Lucy Ives

On Literature
The Persistence of Realism


There is a well-worn narrative trope that even the novel, despite its multifarious forms and affinity for innovation, seems unable to shake: “boy meets girl.” Let’s examine four recent tellings of this story, all of them quite popular. In the first version a pair meets, but their attempts to be together and love each other are frustrated by class difference, familial histories of abuse, and attachment disorders. The plot of this novel, let us call it story one, runs on questions of psychology and intergenerational inheritance, as well as the workings of larger social systems in the present. Story two, on the other hand, has the interrelation of boy and girl mediated by a myth, that of the macho ultra-male, and boy and girl must unravel this cliché in order to be together successfully. In story three, boy meets girl, but their attempts to be together and love each other are frustrated by the all-but-total mediation of their psychological, social, and physical selves via internet-based communications, content mills, and web cams, along with copious amounts of consciousness-altering substances. In story four, boy and girl’s relationship is even more grievously intruded upon by technology—here a wearable device that records their memories with the precision of digital cinema and archives their timelines for on-demand consultation.

These four “stories” are essentially realist in their outlook. They all focus on individual experience and the minutiae of everyday life, and all are free of supernatural intervention. But this does not mean that they are realist fictions in the nineteenth-century sense, and it is this—the simultaneous survival of the realist mode across two centuries and the dissipation of many of its most integral goals and stylistic advances—that interests me. The four narratives I describe above—Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney, I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus, Taipei (2013) by Tao Lin, and “The Entire History of You” (2011), episode 3 of season 1 of “Black Mirror,” written by Jesse Armstrong—make use of the basic tropes of realism, emphasizing material detail and time as it is lived. I have selected these four examples because they show a useful array of mediating forces, ranging from the psychological to the technological: Rooney focuses on class and unconscious behavioral repetition introduced by trauma; her protagonists, Connell and Marianne, must interpret each other’s statements and gestures in light of confusion produced by challenging inheritances both economic and familial. Kraus, on the other hand, describes a marriage disrupted by fantasy. “Dick”—the joke never gets old—is at once a fairy-tale notion, cultural construct, and problematic actual guy. “Chris,” the novel’s protagonist, can only unwind the fantasy, deconstruct the norm, and escape the somewhat unwitting cad through the writing of an epistolary novel whose plot is in part the (actual) emergence of Chris Kraus as one of the most original writers of the late twentieth century. Lin’s novel is an anatomy of subjectivity online, which is to say, what hyperconnected subjectivity sounds and feels like, in so-called real life. And, lastly, Armstrong’s “Black Mirror” episode raises the stakes of the mediation implicit in both Kraus and Lin’s narratives—and running in the background of Rooney’s; in a sort of mise en abyme, it offers a realist depiction of what it would be like to have a hyper-realistic metanarrative operating in one’s mind at all times.

HERE, HOWEVER, the commonalities begin to fray. We’ll want to set “Black Mirror,” along with other examples of what I like to call “IT Horror,” such as the films of David Cronenberg or Cary Joji Fukunaga’s recent miniseries “Maniac,” aside for a moment to explore the written documents. These three novels belong to a category of more or less autobiographical fiction that has lately been loosely grouped under the umbrella term, “autofiction”—a genre that, in spite of its blurring of the line(s) between fiction and memoir, has a fundamental affiliation with nineteenth-century literary realism on account of its attention to minute, realistically portrayed details of everyday life and lived time. Other partisans of this style include, but are by no means limited to, writers such as Teju Cole, Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Miranda July, Olivia Laing, Ben Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Lynne Tillman; their prose resonates with and has perhaps been influenced by the work of New Narrative writers such as Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück, and Kevin Killian, who are also loosely associated with Kathy Acker, which were, in turn, preceded by the detailed prose of New Journalism (James Baldwin, Joan Didion, even Renata Adler), modernism’s and surrealism’s various streams of consciousness (indeed, both Marcel Proust’s 1913 In Search of Lost Time and Andre Breton’s 1927 Nadja might be termed autofictions or New Narrative texts, avant la lettre). Although the authors I list are distinct from one another in a number of ways, they may all be considered autofictioneers in that they often work with autobiographical material that is so minor in nature as to transcend its granular particularity to, paradoxically, become general. As in Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, in which the existence of a middle-class sex worker is viewed in its rhythmic, changelessly recurring specifics without revulsion or drama, autofiction tends to transform private, personal experience into a series of meditative repetitions, in which routine is emphasized. Its low affect (also expressed in the style of filmmaking of the mid-aughts termed “Mumblecore”) suggests a refusal to depict heightened emotion or elaborate and/or heroic narrative action, perhaps casting such drama as unrealistic hyperbole. The ingredients of autofiction are so blatantly personal and essentially insignificant, that they decline to rise to the level of ideology. While autofiction is often read as an attempt to explore contemporary existence in its material and sensorial “truth,” it may be more accurate to say that it functions as an ongoing exploration of Roland Barthes’s notion of “zero-degree writing,” an impossibly style-free type of writing that repudiates academic conventions (the flourishes of rhetoric, for example) and other formal pretensions that express the author’s allegiance to class-based and other sometimes exclusionary in-groups.

Given its love of the detail “seized” from life, autofiction is, as I have already intimated, the strongest proof or symptom of the ongoing influence of nineteenth-century literary realism on fiction, particularly in the US, in the present. And yet: autofiction hardly takes up all the provocations, ambitions, or interventions of the realist novel. While “realism” (Réalisme) was originally an art-historical term, first applied in 1835 to designate Rembrandt’s distinct brand of humanistic portraiture, in its literary use it indicates not just attention to detail in description but a broader series of innovations with respect to point of view and narrative time. As Ian Watt writes in The Rise of the Novel (1957), clarifying what was at stake in the development of literary realism, in the realist novel “a causal connection operating through time replaces the reliance of earlier narratives on disguises and coincidences.” One need only think of the comedic plays of William Shakespeare to comprehend this literary mutation; no longer must twins be separated at birth, or humans accidentally transformed into donkeys by fairies, in order for plot to arise. Instead, a character merely walks down a street, seeks to obtain an education, attempts to make a living. Realist characters develop in the course of time. They see and smell and taste and hear and feel in minute, procedural detail. The exploration of external worlds via the individual and through the senses, was a source of great interest, famously, for such French writers as Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola, as well as British authors from Charles Dickens to George Eliot (although Eliot is not always described as a realist, given her interest in satire and meta-fictional asides). Zola, not without a hint of bitterness at the vagaries of literary criticism, remarked in 1880, “The highest praise one could formerly make of a novelist was to say, ‘He has imagination.’ Now that praise would be regarded as criticism.” Whereas Balzac had begun his encyclopedic investigation of everyday life and contemporary social structures in his Human Comedy under the sign of the contemporary dictum that “One must be of one’s time,” and Flaubert became obsessed with the notion of a novel that could be developed based on its own internal principles, becoming a perfectly self-sufficient work of style-less style, later authors took more selective or extreme views. Proust spoke of his commitment to a “realism of the deep I,” while Zola, a fan of positivist approaches and quantification (which he perceived as marks of modernity), maintained that the body is analogous to a machine. Realism responded to numerous ideologies across the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, sometimes claiming to encompass all aspects of life via its descriptive powers. Today we are in a moment of continual but uneven haunting by its legacies, and there are several reasons why.

Realism, as a literary style, works in tandem with technological developments progressing alongside it. Literary realism, like the realism of the paintings of Gustave Courbet (who titled his 1855 exhibition of rejected paintings “Du Réalisme”) and the Impressionists, is characterized not just by an interest in popular culture, but also a particular orientation to present time. As Linda Nochlin argued, Realism is anti-traditional, located all-but-entirely in daily time. Building on Nochlin’s contentions in her 1971 book Realism, we might say it is a style of depiction that not only conforms to the philosophies of individual experience advanced by John Locke and David Hume, for example, but that blossoms during the emergence and early popularization of photography (an era which some believe properly begins with proto-photographic techniques developed in the eighteenth century). Realist descriptive styles still present in contemporary North American novels would seem, therefore, to have survived long past the demise of realism as a well-defined and/or energetic interdisciplinary movement; according to Nochlin, this death took place sometime in the 1870s or 1880s. One possible reason for the survival of realist conventions in twenty-first-century fiction is the ongoing proliferation of photography, which itself privileges saving the ephemeral, the momentary, the contemporary, instituting its own temporal regime. Indeed, it is undeniable that there is something shared in the impulse to compose realist fiction and the impulse to create photographic images (suggesting, too, film and television’s ongoing dialogue with realist writing).

Realism is still, where it crops up in contemporary writing, concerned if not obsessed with contemporaneity and current time. It is commonplace to read emails and other digitally communicated messages in the many present-day novels that are more or less haunted by the realist urge. Characters consult phones and screens and worry about what is being said about them online. Yet the time windows of algorithmic processes hardly emerge at the narrative level in autofiction, which, as noted, has so far been treated as the premier innovative imaginative prose style of the contemporary era. Although a novel like Taipei makes frequent reference to images and writing online, the temporality and power of the algorithms that produce search results and order social media feeds remain obscure. In reading Lin’s novel, we have a vague sense of some hidden agency that dwarfs human endeavor, but the radically different time of computation—which is on the one hand impossibly fast (occurring in fractions of milliseconds) and on the other logical (occurring in discrete, managed sequences)—is not depicted. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Digital media are capable of registering units of time that are too brief for the human senses to capture, what some have called the “black box” of the algorithm. Realism depends on time as it is lived (by humans) for its narrative depictions, yet algorithms, which are now ubiquitous in everyday life, partake of a temporality that is fundamentally foreclosed to the human sensorium. Algorithmic time is a source of profound and unresolved tension for literary Realism.

AND SO: how does a popular, realist and/or autofictional novel like Normal People respond to the algorithm, this ubiquitous and possibly tyrannical temporal figure of our era? For, if the novel is truly realist, on nineteenth-century terms, must it not necessarily incorporate this style of time? One might say that that Rooney’s novel progresses according to other concerns, but I am not so sure. Rather, I think the novel offers an alternative interpretation of the present, one in which the asymmetries, botched timing, and resultant misunderstandings in the slightly dysfunctional romantic relationship at the center of the book can be interpreted (i.e., decoded by the lovers) with exclusive recourse to questions around class and family history, rather than issues endemic to data transfer or big tech. Sex, as a source of non-verbal and nearly mystical, irrational communication, is at once the ultimate decoder ring and the reward at the end of a (verbal) misunderstanding well resolved. Rooney seems to comprehend well the interpersonal issues common to computing (weak signals, inadvertently gnomic emails, social-media addiction, and so on), but creates a mildly escapist plot, one in which technology is—and, what is key, realistically—negligible in its effects. The emotional cost of constant access to smartphones is all but entirely left out of Normal People.

On these grounds, I find the scenarios of I Love Dick and Taipei far more intriguing, as these novels do not entirely skirt the issue of the proliferation of algorithms. I Love Dick (which entered the televisual realm as Joey Soloway’s loopy one-season Amazon series in 2017) suggests that writing itself—here, faxes and letters—has overtaken interpersonal contact (e.g., sex) as a more immediate and compelling form. Although the novel is often described as a tale of feminist revenge, patriarchy meeting its match in unfettered female obsession, it is also a testament to the primacy of the act of writing. Kraus’s protagonist, Chris, wins because she writes everything down. She gets it on paper (or, as the case may be, into word-processing software), and this is liberating. Although the novel does not really delve into the time figures of the then-youthful Internet, it is very interested in what we might call postal time—in the failure of the letter to arrive at its destination in a timely way, if ever. In I Love Dick, no letter ever arrives at Dick’s door, metaphorically speaking, and this turns out to be comedic, rather than tragic; Kraus’s message enters into eternal suspended animation, which is also what constitutes its pertinence to the novel genre, rather than to the message genre. In this sense, I Love Dick approaches the status of signal, while remaining essentially narrative in nature; it’s quite a feat.

Taipei, meanwhile, builds on Lin’s influential minimalist prose style, displayed with even more potency in his earlier works, such as his unnerving Richard Yates (2010). Light on plot, Taipei describes interpersonal relationships that exist in a state of homeostatic non-development as characters are unceasingly distracted by things happening online. The act of having a conversation under these conditions—an undertaking which Lin writes with masterful aplomb and obvious enjoyment—is not so much fraught or lopsided, as in a Chekhov play, but strange because vertiginously trivial. “I feel like I hate everyone,” says Taipei’s protagonist, Paul, apropos of nothing. Erin, Paul’s romantic interest, simply concurs, smiling, “Yeah.” Characters are always looking at their laptops, producing discourse, but what they say when they are in one another’s presence, no matter how weird or absolute, does not propel the narrative; they speak, but without hope of changing anything or even successfully describing their environments. Lin depicts a world in which young people are unmoored from time-based obligations, distracting themselves from their own insignificance.

Imprisonment, servitude, and torturous repetition are frequent themes of “Black Mirror,” but among the show’s many obvious warnings about the threats contemporary technologies pose to human rights is a quieter and more severe note about lived, phenomenal time. The key technological innovation provoking the show’s exploration of various (IT-based) horrors is the possibility of “uploading” an exact copy of one’s mind—and, therefore, conscious self—to the cloud. The applications of this affordance are myriad: mini-me personal assistant who lives inside a plastic egg on one’s kitchen counter, enhanced interrogation techniques for police within virtual reality, survival beyond biological death in projective universe(s), creation of various styles of animate copies (holographic, robotic, digital) of individuals, immersive gaming, and on and on.

Perhaps the most intriguing and disturbing consequence of this imagined technology, at least where narrative is concerned, is the mutability of time as it’s experienced in virtual worlds. In a 2014 special episode, "White Christmas," Matt (played by a dastardly John Hamm) describes his job “breaking in” a miniature, synthetic copy of a client destined for an eternity of meaningless service running a smart home. Matt accomplishes his task by leveraging experiential time: while Matt experiences several seconds, the digital copy of the client’s self is left alone in a content-less white void for increasingly long intervals, up to six months, unable to sleep or derive any sort of pleasure. This cruel solitary confinement has the intended effect, producing an obedient digital assistant. In the fourth season’s fourth episode, "Hang the DJ," we observe the ups and downs of two young people whom we believe have enrolled themselves in some sort of dating program, only to learn at the end of the episode that these apparently real individuals are mere digital copies of living persons; the narrative we have seen is in fact a single virtual scenario among over a thousand, all rehearsed by an algorithm in the milliseconds between when the two actual people see each other in a bar and deploy an app on their phones to determine compatibility.

“Black Mirror” suggests that the time of bodily needs and terrestrial life is not something one can merely lose to occasional discursive busy-work, e.g., social media and constant access to email. Rather, the projection of our selves into increasingly artificial and minutely regulated and surveilled virtual environments is, at best, disorienting and, at its most exploitative and permanent, a mode of slavery that will be sold to us as entertainment, convenience, therapy, immortality, and so on. While the first seasons of “Black Mirror,” 2011–2013, evinced a near-total despair (and, terrifying prescience) about approaching anti-democratic trends, later episodes commissioned by Netflix—itself an algorithmic juggernaut—have explored somewhat maudlin solutions, in which characters team up for more or less convincing rescue missions to save ghosts trapped in machines.

But in spite of these late-breaking humanist plotlines, I hardly think “Black Mirror” sets out to make an actionable case regarding the banal (since insidiously ubiquitous) evil of tech. What the show does most effectively is to dramatize and narrate something extremely hard to dramatize and narrate: digital time complexity, which is to say, the amount of time it takes to run an algorithm (which is not very much time at all, something that should alarm us far more than it seems to). Although the show may have set out in 2011 to operate in a speculative or sci-fi mode, many of its themes and proposals—from the gamification of everything to the melding of reality television and national politics—have come to seem plainly realist rather than satirical or fantastically dystopian in their depiction of the intersection of technology and everyday life in 2020. Even beyond this anachronistic relevance, the show’s early seasons are squarely located in a recognizable near-present, one in which fashions and home décor are not futuristic, but rather seem to come from H&M and CB2. The technology may be slightly tweaked, but everything else looks about the same. For these reasons, it might make sense for us, in 2020, to question the genre of “Black Mirror” and compare it not only to “The Twilight Zone” but also, as I have done, to realist fiction.

But can realist novels successfully depict the effects of, if not the actual microprocesses of, algorithmically controlled time? If the novel is to survive (perhaps I’m feeling optimistic today, but I wager that it will), then we should look forward to the emergence of new styles and hybrid genres. Given the haziness of contemporary literary realism and the novel’s love of, well, novelty, I doubt that we will have to wait very long.


Date: October 20, 2020

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.


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Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, approx. 12 by 20 feet.

1.42 MB (3,419 words) - 15:10, 18 November 2020