Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Realism through the Ages

Here is the latest contribution from Michael Lydon on the writer's art.

My recent Visual Thesaurus essay, "Realism: The Truth of Fiction," set off a brisk debate in the comment section, the gist of which was, "Okay, Michael, realism is the truth of fiction, but what is this 'reality' that realism describes?"

Good question! Here's my response. The reality we know is not life in the raw but a construct assembled by our brains. A black cat on a red carpet, a violin melody, the cling of a kiss, the tang of an onion, a rose's perfume: such images our gray matter assembles at lightning speed from floods upon floods of sensory stimuli. What is life like unassembled? The question is unanswerable. We humans cannot know what we were not built to know.

Yet we do know realism, an age-old tradition in writing that describes the facts of human in such plain words that we readers of every time and place recognize in the words a world similar to our own. Read these passages, found by letting fine books fall open where they may. From Don Quixote by Cervantes:

...they heard a whistle like that of a shepherd, and there appeared near the top of the mountain a great number of goats, and behind them the goatherd, an aged man. Don Quixote shouted to him to come down to where they stood, and the goatherd shouted back, inquiring what had brought them to that lonely place...

From Pere Goriot by Balzac:

You would see there a barometer with a monk who comes forth when it points to rain, engravings so horrible as to spoil one's appetite and all framed in varnished black wood with gold stripes, a tortoise-shell clock case inlaid with copper, a green stove, Argand lamps, in which dust mixes with oil, and a long table covered with oil cloth so greasy that a merry boarder can write his name on it with the end of his finger...

From The Idiot by Dostoyevsky:

... a magnificent carriage, drawn by two white horses, suddenly dashed by the prince's house. Two gorgeous ladies were sitting in it. But after driving no more than ten paces past the house, the carriage stopped; one of the two ladies turned around quickly, as though she had suddenly caught sight of a friend she wanted to see.

From Some Came Running by James Jones:

Across the square of the town with the courthouse of the county seat in its center a light November snow, granular and dispersed, was falling and melting. It had wet everything just as confidently as if it had been rain, streets, sidewalks, lampposts, the solid blocks of storefronts... under the low gray of the early afternoon sky the wind blew the invisible snow in invisible patterns against the lighted windows of the courthouse offices.

These four examples differ in what the words describe, but all are written with an identical vision, an identical method, and an identical confidence that readers will get the writing, hear the goatherd's whistle, feel the greasy tablecloth, shiver in the wet November snow. Read this from Homer's Iliad:

There are nights when the upper air is windless and the stars in heaven stand out in full splendor round the bright moon....Such and so many were the Trojans fires, twinkling between the ships and the streams of Xanthus. A thousand fires burned on the plain, and round each one sat fifty men in the light of the blaze, while horses stood beside their chariots, munching white barley and rye, and waiting for Dawn to take her golden throne.

—then this from Shakespeare's Henry V:

Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear...

Nothing's changed in three millennia! Homer and Shakespeare use the same technique to turn the world into word: realism. Realism can even describe those times when we lose touch with reality—this from Dickens' Bleak House:

At the same time I remember, that the poor girl seemed to be yet telling her story audibly and plainly in my hearing; that I could feel her resting on my arm; that the stained house fronts put on human shapes and looked at me; that great water gates seemed to be opening and closing in my head, or in the air; and that the unreal things were more substantial than the real.

The truth of realism is not searched out by microscope or telescope, nor cast in formulae blank to all but advanced scientists. A twelve-year-old can understand this truth, based as it is on observation which, though intelligent and well-written, is ordinary observation still, the kind we all use to steer ourselves through daily life.

Realism's core subject: how humans live on planet Earth. Like plants, animals, and stars, we are caught up in the rhythm of passing days, seasons, years, centuries, and eons, subject to nature's laws of birth and growth, decay and death. Unchanging life give realism its unity; spontaneous life gives realism its variety. Realists insist that every human is unique; they also recognize that we may be grouped by sex, age, temperament, family, class, occupation, religion, nation, and race. Powerful emotions move humans to act, emotions that run from tender love to cruel hate, that follow laws of cause and effect yet can change with mercurial speed.

Realism accepts a basic distinction between each human's "inner world" and the "outer world" inhabited by rocks and trees and other humans. Realists enter our minds to show us burbling along, our most intimate experiences known only by ourselves; realists also describes how we look from the outside as we act prompted by our inners.

To complete this précis of realism's truth, we'd need to note everything we humans do, down to clipping our toenails and yawning when we're sleepy.Yet let's pat ourselves on the back for finding so quickly a body of mundane truth that has the priceless value of being known for sure. Do protons and electrons spin about the nuclei of atoms? Does E=mc2? Maybe, but I can't say yes or not from my own knowledge or experience. On the other hand, can a boardinghouse tablecloth become greasy? Can a bleak November twilight chill one to the bone? Yes! I answer without the slightest doubt. I have felt greasy boardinghouse tablecloths, I have pulled up my collar on bleak November. twilights. These truths of realism I can swear to body and soul.


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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:

Wednesday August 11th 2010, 12:42 PM
Comment by: David D.
This piece states my own belief, that reality in fiction is more true than that which is thought to be real in history or science or politics. Anyone wishing to learn of matters great or mundane, is better served by a good story well told in a manner that seems real, than is the student insisting on solid fact. Sure, the science may be proved by some formula, but the nature of dust or the sheen of a bit of oil on water in a gutter is real to us before some wise person explains it all.

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