I have started writing critiques again of short pieces of fiction. Nothing in them is more tedious than their common presumption that the story must be realistic. The spectre of realism ensures each story imitates the effects of past stories. It can be a pale satisfaction to trace the influence back to the point of origin in some of them, but it is hardly a replacement for a real story. So I got to thinking about the cult of realism in fiction, and what it means to be realistic. And realism starts, it seems to me, with the novel.
Genres of writing change over the centuries. At the moment the realistic novel is ascendant. Many other modes of writing at not predominant at any one time, for example epic poems: even though our culture now produces a few epic poems, I can’t think of one modern epic poem which doesn’t follow the conventions of the prose novel. I believe the epic poem is dominated by the novel form and realistic conventions. I think the influence of realism on epic poems makes for some pretty dull reading, but I don’t get many pages into modern epic poems anyway. Even Dan Simmon’s Hyperion seems a bit flaccid and imitative compared to Keats.
Unlike epic poem, no clear domination is clear between film and novel genres. Both are story, separate, living genres. Translations from novel to film tend to lose the novel’s inner life and outer complexity. On the other hand, while one man still crafts a novel, it takes a team to produce a film; the two necessarily work to different and incompatible commercial standards.
To see for yourself these different standards, make believe for a second that your favorite books have been made into films then back into “novelizations”. I immediately see an impoverishment in plot and structure when I apply this thought experiment to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.
An 120 page novelization of the Mars Trilogy would eliminate the stories of Michel Duval, Frank Chalmers and Nadia, focus on Ann versus Sax, transplant John Boone’s romance with Maya and his murder to the climax of the book, add more blood and guts to the war of ’61, and eliminate almost all the politics, geology, historical and ecological theory. The climax would be a bloody battle as the Martians, led by Hiroko and her areforming team, wrest control of a flooded Earth from the evil metanationals. Most easy to cut would be the long contemplative first-person prose poems, which in turn allow Robinson’s astonishing character-driven conflict sequences (such as Zo’s confrontation with Ann) to overpower the imagination. The novelization of the film of the Mars Trilogy would definitely lose vitality from the original.
The reason I mention the influence of film on novel is because I think the concept of realism has all but vanished from both film and novels. What passes as “realism” seems to me to be more conventional sequencing of actions according to audience expectations. Even slice-of-life films or books cohere around the expectations that a lifetime of documentary viewings have trained us to hold. The concept itself of realism, so pungent only 150 years ago, has become mixed up with so many other expectations that realism is like a dead letter, never arriving at the intended audience, but instead piling up a backlog of words and ideas with no vivid audience to witness them.
Contrast “realism” with “versimilitude.” Realism could mean “imitating what is real”, but what classes of facts (other than the scientifically verifiable) can be called real in our symbolic postmodern culture? It is precisely the realistic pretension of “being fair and balanced” in journalism that win perverse views airtime in order to “balance out” sensible views. Thus realism by definition is on the surface on things. And indeed, the superficial neoplatonic hope of realism is that by capturing the surface of a form, somehow the actuality of a thing has been won. But by dressing like a star one does not become a star; one simply becomes a credit card debtor. And by trying to be fair and balanced to every nutbag with two cents worth of opinion one simply becomes an objective journalist.
Versimilitude, on the other hand, locates the sense of things on the fuzzy boundary between the sense of experiencing and the actual experience itself of a thing. By including the subjective, versimilitude ignores the false separation of world and witnesser. The actor in the world is part of the world – this much is clear from the point of view of realism. But is the thought or feeling of the actor also part of the world? Is the actor’s experience, awareness, conscience, imagination also part of the world? Is – most astonishing of all- is the world of teacups and trees and letterboxes and placemats somehow mixed up with MY feelings and thoughts and awareness? Versimilitude would show it is.
Realism would show only the straw men, the hollow men, while versimilitude measures our my life with coffee spoons. Realism can show the expression on the actor’s face; versimilitude can reveal the figure of our common humanity. Because of realism, we falsely come to expect stories will go a certain way. But car chases and gun fights are not realistic; they are cliché. And documentary-like sequences of grim events are not realistic; they are dull. Realism sends dead letters to be stored unread; it fires blanks of pessimism instead of bullets of narrative vigor; it pretends to confirm our ideas of a real imitation of a story, while it incestuously imitates only those stories which have proven bankable in the past.
Versimilitude is what you can get away with. Realism is merely the recreation of what has been got away with before. There is no risk in the merely real; it has been confirmed. The life-like, on the other hand, cannot be measured and judged; it has first to be experienced in order to be real. Versimilitude carries a distinct shock – the shock of the real – while realism only conveys the safe pleasures of familiarity.
I have a storehouse of past plots and characters in memory which are most real for me because I have experienced them as being like life. They have passed mysteriously into my personal experience. Maya’s madness and Michel’s despair, Hiroko’s eccentricity and Frank’s pugnacity – these are people I have experienced. They are life-like because I give them vitality. And why do I give Maya and Michel, Hiroko and Frank vitality? It is not because of the realistic accumulation of objective detail, like so much icing, around them. It is because, just as with actual people, I love these characters that they are real to me. Their realism, so-called, actually comes from me. The real doesn’t somehow leap from the words of the page of the text. It is given to the story by the love of the people in the story.
As I describe it, realism is bankrupt. Versimilitude represents the spirit of story telling itself. Versimilitude, the freewheeling love of a risky yarn, requires only that we let go of objective reality and care a little more for the people in the story. Screw Flaubert and his telling details, Zola and his drab poor, Stendhal and his limpid moralism: show me instead why I should give a damn, and I’ll read your damn story with pleasure.