Wednesday, 30 July 2008

On realism

How "realistic" should a novel be? I've been wrestling this question, because some of the reactions I've had to early sections of the novel that I've been drafting have amounted to: "Yes, but is it realistic? How can I feel that these people really exist? How can I believe in these bizarre situations that you describe?"

I find some of this surprising, simply because a lot of the novel (so far) is based on real life - or, at least, my experience of it. I've always been accused (when recounting anecdotes in pubs) of exaggeration and hyperbole, and that's fair enough. But exaggeration only exaggerates - obviously - it doesn't invent, doesn't make up things out of nowhere. Exaggeration is a distilled form of realism.

But actually, a lot of the novel-so-far isn't exaggerated, or not much: I really have met people like I describe, and I really have come across the bizarre situations I recount. People in real life really really (really really really) do the most strange things, behave in the most strange ways. That's why I've always preferred Dickens to George Eliot or Trollope - the world I inhabit is more Dickensian than Eliotian; the people I meet everywhere (and I don't exempt myself from this) are often full of oddities, tics, neuroses, cartoonish gestures, catchphrases, and so on. They don't always behave with forethought; consciousness and rationalism don't always rule their actions. Dickens - as far as I'm concerned - is much more realistic than Eliot, or Trollope.

But none of this stops people accusing Dickens of caricature (as if it's a bad thing) and of being unrealistic. And I've realised that it's something one has to watch out for when writing a "fictional" novel. You have to persuade people that what you're saying is possible in the so-called real world. In a memoir, on the contrary, because it's assumed that you're talking truth - whether or not you are - you can be as outrageous as you like. You can talk about bizarre, outlandish, weird situations and people. You can describe the most unlikely scenarios. You can be as over-the-top as you like ... and all because memoirs are assumed to be "true," however out-of-the-ordinary the experiences you describe. It's all a question of genre.

And the novel genre demands something different. Ironically, our culture demands that a fictional work be MORE, not less, realistic than a true one. In writing a novel, you're supposed to be moderate, talk about situations which are immediately recognisable to everyone - just do not be too outrageous, or you won't be believed. Tone down the characters' oddities, tone down the strange things that happen to them, take real life and add water: this often seems to be the unwritten rule of fiction writing.

But I've not yet decided whether I'm going to accept it. I'm not yet sure I want to write a novel which doesn't, or doesn't quite, reflect the surreality and grotesqueness of everyday life in modern-day U.K. I think I might just carry on regardless, trying to describe a reality which, frankly, does a great job of exaggerating itself.

1 comment:

Kathz said...

My mum - a great Dickens fan - always claimed he was perfectly realistic and that it's just a question of point of view. This was partly my mum enjoying an argument but at the base of this is an important point - that what is termed realism assumes a particulat norm derives in particular from a certain class perspective. For my mum, who discovered literature while reading books she couldn't afford to buy outside second-hand bookshops, the world didn't have the restrained orderliness that George Eliot, for instance, described - and she certainly didn't start from the upper-middle-class perspective which is often seen as the norm. Like many working-class readers of her generation, she took to Dickens. Later she particularly enjoyed magic realism. Among the authors she recommended to me as particularly good reads were Plato and Borges. (And that wouldn't fit neatly into a realist novel either.)