Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Realism: The Truth of Fiction

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon shines a light on literary realism, the style by which writers "make the imaginary real and the real imaginary."

When a writer achieves the praiseworthy feat of making imaginary life believable in prose, we call his or her fiction realism. Realism, remember, is an illusion. In the world of sticks and stones, a novel is a paper brick, good for propping open a window; Anna Karenina never lived that she could throw herself under the wheels of a train.

Two pairs of assumptions, shared by writer and reader, support realism's illusion like stout poles that brace backdrops in a theatre.

The first pair are the assumptions of reporting:

There is a world we all know

and:

Writing can describe it.

For example:

It is a sunny afternoon in early summer. In our window boxes pink and red zinnias bob contentedly in a light breeze. Across the street a man walks by, his head tilted back to look at the sky. Another man walks down the middle of the street opening a knapsack as he goes.

This realistic writing paints a selective but accurate picture of real life, and its assumptions make possible news writing, history, biography, autobiography, and technical texts. The value of realistic writing depends on how well it accords with the facts. A history book that declares Galileo discovered America in 1066 is as useless as a geography book that says rivers run uphill.

Realism blends realistic writing with imaginative writing, using the paired assumptions of make-believe:

Words can create their own world.

and:

That world is whatever the words say it is.

For example:

The city lay locked in blue flame as raindrops streaked from bone-dry streets to the blood green sky. Three giraffes smoked ice cubes and talked baseball. A man with nine legs and one enormous ear said, "No one's coming home yesterday." The city became a small purple pea pod.

I made this imaginative writing purposely preposterous, yet look how real its silliness appears! We read and, willy-nilly, we try to paint a picture from the words. You may have never seen giraffes smoking ice-cubes before, but now you can! Imaginative writing makes possible fiction, fable, fantasy, and fairy tale, and its value depends on the pleasure it gives the reader.

Realistic writing keeps realism's feet on the ground of what did happen; imaginative writing lets realism leap into magical realms where anything can happen. For example:

"And here," said Great Aunt Matilda, entering the parlor, "is my greatest treasure, the Ming vase dear Arthur brought me from Peking. Priceless, of course, and the sentimental value."
"Oh, yes," Mary said dutifully.
Just then a red rubber ball bounded into the room followed by Mary's chubby son John running with his baseball bat. Crash! went John into the vase, smashing it into a thousand pieces.

This is realism: as believable as the observed scene, as make-believe as the imagined scene. The characters, action, and place sketched never existed, but they could have. One reader will make John's hair blond, another brown, but all readers will agree on the scene's essential elements because all share the four assumptions on how words work and what life is like.        

Realism can vary the realistic-imaginative blend over a wide range. Above, for instance, if we make Aunt Matilda Queen Elizabeth and Mary Lady Di, the passage becomes a fictional moment in the lives of real people. Or a maid could come in crying, "President Kennedy's been shot, I heard it on the radio," thus attaching the fiction to a real day in history. We could go the other way and make Matilda Queen Zotha and Arthur Prince Plegar who brought back a sacred zaponar from Planet Alforg. We could make them all frogs in a pond, or leave them humans but let magic enter their lives:

The pieces of the vase began to whirl in the air until they melted into the shape of smiling Chinese genie who bowed low before the astonished John.
"Master, how may I serve you?"

All these varieties of realism blend the four assumptions. The most realistic is still imaginary, the most imaginary still described as if it were real. Calling Matilda Elizabeth, Zotha, or Granny Frog is simple word substitution. The central illusion of the example stays the same: two adults see a child break a valuable object. As long as the writing makes that illusion believable, it is realism.

We could stop our Matilda-Mary-John story at the crash or jump to another scene, leaving the reader hanging with the vase's flying fragments. If we continue, what next? Matilda could scream with horror, have a heart attack, or sob with relief at the release from a secret burden. Mary could protect or punish John, and he could laugh, cry, or run away. We could also continue:

"That's lovely, John," said Aunt Matilda. "And now, tea! Do take a watercress sandwich, Mary, they're delicious."

Unless that tells Mary and us that Matilda has gone deaf, blind, or mad, the writing is no longer realism: Matilda wouldn't ignore her beloved vase being smashed!  The words still follow each other matter-of-factly on the page, but the illusion they create no longer rests solidly on its assumptions. In the world of words the writing is illogical; in the world of fact it's not true to life.

If Matilda doesn't mind John breaking the vase, she's denying her calling it  a "treasure" moments before; she's not acting as the person we first met would act. Her denial makes the scene illogical: an explosive cause has no effect. This B doesn't follow A; it contradicts A.

These logical breakdowns make the picture the writing paints harder to visualize than the wildest fantasy. I can easily fly to Planet Alforg or dive into the frog pond, but my mind refuses to bridge the gap between the breaking vase and Matilda's oblivious response. As I read, I question the scene's reality. My answer: "No, people aren't like that, that's not how life works."

Thus realism fails, a failure all too common, I fear, in writing of every era: novels whose characters tread the boxy lanes of their author's outline, mysteries solved with mechanically placed clue sentences, books that copy other books in stereotyped genres, romances in which heroines adore heroes who boast the strength of ten. They may charm us on first reading, but next time through we realize, "No, this writing isn't true to life." Whether the product of shallow vision, weak skills, or commercial pressure, failed realism is at best half-alive and soon enough will die.

Succesful realism, in contrast, embraces life and wrests from it immortal art. Or tries to, for the great realists, Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dreiser, and so many more, have raised the bar to challenging heights: to write to make the imaginary real and the real imaginary; to create a world of words that can be seen as plainly, and believed in as firmly, as we can see and believe the world around us; to weave illusions both factual and fanciful, lifelike and logical, believable and beguiling. Most who attempt realism fail, and only time will tell who has surely won the crown of laurel.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 5th 2010, 6:03 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Isn't it likely that Aunt Matilda, if an aunt of a certain tradition, will suppress a tear and ssy something like, "Never mind, it had a crack in it already."? My recollection of childhood is that the tolerance of Aunts knew no bounds.
I was interested in what Mr Lydon had to say; my quasi-legal studies have dealt with the nature of evidence. Mr Lydon's article confirms for me that the most well meant evidence can only ever be "realistic". Whether or not it is objectively real is always another matter.
Tuesday July 6th 2010, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
I would like to see a student of semiotics elaborate here on the role of syntax and semantics in realism. My question is whether the predominant dynamic presence of language constitutes an operational virtual reality. If so, far more than realistically referencing the world, realism is a matter of normative integration, that is, the description of what we call "real" has to be properly self-referential, all civilized human mind development being normatively subject to it. In that case, language realism would be a matter of most eloquently achieving a precise average of the common tongue, which is semantic beauty.
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 3:22 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
The people who have commented are not writers in discipline and did not understand what Lyndon was saying. I think it was spot-on.
R.A. MacAvoy
(I write cross-over fantasy genre fiction. I use minimal 'magic' because it hits all the harder and suckers the reader into belief before he's had the chance to put up barriers. Also write with wry and lighthearted style all the better to sneak in such phrases as 'when he died so soon after, people returned to what he had said and shook their heads, puzzling over it.' (Not verbatim).
It's a shame for people to get so lost in their 'syntax' and 'grammer' as to forget we're bending their minds for a purpose, Michael.)
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 5:51 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In answer to Pierre--that's a lot of long words, but I think you are agreeing with one of my deepest beliefs: that writing can capture life. If a writer skillfully uses all the many resources of writing, word meaning, word sound, rhythm, phrasing, point of view, tone of voice, etc, and expressess honest insight into people and situations, the resulting writing can contain life itself, life that can lie dormant in a book for years and years, yet still spring out whenever a reader opens the cover.

I wrote in my little essay that Anna Karenina never lived that she could be killed by a train. Yet in an important sense, she does live because Tolstoy convinces us that she is a real woman with real yearnings. That is the triumph of realism: making Achilles and Hector and Don Quixote and Hamlet and Adam Bede and Sister Carrie flesh-and-blood human beings we can think of and love just as we do "real" humans.
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
Jonah Lehrer's book "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" looks into the way creative artists have intuitively understood things about the way the mind works even when science was blind to them. His chapter on Gertrude Stein touches on this same theme, the way we apply an internal structure to even complete nonsense, and make our own sense of it. My favorite chapter is about Virginia Woolf; it's quite luminous.
Thursday July 8th 2010, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
Roberta, since you say I did not understand Michael's article, could it be that you did not understand my comment? I agree that Michael's piece is spot-on, in its context, with its assumptions, for instance the context of, as you say, "writers-in-discipline." I was merely widening the context. I repeat. Maybe over time story-telling determines the characteristics of reality which deepens and perpetuates the illusion of realism in mythology as a kind of collective unconscious.

Michael, over many thousands of years, language in all its forms has transformed meaning even at the most fundamental level of flesh-and-blood human conceptual reality, and this transformation is accelerating, lately as transhumanism. I bring up the issue because I also think that it is far from an innocent process.

Great recommended reading: http://www.amazon.com/Bastard-Tongues-Trail-Blazing-Linguist-Languages/dp/0809028174
Thursday July 8th 2010, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
Michele, coincidentally I wrote the following today, concerning the literary hoopla about how much to reveal of our understanding of "reality" and how much to hold back.

"Can we really negotiate illusions of spaces? Are we not ever more on dark auctions with smooth glass drinks and poignant color fabrics deluded in our minds? Where to in these heroic places of modest sensory erections? What is human? Who are we, this restless rise above, more interspersed with unfamiliar duplicities?"
Thursday July 8th 2010, 6:34 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
First, I love it that people are discussing my essay with each other!! Viva Visual Thesaurus!!

Second, my approach to writing is, I believe, quite practical. From years of study and experience I've learned something about putting black letters on white space to tell others some of the things I observe and think.

Yes, writing is a kind of DNA, a looping strand that seeks to move forward in time, and in many ways we live inside writing.

But: writing does not live as we do, with organs and fears and dimensions. Our lives are separate from writing. We can live without writing. We believe writing and through writing can enter make-believe worlds, but we, our bodies, our fingernails, live and die in a real world. The Iliad lives, but of the hundreds of generations who have read Homer, only the last few generations are still alive.

I'll stop here because the reality of writing, and the reality of reality, are truly fascinating topics, and I want to give them more thought than I can on a hot summer's day in New York.
Friday July 9th 2010, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
Michael, I think it is essential to think about the reality of reality. It is my job. Thinking, speaking and writing are all dynamic variations of a symbolic code or a concentration of material things constituting information about material things, a self-referential system - a short-cut form of energy-for-change/evolution, which I call "memetics." Here energy in the sense that all matter is a form of energy or pure information. In that context, memetics is the genetic code of something that can be seen as other than us, namely technology, which in the stories/mythology of memetics we now transhumanistically also call human. Memetics is the genetic code of the machine as genetics is the genetic code of life. And yes, we can live without writing, speaking and thinking, although we are indirectly in its referential loops, more indirectly than phenotype is in the loops of genotype: more like the food matter in the gut of its phenotype. So where exactly is the best place for mildly intelligent life forms in this memetics-machine loop? That is the question we must ask ourselves, once we realize that we are participating in the destruction of our own species by our blind industry in emergence and propagation of machine-assimilating-us? Or should we and can we domesticate memetics and machine, to make it animal human-friendly for the first time since our ancestors could speak fluently? Writers and lovers of words and meaning surely have that responsibility to their species? As knowers of words we surely have the responsibility to not become too enamored of these progressive experiments? Maybe reality lies deeper than the shamans have been telling us? Maybe what is important is life, so important, that we cannot know it really: we are so subjectively in it. Maybe paradoxically the only thing we can know is the fundamental structure of the universe, which we cannot see, and which is not any teleological god, but the unifying mechanical structure of matter. I hope I am not being beyond the pale for Visual Thesaurus. After all, matter matters, and pales are the sticks making the enclosures for our minds, traditionally to keep predators out, but what if the body of memetics, to which institutions belong, is the predator of humanity?
Friday July 16th 2010, 12:43 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
I cannot prove that there is reality outside my awareness of my own thought -- I could be dreaming all this a la "I think, therefore I am" and all that. I assume that what I am aware of is real, that physical mass exists, that actions occur, time progresses, that others exist -- but sometimes, usually late at night, there is this slight niggling thought that I cannot know anything outside of self. Then Chopra's idea that we only exist between breaths makes me laugh at the absurdity of the agent trying to be both aware and be at the same time. Ahh, life.
Monday July 19th 2010, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Alan B. (Pocasset, MA)
I enjoyed this clearly conceived and written essay and the following discussion. It brings to mind this quote attributed to Tom Clancy:

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."
Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 1:37 PM
Comment by: Doublygifted (Mobile, AL)
Michele, your comment has me heading to the library for that book - soon.

To all, I second Alan B.'s comment. Wish I didn't have to get back to the real world. I like it here.

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