The Tyranny of the Real

If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch Patrick Rothfuss Explaining Why Literary Snobs Are Wrong. I’ll wait until you’re done.


Okay, so as somebody who happens to straddle both the academic/literary world and the fantasy/spec-fic world, I’ve run into a lot of the same sentiment that the girl who came to Rothfuss’s reading did. During my MFA program, I had a couple workshops where Fantasy or Science Fiction were outright rejected as viable submissions. In one such workshop, one professor (a lit-fic short story writer) used to ask us what books we’d read recently. Each of us would have a turn. When they got to me, I said Steel Beach by John Varley – a science fiction novel (and a hell of a fun read, by the way) – and the woman reacted as if I’d belched in her face or something. She pretended I hadn’t said anything and class moved on. That stung a bit, let me tell you. I hated that snob and her sneering assumption of what qualifies as literature. Still do.

Part of the divide between the worlds of so-called “Literary Fiction” and that of “Genre Fiction” (an artificial distinction, and I whole-heartedly agree with Rothfuss that everything is a genre) has to do with the concept of “realism”. What is “real” and what is “not real” is, for some reason, important to us in our stories. There are great swathes of people out there who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believe that what is written in the Book of Genesis is factually true. These people don’t do this because they are crazy (or, well, not necessarily), but because the understanding of the “real” is of such incredible psychological importance to the human mind.

In Plato’s venerable Allegory of the Cave (which, for you spec-fic philistines, is basically the same thing as the Matrix, except without bullet-time or snazzy outfits), he depicts to us a world in which the people trapped in the cave…

…can see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave…and if they were to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them…[and so] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

Plato here is describing what philosophers refer to as the “Veil of Perception,” which was explored more fully by thinkers like Descartes and Locke, but basically involves a central problem of human experience: what we see is necessarily filtered through our various senses and our senses are not always reliable. Since we cannot always trust our senses to reveal the truth to us, we are required, therefore, to either exist in a permanent state of doubt and skepticism or, conversely, to take certain things on faith as true so that we may operate in the world without anxiety. Of those two options, most of us tend to choose the second one. We prefer to think of the real as being actually real since to do otherwise would require an awful lot of work and not a little bit of discomfort.

Enter fiction! When we read a work of fiction, we are being lied to, completely and totally. None of the things being described happened, none of the people are real people, and none of the places are real places. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to engage with fiction. We have to accept these blatant lies on faith. We do this because we are able to gain from the experience – the story, even if false, resonates with our understanding of the world.

Now, in “Literary” Fiction (which is primarily focused on the real, concrete, and even contemporary world), suspension of disbelief is easy – it’s barely even noticeable. Even those stories that involve the fantastic are very tightly bound by certain realistic expectations. From such realist fiction, though, the realm of writing travels very, very far. Fantasy fiction is the furthest of the bunch, arguably – a world that is very much not our own, adhering to its own laws, governed by its own cultures and history, and so on and so forth. The suspension of belief at that end of the scale is fairly substantial – it asks you to accept the impossible as plausible in order to engage in the story. While I can readily accept that this isn’t for everyone, the supposition that doing this automatically disqualifies you from a serious literary discussion is fatuous nonsense. As Rothfuss rightly points out, many of the great works of literature are fantastic in nature. Were they to be published today, they’d get stuffed in the Scifi/Fantasy shelf right alongside Rothfuss’s stuff (and my own, though I hesitate to put myself in the same company as Rothfuss as yet).

If it spins or if it falls, is Jack's experience any lesser for it, really? Is ours?

If it spins or if it falls, is Jack’s experience any lesser for it, really? Is ours?

The big question, though, is why does realism even matter that much? If all fiction is lies, anyway, who cares what the lies are about?

We writers, we are all liars. We lie about different things and in different ways and to different degrees, but it’s all lies anyway. We lie because we’ve found that’s an easier way to get at the truth, ironically enough. To say this writer is telling lies that are too big to believe is splitting hairs – I don’t buy Holden Caufield, nor do I accept Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as realistic, but what of it? What we’re debating here is matters of taste, not truth. We are quibbling over style without bothering to have serious discussions about content. Something “not being real” is not a criticism, because none of us have any real way of distinguishing the real in the first place.

Read what speaks to you and be willing to listen to that which at first seems strange. That’s all you need to find true literature, no matter what genre it is.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 10, 2014, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi there! Very happy to stumble upon your blog. Some interesting thoughts here on literary snobbery. Fiction is indeed fiction, and snobbery is totally unnecessary and unwarranted.

    I recently wrote a post about philosophical fiction and I asked my readers what books they counted in this category. I couldn’t think of much besides the usual: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc. I was surprised to see that nearly all of them commented on Sci-Fi titles. Since philosophy is my thing, I figured these would be up my alley. I got a few recommendations and ordered a bunch of novels to read. I’ve started on Dune, my first Sci-Fi.

    So far I’m noticing some big differences, but as far as content, I’d say you’re right. A great deal of literary fiction is eloquent rambling, lacking ideas. For this reason I’ve decided I need to branch out.

    • Very glad you stumbled!

      At the back end of scifi/fantasy, you have books that are big on idea but very poor in execution or literary grace (Asimov’s early stuff comes to mind–very interesting ideas, but just scene after scene of middle aged men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking to each other in pure exposition). At the front end, you’ve got writers like William Gibson (if it isn’t on your list, Neuromancer should be–it is a post-modern meditation on the divine and the meaning of humanity that a philosopher should eat right up) and Frank Herbert (about faith, religion, and the corruption of power, as I’m sure you’re finding) as well as others that manage to weld big ideas to artistic writing that puts them high in the running for the best of anything out there.

      I should point out that Herbert is really dense and a bit of an acquired taste, but Dune is still one of the best of the genre (if not the most accessible).

      I’ll also give a shout-out to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which is basically about neurolinguistics as it intersects with religion, politics, and capitalism. Fascinating stuff all wrapped up in a slam-bang action packed ride.

      Enjoy branching out!

      • I have Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which I’m looking forward to reading. Dune was pretty intense at first. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with the lingo and the characters, but now I’m halfway through and finding it to be no problem. It’s reminding me of Tolstoy’s War and Peace…a bit confusing at first, but eventually things start making sense.

        I probably wouldn’t mind reading about a bunch of middle aged men sitting around drinking scotch and talking ideas, but I can understand why most people would find that boring. I’d probably do best to hold off on reading that stuff as I have a tendency in that direction with my own writing, and I wouldn’t want to pick up bad habits. Not right now, anyways! I’ll wait until I’ve completed my novel.

        Neuromancer sounds right up my alley. That will have to go on my next order once I’m through with these.

        Thanks so much for the recommendations!

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