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From: Peter Stephenson <pws@ibmth.df.unipi.it>
Subject: Re: (urth) thoughts on Nigel price's response
Date: Fri, 30 Apr 1999 11:20:39 +0200

"Jonathan Laidlow" wrote:
> Classic realism is a rather 
> outdated critical concept from the 70s which attempted a rather 
> misguided critique of 19th century novels and attempted to refine the 
> broad idea of 'realism'. Briefly put, Classic realism is texts which 
> attempt in some way to 'capture' the 'essence' of reality in some 
> way, to present an illusion to the reader. Yet texts such as these 
> always in some way undermine themselves.

I can't quite agree with this, or what it seems to me to say, though I may
be reading too much into it as usual (and I realise how much it blights
your career in literary criticism to have anything positive to say about
outdated schools of thought :-)).  Certainly any novel will fail at some
point to represent the real world (indeed, in a not-necessarily-so-trivial
sense, by definition).  But there are clear distinctions in the intentions
of the author.  Mrs Gaskell probably thought the world was how she wrote
--- and people like Wilkie Collins tried extremely hard to make the
illusion watertight.  Surely you can't deny there *is* an attempt to
present an illusion of reality to the reader.  Wolfe --- apparently, at
least --- doesn't do that, and the difference is interesting.  (If the
point is simply that the illusion can never turn into a true representation
of reality, then I agree and I'll shut up and go home.)

The key word is `attempt': you can make a distinction between authors who
try to represent what they think is the real world (ours), and others who
build up their own --- and consequently, you can ask where a particular
piece of Wolfe's writing falls.  It's not a simple division: some authors
who attempt to write about the `real' world deliberately have outlandish
characters, some authors who deal with fantastic universes have more
realistic characters, etc., etc.  It's worse --- for example, some people
believe in alien abductions, so you can have `realistic' books about that.
But you can still question the author's intentions at every step, although
it may dissolve into farce on some points because the author's world isn't
finally self-consistent.  This, rather than rejection of `classic realism'
(though maybe it's not so different), is what makes me sceptical about some
of the more extreme interpretations offered on this list.

Trivial concrete example: in Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon believes in V2's --
the rocket itself is realistic.  But the character's names are often
nonsense, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, etc --- they are not realistic.  (You can
pull even these two examples apart even further.)  Between the two, there's
much you can't decide on.  You can do similar things with, say, Wolfe's
Chicago in Free Live Free: giving down-and-outs the bum's rush is
realistic, eternally circling aeroplanes (airplanes to the rest of you)
sending you back to your former selves aren't.  I stress, it's a difficult
division and you can't always make it.

So I agree an author is ultimately going to fail to represent `the' world
--- how, can be as much a philosphical as a literary matter; and I agree
that an author's world, if it is anywhere, is inside their head; but I deny
you can suffocate the question of realism completely with a post-modern


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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