An interesting piece from Waggish on the decline of realism:
“Genealogy of Metaphysics: what was it that caused the shift from the master dichotomy of real/unreal to the slave dichotomy of real/fake? The loss of authority/authenticity in young American authors (see Eggers, Foer) indicates a preoccupation with returning to an imagined time where every utterance was a statement of the real, as opposed to the supposed fakeness that surrounds us that everyone is fed up with. The term “irony,” which once signified a sophisticated sort of social satire that required a certain amount of intelligence to appreciate, has become to devalued to the point where it simply signifies insincerity, the positive referent not being a specific target but simply the mores of society.“
Certainly, realism has not been an especially fertile ground for modern literature (though I suspect that the increasingly individualistic nature of modern society is as likely a cause as Lyotardian explanations; realism has a certain sense of social solidarity as a pre-requisite; this is the difference between Balzac and Houellebecq), in spite of a brief flourishing after the second world war (Greene, Murdoch). Other forms have come to the forefront; historical fiction (Ackroyd, Atwood, Fowles), magical realism (Marquez, Kundera, Carter, Winterson) or speculative fiction (Atwood). That said, although Waggish notes that those that want to return to a pre-enlightenment authenticity (a dangerous notion, if one thinks of Hamsun or Heidegger) ingore how marginal and disingenuous their views are, his comments did remind me of Slavoj Zizek saying this:
“Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du réel’, the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.“
This seems a good description of the writing of JG Ballard and perhaps others like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk. Perhaps that is the writing that will be remembered from these times as being real. Perhaps it already is; I always remember JG Ballard observing that on the whole, the future would be bland, a world of stifling mediocrity and conformity occasionally punctuated by mildly absurd and senseless acts of violence. For all of its impact, 9/11 did not seem to fall into this category; it resembled a film (a Hollywood disaster movie) too much to seem truly real. The recent Tube bombings seem to meet Ballard’s description rather more accurately.
Update: Some interesting related observations I came across from John Fowles:
“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was at one remove from life. But since the advent of film and television and sound recording it is at two removes. The novel is now generally about things and events which the other forms of art describe better.
All the purely visual and aural sequences in the modern novel are a bore, both to read and to write. People’s physical appearance, their movements, their sounds, places, moods of places—the camera and the microphone enregister these twenty times better than the typewriter… In other words, to write a novel in 1964 is to be neurotically aware of trespassing, especially on the domain of the cinema… So over the novel today hangs a faute de mieux. All of us under forty write cinematically; our imaginations, constantly fed on films, “shoot” scenes, and we write descriptions of what has been shot. So for us a lot of novel writing is, or seems like, the tedious translating of an unmade and never-to-be-made film into words.“
I’m not sure I agree, as I tend to think of cinema as the artform that failed but it does rather remind me of Paglia’s observation that cinema was always implicit in Western art in the prominence it gave to the visual or to Tanizaki’s compliant about the respective roles of light and shadow in Oriental and Occidental aesthetics.