How real is real? 5 Comments

When writing, you can go two ways. Your writing can be full of detail, specific and up-to-the-minute detail, so that the reader can feel as though they are in amongst it. All sorts of sensory depth, with descriptions of clothing and objects and haircuts and décor. You cram in as much as you can, aiming to represent life as you know it at that particular time and place.

Tim O’Brien’s war stories are full of such detail:

The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They’d found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.

In this approach, objects carry significance. A half-eaten chocolate bar says something. The way the light shines through a window is meaningful. The smell of the breeze is important. Writers like Nabokov, Updike and Lampedusa are famous for writing this way.

The alternative is to omit as much as possible, so that the reader fills in the blanks. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example of this minimalism:

They walked through the streets wrapped in the filthy blankets. He held the pistol at his waist and held the boy by the hand. At the farther edge of the town they came upon a solitary house in a field and they crossed and entered and walked through the rooms. They came upon themselves in a mirror and he almost raised the pistol. It’s us, Papa, the boy whispered. It’s us.

No description of the streets and no information about the exterior or interior of the house. We feel what is happening without the minutiae of places and things. Palahniuk, Beckett and Hemingway are celebrated for their simplicity. So is Raymond Carver, who barely gives any physical clues in his stories. But when he does, it is intentional. As he said:

It’s possible to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.

So, what do you think? Does an author have a responsibility to reality? Or is it better (and maybe safer in terms of longevity) to leave details out for the reader to fill in?

A couple of years before his death in 2007, Kurt Vonnegut bemoaned contemporary authors who wrote stories that ignored the changing world around them:

I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.

Vonnegut was by no means an overly descriptive writer, but he never shied away from the both the guts and grandeur of life in his writing. Everything is there: death, sex, technology, blood, dirt. And there are markers of time, details that say, ‘this is the 1940s’ or ‘this is today’.

But it is hard. I don’t know about you, but when I read a modern story that is full of iPhones and Youtube and current political leaders, I just don’t like it. It feels like the author is trying to convince me that their story is real, that these events could or did happen.

In Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges discusses such legitimising:

…in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.

Because Mohammed didn’t think to include camels in the Koran as they were such a commonplace and background element of life, this makes the Koran believable. Or does it?

Lolita incorporated paedophilia. American Psycho embraced serial killers and the violence involved. Rohypnol authenticated date raping. And there are many more.

So, is there an answer to this? Or is simply a matter of opinion?

  • Sam Rutter

    I think that the biggest indicator of “reality” is found in the style or viewpoint of an author. You don’t need to put an iPod in a story that is being written today because the way an author, as a 21st century post-9-11 post-colonial post-whatever individual sees and interacts with the world, through fiction will shine through.

    Part of Vonnegut’s experience of life was an interaction with advertising and consumer products, and with hindsight we see that that is a very important cultural signifier for the late sixties and seventies.

    Another way to approach the question is to consider the aesthetic purpose behind the style – Nabokov and McCarthy write in such distinctive styles to achieve a very different purpose, and really, neither is more “real” than the other…

    ps another author who might be interesting to look at concerning this is the French author Georges Perec…

    • Sam Cooney

      Of course I agree with you Mr Rutter – there is no ‘real’ or ‘reality’ (ask Morpheus). It’s always going to be an individual choice for an author, and the motives behind descriptive choices are vast and varied.

      How deliberate do you think Nabokov’s and McCarthy’s styles are? Do we give writers too much credit when everything clicks?

      I don’t know Georges Perec’s writing – what is interesting about him in regards to this topic?

  • Sam Rutter

    George Perec has an aesthetic which focusses on “infra-ordinary” the idea being essentially that a split between fiction and life is arbitrary, and that the challenge is to render the everyday object fascinating. Looking for beauty in the fabric of the particular, etc. He has an excellent sort of manifesto for this idea in a short text called “Interrogate your teaspoons.”

    He’s also the guy who wrote an entire novel using only the vowel “e” (Les revenentes) and one entirely without the vowel “e” (La disparition)

    I think he’s one of the greatest literary minds of the 20th century.

    In terms of style, I think that yes they’re deliberate, and I’d even say that in today’s age it’s probably the most important element of writing!

    Probably the harder you work, the easier things click too…

  • susie

    I tend to gloss over details whenever I read long descriptive passages. I have to remind myself to absorb them properly. And I also try to remind myself to absorb my surroundings more thoroughly. I think it’s a good exercise to attempt to write about something differently than you would normally.. I remember one time my lit teacher told us F. Scott Fitzgerald said (something like) you should be able to write heaps about your daily life.. even if nothing happened you can describe stuff you see with great detail. personally I find that some older authors overdid it and it gets too dense for me to read.

    I guess all the authors you mentioned make/made their meaning by writing in different ways, don’t they. spose we all have different perspectives about reality, we all have different things we want to say and think are important to say. there are just different ways of conveying it.

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