The Myth of Realism: Belief and Incredulity in Fiction

Jennifer duBois

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 183.

One of the more interesting experiences of teaching creative writing is encountering students’ varying definitions of “realism.” Individual senses of what’s likely, possible, or plausible diverge more than might seem obvious, and those instincts are bound up in religion, culture, personal history, reading experience, and personality.

In class I sometimes draw a chart with two axes—physical and psychological—to break down the notion of “realism” into four quadrants. Physical realism seems the most straightforward: On one end we have stories that take place fully within uncontested external reality (as in the fiction of Alice Munro); on the other we have stories that flagrantly violate the laws of physics (the ghosts and zombies of George Saunders, for example). Somewhere in the middle might be speculative fiction, which adheres to the laws of physics while positing events beyond our current social reality (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind). Yet, inevitably, trying to define physical realism will inspire some ontological debate: What to do with ghosts, extrasensory perception (ESP), the astrological concept of “Leo season,” or the resurrection of Christ?

Even with stories situated squarely within the realm of consensus physics, we often run into conflicting beliefs about how the social world works. People have different individual experiences—my own family life has offered up enough twists to leave me with an inflated sense of credulity as a reader—and operate under different systemic realities. I’ve seen white students, for example, respond incredulously to accounts of racism in work by Black colleagues; these white students believe they have never seen white people behave as the characters do in these stories, and perhaps they really haven’t. But that doesn’t mean that white people don’t behave in these ways sometimes, or that the stories are at all unlikely. As Alexander Chee has put it: “A fiction writer’s work is limited by his sense of reality, and workshop after workshop blows that open by injecting the fact of other people’s realities.”

Psychological realism gets even trickier: How do we define what’s psychologically “realistic” without immediately resorting to wildly subjective intuitions or straight-up tautology? There may be some key indicators that a writer’s primary project is not to interrogate the depths of the individual human soul as he or she has observed it: In their books, everyone sounds alike, no one is particularly curious about anything, or all characters react in a similarly muted way to some supernatural event. (Compare Don DeLillo’s White Noise to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Although both books contain extraordinary events, I’d argue that Ward is interested in something much closer to psychological realism than DeLillo is.) But beyond these general observations, we often find that our sense of how psychologically realistic a piece of work is—and how psychologically realistic our own work is—is a private, highly individual reaction, unlikely to be precisely shared by others. 

In writing The Last Language, published last month by Milkweed Editions, I was attempting to convey an extraordinary event—and an extraordinary mind—within the realm of realism as I understand it. The book follows Angela, a linguist-turned-speech-therapist, who uses a controversial new device to communicate with Sam, a nonverbal patient; Angela and Sam apparently fall in love, but Angela is eventually arrested over questions of consent. It was important that the book felt grounded in physical reality, since the mechanics of what is actually happening with the device is the basis of the entire moral mystery: Is Angela channeling Sam’s own writing through a process too subtle for others to perceive? Or is she unconsciously guiding his hands, like a person with a Ouija board? Readers must be able to imagine that both interpretations are physically possible—or at least that a character might believe they are.

To my mind, The Last Language can only work if it reads as psychological realism. If everyone in the novel seems bonkers, the question of whether Angela is loses its salience. With Angela I wanted to explore the mind of an unusual person—intelligent, idiosyncratic, only possibly pathological—which meant offering indications that other characters may not see the world in quite the same way she does. I peppered Angela’s early narration with suggestions that her perspective might be in some ways unusual—the way she tries to invoke September 11th as a partial excuse for her behavior, the flat tone she takes when discussing her husband’s death, her inept interactions with her small child. Later I give side characters dialogue that expresses their surprise and skepticism about Angela’s approach, allowing us to see around Angela’s perception of herself to the way that she’s perceived by others. My goal was never to make readers believe Angela’s interpretation of events—only to believe that she believed it: that her particular life and personality and backstory, her intellectual tendencies and her emotional needs, had given her a personal sense of realism that might include her love affair with Sam.

But maybe this points to the insufficiency, or irrelevancy, of realism as a category in the first place. As Donald Barthelme put it, “In fact, everybody’s a realist offering true accounts of the activity of mind. There are only realists.” By this generous definition, Angela is a realist. So am I, so are you, so are we all—quite regardless of our proximity to what anybody else might call the truth.


Jennifer duBois is the author of The Last Language (Milkweed Editions, 2023), The Spectators (Random House, 2019), Cartwheel (Random House, 2013), and A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in Austin.

Art: Mo