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Realism (as a Genre)

I’ve written about realism on the blog before. But on those occasions, the subject was realism in relation to science fiction and fantasy’s verisimilitude (or internal realism). In this case, I want to explore realism as a genre in and of itself. Even though realism as a literary genre doesn’t really exist anymore. Perhaps the more appropriate genre should be literary mainstream, but realism brings, I think, more to the table. Especially when it comes to writing. 

I’ve always been a science fiction and fantasy geek, but I’ve also been deeply interested in literary mainstream and the literary avant garde. That’s where my rage at Bravo and A&E comes from. This fascination, however, comes and goes in spurts. Which sucks for someone who wanted to be a professor of English Literature for much of my teen years. 

When it comes to writing, I was more interested in writing literary fiction much earlier. Indeed, all of my ideas now are fantasy or science fiction. The lone exceptions being my Keep Weird and Gay Erotica (if the later even counts) projects. 

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t know where I’m going with either project. What’s the endgame? I have a few ideas and arcs (both are designed to be comics), but what of it? The passion I have for my other projects just isn’t there for the more realistic projects. 

Was this always true? I think so. When I’ve set myself the goal of working on projects that are not speculative, I’ve found my enthusiasm lacking. The “magic” just isn’t the same. And I’ve already mentioned that when I read history, I’m always thinking about applying what I’m reading to worlds of fantastic adventures. 

But there are themes I want to tackle that realism just seems to do better. 

Or does it?

Perhaps I would have more luck if I incorporate some of the “realistic friendly subjects” and insert them as subplots. Now, this could work. I mean, I’ve already been tempted to do that in regards to Two Cities adding elements from Keep Weird into itself. 

Okay. I think I’ve solved this problem (for myself). But there are so many more that are so interesting. Like “what are the dangers of only using science fiction and fantasy as artistic inspirations?”

Anyway, right now I need to get to work on the first proper Gay Pride Month post. 

Research and Realism


Reading Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog the other day, I began to think more about researching. How extensive does one need to be? How experiential? Can the research be minimal or does it have to be on the level of a lay doctorate? In reading a lot of writing advice sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is likely up to the reader (as much of the advice is colored by the experience of the writers themselves). In the end, I think, the amount of research is up to the writer. There is no universal “goldilocks” level of research.

But, I do think certain genres in speculative fiction require more depth in the research compared to others. I think Schmidt is right that hard science fiction demands doing the research, of being as well informed as possible on the science of today and extrapolating out.  I also think that urban fantasy needs quite a bit of research (at least to get the setting right- though it probably helps to actually live in the city one writes about). Of course, the other major fantasy genre that demands getting it right is historical fantasy. While I question if getting the world and details absolutely right is absolutely necessary for the “suspension of disbelief,” I do think taking the time to get it right is important. It reveals a commitment to the writing, a commitment to getting it right.

Now, how much research does a constructed world fantasy need? That is a tricky one. I would say as much as the writer wants to put in it for the world building. But at the same time, you don’t need to have every little thing planned out. I mean George R. R. Martin only created a few words of Valyrian and Dothraki, but the politics of Westeros is excellently well done. Compare to Tolkien who has several immense constructed languages, but the politics of Middle Earth are rather shoddily sketched in, if you ask me.

The amount of world building and research in constructed world fantasy  is, I think, up to the writer. Do what feels best for the story, and play to your own strengths as a researcher. If you are better at anthropology, do that. If you are a stronger historian, do that. You get the idea. Just because someone else argues that a world building should be this way or that way does not mean that they are right.


Moving on to realism. I read a post yesterday by A. Lee Martinez complaining about the usage of adult languages (and the portrayal of Catwoman, period) in Arkham City. His argument got me to thinking about my own attitudes towards more “mature” content in fantasy. I am beginning to wonder if it is necessarily appropriate to use “realism” as a defense against critics who desire the tamer works of yesterday (and today).

Perhaps now is a good time to define the realism defense. The realism defense is an argument that posits the acceptability of including objectionable or mature content into genres that have, until recently, been seen as exclusively for children or young adults. Therefore, it is likely that the recent inclusion of mature content is as a means of titillation for older young adults or as a means to maintain an older audience who continue to read the material long after “one is too old” for that material.

So, maybe realism isn’t the best defense. Maybe the best way to go about it is to argue that adding mature or arguably objectionable content is two fold: to acknowledge that this work is aimed at older consumers and to acknowledge that the work at present is a reaction to the old sugar coated reality of the genre.

Batman is a fantasy whether he is the goofy Adam West or the hyper serious Christian Bale. The Joker can be just a clown prince of silly crime or a truly terrifying and psychotic monster, he is still a fantasy either way. Indeed, the darker Batman (and comics in general) of today is a direct result, I think, of being bottled up by the comics code for decades.

In a similar way, I think that fantasy is undergoing a similar process. Some older fantasy readers don’t want to read sugar coated idylls of the Shire. They want the nasty, the brutish world of Earwa.

Post Script:

Damn, I did not want this post to be so long. Another thing on research: don’t let it consume you! Find a point and stop, write the story, and do further research in the editing phase. You don’t want to have a story gestating for a decade or more doing research. By that token, you might as well write a dissertation on the subject.

Theories and Definitions

I have three The Scar posts waiting for editing, and I’m hoping to have them out over the next two weeks (of course I should finish the novel itself by the end of this week). But this whole debate about “realism” in fantasy just keeps dragging me in. Hopefully, this will be my last word and I can go back to talking about Mieville.

What do I think is going on? Part of the problem is certainly a lack of definitions, of a consensus of what is meant when we throw around terms like “realism” and “fantasy.” My definition comes from my edition of Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature. In that book, “realism” is defined as a genre that attempts to explore middle class life in the nineteenth century. It is highly mimetic and emphasizes character and psychology over plot. From the late nineteenth century, realism has largely, in various permutation, influenced most of mainstream literature.  One can say that there are elements of realism in fantasy, as I said in various comments, that verisimilitude and character are important (read the writing blogs that I read). The idea is to make the secondary world as believable as possible so that the readers are not lost at the beginning (or at the first sign of the fantastic).

But I think that “realism” and “realistic” are being misused when other terms could be more appropriate. I posited that Comedy and Tragedy (as Aristotle and the Elizabethans understood it) and Northrop Frye’s theories might be better terms to explain the issues at hand. But I am not so sure right now (of course, they do work to explain fantasy in general).

Taking a cue from science fiction, I would like to posit the notion of “mundane” fantasy. Mundane fantasy, like mundane science fiction, is about secondary worlds in which little or no magic exists. And the magic, the supernatural, and the fantastic, might just be illusions or parlor tricks if it exists at all. And if we are talking about this mundane fantasy, then I agree with the naysayers, I don’t like the idea of it.

Now, if we are talking about the new violent, explicit strain in fantasy, I think that this strain has existed since Howard and the pulps (just not as explicit- hell read the old epics). I would posit you to take a look at SF Signal’s sword and sorcery mind meld from a few months ago. What we are seeing is, perhaps, a diffusion of sword and sorcery influence on the wider body of the fantasy genre. But if you still are not convinced or happy with that, then how about we posit a style rather than a genre- the “brutal” style of fantasy.

Now with this in mind, I think that for a lot of those who dislike Martin, Morgan, and Bakker for the explicitness of their work, you can rage about the brutal style and not bring in clunky old realism. And if it is a lack of fantasy, then tear apart the mundane secondary genre.

I won’t say categorically that there will be no more posts on this issue. But for now, I want to get back to Mieville. However, I do see the potential for a new series of posts where I hash out an analysis of fantasy. Unfortunately, that means I still can’t get rid of my monstrous theory anthologies! Augh!

What do You Mean by “Realism” in “Fantasy?”

As an early aside, I have parts two and three of my Bas-Lag Reading Project: The Scar awaiting editing. I’ll try to get them up next week.

But for now, I want to discuss a flurry of posts over the past week or so that has caught my attention. Brian Murphy over at Blackgate’s excellent website posted “Why Realism does not Equate to Adult (or even Good) Fantasy.” I read that post and didn’t get it, unsure of what Murphy was trying to say because I don’t think he really proved his case. Now I think Michal Woljcik of One Las Sketch and Al Harron of The Blog that Time Forgot make far better cases. Still, I am not convinced that there is a problem.

I agree with some of the comments that argue that the “new” “realist” strain of fantasy is a reaction against the dominant/ dominating presence of Tolkein’s clones. Fantasy didn’t have a New Wave like Science Fiction did in the sixties. The New Wave was a loose group of younger writers who brought new methods, styles, subjects, etc. to a genre that needed a breath of fresh air. Fantasy needs a breath of fresh air too, if you ask me.

In this maybe revolution where steampunk, new weird, sword and sorcery, mythpunk, etc. come to more prominence (or too much prominence), there will be fights fought. Battles waged in a Bloomian contest of young writers trying to overthrow their elders. Tolkein is the one of the Two Towers of Fantasy, Barad-ur in fact. As many of the new crop of writers come into their own, they will attack Tolkein because that is how it is done. While being influenced, one rebels for originality.

Yes a lot of the “new” fantasy is only new in that it is violent, sexy, dirty, gritty, and largely dystopic. And yes Howard and Smith did that over seventy years ago. And they did it damn well.

But who has actually read Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith or C.L. Moore besides the fans, the readers willing to take the time to scour old shelves in used bookstores for treasures? There is a Renaissance brewing, but that is a recent and still tentative thing.

Most people read Tolkein and Lewis and maybe some others (and Rowling too). And then they drop fantasy for other things- “real” literature (like anyone reads that), video games, etc. So when an example of the grittier fantasy is successful (particularly when it is being adapted- A Game of Thrones) then it is declared “one of a kind,” “original,” and all that drivel because the writers are not as informed as they should be. The whole body of Harry Potter criticism can tell you that.

But that said, I like the grittier fantasy, the violent fantasy, the dystopic fantasy. I like Howard, Smith, Mieville, Bakker, and Morgan. Yeah, of the three recent writers, only Mieville can claim to be original in his work.  But so what?

So, in the end, I predict that by the time this gritty, bloody revolution is over, that we won’t be returning to the boring old Tolkein clone.