13 March 2006

"Nonrealist Fiction"

Some people have asked to read what I presented at the panel on "nonrealist fiction" at the AWP Conference. Here is the text as best I can recreate it from my various notes. It was designed to be part of a conversation, to connect with some of what the other panelists were talking about, and to spur discussion with the audience, so it's not entirely complete on its own, but perhaps it holds some interest. (I'll have another post about AWP up within a day or two.)

We're here to talk about "nonrealist fiction", but I'd like to begin, instead of with the non- of something, with the something itself first. If there is nonrealist fiction, there must then be something called realist fiction. (Of course, I'm skipping over the privileging of "realist" that "nonrealist" allows -- "realist" being the normative core of the word "nonrealist". But so it goes.)

The New England Puritan in me balks at the term "realist fiction", because it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. That -ist suffix makes an adjective out of the noun "real", and how, my inner Puritan asks, can fiction be real?

I don't listen too closely to my inner Puritan very often, because he tends to sound a lot like his friend Jacques Derrida, and that gives me the urge to deconstruct his membership in the New England Puritan Society. Nonetheless, it's, if not a good question, at least an amusing one: Can fiction be real?

A better question is: What do we talk about when we talk about realism? What is excluded from the terms realism and realist?

It's important to remember that realism is an exclusionary category, that it sets up borders and keeps things out. Every category does this, though, so I don't mean to beat up on "realism" unfairly. What I'm interested in is what might motivate the desire to privilege the exclusionary term "realism".

My short answer to the question of what motivates this privileging, this desire to create boundaries and to exclude -- my short answer is: I don't know.

My long answer, much too long for today, involves casual and suggestive mentions of child psychology, Stalin, Robert Penn Warren, Jean-Luc Godard, Sputnik, the year 1968, Richard Nixon, environmental degredation, gay liberation, the Equal Rights Amendment, Affirmative Action, Jerry Falwell, Tipper Gore, the Dead Kennedys, "The Real World", "Survivor", Al Sharpton, Oliver North, Dr. Laura, Oprah, The Daily Show, JT Leroy, plastic surgery, Jack Abramoff, Dick Cheney's shotgun, Myspace.com, Cory Doctorow, and that annoying Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire". Among other things. Welcome to the dessert of the real.

Because we have limited time, I'm going to ask you to imagine there is a real transition here, because I would like to seize on some ideas that spawned this discussion. One of the descriptions I got for this panel included the sentence, "The old notions of disparaging writing that incorporates strategies commonly associated with the labels of science fiction, fantasy, horror are shifting dramatically." Unless I'm misreading things, this assumes that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are nonrealist writing of some sort.

Therefore, it seems that there is an implied definition of realist writing here that excludes elements associated with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Realist writing as it is constructed here seems to be writing that does not deviate from events we know are possible within whatever world it is we consider the real one.

Such a definition of realist excludes much of the best literature created throughout human history. That alone should be enough to make us say that nonrealist writing deserves to be valued as much as realist writing. Make a list of ten writers you think are the best who ever lived; how many of them wrote only about events and actions that could actually happen in the world they lived in?

But (I hear you cry) nobody is calling for good literature to be ignored, marginalized, laughed at, forgotten, destroyed. Of course not. Us? Even that bizarre old adventure writer Herman Melville wrote a couple things worth saving. No no no, the truth is we all know what we're talking about. We're talking about crap. Thankfully, publishers and booksellers label the crap so we can avoid it. If you want crap, buy something labelled science fiction, fantasy, or horror. If you want something that is great art, buy something labelled Fiction/Literature.

Perhaps you sense a note of sarcasm in my tone. I can't be the only person in this room who has walked through the Fiction aisle of a big bookstore and thought, "Oh my god, look at all this crap!" Any stroll through the Fiction section makes me feel like that character in Five Easy Pieces: "Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap..." But the only time people notice is when I'm wandering through the Science Fiction section and saying the same thing. Then they think I'm insightful. Then they think I'm a man of discerning taste, a man of culture and refinement.

Okay, so I'm generalizing. But let me say this -- my problem is I don't particularly care what something is labelled, and I especially don't like issuing proclamations that all writers should or should not write in some specific way. What I desire as a reader and a writer has little to do with whether something fits anyone's definition of realist or not, and even less to do with how it fits into a marketing category. As a reader and writer, I find work compelling when it aims to push the possibilities of language and structure, of emotion and character, of ideas and effects. I grow bored with books that are a lot like other books and with stories that don't strive toward being something more than simple entertainment. These qualities can be found in works that fit just about any definition of realist or nonrealist, and they can certainly be found throughout the various sections of any bookstore -- and, conversely, these qualities are absent from many works that fit just about any definition of realist or nonrealist, and they are absent from whole shelves and cases of books in every section of every bookstore.

I'll leave you with what seems to me to be a question that flows naturally from these conclusions. If no definition of realist or nonrealist can be used as a value judgment -- if I can get the sorts of pleasures I desire from texts with stakes down in either camp -- what purpose do these labels serve?

I don't mean this question to be simply contradictory, because I do think there are times when we need distinguishing terms, even when we admit they are paradoxical and not entirely adequate. But we need such terms so we can express preferences, tastes, moods, inclinations, goals, ideals -- not to ghettoize and exclude, but to explore and describe, to express overlaps and disjunctions, to see what, previously, we might have been blind to. Just because we see things differently doesn't mean we should all stop looking.


  1. Dessert of the real or desert of the real? I'm confused.

  2. You know what's funny? I've found that the definition of realist and non-realist fiction changes when you move out of the sphere of fantasy readers/writers.

    For example, most f/sf readers/writers would consider John Barth and Don DeLillo as realist writers, while anyone outside of the field would consider them non-realist, since they are not of the "realist" movement.

    Wacky, wacky, wacky.

    More and more I'm starting to wonder about the fragile nature of langauge as communication, esp when it comes to describing things such as genre.

  3. i agree with so much of this.

    imagine a major art museum, containing a mix of old masterpieces and absolutely contemporary work, and all the best of everything in between.

    and imagine that every single painting in that museum is a naturalistic landscape or portrait, rendered in oil, in the approved academic style of 1790.

    it can't be done. it can't be imagined. that is not the history of great art.

    and yet that (the equivalent of that) is what the literature section of most bookstores offers us.

    by the way, it's maybe worth mentioning that "realism" used to be a new and radical style (zola, sinclair), since it included all of uncensored reality, as opposed to the incomplete realism of the victorian novel. so maybe naturalism is what we're talking about here.

    but realism, naturalism, experimentalism, surrealism, blah--this is nothing for writers to waste their time thinking about. these are just label for journalists to apply, after the fact. let a writer discover exactly what work he should be doing, and never think of categories, never, ever. do your work, adhere to you-ism. that's what we need most of all.

  4. I think as human beings we have a desire to be classified, to be told how we fit into the universe. I guess genre is a way of doing this- it's about as meaningful as knowing you are capricorn, a virgo or a taurus, but none the less people desire to be placed into catagories.

    I'm not saying that it's a good thing, but I think it's a part of human psychology to want to be put into some catagory, like genre fiction, just like some people love to be told that they will be the next "Hemmingway" or "Faulkner".

    I myself think of it as a huge game. Call me fantasy, call me scifi, spank my ass and call me sally. I don't care as long as it's my own. I don't want to be the next Hemmingway, I want to be the next Paul Jessup, whatever the hell that means.

  5. Thank you for this commentary and for your weblog in general.

    Your notes raise questions for me--and I mean the kind of questions that seem almost foreclosed by the AWP panel's debate.

    1) Besides conferences like the AWP, and the categories that seem necessary for selling books (and "seem" is the optimal word), when are these labels of realist and nonrealist truly important?

    2) Apart from the obvious capitalist concerns of publishing, why should practicing writers of stories, novellas, novels, and unchartered forms care about these classifications?

    I often get the sad sense that readers and writers encamp themselves in narrow rooms of taste, generic fetishes, and stylistic obsessions and then ready themselves to battle those who depart from their passions.

    When I am able to *get* the governing structural principles behind the work at the same time that I find something in the writing which interrogates what it means to try to live in our time, then I flock to the work, regardless of its presumed theoretical classification. Where are the generous people who, like me on most days, read just as much Barth as Dixon; as much Holly Black as Chip Delaney and O. Butler; as much James Purdy as Madison Bell, and Patricia Highsmith--to say nothing of Alexander Chee?

  6. Well, there is also implications of narrative advantages (& disadv) as well as philosophical advantages (& disadv) based on the level of actuality* and possibility in a novel/short story/etc.

    For example, a novel using a more actuality slant can hit closer to home for readers, and bring in an easier suspension of disbelief. While, a novel with a more possibility slant can toy with ideas on the construction of the universe, and other abstract ideas.

    Note: I use the term actuality in place of realism, since realism is also a literary movement, and I don't want to confuse terms.

    Also, with realism you usually have realism and non-realism as terms, forcing everything to be seen through the eyes of what is real. While, with possible worlds logic, you have actual and possible as terms.

  7. I've never understood the distinction, quite frankly. Realist fiction, while an admirable attempt to capture reality in all its glory and or banality, cannot ever approach true reality. The fact that a character makes up a character/s and constructs a plot (if not, a situation) is kind of like creating a secondary world, only on a much smaller scale. In both cases, you are attempting to bring something to life that does not exist...sounds terribly unrealistic and fanciful to me...