Sunday, 14 March 2010

Realism is Rotten

Imagine a dull man named Conk. He awakes in the morning at 7AM and eats a bowl of Alpen at 7:15AM precisely. He reads the Daily Express. He gets in his Ford Focus and drives to his office, where he works as a Strategy Divisions Manager for Middlesbrough Council.

This involves filling in various clearance forms so the council can erect new bollards or build new roads. He does this for eight hours a day, staying occasionally a ninth because Conk is dedicated. Then he goes home, prepares dinner, reads middlebrow literature, listens to Cream, and watches TV.

Your task: to write about this man in an interesting way without placing any external pressures on his life. He doesn’t meet a woman. He isn’t shot at by an escaped Taliban grenadier. He isn’t going to come to any sudden realisations about his dullness. He isn’t going to grow a personality.

Yes – you can’t. You are handsome, and I like that green toga, but you can’t.

Realism is rotten. Realism is a fiction, it is fictitious in its claims to represent the quotidian in art. You cannot make the drab interesting without popping something miraculous onto its purview and watching your dull personnel scramble to make sense of these somethings.

Which is why I avoid most fictions brought together under the umbrella of realism. I find the term a contradiction, a LIE. If you want to write ‘realism’ you should be working for the Essex Tourist Board producing pamphlets. You deal in factual dross and the sordid business of accuracy.

How vile! How much better to write about Conk’s talent for scat-singing while riding a lubed-up rhino! Let’s have a few characters drilling into pumpkins then making love to the skins! Let’s write about Conk’s office taking off into the stratosphere and exploding into the sun!

Ignore what they say. Sure – write believable characters we can relate to and whom we love and nibble. But make sure you have them extracting a hog’s head from their anus while Neptune erupts.


  1. Ah Mark, it's an ancient trick to create a restrictive example to support your point. Even so, I'd be tempted to write that story to prove you wrong.

    Instead, here's the theme for one of the best short stories I have ever read - by my hero Milan Kundera:

    Three bored men in a tea room, having a short break.
    A pretty tough, butch woman joins them.
    They talk.
    Then, out of boredom, the woman suddenly starts to dance.
    She stops, has a cup of tea, then they all go back to work.

    In that short scene, Kundera packs so much observation about human behaviour, unrequited love, sexuality, and sensuality - it is staggering!

    The value of reality writing is totally dependent on the knowledge and skills of the author.

    And we all know that a crap author will fail miserably with that tale of extracting a hog’s head from an anus while Neptune erupts.

  2. That tale you tell isn't realism, though -- it's pure fantasy. You would never have a woman spontaneously dancing in front of three bored men for no reason.

    I agree though, that the value of reality depends on the author's ability to depict boredom convincingly.

  3. Mark:
    "Fantasy" - you've obviously never worked in a factory! Dance, sing, even mock masturbate!

  4. I am sounding very grumpy, aren't I? Maybe it's my manstruation period.

    I think my attempts to pooh-pooh an entire genre of literature are going to need more research, reading and examples before I can make a convincing case.

    In the meantime, here is a song:

    #When the man goes out to work,
    He's twisted and berserk,
    But when the woman stays in to cook,
    She's happier than a book.
    Hey hey!#

  5. My previous answer was rushed, I was going out.
    Here's the thing - the human spirit is immensely robust, even when forced down and buried deep.
    Those women in the factory, they don't dance for the men. They are making a statement, sending a message to themselves. "I may be old, worn down, my hopes and dreams expelled, yet the little girl is still here inside. She remembers once, even if for just a day, being thought sexy. She remembers dreaming that a Prince would take her to the ball."
    And that mock masturbation is saying "I may be tough, able to beat you to a pulp or slit your throat, but I still have one of these!".

    I worked for eight years in local government beside so many Conks. They moan about red tape and bureaucracy, yet are the very ones creating it. Yet, when forced into their company at a leaving do or company evening out, you find another facet. Maybe they collect stamps, have a train set, a prize garden. They are content during the day because their mind is at ome.
    Writing about such people can show us much. It can teach us why, when they reached the t-junction they turned left and we should turn right.

    Obviously it's a matter of taste, yet I mourn the loss of such stories.
    Tell me about Conk, not some vampire trying to avoid drinking human blood.

  6. Life lesson #24156721 - rarely make an absolute stand, you'll usually make a fool of yourself!

    OK, I've written a vampire story, so I can't totally condemn them.

    They're OK in my book if they are a vessel to teach us something (seruptitiously or otherwise) about our humanity.

  7. Very good points, of course. I must meet one of these masturbating factory ladies. I suppose realism can translate into literature. Right now in my writing career, it bores me. As do vampire stories.

    But power to the realists!