Jan 132015

Tom-McCarthy-006Tom McCarthy

From “Writing Machines” by Tom McCarthy, published in London Review of Books

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about reality in fiction, or reality versus fiction. Take the many articles about the ‘true’ writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard, or the huge amount of attention paid to David Shields’s polemic Reality Hunger. Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real. Perhaps we should have another look at the terms ‘the real’, ‘reality’ and ‘realism’.

Let’s start with ‘realism’, since it’s the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention.

Read the rest here.

—Jason DeYoung

  7 Responses to “Realism is a literary convention–no more, no less: Tom McCarthy on Realism @ London Review of Books”

  1. “Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention.”

    Really? No shit.

    What is astonishing –or to use McCarthy’s own term– disheartening is that a point like this has to be made at all. Maybe its obviousness accounts for the all but impenetrable prose of the mentors he cites, gussying up platitude in fancy and, to me, ugly garb..

    That our compositions follow convention, self-invented or received, is, after all, a notion that anyone who ever wrote for a single day instantly knew. Indeed, are there storytellers so dumb that they actually don’t know they’re editing with every word, even in conversation? Is there, further, a reader so dumb that he or she would read the word “water,” say, and, if thirsty, attempt to sip it off the page? The high-end theorists have to invent such a moron.

    Worst of all, however, is that the post-Lacanian theorists really let us all off the moral hook: if everything is mere artifice, if “integrity” or “ethics” are simply conventional signs, for example, then who’s to blame any of our students for going off to Wall St. and pocketing every dollar available? If a Beyoncé video is as valid as Shakespeare….well, enough.

  2. “Viewed from this position, a thing’s real would consist in its materiality: a sticky, messy and above all base materiality that overflows all boundaries defining the thing’s – and everything’s – identity. It thus threatens ontology itself. ‘Matter,’ Bataille writes elsewhere, ‘represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the law.’
    Whoah–that sticky overflowing mess really reminds me of … I had to read that again just to make sure. Yes, the real is material and ‘messy.’ Energetically feminine. This seems to be the heart of the problem … that ‘the real’ can’t be put on a page. Well, no, not in that sense…As Sydney says, it’s kind of amazing that anyone has to point this out.
    However, truth can be spoken by a story. All this convoluted thinking leaves that part out, unfortunately.

    • Oh, I don’t know. I think the “convoluted thinking” presents a challenge to the story writer to create a complex, messy image of reality and not settle for acquired conventions of conventional realism. How to write mystery. How not to be naive in one’s aesthetic choices. These are the problems adduced.

      • Doug, nothing you say here do I disagree with. What I found objectionable was a banality’s masquerading as discovery.No one need adopt “conventional realism,” and, as a fan most lately of SAVAGE LOVE, I’m glad you don’t yourself.

        I guess…. Because I’d love to see a definition of hat the hell “conventional realism” actually means. If I could be “realist” and “conventional” like Balzac or Stendhal, I’d suffer being called by both these terms, and gladly.

        Or in our time, if I could be Marilyn Robinson, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, or Larry Brown, that’d be okay by me too.

        What I object to, further, you see, is the notion that Here’s How To Do It. A single way to skin the cat. Usually that means: here’s what I (can) do, which is virtuous; here’s what I can’t–which is vicious.

        ever, sl

        • Syd, Just to make sure. I didn’t write this post. This is a quote from the English writer Tom McCarthy. In the essay quoted he does come across as giving a pat formula for the neo-modernist (what I call it) aesthetic. It seems programmatic. He hits the hoary ancestors, tick, tick, tick. He’s made me want to stop thinking. But, you know, someone has to offer a aesthetic alternative to the equally pat naivete of current market/writing workshop “realism.”

          • sorry for the misunderstanding, doug

            • I can’t keep track of myself most of the time. And NC is such a complex of multiple authors and myriad commentators. This morning I managed to write a comment on the wrong post. I do have the advantage of being able to edit things I post though.

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