14 June 2004

Threepenny Realism

The latest issue of The Threepenny Review is out, and it's excellent. I don't tend to like their selection of fiction, but am usually quite happy with at least a few pieces of nonfiction and poetry, and some of those pieces, read over the past couple of years, have left an indelible mark on my own thinking -- for instance, a "symposium" on W.G. Sebald, or a magnificent essay on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive by Steve Vineberg (both from the same issue, which may simply mean it arrived at the right time in my life for me to be particularly receptive to the subjects and ideas).

In the current issue, I have been most intrigued by a review by David Cozy of Guy Davenport's The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing and by another "symposium" (a collection of short essays), this one not about a specific author, but about the word "realism".

Davenport is a favorite of mine, a writer of intimidating erudition, a man seemingly incapable of writing a banal sentence, and so I immediately read the review of his new collection to see how it was received. In this case, it was received well, and thoughtfully. (Cozy, the reviewer, also wrote well about Edward Whittemore for Harper's last year.) The symposium on realism collects a varied group of responders -- a writer of short stories and memoirs (Tobias Wolff) who is often described as a "realist" (though he's generally better than that), one of our best living poets (Louise Gluck), a documentary filmmaker (Frederick Wiseman), etc. It's a chance to see different views, different ways of approaching a subject that might, on the surface, seem destined to elicit predictable responses.

Rather than bore you with more of my own words, let me give you over to better ones:
Tobias Wolff: Any writer who thinks of himself as a Realist, or a Minimalist, or a Postmodernist, or a Metafictionist, or any other such category is finished before he starts. These are simply terms of convenience levied on writing after the fact by journalists and academics to give themselves the illusion of mastery and to make the work safe for some theory that depends on categorization.

Edwin Frank: I'm not sure, in any case, that Dreiser's famously lousy style isn't a virtue, even the main virtue of his work; that it isn't precisely in the ragged texture of his text -- rather than the well-observed concrete particulars that modern-day journalism and writing-school students are alike taught to gather like posies (mostly missing from Dreiser's work) -- that the reality of whatever his realism may be emerges.

Louise Gluck: It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

W.S. Di Piero: As a territorial art historical designation, Realism is what it is. It stands there in the nineteenth century like a pile of rocks, painted by Courbet, a rather rocky character himself. But in my ordinary viewing habits realism is a usable idea more than a category determined by content or manner.

Frederick Wiseman: Assuming the film "works" as a dramatic structure, the result may be a picture of a reality, an interpretation of a reality, or a new reality. This depends on how the viewer looks at the film and interprets what he has seen and heard.

David Cozy: Readers, the modernists believed, are not dummies. And since readers are not dummies they can, turning the pages of Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, or The Cantos, with a little work, a little research, a little thought, come to terms with texts which are, on their surfaces, daunting. Doing this intellectual work, the modernists seem certain, need not be understood as a burden on readers, but can rather be seen as a source of readerly fun: the fun of figuring out something for oneself. We are pattern-loving creatures, and those patterns which we love most are never those which this or that pedantic scribbler has unsubtly thrust upon us, but always those that we have ourselves discerned in art which may, initially, have appeared chaotic.

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