Realist fiction is an oxymoron. Realist fiction is basically anti-fiction. It is fiction that has internalized doubts and anxieties about fictionality. It is the closest to the truth that one can get while remaining fundamentally untrue. Realism is neither real nor unreal. It’s realish. Like Stephen Colbert’s truthiness, realism appeals not to actual reality but to felt reality—realishness.
Realism is part genre and part mode. It is a mode that becomes a genre whenever it takes over an entire text. Because of this relationship between its genre and its mode, realism is a genre that insists on its own metrics of evaluation. A realist text is bad if it is unrealistic; it is good if it is true to life—a life understood to be fairly predictable. Its enemy is pernicious illusion, which it aims to dispel (if indeed it aims to do anything at all).
Realism is often therefore defined negatively—whatever it is, it is most certainly not romantic, melodramatic, fantastic, sentimental, sensational, or modernist. It is often considered “conventional,” but it resists the categories of “genre fiction”—mystery, western, science fiction, etc. Realism is neither didactic nor inspirational; it’s all mirror and no lamp.
Realism can be “political” in the sense that it can feature “political” material. (Henry Adams’s 1880 novel, Democracy, might be a good example here.) It can certainly make readers upset about real problems in the real world. But it generally does so by attempting to narrate the status quo. And because it is fundamentally fiction and not journalism, it always leaves itself open to charges of levity: if it were “serious” about its politics, it wouldn’t have to make up anything.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is prime example of this problem. Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed to be using the “allurements of fiction” to achieve the correct “sympathetic influence.” Her descriptions of slavery, as she insisted in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, were all “true”—that is, based on factual occurrences. These facts were merely robed in fiction in order to elicit a more powerful sympathetic response than factual material could elicit on its own.
But of course Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because of this very appeal to sympathy—because of its melodramatic pulling of the heartstrings—has also been criticized as other than realist. There seems to be an implied understanding here that realism is or should be essentially unexciting. At its most provocative, it merely provokes contemplation (not action) and is therefore an intensely private genre. Donal Harris can thus label mainstream literary realism as “quietist realism.” (One could argue that this is the default mode of the writer of demographic privilege.) Its acolytes tend to promote the sublimity of boredom—the profundity of a not-too-meaningful life. (Roland Barthes thus thought that the “reality effect” in literature was achieved by including a series of meaningless details that in no way contribute to a text’s plot—because real life itself generally either lacks meaning or means in superabundance.)
We might thus identify two poles of literary realism: individual realism and social realism. Because it seems to be philosophically opposed to idealism, realist fiction often portrays a solid social reality that resists the solipsism of individual rumination. (It owes more, perhaps, to Hobbes than to Montaigne.) Rather than record the idiosyncrasies of personal experience, realistic novels, notes Amy Kaplan, “attempt to imagine and contain social change.” Along these same lines, Joe Cleary has questioned the preference in postcolonial studies for modernist literary aesthetics (e.g. “magical” realism, another oxymoron), arguing instead in favor of “realist-associated conceptual categories such as historical transition, class consciousness, and totality.”
When realism takes a tack toward individual rather than social reality (as it often does in postwar American literature), it tends to require an unexceptional protagonist. In needs, in other words, an Everyman (like Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom) who might represent a very large number of real people. Furthermore, this Everyman should have, in lieu of an exciting adventure, an “everyday” life. (Contra Aristotle, character evokes real life better than plot.) The very normalcy of the events narrated challenges the singularity of narration itself, which tends to insist that its events occurred “once” upon a time. For Fredric Jameson, realism thus lies at the crossroads of destiny and the “eternal present.” This dialectic is perhaps best represented by what Gerard Genette called iterative narration—the difference between “it once happened that” and “it usually happened that.” This difference between the singular occurrence and the everyday phenomenon privileges the mundane, the ordinary, and the quotidian over the exotic, the extraordinary, and the unusual.