DOCTOROW’S BRAIN

AND OTHER SPECIAL PROBLEMS IN LITERARY REALISM

by Chris Bachelder

1. THE BARTHELME-SAUNDERS PARADOX

Named for American writers Donald Barthelme (1931–1989) and George Saunders (1958–), neither of whom is considered a realist. The Barthelme-Saunders Paradox (occasionally called the Mimetic Paradox or, vulgarly, the BS Paradox) is typically represented by contiguous postulates:

BARTHELME’S INEVITABILITY
POSTULATE (1987)

I think everybody is a realist. I do not think that we have a choice. The nature of consciousness is such that we are always doing realism. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. We are always writing about the world. I have a formulation for this idea: art is the true account of the activity of the mind.

SAUNDERS’S IMPOSSIBILITY
POSTULATE (2004)

Realism is nonsense, when you think of it. I mean, there is no such thing. Nobody writes realism, if realism is defined as “fiction that is objective and real and not distorted, but is just, you know, normal.” … What I find exciting is the idea that no work of fiction will ever, ever come close to “documenting” life. So then, the purpose of it must be otherwise.

The paradox can be resolved easily enough by showing that the two writers rely on radically different definitions of realism to arrive at their postulates. Barthelme defines realism as the accurate correspondence between the artist’s mind and art—accordingly, everyone is a realist. Saunders defines realism as the accurate correspondence between art and reality—accordingly, nobody is a realist. Barthelme’s definition emphasizes intent; Saunders’s definition emphasizes technique.[1] (But both writers agree that the distinction between realism and nonrealism is specious.) When you apply different definitions to the world, you get different categories. Fine, but the problem now is that the term realism has been stretched to meaninglessness (a process called Terminal Elasticity). When a term can be rendered useless by two different lines of argument—and those lines are mutually exclusive—that term has ceased to do much work. Realism, as Barthelme said in the same interview from which his Inevitability Postulate was derived, “is kind of a sloppy category.”

  1. By Barthelme’s postulate, the make-it-new modernists and the most radically experimental postmodern writers could be regarded as thoroughgoing realists who just see the world in vastly different ways than those writers traditionally called realists. Formal and linguistic innovation, ambiguity and difficulty—these might be seen as mimetic, as attempts to represent the chaotic, centerless world. Consequently, the modernists, typically said to be reacting against realism and naturalism, may be regarded as objecting to realism on its own grounds (i.e., because the world suggested by realist conventions was not accurate or true). You can’t not try to represent reality. Just try.

  2. Saunders’s main point is that realism is a set of conventions—“distortion, exaggeration, and compression”—that fool readers into thinking that fiction resembles real life. In one sense this position is indisputable. However, it is difficult to deny that some premises and modes of representation are more realistic or lifelike than others. The middle area might be gray, but at the extremes there is art that recognizably corresponds to our world and art that doesn’t. Nonrealist writing almost certainly refers to our world (this is Barthelme’s point), but it might not resemble it. The imaginary world of a novel, for instance, might ignore or alter very real physical laws of our world. (Saunders’s work is a fine example of writing that refers to our American reality and our physical universe without trying to represent it transparently.) So realist technique seems to be a plausible category, though it is made even more complicated by the Third Law of Mimesis: Innovative realist technique does not remain viable as realist technique. A specific technique can change, over time, from realist to nonrealist. The transparent window becomes opaque. Today’s bold mimetic strategies become tomorrow’s allusive, intertextual gambits. That is, Virginia Woolf may have used stream of consciousness to hold a mirror up to the conscious mind, but a twenty-first-century novelist would use stream of consciousness to hold a mirror up to a Virginia Woolf novel.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Chris Bachelder is the author of the novels U.S.!, Bear v. Shark, and Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography (an ebook available free at mcsweeneys.net/bachelder). He teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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