Reflections: 'more than real'

When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.

The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.

It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

15 Comments

  1. I love your idea of ‘more than real’ though attempting to define what writers / books you like can always seem reductive. Like you I came to reading via science fiction, (though largely in my teens) and like to read books that are in same way ‘different’. It’s an excellent idea to reflect on what you are looking for in fiction every so often – there is something revitalising in that process.

    • Hi Grant. I have to say that doing this hasn’t felt reductive to me – quite the opposite, actually, as it’s shown me how much I have to be enthusiastic about, and how much there still is to explore. It’s definitely revitalising, though; I can’t wait to come across something really good once again.

  2. What a great way of encapsulating what you’re looking for in a book. I too was an SF&F reader into my 30s and now I search out the quirky, original and speculative in general fiction in preference. I love the way you’re challenging your own reading in this way.

    • Thanks Annabel. From my point of view, it’s not so much challenging my reading as acknowledging there has been a gradual shift in it over the years, and trying to work out what that means. I also feel that I enjoy reading most – and do the best blogging – when I’m engaging when what I call the ‘more than real’. So it makes sense to me to put that at the front and centre of how I approach reading.

  3. Yes!

    I always struggle with the notion of realism in fiction. Being, as I was, so indoctrinated by post-structuralist stuff at university, I’ve always believed that words are, at best, very problematically related to the things they purport to signify (semantic gaps, the arbitrary-ess of signs, etc.).

    Which is partly why I think the notion of “realist” fiction is a little hubristic. All fictions are just that: fictions, and regardless of content, no fictions (hyper-realist *or* absurdist avant-garde or whatever polar opposites float your boat) are more “real” than any others.

    When most people today talk about realism in fiction, they mean a certain type of lit fic (which Zadie Smith brilliantly calls “lyrical realism”); a type of fiction which is more-or-less pre-modernist in the way it attempts to represent the world (McEwan, Barnes etc. etc.). Which is often very good, and often well-written etc. I think my problem, though, is when people assert that such an approach to fiction more faithfully represents the world as it is than, say, books with space ships or ghosts or highly artificial and idiosyncratic prose styles (everything from Joe Halderman, to China Mieville, to Thomas Pynchon, to Virginia Woolf)

    I think part of the reason, then, that I’m so drawn to SF and other such non-naturalist genres is that as they’re not concerned with representing the world “realistically” in a representational sense, they’re more free to talk about the world metaphorically. Whereas attempts at strict realism are saying “this is what the world is like”, writers who favour abstraction (be that through genre or otherwise) are able to say “this is what the world is”, which is much more powerful.

    In this regard, I often find that the *most* estranging fictions, the *most* alter in their linguistic constructions, are the ones that speak to me most clearly about the real world: because of the power of metaphor.

    So I know what you mean, and I agree, when you talk about conventional forms being unable to speak about the real in the most apt and satisfying ways.

    Fascinating post. 🙂

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Tomcat. I don’t have much of a grounding in theory, so I’m largely feeling my way with these things. But I would agree that ‘realism’ seems fundamentally inadequate for approaching ‘reality’ (it might be counter-intuitive to imply that realism is ‘unrealistic’, but there it is). Where I might take a different view from you is that a lot of contemporary sf and fantasy seems to be to be written in an essentially realist mode, which gives it the same limitations as Smith’s lyrical realism. That’s actually one reason for the thinking behind this post: that the traditional fantastic/mimetic fiction divide felt inadequate to me in terms of describing how I perceived fiction.

  4. farmlanebooks

    3rd May 2015 at 7:42 pm

    This is a great way of explaining which books you love! Our taste in books isn’t quite the same (I look for vividness and emotion. I want books that are so descriptive I can imagine myself being there (hence my love for Gormenghast) or books where I understand the character so much I become emotionally involved.)but, I think you describe something I also like which is a way of making the every-day come alive. In the hands of a great writer the most boring tasks suddenly have a magic about them.

    • Hi Jackie. I think our taste does cross occasionally (haven’t read Gormenghast, but it’s on my list of books I think I’ll like), but there’s definitely a difference – sometimes I like it when a book doesn’t let me imagine being there…

  5. Loved this post, David. I think realism can seem a little ordinary, when compared to what is possible in fiction. But I like realism with a twist, or Realism Plus. My most satisfying reads will always be a combination of heart + smart. If it’s just smart I tend not to love. I can admire, but not love. I need the emotional heart as well.

  6. For me the problem with realism (and I do read realist books) is precisely that it’s profoundly unrealistic. Realist books, mainstream books, have narrative. Reality does not have narrative. The imposition of narrative on reality creates a form of fantasy, a fantasy of meaning, of narrative arc. I think there’s a good argument to be made that dragons are in some respects less unrealistic than say the average Ian McEwan with its neat story (not that I read many books featuring dragons I admit).

    The realist mode is the default for SF and fantasy too, which seems particularly limiting for fantasy where in most books it seems the physical laws that underpin our world underpin the fantasy world plus magic, which is a very dreary and literal way of doing things. They also though tend to incorporate narrative, which again is in itself intrinsically unrealistic.

    Viriconium by contrast deals with a reality that can’t be so neatly pinned down, narratives that resists easy interpretation, and that is partly why it’s so much better than most fantasy (mostly though it’s the writing to be fair).

    Strict realism for me is inherently flawed because of that addiction to narrative, which makes it really not so much realism as a set form of literary approach which we all agree to call realism even though it bears no real resemblance to the world we inhabit. There’s some great books written in that vein, but it imposes limits which are distinctly optional and I think to better approach the world you have to move beyond them.

    Evie Wyld, I really did like her All the Birds, Singing a lot, but does that not seem to you to be essentially realist fiction?

    • Max, thanks for your comment. I’ve a half-formed argument in the back of my mind that true magic would be disruptive of narrative, which is why most fantasy doesn’t go down that path (Viriconium being a notable exception). I wish more of it did.

      Yes, I do think All the Birds, Singing is realist, but it’s also highly structured and patterned, which for me is where it acknowledges its own artifice. With that part of the post, I was trying to think about the realism that interests me versus the realism that doesn’t; I realise it’s a bit of a stretch… Having said that, I do like Jenny’s term ‘Realism Plus’ from further up-thread (though we’d both probably be thinking of something slightly different when we say it.)

  7. Thanks David. Realism Plus to me can be exactly what you are describing, and your eg of the Wyld book (also read, also really liked and wasn’t devastated like many other Australians when it won our biggest literary prize last year; many people thought Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road should have won. But that’s another conversation!) fits with what I think of as Realism Plus. Essentially told in a realist way but with the structural elements, and the suggestions of something super-natural or ghostly, lifting it above the ordinary realist world. The same with Catton’s book that we both loved (Luminaries) – the form she created and the principles she wrote to, to me that is Realism Plus. But her first book, The Rehearsal (which I was also stunned by) is not realism, it’s experimental, avant garde even. I don’t ‘know’ literary theory at all so I am flinging these words around using them as I understand them.

    Have you read the Richard Flanagan yet David? Keen to hear your response if so.

    • Jenny, I’m very much feeling my way with these things as well – going with what feels right to me, rather than any sort of theory. I tend to think that, by the time Catton’s finished with realism in The Luminaries, she has turned it into something else, mainly because I think she’s doing something fundamentally similar to what she does in The Rehearsal… though that could just be my pro-Catton bias talking – and anyway, it’s ultimately splitting hairs.

      Haven’t read the Flanagan yet, no – primarily because it sounds too much like plain realism for my liking. One day, maybe.

  8. Interesting post and discussion David. I think that as one becomes more sophisticated as a reader, trying to define exactly what it is that you look for in a piece of literature becomes a slippery prospect. I like to be open to something different every time I open a book. What matters is some quality of writing that I cannot define but I know when it’s not there (for me). I often say I love spare prose, and I suspect that is often my preference because it is the way I write – or would hope to write. But then I can think of so many exceptions to that rule that I have loved. So I think it comes down to the right style for the author and the story he or she wants to tell. And there has to be an idea/setting/character to draw me in but that can be quite varied.

    Oh I don’t know, let’s just say I know what I like when I find it and I have learned that life is too short to waste time on something that isn’t working for me. Clear as mud, eh?

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