Realism or Experimentation: This Isn’t Highlander; There Can Be More Than One

by Salvatore Pane

“An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?”

-Zadie Smith

On Saturday, Salon published a review of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, under the headline “Literary Realism is Dead.” This follows a back and forth between Blake Butler on Vice and Stephen Tully Dierks on HTMLGIANT, the former arguing that realism is a bloated corpse, the latter arguing  we need realism now more than ever.

This is what I don’t understand: when did we become a society that can only consume one school of literature at a time? I love realism. I love experiential lit. There are some realistic books I dislike, and some experimental books I dislike. I don’t understand the need for these two camps to bunker down and hurl theses at each other like some kind of lit Cold War. Aren’t there enough readers to support both modes? Why all the negativity?