10 March 2009


Mainly because I'm dense—a slow-learner, if you will—I want to try to get my head around a term that gets thrown around in discussing fiction and literary criticism (and in other contexts, too, but they're not the ones that concern me just now). And that term? Realism.

In his now infamous broadside against Zadie Smith's White Teeth, James Wood called out a trend he called 'hysterical realism.' By that, he seemed to indict the sort of fiction that allows too much of the noise of the world into its cocoon. You find it, presumably, in William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, William Vollmann, and others of its chief offenders. One thinks, too, of Tom Wolfe and his ilk. It's a 'the world is too much with us' sort of concept where the 'news of the world' takes precedence over the 'news of the soul.'

Smith riposted in the NYRB, in an article comparing two recent novels, Netherland and Remainder (both of which I've reviewed here), with a stab at something she labeled 'lyrical realism'.

Once you start qualifying a term like 'realism' you begin splitting into factions and you start losing focus on the substantive issue. Both Wood and Smith are arguing FOR realism, they just differ over which flavor of realism they prefer. Realism is a sort of catch-all term that can mean so many different things it has become virtually meaningless. Arguments shoot by each in the night without ever really touching because the antagonists hold two different views of realism. The debate often is really over what kind of realism or what meaning to give it.

Below, I've tried to sort out some of the things that go by the name 'realism'. The following is by way of anatomy, then, rather than polemic.

First, the term realism is used to describe a period or genre of literature. Thus, we might describe the works of Balzac or Dickens and their ilk as realism—19th Century, French, English, whatever. This category is generally for literary historians. On the genre view, realism is opposed to fantasy or allegory or myth. Or, we might say how much we admire Raymond Chandler's gritty noir realism, referring, for example, to the seaminess of the world he depicts and the sordidness of his characters. On this view, realism is opposed to a presumed sugarcoating of things in, for example, bourgeois fiction.

Another use of the term realism has to do with with the traditional view stemming from the work of Aristotle. It goes by other names such as Mimesis or verisimilitude. On this view, it is the world to which the text points that alone is real. This is the most obvious, most common usage of the term. It is analogous to what philosophers call the correspondence theory of truth, or the propositional form we find in Tractarian Wittgenstein. I believe the term 'hysterical realism' refers to an extreme adherence to this form: the perceptual world of table and chairs intrudes too noisily on the novel.

On yet a third view, it is capturing the character's consciousness of his or her own world that alone is real. The 'form of life' (to borrow and perhaps bastardize yet another Wittgensteinian term) the text embodies or portrays alone is real. The perceptual/psychological/emotional/ethical/social being whose expression just is the text alone is real. Stated another way, the form of life inside of whose head/being the text transpires is what is realistic. We may liken this to the philosophical coherentist view of truth. The character, on this view, has no purchase on any truth about the world. In fact, s/he may misperceive his/her world and that is what is realistic about the work. The character's attitude, or stance, with respect to the world is what matters. This is what is behind the privileging of 'free indirect style' by such public critics as James Wood.

It is between these two views that a significant polarity has arisen: the 'world is too much with us' school (The Recognitions is ur-text here, with a little 'u') vs. the 'navel [sic] observatory' school (contemplative narrative where everything takes place in the head, so to speak, of the character(s); the 'yes, Virginia, there is a soul or the remnants thereof' school; Augie March is the ur-text here).

These three views are not the only ones, however; though to hear some of the proponents you would think they had exhausted the richness of the term realism.

In an earlier post, I cited Maurice Shroder's view that the novel alone is the most realistic literary art form because "protagonists succeed only because they have let fall their illusions and their pride. Such a fall, in a novel, is a happy one, since it represents the completion of that educational process with which the novel deals, an education into the realities of the material world and of human life in society." Thus, realism is an essential characteristic, perhaps the essential characteristic, of the novel and describes the arc of the character's (whatever his attitude) coming to grips/terms with his/her world (however conceived).

A further view of realism holds that it is the reader's response to the text that alone is real. Roland Barthes exploded the myth of Balzacian realism in his monumental S/Z. As Barthes says, the reader is no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. There are many versions of reader response theory, but the point is that it is what the text implies alone that is real. Thus, all men are mortal; Gatsby is quite a man, but a man nonetheless; so, draw your own conclusions. Realism relates strictly to the communicative effect of the text. Philosophically, this flows from the deconstructionists' notion that the text is an empty signifier [where signifier + signified = sign]. It is, in effect, a sociological realism: what is real is the way the text is emblematic of [feminist, queer, Marxist, Darwinian, (insert your pet theory here)] theory, for theory alone is real.

A more analytic view is that it is the text alone that is real. William Gass is the most vocal proponent of this view. The reality of the text just is the words on the page. The text thinks the world. Once published, the text becomes a historical object capable of not only being acted upon (as in reader response theory) but in acting upon the world. One thinks here of feedback loops in cybernetic theory. Not only does art imitate life, life, too, at times imitates art. It is not the world which the text depicts, nor the character's attitude toward that world that is real; to get at what is real, don't focus on what is represented, rather focus on the picture itself and its aspects. I'd better let Gass speak for himself:
"..the consciousness contained in any text is not an actual functioning consciousness; it is a constructed one, improved, pared, paced, enriched by endless retrospections, irrelevancies removed, so that into the ideal awareness which I imagined for the poet, who possesses passion, perception, thought, imagination, and desire and has them present in amounts appropriate to the circumstances—just as, in the lab, we need more observation than fervor, more imagination than lust—there is introduced patterns of disclosure, hierarchies of value, chains of inference, orders of images, natures of things. ...It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about..."[Wm. H. Gass, "The Book as a Container of Consciousness," in Finding a Form, pp. 348,351]
"[T]he philosophical analysis of fiction has scarcely taken its first steps, Philosophers continue to interpret novels as if they were philosophies themselves, platforms to speak from, middens from which may be scratched important messages for mankind; they have predictably looked for content, not form; they have regarded fictions as ways of viewing reality and not as additions to it. There are many ways of refusing experience. This is one of them.

So little is known of the power of the gods in the worlds of fiction, or of the form of cause, or of the nature of soul, or of the influence of evil, or of the essence of good. No distinction is presently made between laws and rules of inference and conventions of embodiment, or their kinds. The role of chance or of assumption, the recreative power of the skillful reader, the mastery of the sense of internal life, the forms of space and time: how much is known of these? ... No search is made for first principles, none for rules, and in fact all capacity for thought in the face of fiction is so regularly abandoned as to reduce it to another form of passive and mechanical amusement. The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized. William Gass, "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction," in Fiction and the Figures of Life, pp. 25-26
"To see the world through words means more than merely grasping it through gossipacious talk or amiable description. Language, unlike any other medium, I think, is the very instrument and organ of the mind. It is not the representation of thought, as Plato believed, and hence only an inadequate copy; but it is thought itself. ...Literature is mostly made of mind; and unless that is understood about it, little is understood about it." William Gass, "Finding a Form" pp. 34-36 in Finding A Form.
Finally, there is something we might call the Platonic view: it is the ideal Form to which the text aspires (call it the Good, the Beautiful, the Just, the True) and which it attempts to embody that alone is real. Realism (often mislabeled 'idealism') is seeing through the text to the Ideal Form it seeks to embody. To the extent the text liberates us from the world of the senses (i.e, shows us the way out of the Cave) and leads us into the ideal world of Forms, it is Realistic.

Well, that pretty much exhausts my anatomy of the uses of the term realism. There may be more. I suppose there are any number of hybrid types—ethical realism, theological realism, moral realism, journalistic realism, etc., etc. If so, as they relate to fiction and literary criticism, please enlighten me.

From this brief foray, I think we can safely say that what the various views of realism have in common is an attempt to describe the complex relation/interaction between the text and the world.

My own view of realism, however non-practical for the practice of criticism, is probably closer to, though not coextensive, with Gass's: It is reality alone which is real and it is this reality which produces the text, just as nature somehow produces consciousness. The text is a model of consciousness, linguistic in form. It not only represents an awareness of the reality that produced it, it is an awareness of the reality that produced it. The evolution of consciousness is aligned with the continual perceptual probing of the world and retreating from it: it is adaptive. Texts are, likewise, an adaptational form. Texts are evolving probings of and retreats from the reality from which they flow—whether it is the human agent that pens them and the humanity of which s/he is a part or the noisy, intrusive physical world they are made to mirror. The text is part and parcel of reality, a feature of it that must be taken into account—especially to the extent that it is 'aware of' reality—by all subsequent texts. For Gass, the text thinks the world. To my mind, it is the self-reflexive world that thinks the text, and any realism about texts must take this into account. The text is Foam.

Of course, my view is relatively unformed (and possibly unprecedented—I don't know) and will require much further thought and research to articulate. As I continue to review novels on this site, I plan to try to apply it—if possible.

I am left, however, with one last question: if these views are the forms of realism, what, we might ask, is its opposite? That, as they say, is a question for another day.


Steven Augustine said...

"Both Wood and Smith are arguing FOR realism, they just differ over which flavor of realism they prefer."

Coincidentally (wink), both James and Zadie are stylish mavens of the deeply middlebrow! Kundera's *writerly* (rather than hackademic/yackademic or faux-Bloom) meditations on the novel... (The Curtain deals with Zadie's notion of the "lyrical" with satisfying precision, establishing its connection to aesthetic immaturity and kitsch)... zing right over both their ironically high-domed Blairite heads.

Jim H. said...

Not knowing my Kundera leaves me unable to respond intelligently. [Shame] I shall hunt down 'The Curtain' [Grit, Determination], then maybe we can talk. [Humility]

'Til then, thanks for commenting [Sincerity] and pointing me in the write(-rly) [Attempt at Humor] direction.

'Deeply Middlebrow' = 'Sterling Mediocrity'?

Jim H.

Steven Augustine said...

Funny how dangerous it is to "comment" without emoticons, eh? (I'd write "laugh" here but I've already used it twice on your page) And, yet, I still refuse to use the fekkers...