I was making dinner tonight, listening to NPR, when Maureen Corrigan came on with her list of best reads for the year. These on-air reviews usually wash over me, my mind too busy on other matters, but tonight--after so many blog posts on reviews, reviewers, and establishment fiction, I put my knife down, washed my hands, sat down--and actually paid attention.
It occurred to me as she repeated her formula reviews, book after book, why it is that reviewers (make that, commercial--print or electronic... even "non-profit" versions of commercial reviewers) have such a preference for realist narratives. It makes it so much easier to review the books. In effect, all you have to do is name the subject, reduce the book to a summarized report on a fictional event--as though the story might well be real, as though any distinction one might make between "story" and "real" is of no matter. Next, list the cast of characters, offer a movie level sketch of their problem/conflict/search-for-meaningful-resolution-of-past-trauma, etc, sprinkle the review with enough adjectives to make it sound like they're statements on the merit and quality of the book--but so general and empty of specifics that they function rather like movie background music. And there you go.
No need to say anything about the novel as artifact, the way the prose or narrative voice and strategy shape the story. The story is enough, nothing that might explain why the novel in question might be more or less than any miniature paraphrase, though I suppose, that's what those adjectives are supposed to tell you.
All this was running though my head--conversation in progress as she spoke--before she wrapped up her list with the two books she didn't like: Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (a "clichéd Vietnam novel," and Junot Diaz', The Wondrous Life of Oscar Woa... she didn't explain her distaste).
I had some problems with these books, though I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, but after her vapid, formulistic blather on the "gritty realism" of Richard Russo, I couldn't help but wondering if the problem with these last two books was that they simply cannot be reduced to simplistic formulas. If you're going to show where they succeed and where they fail, you are going to have to do some real work... or, have another catalog of clichés to draw on to cover up the sad reality that you didn't know how to read, let alone serve critical judgement, on books of their class (need I mention names?).
I think Josipovici has accurately named the problem, a reactionary denial of the most basic questions raised by the modernists on the relationship between art and life. As though the last decades of the 19th and the first half of the 20th Century hadn't happened. I differ from Josipovici, in that I think that what we are seeing is not a wish to continue 19'th Century realist narratives, but a new development, one based on an aesthetically reactionary reading of those 19th Century writers--something analogous to fundamentalist religion, which is not at all a clinging to traditional modes of religiosity, but a reaction to modernity, that recreates religious traditions in such a way that anachronistic conflicts that did not exist before the challenge modernity had posed are foregrounded as basic dogma. Even secularists like Richard Dawkins are taken in by this... treating religion as a kind a primitive version of science, there to explain the workings of the physical world, while ignoring the purely narrative power of myth, where the objective claims, vis-à-vis how the physical universe operates, only become important in themselves when challenged, as when they are confronted with the contradictory claims of science.
But that's another subject...
As Dan Green notes on Reading Experience, "Reviewers privilege narrative, but not necessarily realism. There is no necessary connection between "story" and "realism."
See the following posts on this same point:
Establishment Literary Fiction
The Fictive Universe of Realist Fiction
Formalist-Realist: What is the Real Question?
Toward Imagining the Real