Saturday, January 09, 2010

Realism -- lifeness

The last paragraph of How Fiction Works -- one of my all time favorites now -- by the brilliant literary critic, James Wood:
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to a different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind –lifeness – is the origin. It teaches everything else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist. It is nothing like as na├»ve as its opponents charge; almost all the great twentieth century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice. All the greatest realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. Chekov’s challenge – “Ibsen doesn’t know life. In life it simply isn’t like that” – is as radical now as it was a century ago, because forms must continually be broken. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.
There’s some synergy between this and what Naipaul has to say on the writer’s biggest challenge: finding the most original form to express his experience.

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