Essays on Realism
The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley
Many readers still believe, despite much dissuasion, that serious fiction is bound to be realistic. Not real, but realistic: they know it is fiction, but fiction taking a particularly affirmative attitude toward common sense and the sense of reality sustained by observation and communication. They know when a sentence is realistic. “Buttoned to the throat in a long, soft overcoat, dark green, Clarence Feiler got off the Hendaye Express in the Madrid station.” Realistic, because it gives the impression that other people got off the same train, and that reality is made up of many similar gestures and presences. “The moon rocks whistled ‘Finlandia,’ by Jean Sibelius, while reciting The Confessions of St. Augustine, by I.F. Stone.” No, not realistic; because the sentence (from Donald Barthelme’s story “A Film”) does not give the impression that the subject is separable from this account of it and is in some sense independent of the account. So the sentence is read as a joke, a conceit, a verbal flourish effected by virtue of the fact that you can make sentences say what you can’t make moon rocks do.
Does it matter? Or rather: who cares? Isn’t the world large enough to contain a sentence ostensibly about a train in Madrid and another ostensibly about a book not yet written by I.F. Stone? Yes, but the capacity of the world is not the point. The trouble is that a sentence is not ideologically neutral: our two sentences agree to maintain the decencies of English grammar, but agree upon nothing else. Ideologically, they are further apart than Ronald Reagan and Norman Mailer.
Let me take a few practice shots at a description of Realism. A work of literature is realistic when the reader finds it easy to forget that it is literature, the fiction is so continuous with what he already knows of life. Realism tries hard to give the impression that the work of art is really a work of nature, and that the artist has merely taken dictation from a truth-telling force in life itself. A novel about a group of Catholic students at a provincial university in England will concede, if questioned on the point, that it is fiction, an imagined thing, but it does all it can to prevent the question from arising: specifically, it proceeds as though its particular form and style arose so spontaneously from the experience it presents that the gap between the experience and the style seems to be closed.
A realistic sentence says to the reader: believe me; or at least, have the experience which would follow upon notional belief. A sentence indifferent to Realism says: enjoy me, regardless of belief. Realism views with regret the gap between the sentence and what it refers to, between signifier and signified. Unrealism says to the reader: have no regrets, take pleasure in the extravagance of the signifier. Realism makes…
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