Writing the real

Tom McCarthy takes on the Reality Hunger in the latest London Review of Books and tries to show the real isn’t real.  The result–extremely rare for anything printed in the LRB–is disastrous:

Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real.

This is much worse than Adelle Waldman’s flimsy rebuttal of David Shields in The New Yorker last week.  Waldman was generous; here, McCarthy is just reactionary.  Reactionary, too, in the most classic sense: this says nothing new, nor means to say anything new.  All he does is repeat a line of thinking which now has become insufferably boring and incredibly out of touch–relevant, precisely, “half a century ago.”

What is that line of thinking?  Well, simply that fiction is everything, reality nothing.  McCarthy is utterly unwilling to imagine that the real might be more than a trauma, an event, a undermining of the yearning to be beyond convention–in other words, as anything more than more fiction.

We’ve heard this line over and over and over again.  But it has serious limitations, and it fails entirely to even try to grasp what the new creative non-fiction is doing.

For McCarthy, the real can only be revealed to be just what it was in fiction.  But what characterizes the new reality-fascination and creative-nonfiction movement is not a hostility to fiction but a belief that fiction shows reality is more real than it at first appeared.

If that makes fiction a branch of non-fiction, so be it.  If that seems to limit its role, too bad.  This limit is acceptable because it is still allows more freedom to move and create than the view McCarthy lays down.  It is acceptable because asserting fiction is the end all and be all of everything has become, through the endless repetition of Derridian and Foucauldian points like McCarthy’s, really a pronouncement about reality and how you should live it with fiction always in mind.

Moreover, the sense that we don’t do this already, the suspicion that everyone somehow innocently, ignorantly thinks everything is authentic, natural, non-fictional, and that this new creative work is just more of that–all this shows just how crudely moralistic this attitude has become.  No one is denying Perec looks at historical violence when he writes a whole book without the letter e; no one has ever thought that Flaubert is merely a documentarian.  The unwillingness to recognize this, and the hostility McCarthy directs against this straw-man, is disturbing.

It’s nothing more, really, than the anger of a petulant young English professor frustrated that his students won’t look at a book on its own terms.  What this professor fails to understand however, is that the answer to any situation where people fail to imagine the full extent of fictional possibilities is not to berate them with quotes from authorities like Nietzsche (who even Derrida said was not the “truth is a lie” metaphor-monger McCarthy makes him out to be) and Foucault (who didn’t tell us about “the constructedness of all social contexts,” as McCarthy puts it, so much as demonstrate the dynamics of power and oppression were not vertical but horizontal, circulated around everywhere).  It is simply to help them better understand the place of the fiction in their lives–something this creative non-fiction does.

Meanwhile, sanctifying fiction by way of these authorities so much makes it nearly empty as a category–turning it into something that merely disrupts the world, robs it of any ability to explore that world and others.  To say the real is trauma in fiction, merely, is to purify fiction of everything messy that lets it involve itself in the world.  It is just this sort of messiness that the new creative non-fiction seeks to explore.

To write about the real is precisely not to speculate on the words “real” or “realism.” It is not to speculate at all, but to create.  It is to see where untruth can take us, and what it can do for us, and the effort is worthy of a more generous consideration than the one in the LRB’s pages.