My main thoughts after reading three sources about the growing dominance of realism in the 18th century are that these sources can be used to deconstruct the idea of the realism mode being the most expert at describing the “real.” McKeon points out squabbling of the time about what form was the most realistic, and that the novel form that developed out of these squabbles wasn’t just one easily classifiable type, but a series of competing forms that influenced each other in their race to become more realistic. The competition he outlines—Fielding criticizing someone who was criticizing someone else—is to me a sign that no one form by itself is ever going to be perfect at expressing the “real,” not to mention a sign that there’s no universal understanding of exactly the “real” is.
Ross and Carnell stir similar thoughts because both of their works expose possible motivations behind the rise of the realism mode—motivations that were other than simply wanting to express what is most real; much traditional scholarship and definitions of realism, Ross argues, suspiciously fall along lines that remove women from the equation, and Carnell argues similarly that “those writers handed down to us as serious, ‘realistic’ novelists have frequently been either Whig or anti-Jacobite Tory” (9-10).
Of course, my task now is to take these ideas and connect them somehow to one of the novels we have read for class, and I am hoping that Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey might help me do that, since its content deals at least somewhat with the way that romance novels of the day influence the heroine.
Other ways I could see narrowing this topic would be to compare Richardson’s Clarissa with an 18th century romance we did not read for class (but one that is similar to the style of Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina or Mary Davys’ Coquet) and examine the romance for the ways that it achieves a kind of poetic truth even if it does not achieve the kind of literally real experience that Clarissa conveys. Or, I could examine the romance for elements of the real that both Ross and Bowers argue they contain, while also examining Clarissa for elements of romance that Ross argues some of the realist novels—despite their authors criticizing the romance—also contain.
I question myself, however, even as I write these things, because this exploration is starting to sound somewhat like a witch hunt—I’m not sure what’s at stake that’s really valuable, in other words. Perhaps I have somewhat of a chip on my shoulder for the ways in which fiction workshops—in my experience—have more often tended to emphasize the telling of literal truth over the telling of poetic truth, and maybe there is a part of me that wants to reclaim the value of poetic truth? I think of an essay by Tim O’Brien called “Telling Tales,” in which he writes that while the questions of verisimilitude we frequently bring to stories and novel excerpts in fiction workshops are important, the problem he often sees with fiction in progress is not that it’s unrealistic, but that it’s boring. His essay makes me think, simply, that those of us who write in the realist tradition (myself included), can get too hung up on trying to present something that feels realistic instead of something that feels moving, important, poetically resonant somehow. Why do so many of us so highly value a work feeling realistic and believable over a work achieving these other—I would argue equally valuable—aspects?