Realishness and Realizing Realism

I write across a fair number of genres and styles—article, essay, short story, novel; science fiction, fantasy, (trying) horror, slice of life, absurd, magic realism, literary.

Each form prides itself on telling True Stories that move beyond mere accuracy to expose underlying Reality. Even when stories are based on actual events, enormous selective liberty is taken with fact so as to clarify a specific thematic underpinning. Facts are more of a guideline than a rule, to be left out or ignored as needed in service of the chosen thematic Truth.

Yet each of the genres I write in takes special pride in using the unique conventions of the form to reveal those underlying truths—whether by exaggerating aspects of character or situation, or by changing familiar settings or even physical laws to shine a brighter light on a particular problem, idea, or concern. Even writers of “realistic” fiction carefully sift the many real and accurate possible details to find the one they perceive as most (contextually) powerful or interesting—leaving an awful lot of realism unrealized in any story.

This is not a rant against the definition of “real” or “true;” rather it’s a personal exploration of the usefulness of varied viewpoints in collision with the conventions of genre and the marketplace.

I’ve Never Seen That

While lunching recently with a friend, I opined on how soul-crushing it’s been to be constantly told that as an (unwillingly) unemployed man, I represent all that is socially, morally, politically, and religiously wrong in the world. I told of recent counsel I had received from my quorum president (backed up with scriptural references) that being unemployed meant I was an abomination who was unfit to commune with the body of the Saints.

“I can’t believe he said that to you,” my friend said. “In thirty years as an adult convert member, that’s not consistent with my experience of Church leadership. I’ve never seen that.”

For a moment I was completely lost. My dear friend trusted a stranger more than he trusted me—because the scope of his personal observation did not allow for what I knew from direct experience. Even though that was only one of several such experiences over the past year. It was not a question of misunderstanding a single moment; it was one instance in a pattern that had been repeated often enough to become a clear theme of my relationship with that quorum president. Never mind the reinforcements from social and public media.

Yet my friend dismissed the entirety of my difficult personal struggle with a casual, “I’ve never seen that; that’s not consistent with my experience.” Even though it was true, and I was a reliable narrator.

As authors that’s one of the struggles we face. We pretend to want to expand the scope and variety of our readers’ experiences, and readers claim they want to meet strange people in exotic locales. Yet in practice it turns out readers are actually quite brittle and will reject as unreasonable those things that seem to conflict with their own experiences and hard-won insights.

Sometimes mere realism is not enough. It doesn’t matter if we know of that character or that situation from personal experience (as our recent spat over Nephi Anderson’s novels illustrates so nicely). Story has to either transcend the real in order appeal to Realism, or has to content itself to stay within a narrow band of Realishness to avoid ejecting readers before they can process (realize) the details.

This is less of a challenge in some genres, where conventions of absurdity or imaginative/creative settings or characters are accepted elements of story. But it doesn’t go away entirely even there—especially if you transgress the core conventions of genre.

If They’d Only Just…

Part of the challenge is that readers have their own frameworks for processing and understanding, and tend to wedge all new experience through that one filter that has been so successful in their lives.

For my parents, it’s temple work. No matter what the question, their answer seems to be, “If you’d just go to the temple more, the Lord will give you what you need.” For one good friend the answer is always dogged determination (just keep plugging), for another it’s just a matter of more positive thinking, and for a third it’s “don’t worry; just do what’s right and trust in the Lord.”

For one quorum president the answer always came down to motivation—people could not address problems if they didn’t recognize them as such. Thus, if only he could get me to understand that being unemployed was a bad thing, then I’d lift myself by my own bootstraps and choose not to be unemployed. That’s what had always worked for him.

Suggest another framework for an answer and the rebukes come swift and sure. Because each of us knows that all problems are easily solved if people would only just…

Pick One and Go

One of the challenges I have as a writer is that I’ve seen at least marginal success in a wide variety of approaches, forms, genres, and conventions. I don’t believe in a single best approach; my own experience is that the strait and narrow path can often be approached from many angles, not just the one that I’m most personally familiar with.

There may be one most correct road, but there are also many very correct, mostly correct, partially correct, and nearly correct paths than can still bring us to the desired endpoint. It’s useful to widen the funnel (expand our approaches) if we want to attract a wider audience.

Still, if you don’t give your reader some evident point of consistency, they won’t learn how to trust you. It can be at the level of form, category, theme, imagination, or humor; but there has to be a signpost that your readers can recognize—and learn to trust—that meets them on their own terms before you can attract an uninitiated reader and convince them to trust you as you.

Because only when we trust the teller can we hope to hear a jarring tale that’s not consistent with our own experience, and not reject it out of hand.

The rest (as they say) is left as an exercise for the author and their publisher(s).

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5 Responses to Realishness and Realizing Realism

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very thought provoking. It also illustrates precisely why questions of “realism” so quickly become questions about ideology: not only do we judge things against our experience, we also interpret the experience through our own personal lenses.

    I agree that even the more “fantastic” genres still have some notion of realism underlying the work. And the most “realistic” genres have allowed exceptions.

  2. Th. says:


    The I’ve-never-seen-that problem is, I think, exacerbated when Mormons read Mormon literature. One huge example is the excommunication scene in Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene. When I was editing the book, I expressed some skepticism. She responded unassailably—the letter I was skeptical of was almost word-for-word that of one received by an excommunicated mutual acquaintance.

    If the writer is a good writer and we don’t otherwise have reason to distrust them, being willing to set aside I’ve-never-seen-that is a necessary role of the willing reader.

    Of course, there are always exceptions…..

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      This, I think, is one of the reasons why LDS writers such as Margaret Young and Darius Gray, particularly those who are dealing with potentially controversial subject matter, have a tendency to “footnote” things: it provides an answer to challenges of unrealism.

      From one perspective, it’s kind of sad that there’s a need to do this. On the other hand, it seems kind of pointless to blame people for how they react. And as a strategy, it’s one of the ways writers can help built trust.

      • Th. says:


        That’s a pretty good point. Though I still think it’s aesthetically lacking, it is important to meet the audience where they are.

      • Harlow says:

        I feel a little ambivalent about the footnotes in Margaret and Darius’s novels. On the one valent I remember Samuel W. Taylor’s comments about the abundance of footnotes in Mormon scholars’ work. On the ambi valent I remember a book review I read where the author said the purpose of footnotes is to allow the reader to reconstruct the scholar’s research.

        Which is probably another way of saying they answer “the challenges of unrealism,” but it occurred to me after thinking about it for a while that Margaret and Darius’s footnotes serve another purpose as well. They’re a form of validation for a group who haven’t had a story. The footnotes are a way of telling the readers that the novels aren’t the kinds of historical tales where the authors invent a character or characters to interact with notable historical figures, that they’re not characters made up to advance a particular view of history or contemporary culture. Rather, the characters in the novels are part of our heritage, a part many of us have only been dimly aware of.

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