Fiction attempts to establish a connection between a story and some facet of reality. Any type of fiction, even fantasy, can only be gripping and compelling if it connects plot or characters in some way to actual life or reality. Otherwise, the audience doesn't have anything to connect with. Realism is a type of fiction that intentionally mimics ordinary vernacular, portrays events that would actually happen within a certain time frame (also known as milieu), and describes physical surroundings in a similar way to how they actually manifest in real life.
Stories and books about rape and incest no doubt sell less than those about love and success, because most people are more willing to think about those things. However, in reality, rape and incest happen. Thus, the popularity of literary realism isn't based solely on the merit of the story, but on how many uncomfortable facets of reality the audience is willing to hear. Mind you, no matter how many of these uncomfortable facets are ignored, they still happen in real life, so turning away from them doesn't make them any less real.
I here think of Andrew Vachss. He's an author who portrays dark, grim, nasty reality, and as such will most likely never sell as many copies as Stephen King or Dean Koontz. But Vachss' work is chillingly real because it's based on true events which he doesn't weigh down with distracting metaphors that pull you out of the scene. A murder is often just a murder, because sometimes, murders just happen. Motives vary, but what's even more important is that gritty realism like Vachss' demonstrates that there's no guarantee of life. Reality is rough; it smells, it hurts, it's often meaningless, and Vachss' stark, grim and tight prose calibrates the audience toward this understanding. Sometimes people just have heart-attacks and die before their projected life expectancy, and it doesn't mean anything profound or unique. He's non-human-centric in his own way. His type of realism looks toward the uncomfortable facets of reality that occur whether or not we want them to.
The short story Cain by Vachss involves a hit-man hired to wage vigilante justice on the two men who tortured and brutalized an old man's dog. The old man isn't sadistic, he just wants retribution. Vachss doesn't create unique villains; the ones he features are actually caricatures of villains. One is musclebound and the other is skinny, both with shaved heads. One carries a baseball bat over his shoulder and the other smacks a lead pipe in his palm. The characters are real not because they're archetypes, but due to their brooding and sadistic mentalities which are so often exhibited in modern culture. They literally torture chained up guard dogs, beat them until bones break, blind them, and leave them alive to suffer. The old man's dog, the happy and strong Buster, "was cowering in a corner of the kitchen of the railroad flat--his fine head was lopsided, a piece of his skull missing under the ragged fur. A deep pocket of scar tissue glowed white where one eye had been, the other was cataract-milky, fire-dotted with fear. The dog's tail hung behind him at a demented angle, one front paw hung useless in a plaster cast." Some audiences will turn away from such animal cruelty, but sadly, this type of shit actually happens to this day.
The beauty of the revenge scene is that it takes place in the alley directly below the old man and Buster's apartment, with both of them watching. This was the first time since Buster's beating that the dog had enough courage to even look out the window. When Cain--the attack dog the hit-man purchased--finally got the attack-command when the sadists approached, "The pit bull launched off my chest without a sound, his alligator teeth locking on the big guy's face. A scream bubbled out. The big man fell to the ground, clawing at Cain's back. Pieces of his face flew off, red and white. He spasmed like he was in the electric chair, but the dog held on, wouldn't drop the bite. The smaller guy stood there, rooted, mouth open, no sound coming out, his pants turning dark at the crotch." The mixture of actual things in the event--pieces of face, teeth, urine-soaked pants--are interspersed with metaphors of electric-chair, fire-dotting, and alligator, to demonstrate the severity of the attack. The chosen metaphors were used to exentuate the extremity of the event, and weren't "higher significance" metaphors, which helped the reader stay in the story. Vachss uses metaphors sparingly and avoids author-based moral judgments which allows the reader to see, hear and feel the event without adopting the author's moral or emotional stance. Sure, the audience will make conclusions, but Vachss' stark realism packs a lot of unforgiving reality into such a limited space. There's no feel-good fluff. Just the dry realism that people can suck, but that people can also be good, and that the law doesn't have to be involved for justice to occur. Nor does it mean that reconciliation always brings a happy ending.
Realism doesn't argue with itself--it's simply a literary representation--however the authors and the audience are who those argue with it. Realism was created to portray reality sans human sensitivities, but if often becomes affected and and influenced by such. It's still an art form so it's going to be channeled through people, however making reality more comfortable actually extracts a lot of the reality.
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