“Realistic fiction leaves out too much.” – Gene Wolfe

“Reality is a crutch for those who can’t handle fantasy” – Old con button motto

Last week I discussed a few episodes of “fantasy” being denigrated or snubbed by the “mainstream”. A few days after that I had a long discussion with Paul Jessup and Nnedi Okorafor on Twitter about fantasy and realism. It was a very good, tough discussion, and it made me think more critically about the divide between realism and fantasy that has often been fomented in the wider literary field. Of course, this is not just a divide between realism and the fantastic; it is also about “literature” versus “fiction,” and other labelled dualities.

Rather than natter on about the labels, I would like to discuss how that one particular distinction, “realistic” versus “fantastic,” is a structuring principle of how literature is perceived and consumed. And, let it be known now, I am pretty solidly in fantasy’s corner in this debate, for reasons that will be clearer in this column.


The realism v. fantasy divide fascinates me because it is simultaneously arbitrary and ossified. They are seen as clear categories, ones with traditions and adherents. even as the rules and content of each shift. There are multiple reasons for this separation, flawed as it is, but what I want to focus on here are its effects in the discussion and reception of literature. These acts of categorization are acts of interpretation, and they take place within a social field, an idea of Pierre Bourdieu’s that tries to conceptually locate and understand the effects of symbolic interactions and social practices. He conceived of them as “sites of struggle over ‘symbolic capital'” organized through interests such as literature. I think that struggle is a rather loaded term, but the idea of a social field, as a nexus of social and cultural activity, fits many of the discussions that people have about fantastic literature, and in this case can help us see the discussion of realism versus fantasy as something that people do intentionally; they are more than exchanges of words and opinions, they are ideas about what is significant in the stories and texts that have meaning for us and affective weight in social systems.

One of the elements in the Twitter conversation that created friction was that we were using terminology pretty broadly. So, let me be as clear as possible about what I’m talking about. Realism is a relatively recent term that comes from philosophy and was transferred to literature when more gothic, romantic sensibilities were challenged by more “true to life” stories. Realism here is “the tendency to view or represent things as they really are” as a literary conceit. In contrast, fantasy is a much older term that has referred to illusory or dream-like qualities, but also to active imagination and the revealing of ideas. In general, the term refers to “the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.” The primary contrast, then, is between formulations that refer to actuality or the real, and those that are ideas not necessarily related to the real, but that come from the imagination of the individual.

The contrast is more extensive than that, however. While both terms have become more objectified and organized over the history of the last 200 years of literature, their progress has had different social consequences. Essentially (and here is where the polemic comes in), realism has been the term with greater symbolic capital, while fantasy, even when lauded or clearly a part of the social imagination, is given less status, significance, or esteem. And this notion spills over not just to specific works or entire genres, but to the people who read given works. It’s not just about how closely a book hews to reality or not; it’s about the validation of certain texts and the idea that those who read them have particular social characteristics.

The problem with this idea in literature is that even the most “realistic,” most mimetically precise story is still basically a fantasy, still a product of imagination. Realism is, to an extent, a ludicrous idea, and I mean that in the most basic sense of the word, of not just farcical, buy publicly playful, a testing of what people consider to be real, even as the text tries to reproduce or reaffirm actuality. It is a type of literary production whose creator selects what counts as real, chooses particular perspectives and occurrences and conditions as more honest, authentic, and verifiable as fact and experience. What is remarkable is not that mirrors the real, but that it sometimes hit close enough to the mark to create an aura of factuality around what is describes.

Certainly, this is partly what happens in fantastic literature as well, but the anchorage to reality is not assumed, and the producer of the text (and the reader who interprets it) has a more playful relationship to actuality. Fantastic literature creates less plausible possibilities and relies more on imagination than it does a direct referral to the known. And that is where the struggle over symbolic capital begins between the two categories. Realism is frequently valued as the more difficult sort of literary trick to pull off, and those stories that are felt to echo the real are often ascertained to be more artistic, more emotionally valid, and more socially energetic than the fantastic. To reflect reality is considered more efficacious and challenging (which I think is why some writers and critics of SF highlight the use of science and cognitive logic in the genre); it is valued more highly and yields more symbolic capital because it reinforces and reproduces commonly-held notions of what is real and what is not.

The embedded assumption in realism is that fantasy is fanciful; anyone can relate a dream or make up something new. While fantasy is fine for entertainment, for fables (which teach real lessons using fantastical elements), for games, truly mature and powerful literature is primarily about re-presenting reality, drawing situations and insights from the real to reflect back onto it. Now, obviously, while this is an operative assumption, one can think of many exceptions to the basic rule. As Jon Evans noted, “magical realism” has been a favored variety of serious literature for decades. The more “realistic” a story is, the less evocative it might be, as it hews so close to the messiness and arbitrariness of life that it becomes a litany of actions or moments unaltered by the writer’s imagination. As Neil Ayres said in a discussion of the Booker Prize and genre, “[t]he problem with realism is it’s at odds with a good story.”

But realism is also in some manner an unavoidable part of writing. In our Twitter conversation Paul Jessup pointed out that, while realism may be inflected with fantasy, fantasy has to have some resonance with the real to be engaging. Paul is certainly correct that the two interact and have measures of the other contained within them. This does not, however, mean that they are considered in the same way. Like Jon Evan’s “spectrum of fantasy” there is a continuum from extraordinary realism to the most surreal and illegible fantasy, but this does not operate in two dimensions; it is a multi-faceted constellation. And different points along the spectrum are perceived and valued differently, because even Samuel Delany’s idea of reading protocols emerge from the reader’s education and cultural understanding of a text, sometimes long before actually accessing that text. This is why a lot of folks work hard to maintain some sense of separation and more fine-grained categories of genre and story. Our very apprehension of a text is profoundly conditioned by social and cultural considerations, and more “realistic” texts, no matter how outlandish or rote they may be, are the ones we are generally trained to read and admire. The protocols emerge from our experiences in other social fields, many of which disparage fantasy, often in a very stereotyped or myopic manner.

The increasing proliferation of categories, subgenres, styles, etc., also emerge from this contentious “struggle.” A lot of folks complain about the rise of subgenres in the last several decades, but that proliferation relates to the question of realism versus fantasy as well. This division has only hardened in the last 150 years or so, because before then there was no need for it. Why? Because of the history of production that Bourdieu is talking about. Realism was imported into literary discourse when the novel had been popularized to a point where the distinction was considered necessary by participants in the developing field of production. Once novels were seen as objects of artistry and bourgeois taste, distinctions were created to generate (and sometimes resist) symbolic capital and prestige. Nowadays that seems rather strange, but if you examine most genre labels, they have social stigmas or presumptions attached to them. And fantasy quite frequently has more stigma and less worth than realism.

These are not absolute distinctions, this is about categorization and tendency. “Realism” and “fantasy” bifurcate experience in an intentionally limiting way, and then people use those ideas to engage the social field. The problem I see is that this separation obfuscates our ability to understand that human experience is, at its heart, filtered through our imaginations. Fantasization is how humans create and access culture. We are, at the end of the day, fantastical creatures, who access and reinterpret reality as we do precisely because of that capacity. We do not experience the real except through a lens ground in our imaginations & influenced by cultural ideas and precepts. Prioritizing the real mystifies the fact that we imagine the world every moment. When fantasy is enjoyed as a thing separate from “the real,” and not as part of our capacity to create and innovate culture, we diminish our humanness.

Filed under: ColumnsThe Bellowing Ogre

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