Monthly Archives: April 2012

Idealism vs. Realism: Fiction Edition

Society tells us as writers that we need to write gritty, edgy, push-the-border fiction. Why? Because that’s realism, folks. When we think of realism these days, we think rape in the Congo, homelessness in Los Angeles. child soldiers in South Africa, brutal killings in Cambodia, and kids getting pregnant at the age of twelve. If you don’t watch the news, there’s good news! You don’t have to. Just look out your living room window, and you’re bound to see something “shockingly” realistic.

You may be asking yourself why I put quotation marks around “shockingly,” thereby implying that these situations are not shocking at all. Well, let’s face it. We are a largely desensitized society. Nothing shocks us anymore. So writing the “shock” back into fiction helps us ground ourselves in our reality, not the one we create that perpetuates that whole “not in my backyard” attitude (i.e. If it doesn’t directly affect the life I’ve constructed for myself, then it doesn’t really exist.) But the point I’m so ineloquently trying to make here is that I question whether or not we write our version of realism into fiction just to assuage our own feelings of guilt on these issues. If we write about them, then we don’t have to act. As long as we can write this type of so-called realism into our fiction, than we are absolved of ever having to do anything about it. I think we tend to forget that realism is established by us, which brings me to my next question: Does idealism have a place in fiction, or does all fiction have to be grounded in realism?

I am a self-proclaimed idealistic realist, and I think fiction needs more idealism. I think we’ve been desensitized so that we think we no longer want happy endings and positive reinforcement in fiction, just like we’ve been desensitized into thinking we need to write realism(the kind that focuses on the negative) to make us feel justified in what we’re writing. But why can’t something just work out well and be a good story? I think it is better to ask, how can we write idealism into our stories without making our work sound like clichéd fairytales?

That’s a difficult question to tackle, and feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong. Author Alicia Erian came to speak at our class last week, and she said something that made sense to me. She basically said that when she’s considering endings, she tries to think of a small action or detail that can be packed with meaning. Although I’d say from reading her short story collection, The Brutal Language of Love, that her topics tend towards what we think of as realism, she has a point here that applies well to idealistic writing as well. When you want to write a story that uses idealism, you have to be very careful, very aware that your audience is going to be exponentially upset with you if you give them a cookie-cutter or too-perfect ending(unless they are 14, then have it). If you want to express idealism, first of all, I think you need to establish a foundation: Give glimpses of it throughout your story. Hint that this is going to be a positive story. Secondly, avoid clichéd images. And lastly, try out Alicia Erian’s advice: End your story with something small, like an image that reflects back to a distant, fond memory that is simple and unique to the characters, or a small action of some sort, just enough to make the reader want more, yet enough to satisfy their idealistic nature.

While that may seem vague, it’s not if you think about it, and it is practical advice for writing both realism and idealism. But no matter which you prefer writing, you should write when and what you are inspired to write, and remember that the definition of realism I’m referring to is writing about things that we perceive as actual, existing, or real—in other words, trying to represent things as they really are. That doesn’t have to mean rape in the Congo or homelessness in Los Angeles. It can mean cooking dinner with your mother and talking about the good old times with your father before he got Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember any of you. To me, that’s the type of story that can utilize a healthy blend of realism and idealism. The realism is the situation, the lives we are shown, and the idealism is choosing to paint that situation in a hopeful, positive light.

That’s where I think that writers tend to get misguided. You don’t have to choose between realism and idealism. You can be an idealistic realist too. The heart makes us idealists, the brain makes us logical realists. So, doesn’t it make sense to blend the two to create something amazing? Think of your favorite authors. Now go reread your favorite parts of those books. Is it not the idealistic situations and images and language that have the possibility to be real that make you love them so much? Even language itself has its own idealism. I read hundreds of poetry submissions, and I never see an image of a sunset described as a sunset. I see an emblazoned horizon lit by a canopy of variegated torches held by Olympians, or whatever. You get the picture. We are afraid to want idealism because it’s too good, not realistic enough. But if our idealism is centered upon a realistic image or possibility, then we are more likely to accept its positivity and less likely to throw the book at the wall and say “That’s absurd!”

So where does that leave us? Oh yeah, idealistic realism. Give it a try, and send us some submissions. I look forward to reading them.

Best of skill (there’s no luck in writing),

~Emily Bowers, Assistant Editor