Reality: How Much is Enough?

I’m talking about fiction, of course.

First let’s clarify the distinction between reality and realism in fiction. When someone speaks of realism in fiction or of Realist Literature, they’re typically referring to modern fiction, that is, fiction written in accessible language which concerns itself with ordinary people living in the everyday world. Prior to the nineteenth century, literature typically centered on the doings of the aristocracy and privileged classes, and before that on gods and supernatural beings; further, realist Literature, with its focus on the mundane and even banal, developed as a counterpoint to romanticism, which stressed aesthetics and sought to divert the reader from reality rather than reflecting it back at them.

But my concern here is with the depiction of reality in fiction, and specifically how much reality is required from us as writers.

Even the most realist fiction is anything but. Take dialogue, for instance. If you were to record and faithfully transcribe the average dialogue exchange between two people, it would be almost unreadable, full of uhs and you knows, hesitations and tics and clichés; so what the writer learns to put on the page is dialogue that sounds real but in fact has been carefully filtered and structured to convey the impression of realism: it is idealized reality.

So it is with plot. All of us, except for the most fanatical determinists, will agree that real life is unscripted and unplotted. Stuff happens. And if it seems to us that stuff happens for a reason, it’s because our brains are so hardwired for pattern recognition that we’ll see patterns even where none exist (this is of course why it’s impossible and futile to argue with conspiracy theorists or religious extremists, but that’s a topic in itself). A truly plotless story, if it got published, would irritate readers and at best be regarded as an experimental scrap of post-modernism. Instead, the writer presents us with a carefully selected series of scenes and events in which each detail of dialogue and gesture, description and plot, is carefully chosen to fit in with the writer’s aim while maintaining the illusion of reality. The writer, as God, has created a fully deterministic world in which things do happen for a reason, in which people learn and change, in which conflicts are resolved and rewards won. Our writer achieves this by skilful characterization and plotting and by leaving out anything which would mar the illusion. (It’s worth noting in this regard that different cultures have different norms: European readers, for example, are rather more tolerant of moral ambiguity, existentialist concerns, passive protagonists, and loose ends than their US counterparts, who seem to me to demand a far more rigidly directed fiction with everything wrapped up in a nice, tidy bow at the end).

As Mark Twain famously put it, “the only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” The real world has no such concerns, but even the most permissive literary genres (say, Science Fiction), have their limits. William Gibson once said in an interview that if a few decades ago he’d pitched a novel which included a worldwide pandemic (AIDS), global warming, Middle Eastern terrorists destroying the twin towers with hijacked airplanes, and a white woman competing with a black man for the US presidency, the publisher would probably have called in security to restrain him (and this before he even got to a worldwide surveillance society and the serial overthrow of dictators across the Arab world).

Fiction, it seems, can only deal with so much reality.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Reality: How Much is Enough?

  1. But there’s another approach to reality to be considered in fiction, especially science fiction. Most religion and philosophy deal with what people want reality to be and it has no basis in reality. Science deals with the observation of reality. Most fiction is like religion and classical philosophy, creating an ideal world, and ignoring the real world. The best fiction, like science, observes reality. The best science fiction pays close attention to reality, everything else is escapism.

    • Hi Jim! I agree that a lot of (not only ‘the best’) SF pays close attention to reality. In that regard I’d say it definitely qualifies as Realist Fiction, at least in its intent: Realist Fiction with a twist, maybe. A lot of SF is in fact strongly anti-escapist in that it forces the reader to think; much of it isn’t comforting. There may be escapist elements (being able to time travel; visiting alien worlds), but those are often just furnishings. That said, and I’m no academic, I don’t really see that most (contemporary) fiction creates an ideal world or is escapist: most literary fiction as well as some genre fiction (e.g., Crime, Mystery) deals very much with reality, and often a very gritty one. Romance fiction, OTOH, does seem to hew closer to Romanticism.

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