What is Realism in Literature?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. Realism is a widely misunderstood term even within literary studies today. The terms are used differently depending on location. They’re also heavily classed and slightly gendered to boot. Humanities scholars spend a lot of time arguing about the meaning of realism.

But let’s at least try. I offer a classification via continuum, with fully realistic at one end and more fantastical at the other.

At the ‘realistic’ end we start with naturalism. At the other is ‘speculative realism’. After that we’re firmly in speculative fiction realm.

Some commentators link Realism to the Gothic in the history which gets us to the Modern Novel. Some see the Gothic novel in England and the United States of America as anticipating the Modern Novel. The Realist novel in this scenario is an ‘interlude’.

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. Writers also keep God right out of the picture. The tone is generally pessimistic.

Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter, or rather, the perceived class of the person who wrote it. 

In works labelled ‘realism’, the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on less educated or lower-class characters. This word is also often used to describe work involving violence and the taboo. So, things which middle class reviewers and commentators find uncomfortable, alien and other.

SOCIAL REALISM AND KITCHEN SINK DRAMA

You’ll also hear the term ‘Kitchen sink realism’. This sometimes describes work which draws attention to the middle class and its problems. “Kitchen sink realism’ or ‘Kitchen sink drama’ were terms coined to describe a British cultural movement which developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The United Kingdom experienced massive cultural change in this era. The Conservative Party won the 1951 election with their slogan “Set the People Free”. The British public felt more free, more affluent and eager to shuck off the rigidity of the past. People were questioning and ridiculing the cultural conventions which came before.

John Bratby was a painter who lived 1928–1992. His paintings are a standout example of Kitchen Sink art. See, for instance “The Toilet“, a 1955 painting of an actual toilet. Bratby was also a writer. The ‘Kitchen Sink art‘ tag at the Tate Modern includes Edward Middleditch and Peter Coker in its results. Paintings sport titles such as “Mother, Child and Bedsprings” and “Still Life With Chip Fryer”.

The main characters of so-called kitchen sink dramas were frequently angry young men. Kitchen sink dramas utilised social realism which, to British art looks like:

  • Britons living in cramped rented accommodation
  • Evenings spent drinking in dank local pubs

Kitchen sink drama started as a condescending term but these days people might try to use it without ascribing morality. Early storytellers who departed from writing upper-class stories set in drawing rooms included Arnold Wesker and Alun Owen.

Roots by Arnold Wesker Colchester Mercury Theatre Company
Roots by Arnold Wesker Colchester Mercury Theatre Company

Arnold Wesker’s play Roots (1959) literally opens with a character washing dishes at a kitchen sink.

Roots focuses on Beatie Bryant as she makes the transition from being an uneducated working-class woman obsessed with Ronnie, her unseen liberal boyfriend, to a woman who can express herself and the struggles of her time. It is written in the Norfolk dialect of the people on which it focuses, and is considered to be one of Wesker’s kitchen sink dramas. Roots was first presented at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in May 1959 with Joan Plowright in the lead before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Wikipedia

(Gene Wilder, who older readers may know as Willy Wonka from the first movie adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory got his start in an American production of Roots.)

Look Back In Anger, a 1956 play by English playwright John Osborne, is another early standout example of Kitchen Sink Realism. Typically for the category, the main character is a working class angry young man by the name of Jimmy Porter. This character captured the angry and rebellious spirit of the post war generation.

There are a handful of films, all produced between 1959 and 1963 considered part of the New Wave Kitchen Sink canon. Aside from Look Back In Anger, those films include:

  • Room At The Top (1959): In late 1940s West Riding of Yorkshire, England, Joseph (Joe) Lampton, an ambitious man who has just moved from the dreary factory town of Dufton, arrives in Warnley to assume a secure, poorly paid post in the Borough Treasurer’s Department.
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960): A young machinist, Arthur, spends his weekends drinking and partying, all the while having an affair with a married woman.
  • A Taste of Honey (1961): Set in Salford in North West England in the 1950s, this film tells the story of Jo, a seventeen-year-old working class girl, and her mother, Helen, who is presented as crude and sexually indiscriminate.
  • A Kind of Loving (1962): Vic Brown, a young working class man from Yorkshire, England, is slowly inching his way up from his working-class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped by the frightening reality of his girlfriend Ingrid’s pregnancy and is forced into marrying her and moving in with his mother-in-law due to a housing shortage in their Northern England town.
  • L-Shaped Room (1962): from the 1960 novel by Lynne Reid Banks, who you may recognise for her children’s books. A 27-year-old French woman, Jane Fosset (Caron), arrives alone at a run down boarding house in Notting Hill, London, moving into an L-shaped room. Beautiful but withdrawn, she encounters the residents of her house, each a social outsider in his or her own way, including a gay black horn player. She is pregnant and does not want to marry the baby’s father.
  • Billy Liar (1963): William Fisher, a working-class 19-year-old, lives with his parents in the fictional town of Stradhoughton in Yorkshire. Bored by his job as a lowly clerk for an undertaker, Billy spends his time indulging in fantasies and dreams of life in the big city as a comedy writer.
  • This Sporting Life (1963): A rugby league footballer, Frank Machin, lives in Wakefield, a mining city in Yorkshire. His romantic life is not as successful as his sporting life. 

However, there were a number of very good ‘B-side’ (low-budget) Kitchen Sink dramas which, purely for economic reasons (not artistic ones) are not considered Kitchen Sink canon.

  • The Leather Boys (1963, 1964): Dot and Reg are a young Cockney couple who get married then start to fall out of love. Reggie grows closer to his friend Pete. At the end of the film, Reggie is revealed to be gay. The film is based on a 1961 book by Mary Ann Evans (published under the pseudonym Eliot George). The novel makes much more of the gay storyline.
  • That Kind of Girl (1963): This is a sexploitation film, but also happens to be the first British film to deal with the issue of STIs (or VDs as they were called back then).
  • This Is My Street (1964): Set in Battersea, Margery Graham is a working class housewife who feels stifled by her circumstances. So she has an affair with her mother’s lodger. She attempts suicide after he fails to return her affections. The setting is a South-West London in the throes of post-war reconstruction.
  • The Little Ones (1964): Two boys, Jackie and Ted, decide to run away from home together. Ted comes from a one-room East End flat and his mother is physically abusive. Jackie’s mother is a sex worker who doesn’t care much for her own offspring (a la Fish Tank, a contemporary example of domestic realism). Jackie’s absent father is from Jamaica, so the boys plan to make their way there.
  • The Family Way (1966): Just a few years later, this film sits right on the border between Kitchen Sink drama and what came next — the Swinging Sixties (which didn’t happen until the late 1960s). This border has been called ‘The Mid-decade Divide’, but was written five years before release. In the story, a young woman called Jenny is newly married to a young man called Arthur. They’re unable to have sex and are under heavy pressure to do so by their family and social network. Arthur is roundly humiliated.

In 1966 the BBC commissioned Ken Loach to adapt the Jeremy Sandford play Cathy Come Home. This is the story of a young working-class couple called Cathy and Reg Ward. They start their married life full of hope but then Reg loses his job. They have to move into council housing. They have three kids and then they are evicted. They move into a caravan. The caravan burns down and the couple split up. The story only gets worse from there, but this film proved really popular across Britain. Cathy Come Home was one of the few stories to highlight the British housing crisis of the late 1960s. (Ken Loach then went on to have a full and successful career making feature-length films.)

Cathy Come Home

This film did much for the status of documentary.

Social realist films often make use of the hand-held camera for added verisimilitude.

Note that ‘social realism’ frequently describes Australian, New Zealand and British working-class fiction but not North American fiction. Notice, too, the classism. When writers from the middle and upper socio-economic classes write about their own lives and childhoods reviewers frequently describe them as ‘beautiful’ writers. With working class authors and subject matter, those same reviewers use the descriptor ‘realist’.

SURREALISM

Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.

MAGICAL REALISM AND FABULISM

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 everything else — fabulism.

While I have some sympathy for this view, literary gurus point out that magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling.

I don’t know. I’d be happy to call it fabulism myself, if people knew I meant the same thing as ‘magical realism’, only not from South America.

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 cross their desk.

Here is a list of fabulist children’s books.

‘DIRTY’ REALISM AND KMART REALISM

This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy. He is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call the same thing ‘minimalism’.

Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing. The author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life.

Many of these writers are white men: Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullersAnnie Proulx.

When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called Kmart Realism.

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.

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.

ANTI-REALISM

Michael Dummett coined this term in the 1970s.

Realism assumes there’s objectivity in the world. Is there an atmosphere around Earth? Yes. How characters feel about that isn’t really relevant.

Anti-realism deals in subjectivity. Are there ghosts in your house? Well, if you think you see ghosts, there might as well be, because you’re terrified all the same.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) is an example of anti-realism. In that story, James was shifting away from his usual psychological realism and inching closer to Modernism. He made use of many features of the so-called feminine gothic form.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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