Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Realism in the New Year

Yes, I know.   I haven't written this since September. I was feeling disheartened about the whole business. However, it's a new year, so I suppose I should resolve to write this at least once a month.
The thing that provided the impetus to blog again was this:, which got me thinking about realism in fiction.  It isn't news, of course, that crime fiction is not, generally speaking, very realistic (though I love the statistic that Cabot Cove's murder-rate is half again as high as the very worst figure in the real world.)
I don't suppose that people read Agatha Christie for realism.  They enjoy the puzzle, the period, the stylized speech and characters: the murders are just an excuse.  I think, though, that certain other crime writers do claim to be 'realistic', sometimes even 'gritty'.  This usually means a lot of graphic medical details and a lot of sex, violence, and substance abuse.  I'm not sure, though, that this sort of 'realism' reflects the world most of us inhabit much more than Christie does.  Even on the bleakest housing estates, most people do not engage in drug dealing, prostitution or murder, and most of those who do don't do so all the time.  In any life, there's much, much more tedium than drama.  The thing that really makes fiction 'unrealistic' is the way that tedium gets left out--because, after all, who wants to read about watching telly and doing the laundry?
'Gritty' historical fiction can be as unrealistic as the criminal variety.  I remember visiting a Norman castle near Saffron Walden which was fitted with wax figures supposedly informing the visitor about medieval life.  Of perhaps twenty of these, there were four or five who were not being hanged, tortured, or suffering monstrously at the hands of doctors.  Yes, of course, medieval people were hanged and tortured and did suffer monstrously at the hands of doctors--but mostly they worked on the land, raised kids, baked and brewed and cooked dinner,  talked, told stories, argued, fell in love, went dancing or to church--in short, lived lives.  Books which represent life in the past as all violence and cruelty misrepresent reality as badly as those which treat it as a romantic idyll.