A Treatise on Realism: Waiting for a Renaissance of Vision


Today, while doing my routine facebook stalking, I discovered a new literary magazine through a friend’s profile. Being utterly snoopy and ever interested in discovering new literary adventures, I couldn’t help but head over to their website. I was a little disappointed by what I found.

When it comes to sites like this, my first stop is always the About section. I see these sections as minor manifestos and I love manifestos. Though I’ll grant that I can have a high standard for these pages, I was willing to let them off for lack of polish by compensating with vision. The editors’ highest aim and desire, despite claiming to be something out of the ordinary, is simply compelling realism.

Realism? Really? I’ll admit that a good realist fiction can be a gem. I’m still referencing Gilead, still convincing others to read it. But I don’t know why this genre has become the standard for fiction. It’s hard not to find it laughable for a magazine to think their unique by making it their purpose when it has become the definition of “literary” (with only a few exceptions) and is the snootiest of all literary genres, and most overrated, in my view.

One of the staff member’s, in describing what he’s looking for, articulated what seems, to me, to be the standard for fiction in all but “genre” literary magazines:

“I’m a huge fan of the common man (or woman) in literature. Authors looking to impress me should submit stories that deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday people. Prose should be polished and sharp. I do not enjoy excessive adjectives or dialogue tags, or too much wasted time mulling about in description.”

When someone says they want to read stories of the “common man” I can’t help but think “the boring man.” The man who, as Thoreau says, lives his days in quiet desperation. Let’s be honest, there are lots of realist pieces about this man, and that woman. Indie films are also saturated with these people, who are usually given quirks and eccentricities in an attempt to make their utter averageness bearable and “artistic.”

Am I alone in being beyond tired of average and common and the normality of dysfunction (no matter how dressed up it is in eccentricity or striped down into vulgarity) being touted as art? Who thinks we have enough stories of the trials and tribulations of ‘everyday people ’? Is there no one else like me who is more interested in stories of great men and remarkable women? (Or do we only look for those now when reading the memoires of old giants?) Aren’t there more people interested in writers that are able to meld a sense of the grand and heroic into our lives? Or who want to be shocked out of the ordinary with the extraordinary?

This obsession with the “real” has shrunk creativity and produced self-conscious writers so obsessed with writing something “profound” and “unique” with the substance of their lives that they lose sight of the beautiful and the true. They’re so consumed with being “meaningful,” they fixate on the meaningless. They produce pieces that are stale and contrived and utterly self-conscious. That completely fail to entertain even in the best sense of the word.

I want to prescribe for all of these writers and their advocates Michael Chabon’s essay “Tricksters in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.” I want them to re-read these words until they sink in:

“I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other more impressive motivations and explanations…I could adduce Kafka’s formula: ‘A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.’… But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.”

All good art is pleasurable. The pieta may be painful to look on but it’s also pleasing. All great stories and good pieces of literature should entertain us, in the highest sense. This is where so much of realism fails. It is dull and lifeless. While it repulses me that fan fiction is being published and “Teen Paranormal Romance” has become a “genre,” I hold these writers and advocates of pathetic and depressing realism responsible for the degeneration. When what is classified as “art” has become so junky, what is classified as junk can only become much junkier.

I included the editor’s comments on the style he is looking for because it’s another fault of realism that creativity and style are so constricted and prescribed. While I’ll admit that I like polished, sharp prose, there’s also beauty in the meandering. While my personal style when writing and telling stories is to skip over a lot of visual descriptions (thus why a friend of mine imagined that Nichelle was a short, stocky but voluptuous African American instead of the Amazonia Caucasian she is and that Logan was over 6 foot instead of 5’5”), there are writers who can use visuals as powerfully and purposefully as dialogue. The only time that descriptions are wasted is when they are poor or pointless, and it shouldn’t be your assumption that they would be. To stipulate that your writers shouldn’t use dialogue tags and excessive adjectives is a complete imposition of one’s personal preferences that may or may not fit a writer’s work.

Far be it for me to completely condemn an artistic endeavor, but I’m as impatiently waiting a renaissance as Ferlinghetti, but what I’m waiting for is a renaissance of vision. I’m waiting for a literary magazine with true vision, that will make genius and the genuine their standard, no matter what genre or style it comes in.

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