Can Realism Become Its Opposite?

Dustin Illingworth has started a Substack newsletter focusing on “obstructive fictions” — “fiction that frustrates interpretation.” In his first post, he quotes Gerald Murnane on the opposition between “film-script fiction” and “meditative fiction,” which is a dichotomy dear to my heart. In his second post, he calls for “a less filmable fiction” and considers the utility of discussing fiction in terms of “realism” and “anti-realism.” I subscribe to the newsletter and I’m enjoying it so far. If you have any interest at all in literature that challenges the conventions of the artform, sign up.

Here, though, I want to dwell a little longer on “realism” and “anti-realism.” Illingworth concedes that it probably isn’t useful to think about fiction in these terms, and I agree. But. But what? Well, I write fiction as well as writing about fiction, and I’m conscious of the likelihood that many readers of At the Edge of the Solid World would describe it as a work of “realism,” even though I see the novel as realism’s opposite. I mean, it’s a novel of domestic drama and physicality, texture, sensory input: you could plausibly read it as derivative of, say, Richard Yates, at least up to a point. But I see it as a novel more in the lineage of some of Illingworth’s lodestars — the hermetic-solipsistic Kate in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and Thomas Bernhard with his obsessive-recursive approach to minor distinctions of language — despite its veneer of verisimilitude, its false fidelity to a recognisable reality.

In my earlier reflections on writing the novel, I said that I “tried to adopt that mode of writing [ie. realism] as a Trojan horse.” More recently, though, I came across a better metaphor. I read somewhere about the various species of parasite wasps. The female wasp attacks another creature, such as a caterpillar, and lays her eggs inside its body. When the larvae hatch, they devour the organs of the host — killing it in the process — before boring a tiny hole in its skin and escaping, leaving behind the empty husk of a being that otherwise looks alive. That’s how I wanted my readers to look back on realism when they reached the end of my novel.

Yeah, I know. Brass neck, right? Ego. But it’s the truth. And what’s interesting to me about Illingworth’s celebration of “anti-realists” is the way that his unhelpful distinction between realism and anti-realism functions as a sort of critical blind spot, so there’s no space in which the norms of realism might be abused and turned against it. “More and more,” he says,

I find the realist novel’s conscription of detail to describe and systematize the external world frictionless, even embarrassing. In ‘The Reality Effect’ (1968), Roland Barthes suggested that the accumulation of realist detail in fiction serves an ideological function, the seeming innocence of these “useless details” allowing them to escape scrutiny in their contribution to an ambient notion of “the real.” While reading realist fiction, I often have the uncanny experience of a divided mind. I submit to the marvelous artifice set before me, even as some deeper part of my consciousness rejects these “useless details” entirely.

And following this line of thought, a little later, Illingworth characterises realist fictions as those that “purport to be projections of some sedate, agreed-upon reality.”

What beautiful phrasing! So loaded with aesthetic possibilities, though Illingworth himself doesn’t acknowledge the potential. Here’s what I’d say, reflecting anew on At the Edge of the Solid World: it looks like a realist novel in many respects not because it is a realist novel, but because its narrator wants desperately to live in a realist’s world. He has been thrown so far outwith the bounds of a knowable, familiar, agreed-upon reality that the only way he can make his new reality manageable is to first make it conformable to the norms that realism favours, or at least interpretable in the terms of a realist. Every apparent gesture towards realism — in terms of narrative and in terms of style — really signifies “anti-realism” as Illingworth defines it: an unwilled “mapping” of “the chaos of interiority, the spasms of consciousness, the superimpositions of memory.” Details accumulate upon details, yes, but rather as part of a perverse coping strategy — though I hope the accumulation itself becomes so overwhelming that it has an estranging effect on the narrator’s particular reality, rather than an effect that clarifies or confirms a familiar one. Put more simply, the novel doesn’t “purport to be [a projection] of some sedate, agreed-upon reality,” though the conditions of its reality are indeed “projections” of the narrator’s need to determine its terms in a way that all but begs for agreement, affirmation, from those who read his words. An anti-realist novel can invoke and employ the tried and true aesthetic conventions of realism while also repurposing them — even if lay readers who default to realism open the covers and find exactly what they expect from any work of fiction worth their time. Hopefully, though, more experienced readers will see more: more than realism at work in my novel, and more potential uses for elements of realism than those that have grown stale through centuries of overuse.

An Alloy

Today is one of the days I live for as a writer. At the Edge of the Solid World has made its second appearance in the pages of the Australian Book Review, this time in an extended appraisal by Naama Grey-Smith. It’s a beautiful piece that genuinely appreciates the ambitions of the novel — and doesn’t shy away from, or diminish, the demands the book imposes on its readers:

There are, in a sense, many books in this single work, and their merging is gainful, like an alloy whose molten components are improved through complexity. … At the Edge of the Solid World is an unapologetically demanding work. It challenges readers in terms of both form and content: facing its graphic catalogue of violence, keeping account of its many moving parts, reckoning with its philosophical deadlocks, and, at the end of a reading session, escaping its obsessive hold. Most extraordinary is Davis Wood’s ability to blur the boundaries between narratives until, from their yielding, edgeless form, emerges a new shape.

I must say that I feel truly honoured and humbled that At the Edge of the Solid World found its way to a critic with such an eye for detail and sensitivity to craft. And I do mean truly; I wrote the book in fear that it would only ever end up in the hands of readers who didn’t know what to make of it, if indeed it ended up in the hands of any readers at all. To see it now in the hands of readers as receptive as I’d ever dare hope for — well, that’s just breathtaking.

First Things First

Daniel Green has written what you might call a takedown of Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction and the American Imagination, especially Row’s reading of the pedagogy of Gordon Lish. “[I]n Row’s analysis,” he writes,

Lish… embodies assumptions about style and form that have enabled white writers to avoid reckoning with the cultural legacies of whiteness in American fiction, further allowing them to presume an “innocence” in regard to these legacies that perpetuates an evasion of the responsibility to interrogate whiteness as the default perspective in American literature. 

Reading this, I wonder whether Row has ever read, say, Cane, or The Bluest Eye, or any number of other novels by African-American writers whose aesthetics share a greater affinity with Lish than with social realism. And I wonder what still-living writers of this type of literature would make of Row’s argument, with John Edgar Wideman foremost among the likely objectors.

In any case, what resonated with me in Green’s review was the rhetorical question that. opens his final paragraph:

Is a concern for the aesthetic qualities of literature — the belief that literary art is first of all art — inherently an insular, protected outlook that allows indifference to “the world” and its injustices — and therefore available only to white writers?

I won’t venture an answer to that, but I will suggest that the words “first of all” hold the key to the difference between readers like Jess Row and readers like Daniel Green. Green believes — as do I — that if literary art is first of all art, then any response to this art, and any subsequent reckoning with it, must first of all address its artistic qualities. Only thereafter is any consideration of its other qualities reasonably possible. Row, however, believes that literature is first of all functional, an instrument of reparation with which to amend an unjust culture. In consequence, the artistic qualities of a work of literature are of secondary or even tertiary importance to its impact on the status quo beyond its pages.

I figure that we’re on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide here, though in fairness I do think that there’s an onus on anyone who holds Row’s position to demonstrate that literature today — and literary fiction, no less — can and does have the capacity to measurably change the status quo. It seems to me like it’s been a long time since a book did anything to reshape the culture that received it — it’s been a century since The Jungle, ninety years since Lady Chatterley’s Lover, eighty years since Native Son, fifty years since Portnoy’s Complaint — so that, although there are plenty of well-received and much-cherished novels out there, we do fundamentally live in a post-literary culture that has drained fiction of all its power but for the affective and the aesthetic. Better to lean in to either of those, I think, than to pretend that a novel today is any more emancipatory than a pebble dropped with barely a plop in the middle of the sea.