Realism – Childers and Hentzi

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Realism, according to Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi:

“In its literary usage the term realism is often defined as a method or form in fiction that provides a ‘slice of life,’ an ‘accurate representation of reality.’ Such a seemingly straightforward definition, however, belies a number of complexities that inform the concept of realism. First, and perhaps foremost, is the extreme differences in style and form among the texts that are usually identified as realistic. The term, though applicable to contemporary works, is most often used in discussion of nineteenth-century novels. Among those considered realists are George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and George Gissing in England, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola in France, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, and W.D. Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry James in the United States. For the most part, it might be said of these authors’ works that they focus on ordinary characters and the day-to-day events of those characters’ lives. The plots of these works encompass all social classes and tend away from excessive sentimentalizing. The characters’ speech and actions are appropriate for their education and social standing. Often these authors are extremely interested in the small details of experience, describing at length scenery, events, and seemingly unimportant objects. The representations of life found in these novelists’ works seem corroborated by nonfiction works that deal with the same subject matter. Yet at the same time that these works are categorized as realistic, one would be hard put to find common styles, techniques of plotting, or political agendas among them.
Another difficulty with the concept of realism has to do with the fact that it is applied to representations of the world. The concept of “realistic fiction” is rather oxymoronic, since ostensibly a text should be either “realistic” or a “fiction,” but it does not seem possible that it could be both. This contradiction is usually overcome by the response that “realistic fiction” attempts a faithful representation of concrete reality. Yet this too is a problematic assumption, since it begs the questions of the extent to which language, and thus fiction, actually constitute our perception of “reality.” This is not to say that realist authors were not aware of their own subjectivity or the ways in which experience is mediated through language, but they (and the critics who have unproblematically adopted [-p.256] “realism” as an analytical term) tend to assume that the nature of the material world is realtively stable and representable.” (pp.255-256)

“Another term that has been used in conjunction with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied to a group of writers that include Latin American authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes the technique of combining realistic depictions of events and characters with elements of the FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and fairy tales.
In recent years realism has come under considerable attack by post-structuralists…. Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Colin McCabe have argued that “classic,” nineteenth-century realism, in its reliance on closure (or the resolution of the plot) and its effacement of its own fictionality, reinscribe both characters and readers as essential, autonomous SUBJECTS. The basis for this subjectivity, they argue, is a middle-class “norm” that is always presented as the obvious and true. Thus, for such critics, the realist novel is a tool of bourgeois ideology that affirms that ideology and the place (and activities) of the subject within it. Another poststructuralist theorist, Jean Baudrillard, has argued that while once realism may have been at a premium, existence today operates on the level of SIMULACRA. Because we live in a world in which representation is so easily produced and disseminated, it is these simulations themselves, rather than any sort of “reality,” that constitute our being and our world. For Baudrillard, we have become so enmeshed in simulacra that our references are only to other simulations.” (p.256)

Ref: (capitals and italics in original) Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi (1995) The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism New York: Columbia U.P.

Fairy stories and Tokien; Magic realism and Margaret Mahy

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“In an essay, ‘Tree and Leaf’ (written at the same time as The Lord of the Rings), Tolkien discusses fairy stories, their place in reading, the way they work in a reader’s imagination, and their connection with religious life. he sees the fairy story – a genre into which his own books fit comfortably – as satisfying primordial human desires, such as the desire to survey space and time or the desire to hold communion with other living things.” (p308)

“Tolkien says that if fairy tales are to be regarded as a natural branch of literature one needs to be precise about their value and function, which he sums up under the headings of Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation (things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people), and suggests that areas such as Fantasy and Escape are often consdiered to be socially undesirable because ‘the [-p.311] escape of the prisoner’ is confused with ‘the flight of the deserter’. Tolkien concludes by drawing attention to connections between fairy tales and the Christian tale (a tale frequently presented as part of primary creation), and sees, rather as Northrop Frye does, the themes of sacrifice, of temporary descent and ultimate joy, as part of a fundamental world story. ‘Civilisation’, Frye says, ‘is… the process of making a total human form out of nature and it is impelled by the force that we have just called desire.'” (pp310-311)

Mahy continued (this books is now rather old): “At present there are many varieties of fantastic literature represented in New Zealand writing which cannot, in intention or effect, be classified as fantasy in the Tolkien sense of the word, or as magical realism, though Polynesian literature quivers with magical events. The presence of the demon Sidewinder fills ordinary life in Alistair Campbell’s trilogy with apprehension and necessitates an ultimate sacrifice. The third section of Patricia grace’s Cousins is told by Missy’s twin, dead before birth, unrealised, yet still a contemplative and knowledgeable narrator, alive and wise within the life of the family. However, magical event in Maori writing, in books by Witi Ihimaera and keri Hulme, though it often involves a reader in a religious response to the world, is far from the sort of fantasy Tolkien describes as merging into the Christian tale. Indeed, in spite of its mystical elements, Maori writing, at once mysterious and prosaid, has much more in common with magical realism.

Then there is the contemplative fiction of Phillip Mann, and a surprisingly wide selection of post-apocalyptic novels as varied as those of Peter Hooper and Mike Johnson. There are surrealistic novels, like those of Gregory O’Brien and Anne Kennedy, and a wide variety of fantasy, both heroic and domestic, in children’s books. Magical realism, however, works in a different way from surrealism, political allegory, science fiction or classical fantasy, heroic or otherwise. Though all these genres feature magical events, these happenings are never as casually received as they are in tales of magical realism where astonishing events may occasion surprise, but are more often taken for granted.” (p.311)

Mahy continues: “Though stories featuring magical realism (as in the novels of Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Márquez) are stories in the classical sense with strong narratives, they use fragments of dreams and fairy tales along with gothic elements which can be [-p.312] simultaneously incorporated and derided. Any amazement occasioned by magical realism returns one to a sort of domestic reality in a way that the events of fantasy or futuristic speculation do not. In novels of magical realism it is almost as if the objects in our everyday life, the surface of the bench we are wiping down, the pen the author holds, the surface of the paper against which it presses, are set free to declare their secret natures, and just may choose to do so. …After all such objects have in themselves, if we think carefully about them, the power to grip us with wonder….

Fortunately our nervous systems are constructed to filter the constant impact of such surprise out of the world, so that we are able to go from event to event without wasting energy on amazement; continually interacting with surfaces which we know to be less conclusive than they seem, we can still cheerfully regard them as impenetrable. Magical realism, by forcing reality to yield a continuous oddity, draws attention to a strangeness in existence which is every bit as much part of every day life as the more mundane assertions of realism. This is not to decry the sort of realism represented by Frank Sargeson, Bill pearson and Stevan Eldred-Grigg, (such accounts are essential), but it is to suggest that different kinds of description are necessary if the world is to be most accurately recognised.” (pp311-312)

Ref: Margaret Mahy ‘A fantastic tale’ pp.307-314 in Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (1995) Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand writing. Auckland University Press: Auckland.

Even the most realistic book makes a choice of experiences

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Margaret Mahy once wrote: “Even the most realistic book makes a choice of experiences, and this editing directs and concentrates the reader’s vision in a particular way. Magical realism can, through its inventions and exaggerations, allow the reader to make connections with the visionary astonishments of everyday life.” (p314)

Ref: Margaret Mahy ‘A fantastic tale’ pp.307-314 in Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (1995) Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand writing. Auckland University Press: Auckland.