Worlding Realisms: Closing Roundtable François Proulx, "Realism's Others"

Thursday, February 13, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[On February 7, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the symposium “Worlding Realisms.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant, François Proulx (French)]

"Realism’s Others"

Written by François Proulx (French)

As participants in today’s symposium described various contemporary and historical instances of “realism,” there were repeated concerns that the category risked becoming a “large loose baggy monster” (Henry James’s putdown of overly capacious narratives), a concept so broad that it becomes critically useless. I was reminded of a strategy I like to use when a student seems so enamored with a critical term that every third word in their writing becomes “postmodern,” “ideological” or the like: asking “as opposed to what?” If we can figure out what realism isn’t, we might find ourselves closer to a useful, manageable definition of what realism actually is.

Today’s participants defined realism(s) as the opposite of:
- warmed-over modernist or magical realist narratives of the 1980 and 1990s that presented a “new” global reality as dazzling and ungraspable (Jed Esty)
- the sedimented aesthetics of Booker Prize-ready postcolonial narratives (Ulka Anjaria)
- the singular, the individual, the non-communal (Colleen Lye and Ayelet Ben-Yishai)
- the “cooked” aesthetics of conventional television, over-processed and easily digestible (Sean O’Sullivan)
- performances that are repeated and over-copied to the point of exhaustion (Miriam Thaggert)
- images that are decontextualized, de-narrativized and over-aestheticized (Terri Weissman)

In French nineteenth-century studies, scholars including Margaret Waller, Margaret Cohen, and the late Naomi Schor have shown that Realism did not simply emerge out of the exhaustion of its diachronic other, Romanticism; rather, the so-called “classic” French realist novel was formed out of a conflict with its synchronic other, the sentimental novel, a practice largely dominated by women writers. Now-canonical realists like Balzac and Stendhal (I quote Margaret Cohen) “made bids for their markets shares in a hostile takeover” of what was the dominant and most prestigious practice of the novel when both started writing, around 1830. That Madame de Genlis, Claire de Duras or even George Sand are not as well-known to a non-specialized audience as Balzac is today, has much more to do with the way the French canon was written when literary history was first established as a discipline in the 1890s, than with what the Parisian public largely read or what contemporary critics actually favored in the 1820s and 1830s.

What is the sentimental novel? It’s a novel of the improbable rather than the verisimilar; of the tragic struggle of principles rather than the heroic conflict of the individual and the collective. It’s a genre that tugs at heartstrings instead of appealing to (or rather, constructing) readers’ desire for vision and order (that sense of “oversight” we get from a Balzac novel); in nineteenth-century technological terms, it’s a diorama rather than a panorama.

Revisiting the French nineteenth-century realist novel as a gendered genre (Margaret Waller suggests that we recast some of its mainstays in gendered terms: the omniscient narrator, for instance, as a “Mister-Know-It-All”), we may think of sentimentality as the (culturally feminine) presence locked in its closet, or perhaps in its bedroom, like Eugénie Grandet who, in Balzac’s eponymous novel, gets locked up by her penny-pinching father because she – sentimentally, idealistically – gave away all her savings to her cousin: shut out but present, subsumed yet central, an excluded but defining foil.
Might we think, then, of the “new realist turn” described by Jed Esty and Colleen Lye (in a recent special issue of Modern Language Quarterly) as a similar “takeover” of previously dominant over-aestheticized genres, operating along analogously gendered lines (though not gender lines as in nineteenth-century France)? If so, what’s in its closet?


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