Sep 6, 2009

The Sunday Salon - The Matter of Realism

The Sunday

Hello Sunday Saloners. You know, I almost didn't write a post today - I'm in one of those lazy, slightly blah moods. I'm sure you know how those are. But the other reason why I almost didn't write this post is because this is going to be another one of my long thinking-out-loud rambles. Don't say you haven't been warned!

Ever since making the difficult decision about the winner of the Nerds Heart YA tournament along with Chris, I've been thinking about fiction and reality, the role of stories, and just what I expect my books to do. Part of what Chris and I were doing when debating those books was trying to deal with the premise that a realistic book is inherently more valuable than a fantasy. And I'm not using the word "fantasy" in the sense in which your normally see me use it: in this context, I just mean a version of reality that lacks some of the difficulties people are likely to encounter in the real world.

One of the books in question, My Most Excellent Year, had a teen gay couple fall in love and start dating without any of the fear, rejection, hostility, bullying and even assault that the majority of gay couples still face today. Another example I can give you is that of Their Eyes Were Watching God. As I discussed in my recent post about it, back in the 1930's Zora Neale Hurston faced some hostility for not including conflicts between blacks and whites in her novel. This choice, however, wasn't made out of carelessness or lack or concern: what she wanted to do was write about a black community whose life was not defined by racism.

These are, of course, very different books that do very different things, but I think they're both useful when thinking about this topic. How do you feel about it? Do you think that a book that leaves out certain aspects of reality is necessarily worse than a book that does not? The reason why I've been musing about this is because I'm always trying to become a better reader, and I think that asking myself just what it is that I expect my fiction to do helps me do that. Or so I hope.

What my instincts tell me is that no, it is not. The examples I used have to do with homophobia and racism, but we could have this conversation about a whole range of topics (teen sex, for example). What I think is that no author, no book, can have the responsibility of representing the whole of reality. And because books exist in a wide cultural context alongside thousands of other books, no gap is in itself very serious. I don't personally know any authors, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was something they struggled with: whatever the subject you're writing about, you probably don't want to be accused of neglecting the difficulties surrounding it, or of not acknowledging the experiences of thousands of people (I know some of you write, though - is this something you struggle with?) But the thing is, if every author were to decide to focus on those difficulties, a whole other range of experiences would go unrepresented: the positive experiences that are sadly often forgotten because of the pain and fear and cruelty people have to deal with every day.

A question that fits nicely with this one (and which deserves its own post, really) is that of whether realism in itself is enough. You write about something because it happens, end of story. The thing is, I don't find that very satisfying. I don't want stories that preach, obviously, but I want stories that takes a stance - or, to be more precise, that invite readers to take a stance. Reality is what it is, but the reason why I love fiction is because it does more than just mirror it: when looking at the reflection, we're often forced to think about things we wouldn't consider when looking at the real thing. And sometimes a story that removes something that is always there - like the fear and pain of someone who has to deal with rejection on a daily basis - forces us to see what people's lives would be like without it, and thus to better understand its consequences. Also, I don't think that writing a book that does this effectively is necessarily any easier than writing a realistic book.

As I've probably said before, you all have a way of helping me clarify my own thoughts. I'd love to hear your opinion.


  1. Oh goody. I love it when you "ramble" as you always say such interesting things, and make me think.

    I totally agree with this:
    "no author, no book, can have the responsibility of representing the whole of reality."

    And I would like to add two more things:

    In trying to explain the value of art, people often fall into the trap of trying to find some kind of utilitarian reason for its existence, and often that purpose is "teaching us to be better people"

    That, of course, is one of the good things one can achieve. Although often there are far better ways to help people, than to make art.

    I dont want to go into what I think the purpose of art is - too rambly and ranty - but what I do want to point out is that when people try to justify the existence of a work of art - a book, piece of music, painting, or whatever - purely by what utilitarian value it has, we frequently run into trouble.

    Secondly -
    Frequently people act as though apart from representing the whole of reality, an artist must represent things and people as they should be, not as they are.

    For example, there is that famous book "Native Son" by Richard Wright. It is about a black man who is also a vicious and violent murderer. It is a frightening book and disturbing. It seems to play right into the racist stereotype.

    I always felt that the author faces the fact that humans are depraved and violent. And more - that one of the effects of our racist world is that people grow up dehumanised and capable of violence.

    Does the author have the responsibility to correct pervasive stereotypes and only depict black characters as kind and humane? A lot of people think so.

    I do too, a lot of the time. But then you come across a book which breaks the rules, and makes me wonder.

    Hope that was not too off topic :P

  2. This topic is so on my mind right now. I'd like to offer a further example of that kind of fantasy that you mentioned. Jane Austen has often been criticised for avoiding much mention of the bloody military conflict raging during her time, especially as her brother was involved in it. This hasn't kept her books from being declared classics, but it does mean readers must approach Austen with a critical mind aware of the terrible experiences she leaves out of her books (no crippled military men in her books as far as I'm aware, no heroines much affected by loss due to the war).

    Like you say books aren't always going to be able to portray the whole range of experiences possible and no book exists in a vacuum, because there are tons of other books talking about other aspects. However, I can't reconcile myself to books that offer up complete fantasy versions of society, unless they are set in an alternate reality. Fantasy set in reality just seems too reminiscent of moral fiction to me, although the morals it pushes are much more my kind of ideals (lessons from the liberal canon). I'm just not sure I want to see books return to that kind of symbolic, idealistic writing.

    On the other hand (because my views are anything if fixed)Zetta Elliot wrote this fab post about how black boys and men may act a certain way and have certain options, but they need to see other options reflected in books to see what is possible: and I found myself agreeing with her. However I think I'd like to see these different type of characters appear in the same book so that each one qualifies the other and fantasy is as much balenced by reality as reality is by fantasy.

  3. I like what you said about inviting the reader to take a stance. Though I'm okay with books taking a specific stance (especially if I'm in agreement with that stance, which makes me enjoy it more), I like it better when a question is opened up to get a reader to think. I prefer the author to say, here - this is what I think, and then have the reader ponder both sides of the question and make their own decisions. I guess this is one of the reasons i like Westerfeld's writing so much - he puts a ton out there to think about, but doesn't inject his own opinions too much into the books. I love it.

  4. Masha: I'm glad to hear the rambling doesn't lead everyone to despair :P And no, you didn't deviate from the topic. Now I feel like a big hypocrite, though, because while I don't think art needs to be utilitarian (or, worse yet, didactic), I definitely approach literature with social/personal goals in mind. I mean, there's the aesthetic pleasure side of it, which most definitely matters a LOT to me - just the pleasure you get from beautiful language, imagery, metaphor, seeing a story come together. But I also use books as a way of understanding myself, others and the world in general a little better. Also, I care about social responsibility in literature. I don't think art is useful if it doesn't help us do these thing, though - it's just a personal preference, with no "should" or "must" involved.

    Your second question is a good one, and also one I have no answer for - it's a fine balance, and I suspect that whether or not it works depends on the details. Surely there's the danger that a negative portrayal of a black (or gay) character will help fuel stereotypes and hatred. But that doesn't mean we can only have positive portrayals either. I suppose that it's a matter of whether or not the story avoids generalizations as much as possible, or associations between the characters' ethnicity/sexual orientation and the negative behaviour. It also depends on whether the character is complex enough to feel like a real individual, or is just a cardboard cut-out meant to symbolize a whole group. The latter will have me throwing the book against a wall :P

    Jodie: First of all, thank you for that link - that was a great post. I see what you mean about there being a risk of fiction like that becoming moralistic. I think another risk is it being vapid, but I didn't feel that either of those things happened with the two books I mentioned. The risk is there, though, and I wouldn't want all fiction to represent an idealized vision of the world. I think the answer is probably in finding a balance, yes. But like you, I definitely don't have fixed views on these things.

    Amanda: I agree - I prefer ambiguity and a challenging question to a straight answer. Even because most of the time, the big questions literature asks are ones for which there are no easy, straight answers.

  5. I think there is socially responsible literature, and then there is just art for art's sake. Take for example, Lord of the Flies, which I'm thinking about because I am reading The Maze Runner. You could talk about Lord of the Flies in terms of its social context (Cold War, nuclear hysteria, conflict over democracy versus totalitarianism) or you could talk about it in terms of what kind of story it is and what emotions it elicits. It definitely doesn't give you a great alternative (as Zetta wanted to see in the book "Tyrell") but maybe didacticism (however disguised in the narrative) is not what the author had in mind. Presumably, even without seeing a "better way" alternative (e.g., socialism in Lord of the Flies or a good kid in Tyrell) the reader will be affected enough by the story to think about the consequences for the protagonists and the impact on the reader's life experiences.

    So I think I'm agreeing with you Ana!

  6. It makes no difference to me. I can find great meaning in a biography, in a fantasy novel, or even in a child's picture book.

  7. You're just always making me think, Ana! I read this post a little while ago, but had to leave myself some time to think before I responded. The time to think didn't help. My answer may sound like a big cop-out, but ultimately it's true for me..I want it all!

    I don't know that I can actually decide what kind of book, realistic or idealistic, is better. Yes, yes, yes...I love books that tell it like it is! Books that help show the pain and the trials and the joys that humans from different walks of life face. As much as I love non-fiction, there is just so much to be gained through walking in someone else's shoes through a work of fiction.

    But you know what, sometimes I just crave simplicity, and sometimes I just crave feel-good reads. Like I said, I want them all!

    No book can be everything for everyone. And like you already said, no one book can ever capture every reality anyway. So, again, I'm just going to cop-out and say that I'm glad all myriad of different kinds of books exist.

  8. I agree with you that books cannot depict the whole of reality. If every author who wrote about black people decided to directly deal with black/white conflict, or every author who wrote about gay teens focused on persecution, we'd miss out on a lot of great, and even important stories.

    And it's not just that we'd miss out on the positive stories. We'd miss out on stories of other difficulties. I'm thinking, for example, of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain, where race was merely a background issue; the book is mostly a story of family conflict and growing up. If he had made the story one *about* racial conflict, we would have lost something. Come to think of it, telling the story the way he did could help readers see that people of different races deal with the same struggles of identity and defining ourselves in light of our families.

  9. This post really got me thinking. Specifically, I was thinking about whether their isn't some truth to the idea that a gay couple could exist outside of the controversy of homosexuality. Anyway, I put up a whole post reflecting on the issue here. Great topic!

  10. rhapsodyinbooks: I haven't read Lord of the Flies yet, but I know enough about the story to know what you're talking about. And I agree that a book can be read on more than one level. I tend to respond to ideas/social concerns in books quite strongly, but I know this is one of many possible readings. And yes, sometimes what a story makes us feel evokes a respond that goes beyond the ideas contained in the text.

    debnance: Yes, me too. Genre doesn't matter to me at all when it comes to how meaningful I find a story.

    Debi, I don't think that's a cop-out - in fact, I can't think of any other answer myself. I really don't think one kind can objectively be said to be better, and I'm also very glad we had both. But I wanted to argue (with myself, mostly :P) against realism being automatically better, and being in itself sufficient. Nothing wrong with wanting it all!

    Teresa: That's an excellent point about there being other kinds of difficulties that would be left out. And you're also right that these stories help bridge the gap: no matter how much a person suffers due to racism, homophobia, etc, those are never the only struggles in their lives. They also have to deal with everything else being a person implies.

    Trisha, I loved your post - again, thank you! As prevalent as homophobia still unfortunately is, it definitely isn't the main defining factor in many couples' lives. And I want stories that reflect that too.

  11. I totally agree with you; I don't want all of the minority fiction I read (be it POC, GLBT, etc.) to be super-depressing, or even focused on the -isms. I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I think the lack of racism made it speak more personally to me; it was the story of a woman rather than a black woman.

    I'm still struggling with My Most Excellent Year. But it's not because of the lack of homophobia! It mainly has to do with a very personal circumstance; I was obsessed with becoming a diplomat for five years, so I know a TON about the foreign service. And Ale's father and whole situation just doesn't make sense at all. I try to ignore it, but then it'll appear again and get me all confused and frustrated. So in that sense, I could have done with a bit more realism! But I do really like how Augie's love story is developing (I'm about halfway through now).

  12. Great post, Nymeth. I think the question you ask is important, but it's one of those issues that can never be fully resolved. What I do know is that reality is subjective. Your reality isn't my reality, even if we experience the same thing. I don't think books are meant to show "reality" per se, but I love it when they open me up to another person's reality. That's one of the wonderful things about all kinds of art, imo--seeing the world through the eyes of another person.

    That being said, I don't put much value in reality. Reality can show you how things appear, feel, smell, and taste; but it can't show you the truth or meaning of it all. Reality doesn't make sense, and that's why we need stories. It reminds me of an interview I saw with a famous French actress once, who said something along the lines of, "True art is more real that reality." I think that about sums it up. :)

  13. I love these posts that you write Ana!! I had to tell you that first of all. I've been thinking about a lot of these same issues myself a result of Nerds Heart YA and my review of Wicked Lovely that I feel like I never should have written :/

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you compared My Most Excellent Year to Their Eyes Were Watching God. That made it click for me. I don't think that an author needs to write in reality...not at all. Honestly, I think life would be boring if they did all of the time. Honestly, it's nice to see a world where things are not as subject to discrimination as they are here.

    When it comes down to it, while I do like a book that portrays things how they are and respects the things that it addresses, like Eva said, it's occassionally good to have a book that's not focused on the -isms. It really is. Not everything has to be a social clusterf%$#. But I do think that when authors do decide to tackle social issues in a realistic way, they do have a duty to be fair to those issues.....

    Anyway, I really REALLY liked this post Ana :D Made me think a lot and helped straighten out my views on what I've been feeling. Thanks :)

  14. You've certainly sparked an interesting discussion here. I've read Their Eyes Were Watching God but not the gay themed book you mention here. I can say, that there have been long periods of time in my life where I went about my daily business without anyone ever treating me any differently because I'm gay. It was just background, no more important than having an English last name. High School was not one of these times, but they have happened and continue to happen.

    Is my life realistic???

    I imagine the same is true for black folks.

    But that was not your question. I think both realism and fantasy have their place and their purpose. Books can help us imagine a better world and help prepare us for the real world. A great book often does both.

    As for me personally, when I read "fantasy" I like it to be firmly grounded in the real world. Freak Show by James St. James is a good example. It's about a cross dressing high school boy who eventaully wins over his peers affections. It's a fantasy, but it's grounded enough that I bought most of it and was willing to rent the rest. In an odd way fantasy has to be much more believable than realism does.

    Looking forward to your next ramble.

  15. Many times when I read, I'm looking for something. Sometimes I don't know what that "thing" is but when I find it, I feel as if the reading touched me in some way, it taught me in some way and most importantly it changed me in some way. So I want it to be "more", like you said. Not just a mirror or a window but an idea that helps me find an explanation. For whatever it was I was looking for.

  16. I don't think all books need to have a message, or a moral, or even show reality. Just as there is diversity in life, there needs to be diversity in literature.

    However. I think people need to be aware enough of what they are reading to realize what is reality, or whether or not the book is biased in any way. So I mentioned diversity above, and I'll mention it again...readers need to diversify, as well. Which doesn't mean I'm going to dictate what someone should read, but that a reader should seek out multiple points of views/different situations in their reading if they want to get a different perspective.

    And books that offer hope or escape have a valuable place, too. They can inspire change, or creativity, or even peace from a stressful world.

  17. Like softdrink, and a couple of other people have said, books dont have to have a socially responsible message.

    But I certainly like it when any book, fantasy or otherwise, engages with moral dilemmas. But I enjoy a book like that not because it makes me a better person - I dont think books have that power, or that responsibility. I mean - its not like brainwashing.

    This lack of power, if you like, actually frees authors of the responsibility to toe a moral party line.

    Books (and other artworks) can make you think if you are receptive to that. Or they can fan hatred and encourage ignorance, if you are open to that sort of thing.

    But that is why I am opposed to the banning of books - because they actually dont have so much power. The power lies in the mind of the reader.

    And its just as silly to want to ban a book because its too conservative, as because its too liberal. That knife cuts both ways.

    Thanks for this very interesting discussion.

  18. Eva: I really look forward to your final thoughts on MMYE! I can imagine how you being familiar with what diplomats REALLY do will make all the mistakes a little annoying :P That has happened to me too!

    heidenkind: I love your comment. I really do. There's nothing I can add but "Yes! Exactly" :P

    Chris: First of all, YES YOU SHOULD HAVE. Secondly, I agree...when those things are included in books, it'd better be done respectfully.

    C.B. James: I think that's a common mistake for people who don't deal with discrimination to believe that other people's lives are solely defined by it, and that a book that doesn't portray that is not "realistic". But like you so well said, if that were so then life wouldn't be "realistic". I also agree that in some ways fantasy has to be more believable than realism - and I need to get my hands on Freak Show!

    The Brain Lair: I don't always know what I'm looking for either, but yes - the best books change me, even if in a small way.

    softdrink: I really love what you said about how readers have the responsibility to find out more, to see the other side of the question, to diversify their reading. I sometimes feel that complaints about lack of realism in a book that doesn't show EVERY angle, EVERY struggle, are in a way a refusal to take that responsibility. No book can do it all...we have to do the rest.

    Masha: I don't think books have to have a message either - and to be honest, I dislike the word "message", or even "moral", as I think they oversimplifies things. That said, I'm mostly drawn to books that present a certain vision if the world, but as I said in my first comment, that's a personal preference rather than a belief about what ALL books "should" be doing. My own attitude about the power of books is very different from yours, but that most definitely DOESN'T mean I advocate banning. I often worry that when I point out things that are problematic to me, like I did recently about The Secret Garden, people will think I'm clamouring for the book to be burned at the stake. I'm really not - I'm just engaging with ideas that provoked a response in me.

  19. I've been thinking about this myself lately, because my husband and I just had a similar discussion. I was telling him about a book that annoyed me because I was expecting it to take a moral stance (it was aimed at teens) and it didn't. My husband thinks it's crazy that people expect books to teach moral lessons. I like that there's all kinds- some to make you think, some to throw a mirror on what goes on in real life, some pure fantasy and just for fun. (In that one case, I just felt like the author was really setting the story up to make a point, and then she didn't)

  20. I love your long rambling posts. I think that not every black story has to be about racism. This is similar to a lot of Indian-American writing, where the dominant themes are mostly the sense of alienation, the feeling of straddling two cultures, or as they say, being an ABCD (American-Born-Confused-Desi). While I agree that these feelings are dominant, they are not the only component of being a second-generation NRI. But a fantasy story shouldn't give authors an excuse to ignore reality, or to subtly insert their prejudices into the story. I've seen it happening, and I don't like it.

  21. I'm working on a story right now that's set in an alternate America, and this is something I'm struggling with enormously. Because the story is predicated on the literal truth of the Judeo-Christian creation story (something I don't believe in literally myself), and I spend a lot of time worrying frantically about all the things I'm shutting out of the question by having this premise. And as much as I try to at least give a nod to other religious and cultural traditions, it's really hard! I think that even with the best of intentions you can end up being a jerk when you write. (Unfortunately.) I just like to see that people are trying not to be.

  22. I think to expect books to take a dominant experience and call that all reality and exclude everything else would be very sad indeed.

    Our lives are complex and made up of many different parts. To focus on just one experience or one part all the time to the exclusion of all other possibilities would be limiting.

  23. I think that one of the great things about fiction is that it allows both readers and authors to shape reality. It can be a way of working through specific cultural problems, like homophobia or racism, but it can also be a way of celebrating the ways in which these problems do not define us. It can be a way of saying, "Look, we know this is going on and it's a bad thing, but it's not the whole thing. Let's focus on something that's going right instead." I haven't read either of the books you mention, but it sounds like they're working more in that vein. They want to look at what's right, not what's wrong.

    As a writer, I definitely do worry about ignoring certain issues, but at the same time I don't write real-world stories and so don't feel constrained by the way things actually are. For example, only a relatively small segment of my fictional world holds any prejudices against LGBT folks. I really wanted to create a place where sexuality was a non-issue; where it was neither good nor bad. This means that I can't put much emphasis on the difficulties of coming out, or the ways that an LGBT person might deal with their family's reaction, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's important to recognize that these things are tough for real-world folks, but I think it's also important to believe that this won't necessarily be true in the future. That an entire society in which sexuality is a non-issue might conceivably exist.

  24. I think your last paragraph sums it all, thats exactly what I feel. I admit I've never really given much thought to thsi topic before. But it's important and it's there. I couldn't have put it better than you have.

  25. Nymeth, as usual, a great, thought-provoking topic. I can kind of see both sides of it, because I have definitely read stories that I felt romanticized certain things, where I felt like "there's no way things could happen that way in reality!" At the same time, I can understand why a writer would make a choice to leave some real aspect out of a book to emphasize something else. I think it really depends on what the book is about, and whether the author brings in other, realistic challenges for the characters to work through.

  26. I don't know whether it's fair to say that fiction must reflect reality; why not let it shape reality?

    We do not need to write only the world we have. Let us also write the world we want and need. Maybe our words will help give us a way to get there.

  27. Jeane: I think those expectations are there more often with books aimed at children or teens. I understand your disappointment, but I also see your husband's point. It does take all kinds!

    Hazra: Aww, thank you! I actually wasn't familiar with the acronym ABCD. But yeah, while not every story should be about issues, prejudices NEVER make me happy.

    Jenny: You're absolutely right that it's easy to be a jerk even when you don't mean to. But I do think that just trying makes a difference!

    Amy: You summed up what I was trying to say in all my long rambly paragraphs in two neat ones!

    Memory: I too believe that fiction that help shape reality, and I love that about it. Imagining other possibilities is the first step towards making them real!

    Violet, thank you so much!

    Kim: It does depend on how its done. I just don't want my stories to feel shallow or hollow. If they don't, then I won't mind if certain issues are ignored.

    Christine: like I was telling Memory, I think that's an excellent point.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.