Last night, in a biker bar, I overheard two men discussing what distinguished “realist” fiction from more “experimental” work. Although one shouldn’t generalize, I never expect bikers to be literary critics. Well, these were literary critics, and good ones—in fact, they’d bought their “hogs” with royalties from a book they’d co-written, Feminine Desire In Jane Austen.
After some verbal “sparring,” during which they tested my “street cred” by “throwing me out of a window” then “torturing” me with cigarettes while asking questions about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision of the fallen American utopia, I explicated my theory of realism to Duke and StudAss the Gonzo Lithuanian.
In realism, I explained, everything happens the way it actually would. The language used is what we in the trade call “normal.” There is nothing weird about it, no jerking around or making odd surreal crap happen for no reason. A person writing realism writes in the plain old regular words he or she would use when talking to friends, or someone really dumb.
Realist fiction often involves a “central metaphor.” Say your story is about a couple who get divorced because the husband is impotent on account of once seeing a fatal farm accident. The central metaphor might be: a dead farmer in the yard who, in addition to being dead, is unable to get an erection. Or: a field of corn beside the house, and every time the husband walks past, the corn droops. This system of “active metaphor” helps the reader sense deeper meanings of the story. As the relationship improves, for example, when the wife walks by, the corn stalks instantaneously grow rock-hard and several hundred feet tall; or the farmer could come to life with a big boner and compliment her hair.
Duke and StudAss were moved by this explanation. “George, wow,” Duke said, “all this time we thought realism required maintaining a modicum of verisimilitude.”
“But what you’re suggesting,” said StudAss, “is that the mimesis achieved is only a simulacrum, which creates a diversion, so the central metaphor can more effectively do its imagistic work.”
Needless to say, I was impressed. These guys were quick. So quick, in fact, that I found myself on Duke’s “hog,” after which I found myself flying through the air, into a river!
“Guys, what the heck?” I shouted.
“We hate you!” shouted StudAss.
“Throwing you in the river is a metaphor!” shouted Duke.
“A metaphor for how much we hate you!” shouted StudAss.
“Ha ha, you boneheads—who’s the real idiot?” I thought as I hit the water. That’s not a metaphor at all: it’s an objective correlative.