by Isaac Butler
(UPDATE: Hello Dish readers and others who have been sent here from various corners of the internet. Welcome! This is Parabasis, a blog about culture and politics. I'm Isaac Butler, an erstwhile theater director and writer. I write most (but not all) of this site. You all might be particularly interested in The Fandom Issue, a special week-long series we did devoted to issues of fandom in popular culture.)
Every work of fictional narrative art takes place within its own world. That world may resemble our world. But it is never our world. It is always the world summoned into being in the gap between its creators and its audience.
Yet at the same time, the art we experience shapes our view of the world. As Oscar Wilde puts it in the Decay of Lying:
Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.
Wilde discusses this in terms of appreciating sunsets through the lens of Turner; perhaps our modern day equivalent is juries being incapable of understanding that real world evidence gathering isn't like CSI.
This odd tension-- that narrative art creates its own world yet helps shape our view of ours-- has given birth to (or at least popularity to) a new brand of criticism that measures a story against real life to point out all the ways that it is lacking. You've seen it before, right? "Five Things Parks & Rec gets right about small town budgeting bylaws." Now with Gravity busting box office records, we're getting astronauts and scientists telling us that there are many points where the film departs from real life. Entire critical careers are now founded on churning out "What X Gets Right/Wrong About Y" blog posts, posts that often completely ignore issues of aesthetics, construction, theme or effect to simply focus on whether in "real life" a given circumstance of a story would be possible.
In real life, people don't talk the way they do in movies or television or (especially) books. Real locations aren't styled, lit, or shot the way they are on screen. The basic conceits of point of view in literature actually make no sense and are in no way "realistic." Realism isn't verisimilitude. It's a set of stylistic conventions that evolve over time, are socially agreed upon, and are hotly contested. The presence of these conventions is not a sign of quality. Departure from them is not a sign of quality's absence.
The Realism Canard is the most depressing trend in criticism I have ever encountered. I would rather read thousands of posts of dismissive snark about my favorite books than read one more blog post about something that happened in a work of fiction wasn't realistic or factually accurate to our world as we know it. Dismissive snark, after all, just reflects badly on whomever wrote it (at best) and (at worst) cheapens the work it is written about. The Realism Canard gradually cheapens art itself over time. It's worse that the reduction of art to plot, or to "content." Those can still form the basis of interesting conversations. Instead, we're talking here not only about the complete misreading of what something is (fiction vs. nonfiction), but the holding of something to a standard it isn't trying to attain and often isn't interested in (absolute verisimilitude). We're talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. We're talking about reducing the entire project of fiction so that we can, as Grover Norquist said of the Federal Government, get it to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub.
And I suspect on some level this is part of the point of the The Realism Canard. That art in its size and complexity is too much to handle sometimes, and too troubling. That even though we say fiction's job is to take us out of ourselves, we don't really want to be pushed. So we must take it down a peg, to a point where it is beneath us and thus can be put in its place. And the easiest way to do this is to cross check it against "real life" and find it lacking.
Take this piece about Breaking Bad in The New Inquiry. It has some interesting points to make about the show's racial politics, but before it can get there it, it must shrink the show to manageable size by trying to come up with ways that its depiction of the drug trade isn't "realistic," landing on the show's overemphasis on the purity of Walter's meth. Set aside that the author's critique of the show's purity emphasis on realism grounds is wrong (purity matters because Walt is a wholesaler and the purer his product is the more that it can be stepped on by the people he sells it to), and set aside that the purity matters for character reasons (no one has ever been able to do what Walt figures out). The accuracy question with regard to Breaking Bad is a complete sideshow. Breaking Bad is not a work of realism. Its aesthetic and language is highly stylized, and its plotting is all clockwork determinism, as anyone who has watched the second season can attest. It's not trying to exist in our world. It's trying to exist in its world. You might as well criticize it for having a sky that's yellower than ours.
I don't mean to pick on that TNI piece, it just happened to be the latest one I'd read. At least it has something beyond factchecky questions to ask. Once you get through that bit, it's well written and eye opening to some racial dynamics I'm ashamed to admit I hadn't fully considered. But still. The Realism Canard is a problem, and it's everywhere (here's another one from Neil deGrasse Tyson about Gravity) and I feel it spreading more than ever over the internet's criticosphere.
Are there exceptions to this? Obviously. There are works where the idea that what you are watching is a fictional representation of things fairly close to our own world is part of the works' value, whether it be "based on a true story" films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate or social issue (and agit prop) works like Won't Back Down. And there are ways of discussing the differences between art and life that illuminate rather than reduce. That ask the question "what does it mean that they changed this thing about our world?" rather than assuming some kind of cheating or bad faith. Or ways that treat these differences not as a form of criticism, but rather a form of interesting trivia. Or, in the case of Mythbusters, edutainment.
There is also the issue of representational politics, particularly in light of what we know of narrative's deep intertwining with the processes of stereotype formation in the brain. But I do not think it's inconsistent to argue for diverse representations of the underrepresented-- and more characters that are fully rounded-- and the imaginative power of art.
What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work's purposes. It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure of The Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works towards the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them. People praise August Wilson's portrayal of poor and working class African American life in Pittsburgh, but many of his plays feature an off stage character who is over three hundred years old and has magic powers. One of them ends with a cat coming back from the dead.
The Wire's "realism" and "accuracy" are both shouted from the rooftops, but, for all of its deeply known and felt and researched world-building, it abandons both when it needs to. There is no way that Hamsterdam would exist in present day Baltimore. It's a thought experiment, an attempt to game out what drug legalization might be like. No one really cares, because it works within the confines of the show. Season 5's fake serial killer plotline is not actually any more preposterous than Hamsterdam. But it doesn't work largely because the shortened episode order left Simon et al without enough time to adequately set it up and the tonal shift in Season 5 to a more satirical, broadly-painted mode feels abrupt and off-putting. The problem, in other words, has nothing to do with whether it would really happen, or how journalism or policing really work. It's about the world the show has created and its integrity.
That, the integrity of the piece and of the world it creates, of its internal logics and rules, is what matters. My hope was always that as genre gestures got more integrated into mainstream literature and television and film, the overreliance on realism-based critiques would fade. Instead, it's intensified and is becoming a major mode of critical discourse. It's sad, really. There're so many more riches to be discovered in fiction if we could just let ourselves see them and not be so afraid that it might take us somewhere new.