In the United States, university students often pay enormous sums for creative writing degrees, only to have professors ban them from writing what they came to write. Some professors even pull a bait and switch on their students. They’ll write class descriptions that sound like popular or speculative material will be covered. Once students show up, the professor will reveal the real focus is narrative nonfiction. Students can expect to hear from a few professors that any books straying from real-world experiences are meaningless trash.
This happens because academic culture has a strong strain of realism. The influence of this aesthetic ideology reaches beyond our universities to impact the way we view and discuss stories. Commonly repeated phrases such as “write your truth” and “art holds a mirror up to nature”* are used to tout realist values. And when content creators want a reputable source of information about literature, they go to realism-touting academics.
When we encounter realism, we should call it out and push back, because this mindset is inherently toxic to any fiction medium.
What Is Realism?
Realism is an art movement or aesthetic ideology that espouses art is valuable to the extent that it imitates or accurately depicts reality, especially contemporary and personal experiences. This might mean notable accuracy, a gritty atmosphere, or a focus on everyday experiences. In essence, realists insist that all creative works should be as realistic as possible.
Realism as we know it today started in France around the 1848 Revolution. It was largely a backlash to the aesthetics of Romanticism, which focused on idealized depictions of nature, the unreal, and the historical. In fact, painting everyday people in their normal clothes was controversial. Realists of that era were understandably eager to break this taboo and depict the lower classes living their normal lives.
Because Romanticism was so focused on picturesque and idealist aesthetics, realism carried the assumption that realness is equivalent to grittiness, ugliness, and even edginess. Realists describe their depictions of contemporary, commonplace, and unglamorous moments as “truth.” This meant anything departing from reality was considered “lies,” regardless of whether the material was presented as fictional.
There’s nothing wrong with art that has a realistic feel, but this became not only one color on a diverse palette, but also a mandate. While later art movements popularized experimental or “avant-garde” works, they did so by creating exceptions or additions to realism, not by fundamentally revising the value system.
Today, realism has been largely dismantled in commercial spaces, because those spaces are accountable to consumers. As the taboo against speculative fiction has softened and demand has risen, studios and publishers can’t afford an out-of-touch ideology.
But realism is still common in the literary genre so loved by academics. Literary academics are paid for writing time as part of participating in their field, so their books don’t have to sell. This allows them to spend their time creating niche works while maintaining the guise of superiority. In fact, they need their illusion of superiority to justify why their work is important in the face of mass disinterest. Their attacks on other genres are the desperate flails of a drowning tradition, but they are still doing harm.
Art Doesn’t Exist to Be a Mirror
To break down what’s wrong with realism, let’s start with the basic premise that art exists to mirror, or imitate, reality. This definition of art is much older than realism. In particular, Plato defined art as an imitation. Not at all coincidentally, Plato didn’t like art very much.
Presenting art as mimicry isn’t giving art enough credit, because imitations inherently fall short of what we wish them to be. For instance, if we created an imitation of a priceless historical artifact, of course we would swap it for the real thing if that were feasible. If an imitation’s value ever surpasses what it is imitating, it becomes celebrated in its own right and ceases to be an imitation.
Similarly, no matter how true to reality our works are, they will never actually be reality. Imitations are by their nature false, not true. Even the act of choosing what pieces of reality to depict in art distorts it with personal bias. Some realists asserted their art would bring forth the truth from reality, but that just contradicts the basic premise of realism. In the end, packaging realistic depictions as truth or objectivity only conceals an artist’s personal bias.
Besides, the imitation model fails basic scrutiny. At the risk of sounding macabre, I wouldn’t exchange a portrait of my mother for a copy of her head, even though that would be a much better imitation. The purpose of the portrait is not to imitate her, but to evoke pleasant feelings and memories associated with her. By presenting a flat image instead, is it “lying”? My mother is not two-dimensional; how dare the portrait say she is!
Similarly, we already understand that photo-realism isn’t inherently superior to other types of visual art. A classical orchestra is not trying to imitate the sounds we hear in nature. Storytelling is no different. Holding a mirror to life simply isn’t the purpose of art.
That’s because imitation is a technique, not a goal in itself. Even as a technique, it is optional and only useful in moderation. For instance, writers try to make dialogue feel real enough to create a smooth experience, but not so real that readers are annoyed by all the false starts and filler words that litter real-life conversation. In most cases, making dialogue too realistic would only destroy what we’re trying to achieve.
Because the logic behind realism can’t stand up to even a superficial examination, realists today have very little in the way of argument. Some of them reflexively deride non-realist works without offering any philosophical backing. Others make up reasons that are as flimsy as realism itself. For instance, they might insist that highly realistic works are somehow more character driven or political. Not only are those characteristics completely independent of how realistic a work is, but this assumes that every story must be either character driven or political to be valuable.
Realism Is Antithetical to Fiction
Many students sign up for creative-writing programs expecting that they’ll spend most of their time on fiction. In contrast, many professors insist students write only creative nonfiction, retelling real moments of their lives with a little artistic license.
This is a natural extension of realism. If we say that works are only valuable when they reflect real life, then we should never write fiction at all. Instead we should only write accounts of real events. Also, no more paintings – photos are better at imitating life precisely. And why should we watch movies when we can watch documentaries? So while speculative fiction bears the brunt of realism-motivated derision, that’s only because it’s the most fictional fiction. Under the values of realism, all fiction is on the chopping block.
Fiction is, by definition, imaginary. That’s what makes it special and different from other works. Abandoning reality allows us to philosophize on hypothetical scenarios, speculate on where we lack knowledge, and better fulfill goals that do not require accuracy. Realism inherently opposes all of this.
To use a musical analogy, let’s take the piano. The piano is a fantastic solo instrument because a player can strike ten notes simultaneously, not even counting techniques that play notes in rapid succession. This gives the piano and similar keyed instruments a unique value. Now imagine musicians started adhering to an ideology that said music was better if it included fewer chords and, ideally, only one note rang at a time. While a piano piece adhering to this ideology could be lovely, the ideology itself denies the piano its greatest strength. It would be a terrible belief for piano players to hold.
Yet fiction writers have allowed proponents of realism to claim they have some moral high ground, as though portraits would be better as cloned heads. Regardless of how much we use imitation as a tool in our work, we should never accept realism as a value system for judging what we create.
Realism Distorts Our Priorities
When we think of imitation as an end rather than a means, it impacts the quality of our writing, our instruction, and our media analysis. Of course, the most obvious distortion is the way writers are discouraged from writing fiction, speculative fiction in particular. In spaces where realism is a mandate, creativity is confined to the assemblage of words, where it cannot threaten mundane ideas.
However, realism has influence outside these spaces, where its reach is widespread but subtle.
Write Your Truth
Let’s start with the phrase “write your truth.” This is often used in instruction to encourage writers to focus on their own feelings and experiences instead of something further afield. Is it helpful? It certainly can be. People are often knowledgeable about their own experiences, and they may have life events they are highly motivated to write about.
But just as often, this mentality sabotages writers by insisting they write things they have no interest in. It can even become exploitative by pressuring people to share their personal trauma.
The problem with “write your truth” is that it misplaces what’s actually important: passion. When a writer is passionate about something, they become knowledgeable in the topic and motivated to write about it. While many people are passionate about personal experiences, it is the passion, not the experience, that matters the most.* However, “write your truth” continues to be used because it allows realists to equate mimicry and meaning.
The Real-World Fallacy
Mythcreants uses this term to refer to any logical fallacy that treats fiction as though it is reality. Generally, someone employing the real-world fallacy presumes that mirroring reality is the goal of storytelling. As an extension of this, they’ll ignore the manufactured origin of fictional worlds, defending storyteller choices as though those choices are natural occurrences.*
A typical use of the real-world fallacy looks like:
- I think it’s fine that the villain of the story was incompetent, because there are evildoers in the real world who are incompetent.
- The rape in the story was fine because historically rape occurred in similar situations.
- It’s not racist if the Black characters die first because death just happens; it isn’t always fair.
Remember that in art, accuracy and imitation are a means, not an end. Simply mentioning how similar a depiction is to real events is not an adequate defense of that depiction. To weigh realistic elements correctly, we have to ask:
- What constructive purpose does a story serve by using a realistic element?
- Does this element also have disadvantages, including harmful real-world effects?
- Is there another way to serve the same constructive purpose while minimizing negative effects?
Then we have to acknowledge that art is not, and never will be, objective truth. It doesn’t matter if something can be naturally occurring in the real world, because it’s never naturally occurring in a story. That’s why stories need foreshadowing for believability, yet real life does not.
Equating Dark Content With Realistic Content
Because of the history of realism, we tend to think of dark content as somehow being more realistic. The problem is that these are completely separate factors. Life isn’t just suffering; we have good moments too! By equating dark stories with realistic stories, we’ve created a situation where storytellers add graphic violence that doesn’t serve the story, and they defend it by saying it’s “real.”
Accurately assessing how realistic a work feels is essential, because it sets audience expectations. If one of your characters gets in a fist fight and ends up in the hospital, that establishes that problems will come with very realistic consequences. Then if a protagonist shrugs off a bullet wound, that won’t look good.
This is also important to a setting’s theme. Let’s say your story includes characters struggling with relatable problems at their workplaces. The story may be fairly light, but it will still feel realistic. Then if you add in aliens from Mars that look like little humans with big bug eyes, it could clash simply because your Martians aren’t very realistic. They are much campier and cheesier than the struggles at work.
If we think our stories need to be gritty whenever we want them to be realistic, we’re losing opportunities to tell a variety of stories.
The fiction industry is full of misinformed but very confident people. Because writers often feel unsure about their work and method, it can be easy to assume that whoever speaks the loudest must be right. But that only leaves us feeling lost and confused. To navigate all the voices we’ll encounter, the best thing we can do is learn about the different influences on our culture. That way, we can think through our own positions and come to recognize when someone espouses an ideology we don’t believe in.
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