What Is Surrealism?

The word ‘surrealism’ has a different use in everyday English from its meaning in critical discourse.

Surrealism in everyday English: I don’t understand it. Weird somehow. Creepy. Like a dream. Disparate things are together and don’t make sense.

Surrealism in critical discourse: Over and above. Literally, super-real (from French).

‘Surreal’ is a modern word and does indeed mean, correctly, what everyone thinks it means.

The word ‘surrealism’ , however, existed before ‘surreal’, which is a back formation because an adjectival form comes in handy. ‘Surreal’ has been around since the 1930s and took off in the 1950s.

In other words, ‘super-real’ art tells us the ‘super-truth’. It’s all connected to Freudian ideas about dreams meaning something.

This explains David Lynch's storytelling philosophy
This explains David Lynch’s storytelling philosophy

Surrealist Picturebooks

The work of Anthony Browne and other postmodern artists are said to be surrealist.

Shaun Tan has this to say about the word as applied to his work:

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘surrealism’, despite often using it as a shorthand to ­introduce my own books. I don’t have a strong interest in dreams per se, or the irrational, the way the capital-S Surrealists championed so brilliantly. I’m more interested in some kind of equivalent to reality, in itself quite rational and meaningful but just different to what we might be expecting. Perhaps post-colonial societies have a special feeling for weirdness that is not actually surrealism but to do with something far more conscious, just unresolved or hard to reconcile — a problem of reality.”

Considering The Rabbits, for example, Tan suggests that the psychological upheaval of the ­collision between European visitors and Aboriginal landowners is almost impossible to represent accurately. “I certainly have no capacity to do so myself, but at least I can indicate something of the impossibility of the task through some strange drawings.

The Financial Times

The author also says that the term ‘magical realism’ is more fitting when describing Tan’s work, even though it’s a word more often used to describe writing.

Surrealism Comic by Grant Snyder 2012

Making reality real is art’s responsibility. It is a practical assignment, then, a self-assignment: to achieve, by a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, un-aidable vision, and transferring this vision without distortion to it onto the pages of a novel, where, if the reader is so persuaded, it will turn into the reader’s illusion.

Eudora Welty

Surrealist Humour

This is another word for absurdist humour. Features of surrealist humour:

  • The juxtaposition of unlikely things
  • Non-sequiturs (means ‘does not follow’ in Latin). The converse of a non-sequitur is a cliche, because a non sequitur is something the audience hasn’t seen before.
  • Irrational situations
  • Just when we think we can make sense of something the story shatters our logic, showing us that logic is useless

Spike Milligan is an example of a surrealist comedian:

George Orwell’s assertion that “whatever is funny is subversive” was never truer than in the case of Spike Milligan. He did not invent surrealistic radio comedy – nor did he ever claim to – but he opened up the medium with his uncluttered anarchic vision, and his influence since the early 1950s has been vast.

Film School Rejects

This is why Roald Dahl wanted Spike Milligan to play Wonka in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory:

[Dahl’s] “ideal casting was Spike Milligan,” a surrealist actor. Dahl’s dismissal of his novels’ filmic adaptations are justified — he did write the source material, after all. Yet, with major studios like Paramount Pictures backing and distributing films with a young girl blowing up like a blueberry and evil witches turning children into rats, the Dahl films are already notably more surreal than their Home Alone-esque counterparts.

Film School Rejects

According to research on the ‘meaning maintenance model’ of human reasoning, surreal and absurd art can be so unsettling that the brain reacts as if it is feeling physical pain, yet it ultimately leads us to reaffirm who we are, and sharpens the mind as we look for new ways to make sense of the world. 

David Robson

Alice In Wonderland is also an example of surrealist/absurd humour.

Leaf by Stephen Michael King Picture Book

Leaf by Stephen Michael King is a book comprising pictures and onomatopoeia. No narrative text.

leaf-stephen-michael-king-cover

How does one write flap copy for a (largely) wordless picture book? The publishers of leaf have obviously done a test read with a young reader called Amelia and they quoted her response for the flap.

This story reminds me of the advertisement for Tooheys Extra Dry — both are surreal and involve a dream sequence with real-life influence, and both are about what happens after planting hair.

But to linger for a moment on the word ‘surreal’:

Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech  to mean “I don’t get it, I don’t understand”. But in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: It’s an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you dig for is more important than any conveyed by the first impression. Surrealist art makes the viewer work before understanding the meaning.

When it comes to children’s picture books, a boy with a leaf growing out of his head is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect. Humour is rampant in surrealist picturebooks and kids’ films, in which the audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke.

 

CHARACTERS IN LEAF

The first thing you may notice about the boy is that his shirt is green and his trousers are brown. Obviously, the boy = the tree.

As for the mother, this is a caring but unsympathetic character — the opponent in this scenario. She, too, is tall and thin. (For genetic reasons, it makes sense, since the boy grows tall and thin himself.) A thin, angular mother in picturebooks is ‘not warm’.

Notice her coffee. The author/illustrator makes sure we notice it in fact; she holds it out against a purple background; she holds it out against the white space; she next seems to point to it, although in the setting she is simply reaching for the shears. The steam curling up from the coffee cup is the inspiration for the boy’s leap into imagination.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF LEAF

SHORTCOMING

A boy does not like having his hair cut.

DESIRE

He wants to run in the wild with his dog with his long, untidy hair, au naturel.

OPPONENT

The mother figure, who wants his hair to be cut.

mother-figure-and-boy

PLAN

He runs away from his scissors-wielding mother. He takes his dog for companionship and adventure.

leaf-boy-and-dog

BIG STRUGGLE

Like many picturebooks, the ‘big struggle’ scene take up the middle third-or-so of the book. A bird drops a seed onto the boy’s head and a leaf grows. This marks the beginning of a carnivalesque imaginative sequence in which they get blown in the wind, the leaf almost dies from the heat of the sun, the dog gets saturated by the water from a watering can used to perk up the leaf, followed by the crescendo, which is a literal dream (at home in bed). In this dream the mother has been replaced by a man with huge gardening shears who wants to cut the leaf off the boy’s head.

The ultimate big struggle scene is when the mother greets him with the scissors the next morning and gives him a buzz cut.

ANAGNORISIS

The boy’s anagnorisis is connected to his revelation that the leaf is not dead. He can still save it. He plants the cut-off hair along with the leaf. Amazingly, it grows into a tree.

The anagnorisis may be that he will continue to grow, and will soon be out of the grip of his mother’s enforced buzz cuts.

NEW SITUATION

A few flashforwards and we see he is now tall and thin, just like the tall tree the seedling has become. He has his own family and has grown his hair out long, just how he likes it.

As for the dog, a bird drops a seed onto the dog’s head. We presume the same story will happen to the dog.

 

See a Goodreads list of picturebooks about trees.

The Swimmer by John Cheever

“The Swimmer” is considered one of Cheever’s best short stories. Anne Enright feels that this would never have worked as the novel Cheever had originally planned and adds that it would work even better as a short story had he lost one or two pools. (The naturist communists are amusing but we don’t want any more than that.)

PLOT OF THE SWIMMER

Neddy Merrill, half-cocked on gin and tonics during a restorative summer brunch at the house of some friends, decides to return home through several miles of Connecticut exurb by swimming the lengths of contiguous pools.  Thus begins a minor odyssey during which we watch as Neddy makes his way, first in drunken delight, but then through rainstorms, colder weather, and the hostility of former friends, gradually growing old and infirm, finally arriving home to find it deserted.

THE MILLIONS

In more detail:

The story begins with Neddy Merrill lounging at a friend’s pool on a mid-summer’s day. On a whim, Neddy decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honor of his wife, and starts off enthusiastically and full of youthful energy. In the early stops on his journey, he is enthusiastically greeted by friends, who welcome him with drinks. It is readily apparent that he is well-regarded and from an upper-class or upper-middle-class social standing.

Midway through his journey, things gradually take on a darker and ultimately surreal tone. Despite everything taking place during just one afternoon, it becomes unclear how much time has passed. At the beginning of the story; it was clearly mid-summer, but by the end all natural signs point to the season’s being autumn. Different people Neddy encounters mention misfortune and money troubles he doesn’t remember, and he is outright unwelcome at several houses which should have been beneath him. His earlier, youthful energy leaves him, and it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for him to swim on. Finally, he staggers back home, only to find his house decrepit, empty, and abandoned.

Wikipedia

Is Neddy dead at the end of this story? That’s one interpretation, but is too literal for Anne Enright. There is a long tradition of stories with stings in the tail. This is another such story. It stings but we don’t know why, exactly. We don’t know how many years have elapsed between the beginning and the end of the story. In the end, the mood is the important thing about this story rather than the plot, which is simply a wrapper for the mood.


STORY WORLD OF THE SWIMMER

Place

Cheever himself moved from New York to the suburbs of Westchester County, New York to bring up his family. Many of his stories are set in this kind of suburb, and he has been called ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’. (He has also been called Dante of the cocktail hour.) He wrote a series of stories set in the fictional ‘Shady Hill’. This is a well-off suburb, where everyone seems to have a pool and house staff. They throw big parties and employ bartenders. No two pools are alike quite a feat of description.

Westchester County NY where The Swimmer is set

Time

The story is set on ‘one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” This is explained in the very first sentence. We don’t know exactly what year it is set, though the story was written in the 1960s. In fact, the lack of specific time is part of the story itself. By the end, we don’t know how many years have metaphorically passed between Neddy’s first and last swim. But we do know that this is the Cold-War era, when America is in International expansion mode.


CHARACTERS IN THE SWIMMER

Neddy has a kid’s name. A grown-man would more often be called ‘Ned’. His quest is childlike in its enthusiasm. He has the narcissism of youth, thinking of himself as a legendary figure, as little boys often imagine they’re superheroes. His ego depletes as he swims forth.

Cheever’s mastery lies in the handling of Neddy’s gradual, devastating progress from boundless optimism to bottomless despair, from summer to fall, from swimming pool to swimming pool….as we read the story we feel time passing, before our eyes; feel Neddy losing heart, growing weary, getting old.

Michael Chabon

The story opens with everybody’s hangovers, but Neddy is not complaining about his hangover. Probably because he’s still drunk from the previous night. By the end of the story he may have sobered up, and sees the reality of his life.


THEME IN THE SWIMMER

Neddy Merrill literally ‘floats’ over the reality of his life, which is that he’s drowning in his suburban life, and in his alcohol problem. Of course, this is the natural reading after knowing about the life of the author, but how would the story be interpreted if we knew nothing of Cheever’s alcoholism? This is a story about the denial of knowledge. Neddy is able to continue while his life crumbles beneath him.

Theme: People can remain brittle and tenacious even as things fade and dissolve under them. Yet there’s no morality in Cheever. He doesn’t wag a finger, telling us we must face up to reality.

Cheever himself said this story is about ‘the irreversibility of human conduct’. It’s about grandiosity of any description. You don’t have to be rich with lots of swimming pools in order to understand this story. This story is about drinking, but ‘we’re all drinkers’ (in some fashion or other).

“The Swimmer” is also an allegory for getting older. Everything withers and crumbles in the end. We just keep on trucking. There’s no turning back. The birds he mentions at the highway scene are a type of heron that get netted while trying to swim upstream.

The story has mythic echoes — the passage of a divine swimmer across the calendar toward his doom — and yet is always only the story of one bewildered man, approaching the end of his life, journeying homeward, in a pair of bathing trunks, across the countryside where he lost everything that ever meant something to him.

Michael Chabon


TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN THE SWIMMER

This story is an example of how well Cheever is able to bring the reader into the story. The first paragraph offers a wonderful description of setting. He makes use of the second person, moving from the universal to the specific social group, ending/beginning with the priest. Drinking too much is juxtaposed against the church. Slate use the word ‘litany’ to describe the feeling evoked by the first paragraph. A litany is a ritual repetition of prayers when applied to the church, but is also used outside church settings to describe something which feels repetitious in a tedious sort of way.

At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.

Wikipedia

The turning point is marked by the onset of the storm. Ned sees the first red and yellow leaves and starts to get signs that things are not all right. Yet Netty loves the storm. It’s a big drinker’s story. Along with the idea that nothing ever changes is another idea of ‘let it all come down’. Invite destruction. In the opening paragraph everything is lovely. The cloud is like a city, but this is no ordinary cloud.

Cheever has written an intensely dark story, there are comic elements, such as when the drivers on the highway throw things at him. Even the epic journey itself is fake and therefore laughable. But there is both pleasure and misery in this story. It’s a very slow apocalypse. The beautiful people are moving on, no longer beautiful; Ned has lost everything he ever held dear. The comic elements make this darkness even darker.

Cheever has chosen the names of his characters with care. Neddy’s wife Lucinda, for example, is named after ‘light’, which is associated with time.

Cheever uses sound to create extraordinary atmospheres.

Metaphysical moments are scattered throughout: The constellations of the sky, for example. (Another story like this is “Rabbit”.) Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it.

Not Quite Magical Realism

In fiction, when unreal elements appear, usually one of two things is happening.  In the first case, the unreal actually is real.  This describes much of genre fiction, in which the reader expects vampires and aliens to appear — would, in fact, be disappointed if they didn’t.  In literary fiction, too, the unreal may be introduced with a straight face, for effect.  Magical realism depends on the introduction of a fantastic element into otherwise grim reality, for instance in Gabriel García Márquez’sA Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  The appearance of an angel in a poor Colombian village creates a host of consequences, though a crucial difference between magical realism and, say, fantasy, is that in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

More typically, in literary fiction, the fantastic occurs as a manifestation of the main character’s disordered psychology.  In close third person, the narrative is so intimately linked to a protagonist’s point of view that the world appears in subjective terms, and if the main character is sufficiently disoriented — drunk, delusional, or simply experiencing very heightened emotion — aspects of their immediate surroundings may become distorted in a way that reveals their mental state.  In William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Francis Phelan, an itinerant, guilt-wracked alcoholic sees the ghosts of dead people he’s known, some of whom he killed.  Although the narrative never states that they are apparitions deriving from his fear and shame, it doesn’t need to:  we are able to read them as having a kind of immediate corporeality, at least to Francis, while still being utterly unreal, figments.

So which of the two is happening in “The Swimmer?”  Well, neither, really.  On the one hand, it is impossible to read “The Swimmer” and think that the main events of the story are happening as described — that, in the course of a single afternoon, a man ages 30 years while becoming increasing destitute and reviled — unless we believe Neddy Merrill has entered some horrific parallel universe.  On the other hand, it is equally impossible to read the events of the story as merely a manifestation of Neddy’s mental state.  He’s been drinking as the story starts, but not that much.  He is happy, overwhelmingly content in his life, really.  Even if we were to read the story as a projection of Neddy’s subsumed life anxieties, it is impossible to imagine him projecting a vision of the world this entirely altered.

It is not magical realism because the strangeness is not intended to be taken literally — strangeness in magical realism is almost always encountered and acknowledged by multiple characters, and is, in fact, a device meant to comment on the interlaced relationships that form a society.  Strangeness in Cheever performs the opposite function:  it is personal, particular, atomizing.

THE MILLIONS


STORY SPECS OF THE SWIMMER

The Swimmer” a short story by American author John Cheever, was originally published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and then in the 1964 short story collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever’s most famous and frequently anthologized story.

Wikipedia

The Swimmer 1968 movie poster


COMPARE THE SWIMMER WITH

New Zealand writer Keri Hulme writes stories with a blend of realism and surrealism. (Sometimes called ‘magic realism’.) See her collection Te Kaihau.

The surrealism is also a bit like the surrealism of The Graduate.

The Enormous Radio, also by Cheever, has the same sort of surrealism.


WRITE YOUR OWN

Where to start, if your intention is to practice writing a story of magic realism? I suppose we might first start with a theme and build a magical/surreal setting which makes the theme clear to the reader. In this type of story we write in a realistic way but we’re not obligated to write ‘the truth’. How does Neddy get into the public swimming pool? Does he carry spare change in his swimming trunks? I asked myself this question as I read, yet in this type of story it’s not important. When the details are specific and familiar enough, the reader will be drawn along for the ride.

If we’re to be inspired by “The Swimmer”:

  • Start with a character embarking on a slightly absurd quest
  • Decide what the quest stands for, thematically
  • Include comic details
  • Use the weather to help build atmosphere
  • End with a sting in the tail


RELATED LINKS

Realism In Fiction For Children

WHAT IS REALISM?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. At one end we have naturalism, all the way through to about ‘speculative realism’, after which we’re in speculative fiction realm:

  1. NATURALISM — This term is often used interchangeably with realism, but if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. God is also kept out of it. The tone is generally pessimistic. Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter. In realism the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and the taboo.
  2. SOCIAL REALISM — ‘Kitchen sink realism’. Draws attention to the middle class and its problems. Use the term ‘social realism’ when you want to be clear that you’re not talking about naturalism.
  3. SURREALISM — Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.
  4. MAGICAL REALISM — Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation. The argument is that another word exists which we can use for every thing else — fabulism. While I have some sympathy for this view, the fact is, magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling. I am happy to call it fabulism myself. Here is a list of fabulist children’s books. Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely crosses their desk.
  5. ‘DIRTY’ REALISM — This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy, who is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call it ‘minimalism’. Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing in which the author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life. A lot of these writers are white men — Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullers, Annie Proulx. When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called KMart Realism.
  6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM — There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.
  7. SPECULATIVE REALISM — Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism. In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.

REALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Bear in mind, children’s literature is a recent form of literature and emerged with the establishment of realism.

Many of the notes below are from Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 13: Realism In Fiction For Children, available on iTunes U

REALISM FOR MIDDLE GRADE READERS

Set reading for this lecture: Bridge To Terabithia and The Naming of Tishkin Silk

American, 1977

My Girl (the film) is an interesting work to contrast with Bridge To Terabithia because the plot is very similar, and is about a girl and boy the same age. But the intended audience is adult.

Helicopter Man is another example of realism, aimed at upper primary school rather than high school aged reader.

Throughout the 20th century, British children’s literature is thought to have produced better and more lasting classic fantasy series than North America, which has leaned towards realism for longer.

Right around middle school, the fun books suddenly disappeared. Dreary realism replaced fantasy.Read Hatchet. Read ShilohRead Sounder. Read The House of Dies DrearRead about kids in the Great Depression, whose dogs always die. Read about the gruesome fact of slavery. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Today, class, we’ll be reading a graphic novel! […] it’s called Maus. No wonder I kept my nose buried deep in Dragonlance novels and The Collected Calvin & Hobbes. Eventually I accepted that the mark of serious, grown-up books was joy turning into woe. Merry old Gatsby is really a huge fraud who bites it in a swimming pool and no one cares but his neighbour. The end. Jake Barnes is living it up in Paris with Brett Ashley, but he got injured in the war and they can’t have sex, so… the end. The older I got the more books seemed to skip the joy part altogether—they just went from woe to more woe. The Joads are starving in the Great Depression so they head West but find that everyone else is starving too and then somebody dies in the back of a truck… the end. Frank and April Wheeler are hopeful suburbanites who dream of moving to Paris but then she gets pregnant and dies trying to give herself an abortion. The end!

Why Children’s Books Matter

There is a certain kind of magic about realism in middle grade books, which is not magical at all, and not magical realism, either, but magic.

I think there’s a kind of kid for whom an adventure based in realism — even if it’s stretched almost to the breaking point of plausibility — is so much more satisfying than pure fantasy. Because I knew for sure that I was never going to end up communing with a gang of bugs inside the pit of a ginormous peach — and I loved that book, I did. I loved the Narnia books, too, and the Wrinkle in Time series. But I had a special fondness for stories that could actually happen. Which explains, I think, something about the plot of One Mixed-Up Night. It is certainly unlikely that two kids would spend the night alone in a massive Swedish furniture store. But it is not impossible. And I had spent enough time listening to my son Ben and his best friend Ava leafing through the IKEA catalogue to know that having the run of the place was high on their list of fantasies. Were they ever going to spend a semester at Hogwarts? Of course not. But IKEA! That was an actual place where we actually went. What if they ditched their parents? What if that stylish and birch-patterned world became their oyster? I mean, it wasn’t likely to happen. But it could…

Catherine Newman
HIGH SCHOOL READERS

Realism tends to be aimed at the high school reader. It began in earnest with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951) and has been followed by work from authors such as:

  • S.E. Hinton
  • Robert Lipsyte
  • Paul Zindel
  • Richard Peck. Peck sometimes writes realism, sometimes historical realism (e.g. The River Between Us), sometimes realism with a humorous, exaggerated touch (e.g. A Long Way From Chicago), sometimes he writes fantasy (e.g. his mouse stories).
  • Norma Klein lived from 1938 to 1989 and wrote about ‘the things real kids cared about’.
  • M.E. Kerr couldn’t find an agent for her realistic stories so became her own agent. She ended up with a lifetime award for her contributions to children’s literature. She wrote under a variety of different pen names.
  • Norma Fox Mazer and Harry Mazer. Norma lived between 1931-2009. The husband/wife couple had four children and were teacher/writers.  Although they both wrote the same sort of thing, they didn’t work together. Each has their own books. Harry was born in 1925 and died recently, in 2016.
  • Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War initiated a new level of excellence in young adult literature but also unleashed a storm of controversy. (Cormier didn’t intend a YA audience, actually. He wrote it for a general audience and it was marketed as YA.) Gatekeepers felt the subject matter was too dark. Cormier followed up with I Am The Cheese and After The First Death, in the same vain, ignoring the naysayers. He continued to get darker over the 26 years of his writing career. He definitely influenced other authors, who started to do the same.

If you notice more realism coming out of America, that’s because realism in children’s literature is largely American, whereas a lot of the most beloved fantasy comes out of Britain.

Australia has its own examples of realism in children’s literature. Australian literature for adults tends to be described as ‘gritty realism’. Take Helen Garner for instance, or the work of Christos Tsiolkas, who sometimes writes about young adulthood. The TV adaptation of Barracuda has a distinctly YA feel about it — more so than the novel upon which it is based.

The Valley Between by Colin Thiel is about the author’s own life, growing up in the Barossa Valley.

For more examples of realistic books themselves, search for Books in the category ‘Real Life’ e.g. at the Reading Matters website.

ACADEMIC READING ON REALISM IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Only Connect. Sheila Egoff died in 2005 but was an enthusiast for the proper intellectual consideration of children’s literature. Being Canadian, she had a huge impact in Canada. (A Canadian literature prize has been named after her.)

John Foster, Ern Finnest, Maureen Nimon: Australian Children’s Literature, an Exploration Of Genre and Theme, 1995 looks at family stories and the ‘problem’ novel.

Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult is about adults who read children’s literature without reminiscing, for the reading experience. Nodelman looks at what the adults can find in the children’s literature and the serious intellectual ideas that are there for children to discard.

See also Literature and the Child and Give Them Wings, by Maurice Saxby. Most general books about children’s literature include a chapter about realism.

From Romance To Realism by Michael Cart was published 1996. The author is an expert in YA literature.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF REALISM

In a binary, the two things represented each require the other. For example, evil needs good. Light needs darkness. Each defines the other.

There is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality. In realism, this idea of the inner world and outer world revolves very much around you as the reader. Whereas primary and secondary worlds are based around the text itself, inner and outer realities rely on the reader and what the reader knows about him or herself. Your inner reality is yours. No one can take it from you. Others can influence it, but only if you let them. The outer reality is anything you share with family, friends, people you know — the settings in which you find yourself, the actions that happen to you, the noises you hear, the dialogues you have with other people.

Fiction on the realism spectrum aligns the inner and outer realities and exposes them. In our real life interactions we rarely get a glimpse at the inner realities of other people because sharing inner realities depends on a lot of trust. But in a book you can share someone else’s inner reality — how they think, what they want, why they choose to do the things that they do.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF FANTASY

In fantasy we start with the fantasy but then move strongly from the probable to the extraordinary. The extraordinary dominates. In fantasy, the inner reality is best related to the probable (primary world). The fantasy is related to the outer world.

In fantasy, a character’s outer reality is the focus of the story. A fantasy story is not so much about the actions of the fantasy world, but about the ideas that we have in our probable world. All fantasy works describe reality.

You’ll still read ‘probable’ and ‘extraordinary’ elements in a realist story, but in realism, readers will be able to imagine encountering these problems themselves. (Maintain the distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. In a realist story, something isn’t necessarily ‘probable’, but it must be ‘possible’.)

FEATURES OF A REALIST STORY

In a realist story, something must happen to disrupt the ordinary. This something must not leave the realm of likelihood. Characters have to be the sort of people you could know in real life.

The setting must be somewhere you could go. Bridge To Terabithia takes place an hour of two’s drive from Washington DC. The town in which they live may not be a real town, but it feels familiar. (Lovettsville, Virginia?)

The plot itself is often character driven.

But if the story is too mundane the reader is going to wonder what the point is. The Famous Five are a good example: These stories are now very dated. How come these kids are always on holidays? How do kids this age get so much freedom? Even young readers are now used to the realist tradition and have come to expect mimesis unless the setting is obviously fantastic.

Realist books can be didactic (not in a negative sense) in that we can ‘vaccinate’ our children by giving them a little dose of hardship in a fictional environment where they still have the safety of coming back out of the story. But this can lead to books which are so heavily didactic that they are a sermon: This is the way you ought to feel/behave, and if you don’t, the problem lies with you, the reader.

The problems in the stories must not be solved by adults. In fact the adults are quite often the cause of the problem, especially in YA. If not the direct cause, adults are opponents, setting the boundaries, setting the situations, causing the situation or by keeping information to themselves, leading to the children to jump to conclusions.

rugrats
Rugrats’ problems are caused by the adults. The plots are based upon the misinterpretation by the babies of what the adults say.

Plot: The sequence and plot structure of a realist story is pretty much the same as a fantasy story. That’s because all stories share an underlying basic structure.

The Hero: The main character is often a lonely outsider. A child hero might be new at a new school or looking for a friend or something like that. These stories are often formed around separation of some kind.

Theme: Justice is another common idea explored in realist fiction. What’s right? How do we decide what’s right? A big subset of the justice idea is, “When is it okay to lie?

Voice: Realist stories are dramatic, but not melodramatic.

Tiff and the Trout is an Australian story set in Mount Beauty (not called that in the story). The main character’s parents are splitting up. The father is a mountain person and the mother is a beach person. This symbolises their separation and Tiff is caught between. This story is neither melodramatic nor especially traumatic. There is one moment where the mum’s new boyfriend takes her fishing. She almost drowns. Apart from that, it’s ordinary, everyday stuff but is a very good exploration and discovery of how Tiff feels, not how the parents feel. In the end Tiff must choose which of her parents she goes to live with.

Endings: There is also a reasonably positive resolution, but not necessarily happy-ever-after. Characters are able to move on.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS WITH REALISTIC STORIES

Representation

If a reader hasn’t experienced a situation herself, the plot may feel a little bit exotic. ‘That’s not really going to happen to me’. The author can also accidentally promote stereotypical attitudes. In the case of Josie Alibrandi, it might be easy for readers to conclude, ‘This is how all people of Australian Italian background behave’. Likewise, when reading Parvana’s Journey, if would be easy to assume girls in Afghanistan are all like that.

In Looking For X, the MC’s brothers are both autistic. The girl tries to find another homeless person who witnessed something that happened so that her mother can keep the boys. Is that a little too far from a reader’s experience? Are all Canadian homeless people like this one?

Currency

When including modern slang/attitudes/brand names and so on, these things will date quickly compared to details in completely made up fantasy worlds. 15 years ago Specky McGee was a popular Australian series, but now the footballers mentioned in the stories are all retired. How current to make a realistic story? [Dated stories can make for very interesting historical documents.]

CONTROVERSIES THAT ONLY SEEM TO AFFECT REALISTIC CHILDREN’S BOOKS

How ‘problematic’ must the problem be? If a story is about sexuality or drugs or other grim realities, do the readers really need to know all about that just yet?

Perhaps this is because children tend to emulate the behaviours of viewpoint characters in books:

The findings from the study reinforce the idea that young children have an easier time exporting what they learn from a fictional storybook to the real world when the storybook is realistic. The leap from a fictional human to a real one is simply smaller than the leap from an anthropomorphic raccoon to a human.