of the short story seem to remain generally what they were in Joyce's day."

And how does he understand 'pleasures and principles'? You've got to read Stone's Joyce thing to get a full sense, but here's a big clue, from later in his intro:

"In their variety, these stories (chosen by Stone for the annual) reflect what is probably the most significant development in late-twentieth century fiction, the renewal and revitalization of the realist mode, which has been taken up by a new generation of writers. This represents less a 'triumph' of realism than an obviation of the old arguments about the relationship between life and language. As of 1992, American writers seem ready to accept traditional forms without self-consciousness in dealing with the complexity of the world around them."

Before I poke at those words, I want to articulate a sense of what lots of people would call the difference between then and now. Now, first of all, we're post 'generation.' I don't think there ever really were unified generations of American writers, but now everyone knows it. In the most obvious sense, as of 2009, you've got writers who work within the commercial economy of New York publishing; you've got writers who work within the subsidized economy of American universities and their presses; and you've got Indie writers, who work for free or within non-subsidized sub economies. Obviously there's a lot of blur between those lines, but I'll go on. Now, as of 2009, it also seems clear that American writers are no longer unified in their readiness "to accept traditional forms without self-consciousness in dealing with the complexity of the world around them." And this is probably truest of Indie writers, some of whom look back to the people Stone was tacitly burying in '92--people like Calvino, Barthelme, Coover.

Now for the poking. I'm not an expert on the rhetoric having to do with what Stone calls "old arguments about the relationship between life and language," but it seems to me that at its most basic, it would be like in painting. Do you go representational, like the old masters? Or do you completely cut the line between what you paint and whatever you might see--assuming you've taken your meds--on your walk to the newsstand? Do you go fully abstract? At its most abstract, writing is, you know --words, mixed around on paper. That can be interesting. Personally I like it more in poetry than in fiction. But it can be interesting. Regardless, I don't think it's really what Stone's talking about here. He's not talking about a Jasper Johns of fiction writing. (Who would that be?) He's talking more about fabulism, metafiction, those sorts of things. Why do I stress that? Because both fabulism and metafiction are ordinarily representational--that's to say, these stories often give us what we take to be people, and these people are often moving their limbs.

So then a realist, for Stone, might be this: a STRICTLY representational artist, a writer who deals with the 'complexity of the world' by trying to get us to pass through his prose to what we will take as that world.

I'm going to say some more about this, but first I want to bring in Adam Robinson, whose comments in a recent Dogzplot interview matched what I've heard from others in e-conversations.

Check this out:

"I read a story by Paula Bomer today called “An Important Day in the Life of Marjorie Wallace” that I think fits into the definition of the word “realist” (my quotes are meant to indicate the popular term, marked by straight prose where, for instance, the word “tree” denotes “a leafy plant with a trunk and branches”) and it was okay. It has a beautiful and effective conclusion that is worth reading the story for, but to me, the payoff doesn’t seem big enough to rationalize all the work she must have put into writing it. I mean, when the story was over, the sum of my thoughts was: huh. Not as a question or anything, just blank.

And plus, when you write that way – if you make a tiny little mistake, like she does with this clause – “a wonderful February sun falling onto her face” – you risk losing your audience. And mistakes like this are much more obvious in traditional, unmediated prose. Plus, in this story she has the main character, Marjorie, yell at a merely casual friend for not calling her six weeks earlier. I thought, “No one would do that.” So I was basically workshopping this story as I went along, even though I just wanted to read it for whatever reason people read stories. I did the same thing with a Barbara Taylor Bradford book I recently listened to in my car. With “realist” stuff, I always already feel like an expert on whatever a writer is talking about, and I get distracted by matching it up to my own perspective or something. I figure, why bother – unless there is some flat out stunning style to it."

As I'm reading Stone, he and Robinson are together in seeing realism as strictly (as opposed to loosely) representational--"straight" prose meaning transparent: "the word 'tree' denotes 'a leafy plant with a trunk and branches'." Why Robinson ends up saying "why bother" is to me really interesting, and really revealing, in terms of where lots of people are nowadays. As he says, when he reads realism, he ends up noticing 'mistakes.' I do this too. If realists--or 'strict representationalists,' as I'm seeing them here--are offering us only a vision of a world we can imagine we all share, then we, as readers, are going to invest something in asking the obvious question: is this REALLY the world we all share? And somewhere along the line, this question--which readers and writers both ask--starts to get pretty boring. Like, yes, a person might open a cupboard in the morning before realizing that in fact all of the clean cups are in the top rack of the dishwasher. Like, yes, a good deal of testy dialogue might precede someone or other's breaking into tears. That's pretty boring, right? That's realism for a lot of the more interesting writers nowadays. Realists deal not with what's plausible, in some cases, for certain individuals, but with what's PROBABLE, likely, for most people, in most cases. Strict representationalists give us consensus characters, about whom a majority might say, yes, that's us, these are our lives.

And, you know, that's like pretty dull (not to mention the political fact that people outside the consensus get buried).

Literary writers working within the subsidized academic economy may be the worst offenders here. Commercial writers, always focused on the big buck, tend more towards the exceptional. A homeless man's journey to the White House.... something like that.....

Back to '92: Though Stone was probably willing to consign people like Barthelme to the history books, I definitely don't think he was thinking about realism in this greatest-common-denominator way. His own fiction isn't much like that. And look at the stories he was talking about in his intro. This is from the third paragraph of one of the 'realist' stories Stone picked--DFW's "Forever Overhead":

"And dreams. For months past, there have been dreams like nothing before: moist and yielding and distant, full of busy curves, frantic pistons, soft warmths and great failings; and you have awakened through fluttering lids to a rush and a gush and a toe-curling scalp-snapping jolt of feeling from an inside deeper than you knew you had, spasms of a sweet deep hurt, the street-lights through your window blinds cracking into sharp stars against the black bedroom ceiling...."

I mean, if this was what we thought of as 'realism' now, I think we'd see more writers open to it.....


Molly Gaudry said...

I would read a much longer version of this. You should develop it, turn it into something . . .

Scott Garson said...

yeah but that would be work :)

Scott Garson said...

but i do see one thing i'd try to do if i was going to do that:

i'd try to give a better of sense of one possible question, which is: what happened between '92 and now for realism to get redefined in the way it seems to have? when/why did realism start referring to the goal of creating an unbroken illusion of the most likely of existences...?

Jason said...

"why did realism start referring to the goal of creating an unbroken illusion of the most likely of existences...?"

Wasn't it ever thus?

It's tough to go back and read those Theodore Dreiser novels, or Sinclair Lewis, they don't appear to have anything to say about literature, and were rather taken with describing American society, the scope being widened one of content, rather than of form. Perhaps realism was a good mode for a young country coming to know itself, and so here were deterministic narratives that showed (or purported to show) American society from the top to the bottom.

Just as a speculation, the idea that something is more realistic IF it creates an unbroken illusion, well, that's quite a position to take. For oneself, I'd say it's the opposite, and that everyday experience is characterised by its dysjunctions, collisions, elisions, and so on, just as a mind is revealed through its assocations, its concerns. The problem, as you say, with a literature that indulges in the probable is that, finally, devalues the quotidian, renders it boring. Or, the alternative, is to say, "Look, quirky girl!" and then everything is quirky.

Perhaps this all comes down to how one perceives the self, as a unity, as a damned monotone, or as something that switches between various modes, and whose story IS the switching between these modes, every bit as much as what goes on in terms of 'action' etc. Because a lot of realism perceives the self in the first way, this is why events and emotions are given a lot of play, as it takes major incidents to propel characters in radical directions. I call this the Harrison Ford Model, as so many of his films suggest that there would simply be no action, but that action is created by the fact of a gang of ruthless Lebanese terrorists kidnapping his pregnant wife, etc. This is why, paradoxically, the most 'realistic' films, action thrillers, are the least like life.

Amen. Kudos for your thoughts, thinking guy.