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
Writing can describe it.
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.
That world is whatever the words say it is.
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.