What’s Real?

In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”

The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.

I call bullshit on several different fronts:

Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.

They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.

The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feel so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?

I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.

Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?

I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2

Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.

Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?

Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.

In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4

Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.

I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.

Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.

Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.

TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.

  1. Read this lovely post by Karen Jensen on what YA is and how contemporary realism never went away. []
  2. And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy. []
  3. We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable. []
  4. Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is. []
  5. Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing! []
  6. I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird. []

6 comments

  1. Lamusiqe13 on #

    Wait, how is ‘soc’ supposed to be pronounced? I always pronounced it ‘sock’, just like you.

    • Justine on #

      It’s pronounced “sosh.” Hideous, isn’t it?

      • Marina Richards on #

        Yes, it’s pronounced sosh (like the word so and ssshhhh). Very California, says this former non-soc, L.A. girl. GREAT post, Justine.

        Thanks for this reality check. (Could not help myself).

    • annaobscura on #

      It’s an abbreviation of social, so it sort of sounds like sewsh.

  2. Sarah on #

    I like this post both because it explains this well & because I now know that I was saying soc wrong. Thanks to the commenters who explained how it’s actually promounced so that I now know how to pronounce soc correctly. Thanks! :)

  3. Nancy Palmquist on #

    Thanks for this. I just had a great little discussion with one of my favorite readers at the HS library where I work. I was pointing out to her that many girls had crushes on celebrities (like her younger sister had) as kind of a trial romance and that at some point girls realize the “beast” is really a someone they can fall in love with. She’d mentioned that Beauty and the Beadt was her favorite Disney movie. And in that moment I could tell she saw the deeper meaning in that fairy tale. That’s where “fantasy” shines! It can tell story that holds so much meaning because it isn’t bound by the “real”.

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