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Be Realistic

"The Mona Lisa"

The most difficult kind of fiction to write well is realist fiction.  If you want to really challenge yourself as an author, try writing a straight story.

28 thoughts on “Be Realistic

  1. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t agree. I think the hardest thing to write is a *good* story—however one defines that.

    And what is a straight story? Your post implies that it’s a realist one. But I’m not sure I agree. How about a straight piece of genre fiction—some straight-up science fiction? Or crime fiction? Or romance? All of those things seem to me very difficult to write, being the product of writing programs. I’ve been saying for a while now that I want to write a Dan Brown novel, or a Michael Crichton novel. I don’t know if I could.

    This is moving things to one side, but I’ve never much understood the conflict between “realism” and, well, non-realism. A lot of non-realist work proceeds in “realist” fashion, albeit from different premises. “Alice in Wonderland,” for instance, is hardly a realist novel, but much of it is still “realistic.” Many of the characters are fairly coherent, they use dialogue, Carroll uses narrative to move characters through spaces and develop plots, etc.

    Similarly, a lot of “fantastical” films employ standard Hollywood realist principles—the recent “Lord of the Rings” movies are a great example. (They obey the film grammar of a TV show, which is part of the reason why I think they’re such garbage.) Meanwhile, I might argue that a film like Stan Brakhage’s “Window Water Baby Moving” is much more “realistic,” despite its experimental presentation.

    This is an old debate, I know. Wasn’t someone recently saying on these boards that the original intent of much experimental art is to move beyond the stale conventions of “realism” so as to be better able to access reality? Well, yeah (although I don’t think that people necessarily need to do that, either).

    People who write experimental fiction often still need to know how to depict characters entering rooms, sitting down, getting up, talking, leaving the room. And of course one can write fiction where those kinds of things never happen. That’s cool. But sometimes it’s good to know how to do those things. You can still write something loopy with those tools.

    Here’s a story I’ve always found positively loopy: “Cathedral,” by Raymond Carver. Has anyone ever read that story? Why is it “realist”? It’s positively demented! If no one had ever told me that it was “realist,” I’d swear it was experimental. The dialogue is so stylized—at least in its presentation—every time I read it, I always think that Carver’s trying to put one over on me. (I should clarify that I love that story, and much of Carver’s work.)

    Anyway, to bring things back: I’ve been saying for a short while now that I’d like to see more experimental writers try writing more straightforward genre pieces (I’d include realism as a genre—I’d also categorize many types of experimental fiction as genres). Personally, I think a lot of them wouldn’t be able to successfully do it—but I’d be interested in the results.

    Which might be loopy.

  2. I do agree that realist work has its own conventions, which can be viewed as restraints. (A lot of writers write without thinking of genre conventions as restraints: they simply obey them to the best of their ability.)

    One advantage of writing in an unfamiliar genre can be that the conventions are more apparent to you, and so you have more choice as to what to do with them. If I were going to write a Western, I’d need to learn first the things that make it a Western. And then decide whether I wanted to include those things or not.

    Same thing with a realist story. I’d have to include some water imagery, a death, lots of similes (at least three per page!), …

  3. hm, i’m probably starting to look more serious than i am, here, but i think this spins off your response to my comment in that other thread, so i’ll jump in.

    i think all modes of fiction are probably equally difficult to write well, while some modes may come easier to some folks than others.

    if by realist you mean “sounds like real life,” i tend to think barry hannah, who sounds like the voice in my head, only with a southern accent and smarter. (and of course, i know his work is highly stylized.) i frequently write in a mode that i think of as a stylized version of how i perceive the actual world.

    if by realist you mean what i called in that other thread “the well-made story,” i agree that it would be hard to write one well, because i don’t have any models to look at that are well-done, and because, well, i want to write better than well, which doesn’t have to mean flashily or show-offy. when i think well-made story, i think something written for a grade. that is, lifeless.

  4. I write a lot of “realism” in fact I prefer it to anything else I write. And I think when I write a realist story versus something like a messed up story about Tinkerbell, I have to work at it much more. Realism is my passion with writing, because it is what I am most interested in exploring. I think, however, that this is subjective, that a great realist might find writing a surrealist story, or a piece of genre work as much more difficult.

    Of course I could be wrong about everything.

  5. i’ve been struggling to write my realist novel, each word deliberated, undeliberated, then, ultimately, a failure. my fabulist novel on the other hand: easy as tying a shoelace.

  6. i think what Jameson says is about where i stand when it comes to realism. no writer is ever writing “realism” anymore, though of course to some readers certain stories, like Carver’s Cathedral, might appear more realistic than say Kafka. but to say that Carver is a realist is to really miss Carver (and I realize nobody’s saying that here, but let’s pretend there are some people out there who are). but i’d argue that most good and supposedly realistic writers these days aren’t writing realism but writing something more like representationalism, in that the surfaces of ‘everyday life’ seem to be represented sort of faithfully, etc, but things are actually ‘represented’ in a very particular way, according to whatever aesthetic design the writer is going for. ie, we get that highly stylized dialogue of carvers. in representational stories the author is pointing out, drawing attention to the fact the world being created is a world being created, a world made up of stylized dialogue or some kind of linguistic code, whereas a realistic work doesn’t want to admit that the world on the page is created, it’s actually try to pass it off as “real,” which we all now see through. so, there’s a difference in self-consciousness at the level of the language, not just the content. but, that’s just my distinction.

    as per this post though: i don’t know. for me, i’m much more at home writing more realistic-type stuff. the experimental stuff i see out there often blows me away, though sometimes it leaves me just flat bored. i would say it’s much easier to write a really bad realistic story and for it to appear really bad.

    i just started reading this blog. i like. hello.

    1. Hi Alex,

      I tend to agree with this:

      “a realistic work doesn’t want to admit that the world on the page is created, it’s actually try to pass it off as “real,” which we all now see through. so, there’s a difference in self-consciousness at the level of the language, not just the content.”

      And I do think there are writers who are still writing that way. I just cruised on over to Ploughshares.com, for instance. Check out the Spring 2009 issue (the most recent one that has any fiction available online):

      There are four stories:

      “Leaving Women” by Andria Nacina Cole

      “Baby R.” by C. E. Poverman

      “Lives of the Saints” by Jess Row

      “Hidden Works” by Sasha Troyan

      …The first three are written in what I would call (broadly speaking) a “typical contemporary realist style.” (The fourth one is different.)

      For example, look at this, the second paragraph from “Leaving Women”:

      “Tommy swore Dee’s skin, black as it was, black as patent leather shoes and the night sky, was the most beautiful he’d ever seen. No matter that at seven she was coming up on five feet and not particularly slim in the first place, that her eyes were a bland brown with stout, spare lashes sticking from their lids, that her voice, even after hot milk, was coarse and not what you’d want a young girl’s to be-he looked at her like she was something worth looking at. He listened to her with both eyes fixed on her face and watched for the clever words leaked and sometimes chucked from it. She reminded him of Buella Brown, living three doors over. With Buella he’d made plenty of love and a baby she never bothered to tell him about. With Buella he felt best and worst all at once.”

      I see here:
      —anaphora (“black as it was, black as patent leather shoes and the night sky”; “that at seven … that her eyes … that her voice”; “he looked at her … He listened to her”)
      —consonance (“five feet,” “bland brown,” “stout, spare lashes sticking from their lids,” “fixed on her face”; “Buella Brown”)
      —direct communication of character’s psychological state (“not what you’d want a young girl’s to be”; “She reminded him of Buella Brown”; “With Buella he felt best and worst all at once.”)
      —simile (“like she was something worth looking at”)
      —lots of specific, sensual physical description

      These are all literary devices that I see frequently employed in contemporary realist fiction. (Mind you, they’re not unique to contemporary realist fiction—but they seem heavily valued in such writing.) (I should note that I’m not trying to say anything evaluative about any of these stories. I haven’t read them, not beyond the first few paragraphs.) (And by no means does Ploughshares represent the entirety of contemporary realist writing! I’m not trying to be exhaustive here.)

      …The thing that always perplexes me, though, is whether realist writers really do believe that this way of writing is “realistic,” or whether they can see the ways in which it (like all writing) employs distinct devices and follows particular stylistic conventions.

      …Well, maybe some do, and some don’t. I was initially trained as a realist fiction writer, and it always seemed so apparent to me that it’s a style (but I have always been drawn to formal analysis—I remember counting similes in stories I was assigned in workshop). I did feel a push from my teachers and fellow students toward this kind of “lyric” style. (Although this encouragement was never overtly acknowledged, so maybe it’s just unconscious for a lot of people.)

      1. Hi A.D: yeah yeah, i shouldn’t have said writers don’t really write realism anymore. that’s just wrong. they do, but it’s more of a mix between what i think of as realism and representationalism. the difference i’m pushing for is this: realism is now mainstream and often diluted and often dull (not always), while the contemporary (perhaps more “literary”) people that seem to be doing realism are really doing something a bit more complex.

        i just quickly browsed the “Leaving Women” story, and i’d add that it does seem to be doing something a bit different than what i’d call straight realism. take this line: “Trecie, Dee’s mother, a bright-yellow-nearly-white woman not much taller than the kitchen counter…”. this description, which operates as a description to seem realistic, is really not very realistic. this woman is both “not much taller than the kitchen counter” (damn, she’s short), and is ‘bright-yellow-nearly-white.’ in other words, the text is riding a really close line between realism and representationalism. but it’s not quite there, not quite at that place where the text itself calls attention to itself as text. i think a spot where that happens in this story here: “And Dee, with all her flaws and all her youth, was no fool. She could read two, three chapter books in a day, this girl. Was a magician with numbers-they folded in her hands and became soft slits of easy.” i mean, what is happening here? this girl is a magician with numbers, okay, that sounds fine, but in her hands these numbers fold and become “soft slits of easy.” frankly, i have no real idea what this means, and yet i do, and moreso, it makes me stop and look at it. i feel that here the writer is – slyly – calling attention to the creation in a very formal way, through language. then i go back and read other lines: “the words would land like a fist full of stones against Dee’s head.” i have re-evaluate this line. a more realistic writer would’ve probably written something like “the words would bang like stones in her mind,” but, in my reading, the actual line is something completely different, something very physical, almost strangely so, and the visual created – of words landing against one’s head, long after those words are uttered – is a strange and almost incoherent visual. to my mind, at first read, this is a realistic-looking device, but upon further examination i think the writer taking a very conventional device -simile- and doing more with it. okay okay, to sum up this story i quickly browsed: i feel that this “Leaving Women” piece is really going into an interesting literary cartoon space. something Joy Williams does amazingly.

        i was really thinking the other three pieces above probably were going to be all straight realism, but i just can’t think they are. especially “Hidden Works.” the “Hidden Works” story is directly asking the reader to play, directly addressing the reader from the first line, and for this alone, i would place it somewhere outside of realism. it’s more a po-mo conceit, engaging the reader in play in this direct way. to my mind, this is completely self-conscious prose, aware of its creation and wanting the reader to look at that and play with it and see what comes of it. the “Baby R” story seems to be a bit more realistic, but the repetition of Baby R does make me question a bit. i’d say the “Baby R” story and the “Lives of Saints” seem to be the more realistic of the four up there.

        anyway, i don’t know whether writers see their writing as realistic, but speaking as someone who is often branded realistic (by who, i don’t know), i don’t feel like i’m writing realism, but i don’t mind writing close to such a thing as it appears to be. the bigger problem, to my mind, is that straight realism is often taught in workshops. but that’s a whole other discussion.

        1. oh, see now that you made mention of the “Hidden Spaces” story, so i guess just ignore that part.

        2. Hi Alan,

          Regarding those lines you point out in “Leaving Women,” I don’t know if they fly in the face of what I’d call realist writing. Again, for me, realism is a genre and a style, with a whole set of conventions organizing it (and then people employing those conventions in a wide variety of ways, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not—and sometimes innovatively).

          “Trecie, Dee’s mother, a bright-yellow-nearly-white woman not much taller than the kitchen counter…”.

          I see here character description that uses color and a real-world object. She might be short! Or the counter might be high… I think there’s also a little bit of exaggeration in the story for dramatic effect; it seems to have some regional influences (I mean here the regionalist style), which sometimes employs hyperbole. (I’ve always adored the way in which regionalism retains certain late Romantic elements.)

          As to whether the text calls attention to itself: I think that all realism (and all genres) call attention to themselves, simply by being genres. As Derrida says, the text deconstructs itself (the critic does not deconstruct it). Anyone who’s consciously aware of the genre and its conventions will see them, as well as which lines better fit the conventions (or worse fit).

          Outside of that, there’s a question as to whether the author is consciously employing the convention, or fighting against it, etc. And of course we don’t know what Andria Nacina Cole was thinking when she wrote this (although we could probably go ask her—although she may not consciously know—always a danger when talking with artists!)

          “And Dee, with all her flaws and all her youth, was no fool. She could read two, three chapter books in a day, this girl. Was a magician with numbers-they folded in her hands and became soft slits of easy.”

          This is more interesting, I think, because “soft slits of easy” does get abstract. I think there’s precedent for this, though, in realist writing. I can’t think of any good examples at the moment, but this doesn’t strike me as non-realist. …Note also the sibilance, the realist writer’s most prized tool. (I feel like an anthropologist.) (Note also the zero-anaphora in the second sentence: “Was a magician with numbers…” A hallmark of contemporary realist writing is a heavy investment in anaphora as a technique.)

          Here’s what strikes me more in the above example: “She could read two, three chapter books in a day, this girl.” The text is ambiguous here, although I don’t think deliberately so. Does this mean that Dee reads two or three “chapter books” in a day? (And what is a “chapter book”?) Or does she read two three-chapter books in a day? (That’s how I tend to read it—as a mistake in punctuation. And we all know how punctuation errors (and mistakes in general) often lead to innovation!)

          “the words would land like a fist full of stones against Dee’s head.”

          To me this is a classically realist bit. It’s cartoonish, but realism often is (although it doesn’t see itself as such). Most similes I encounter in realist writing seem “wrong” to me—as in, “you don’t really mean that!” But simile is a weird device—all metaphor is. Why is it considered so “realist” to compare two different things? Note, however, the traditional (in some circles) anti-realist distrust of similes. What did Borges say? “Don’t say what things are like, say what they are.” (paraphrasing)

          “going into an interesting literary cartoon space. something Joy Williams does amazingly.”

          I don’t think I’d agree about this story, really, but Joy Williams—for sure! She’s a “realist” who really plays with language. (But I don’t think language play is outside of realism. Look at how invested in rhetorical device the form is! And consider realists like Carver, Cheever—and anyone in the Gish school.) “Taking Care” is one of my favorite stories of all time, and that’s a pretty “realist” work: very lyrical, lots of metaphor. As well as one of my favorite lines (which I’m quoting here from memory): “Jones has a mad desire to tip the orderly.” I love the double reading there—quite brilliant.

          Now *that’s* something you don’t always see in realist writing: indeterminacy. (But Williams’s use is is a calculated indeterminacy—and a very skillful one.)

          1. yeah, i see what you mean here, as per the Leaving Women story, and while all those things you pointed out are realist techniques, i think there’s something else going on. here’s maybe a thing that articulates a bit better what i’m going for. this from frederick barthelme, from an article where he’s kind of defending minimalism and discussing realism and post-modernism and other varied things. and i think we can all agree that frederick barthelme is a realist of a sort, but again, i don’t think the term realism really works for him, like it doesn’t work for hannah especially, or carver, or even hemingway, though, yes, these writers are typically grouped this way. it’d be like calling some writer today a modernist, to my mind. here’s the link:


            he starts talking about realism around paragraph 14 and then goes on to realism and representation a couple paragraphs after. here’s one bit, in which he’s sort of discussing his own process of coming to some “new” kind of writing: “What you wanted to do was draw a distinction between realism, standing for a whole system of literary artifice, and representation, standing for only one part of that system. What you figured was you could try some of this representation stuff, and do your dog and cat too, and see what happened.”

            but, i mean, i may just have to agree to disagree. i see your points, i just think that some of this stuff doesn’t really fit into realism anymore. i mean, i accept that it’s more realistic, etc, than other stuff, sci-fi or whatever, and looks more like life and has all these understood conventions, but many of the so-called realists are something else to me.

      2. As I hope my addendum to the initial post made clear, I consider “realism” a genre. But it’s the only genre people write in without being aware that they’re using inherited conventions, which makes it perhaps the most interesting genre.

        1. i mean, i can’t speak for other writers, but i’m going to anyway. i like that you’re saying realism is a genre and i think a lot of people can agree with that. it’s no different than the mystery novel or crime novel or sci-fi story or whatever – and yeah, there are numerous writers out there who write realism thinking they are making literature and aren’t aware of the conventions, etc. they’re just, you know, writing realistically. real life! hooray! (is that what you’re getting at?) at the same time, there seem to be a lot of really great writers who write something close to realism, but something other than it, something that is highly aware of the conventions, something that is self-conscious and really asks a lot of the reader, and it is these writers who i really value. to make a connection with genre: the writers who are writing, what, maybe i can call it self-aware-realism rather than representationalism, they’re sort of like paul auster. in the new york trilogy, auster takes the mystery novel, this very set genre with specific conventions, and just floods with with self-awareness, to the point that it becomes this wholly new thing. and i think that has happened with realism, too, it’s just that it’s not talked about as much because for whatever reason i think people believe it’s less interesting. it’s not to me though, clearly.

          anyway, hi, shya, i’ve really enjoyed what i’ve read of forecast. excellent stuff.

          1. New York Trilogy was a very important book for me as a young writer (I mean, I’m still a young writer, I suppose–so, as a younger writer).

            Anyway, I do think the distinction you’re trying to draw is an important one. But I’m not sure I’d categorize it the same way. If someone wrote a book that involved space ships and an alien invasion of fork people, but had no idea these things didn’t exist, I think I’d still call it science fiction. I’d just add that the author is a little confused or dim.

            And thanks for the kind words about Forecast–though I not-so-secretly hope you wait for the print version to come out next year. It is undergoing major revision, and the result is a far stronger novel.

  7. hmmm, i think we’re approaching this from different sides. i’d call it sci-fi, too, and yes, i’d say the writer is dim. i don’t particularly care about the writers who “don’t realize they’re writing genre when they’re writing literary realism,” though i can see how this is very interesting. rather, i care about those who understand they are writing genre when they write literary realism and they’re self-consciously trying to exploit that or push that new places, but so that it still looks sort of like literary realism. sorta sneaky or subtle or something – and i really believe a lot of writers do this (frederick barthelme, who i was under for several years, he and i used to talk about it all the time). that’s why i think a new term’s in order. and i feel this way because the major thing i’ve been after for the last few years is to deny the term realism, just because it’s so pejorative, and so wrong for a lot of writers who seem to be writing it, but really aren’t.

    man, give me a day off and apparently i just sit on the internet. anyway, yeah, i’ll be buying the print book, no worries. when next year is it hitting?

    1. Well, I think what would be the deciding factor about what to call such work depends on what the most generative/productive way of thinking about it would be. Is it most productive to consider the resulting text within the framework of the genre it’s using, however self-consciously? Because to create a category for such work, you’d want to figure out a set of things–tools–such writers have in common, regardless of their genre. What is the vocabulary we can use when talking about them? I’d argue that the former is more productive. However amazing and individual Barry Hannah’s work is, it’s still best to think of him within the tradition of realist, or even sub-category minimalist, work. As someone who’s in conversation with writers like Hemmingway and Carver.

      Because at the end of the day, he’s not writing to/for other authors who may be writing, say, self-aware sci-fi.

      1. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it, Shya: which artists is someone in conversation with?

        Tomorrow I’m going to post something about Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man (the biography of Donald Barthelme), and part of what I like about that book is how Daugherty considers Barthelme not much of a postmodernist. Which to a lot of people might seem perplexing. I mean, it’s Barth/Barthelme/Coover, right?

        But Daugherty points out that the writers that Barthelme was “in conversation with” were not his 1960s New York contemporaries (who seem to have left him more bemused than anything), but rather mid-19th century French artists (Rimbaud, Damier, Courbet) and mid-20th century American satirists (James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, Frank Sullivan).

        Which isn’t to say that critics (and other readers) can’t make Barthelme a postmodernist, by focusing on certain elements of his work. I mean, Roussel is an official member of the Oulipo by now, right?

        1. Look forward to reading your post. See, but now you have me thinking differently. Because I’d say that, even if Barthelme was in dialogue with those other authors, he was playing with expectations and formal constraints in similar ways as were his contemporaries, so I’d group him with them. Perhaps more than one grouping can be equally valid.

          Or perhaps you’re on to something after all, and authors who use genre awareness to play with their prose without totally giving into that play (as would your prototypical post-modernist) represent a new age of literature.

          I’d be tempted to say some of what you’re talking about must be this “slipstream” category I posted about a few days ago–writers who use elements of various genres in a literary framework/mentality. But that you haven’t brought this up (slipstream or new wave fabulism) I take to mean you’ve not done so intentionally.

          1. Hi Shya,

            I think that more than one grouping can be valid. And is often necessary, because the books stick around and hopefully have some resonance. Borges, for instance, was a mid-20th century Argentine writer. He was also a postmodernist, because they took him on-board.

            As for the slipstream, I read your post, but it’s not a concept I know too much about. I think I first hear about it when FC2 put out that anthology “In the Slipstream” (1999); I’ve associated it with Avant-Pop ever since (another term I’ve never felt I really understood).

            Barthelme was a collagist, and he employed multiple genres, and styles both high and low. It’s easy to see why the postmodernists accepted him. But what Daugherty does (or tries to do) is show Barthelme’s most direct influences—and they’re from Paris 1871, and The New Yorker circa 1945. And I find his argument convincing. As to whether that makes Barthelme “not a postmodernist”—well, he is one, historically, and will probably stay one. But Daugherty’s work opens up new territory in reading Barthelme, and I’m glad for that.

      2. yeah, that makes sense. and i suppose we already have all these sub-categories of realism: kmart-realism, dirty realism, irrealism, etc. it’s just, i don’t know, i hate the term realism. it’s so easily mistaken for something else other than, say, something like barry hannah’s stuff.

        looking forward to the Barthelme post tomorrow, too.

  8. Can’t say I agree with this. The hardest type of story to write is the kind of story you are bad at writing. For some people that is a realist story, for others it is an experimental, for others a fairy tale.

    Maybe I’m cheating with that comment, but I think it is true. There are plenty of writers who never in a million years could write some wacky George Saunders story, yet who can easily write quality realist fiction. An vice versa.

    Realist fiction is by far the most common fiction amongst “literary” types. Or so I would assume. I don’t really get why realism presents any particular challenge. Indeed, if I really wanted to play devil’s advocate I might say that realist stories are by far the easiest to write because all you have to do is write down some interesting thing that happened to you, change a name or two and call it fiction. This is what tons of authors do.

    1. This is all true, Lincoln. While I *did* add the qualifier “well” to the statement “difficult to right well”–so just changing some names in an anecdote wouldn’t qualify–it’s undeniable that authors have different strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure you saw my follow-up comment, but what I was trying to draw attention to (and what was discussed later in the comment thread) was the incredible sophistication of the “realist” genre.

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