Columns > Published on August 22nd, 2017

This Can't Be: Realism and Genre vs. Reality

In his seminal story “The Nose,” Nikolai Gogol posits “[s]trange events happen in this world, events which are sometimes entirely improbable.” If you’ve never read “The Nose,” it’s about an official from St. Petersburg whose nose is cut off and goes on to live a life of its own. It converses. It walks around. It rises in social rank to a station higher than that of its owner. It’s not a realistic story.

This is the kind of work that we need now.

There are two basic camps in contemporary letters: realism and genre. Both camps are inhabited by practitioners of rules and regulations, folks certain that there must occur in the fabric of our existence, guide posts that all stories should follow.

The realists hold that stories should mimic real life or canonical works.

The genre folks hold that stories should mimic canonical works or real life.

In each camp, there is a systemization of occurrences, a checklist transpires.

If you are a default reader of realism, you approach each work with the idea that real life has established scenarios that can transpire, and that any deviation from these scenario must be actualized through either 1) superior language or 2) allusion.

While we have maintained...that logics bred by reality must be witnessed in all stories of considerable note, reality has shown us, time and again, that logic is unimportant to the behavior of human beings.

If you are a default reader of genre (which ever genre you choose), you come to the reading of each work measuring the construct of the story against precursors. SciFi readers use H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Horror writers use Mary Shelley and Poe. Fantasy writers use Tolkien. Or some semblance of these dead giants. And any deviation from the system constructs of these standard bearers must be scraped from some new shred of science or weighted with some phrase from religion or heaved away from bizarre actual happenings—torn from the headlines, tooled from the stranger than fiction.


The problem with this, as I see it, is that it creates false pretexts for the actuality of life and diminishes the real worth of fiction—establishing considerations that prepare us for the context of life by showing us events that seem irreal.

Consider, for a long fucking moment, the recent happenings in Charlotte. The Protests/Riots/Race Debacle/Social Unwinding that seemingly follows no logic, no system of rational thought.

White American men, whose greatest claim to goodness in this universe was serving in an army strong enough to thwart the evil of Nazism, picked up the symbols and language of that fallen Nazi empire to broadcast, in some way, their superiority in, and allegiance to, America.


The failing of our fictional constructs—both realistic and not—has left us largely unprepared to operate in our world. Because while we have maintained now, for great lengths of time, that logics bred by reality must be witnessed in all stories of considerable note, reality has shown us, time and again, that logic is unimportant to the behavior of human beings.

In her recent release, Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen names and condemns what she believes to be the great proprietor of the weakening of effectiveness in realistic fiction.

Writing of the professors at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Hanses claims they “taught their students to avoid politics in favor of composing literature that would illuminate the human and smaller moments of life.”

Citing Eric Bennett, she presents the argument that “[t]oday’s creative-writing department specializes in sensory and biographical memory, such as how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt.” And that this “might have been the ultimate force that detached citizens from the actions of their government, and from the fate of the country as a whole.”

Not the history of the Confederate statues, but the glare of the sun off their dew-slicked surfaces. And shit. That is what realism should be concerned with.

Genre fiction, on the other hand, has been chiefly concerned with establishing the suspension of disbelief, and great undertakings have transpired in order to allow stories to posit realities wherein some nonsensical occurrence might seem plausible.

Neo in the The Matrix, plugged in like a battery might be, living life in some virtual world, so that he can fight super-speedy kung fu. Superman from Krypton so he can fly. Zombies infected with super viruses that make them move on post mortem. Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time by Tralfamadorians.

Mostly these are sleight of hand tricks, things that, when diddled with fall apart magnificently, hinge on some preposterous never-mind-the-man-behind-the-curtain bullshit.

When H.G. Wells explains how the invisible man is invisible, he’s really just explaining visibility. When Morpheus is asked to explain how you can die by by getting shot in virtual reality, he can only offer “The mind makes it real.”

The problem with both of these camps, insofar as I see it, is 1) the sensory details don’t add much to the understanding of living and 2) the establishment of situations to legitimize the incapable suggest that we live in a world where the incapable does not occur.

We currently live in a country where the religious majority has picked up Bibles, read the compassionate words of Jesus and his followers, were so heavily moved by these words that they swore allegiance to their infallibility, then crawled into bed with practitioners of the opposite, slept with demons who would operate in a manner to become discarded from the sacred afterlife established in that belief system. Made their lives monuments to the behavior deemed blasphemous by their own King who “will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’”

What will they even say to that then? Out of step with logic. Emboldened by their ignorance. That the icicles tasted like asphalt? That the statues of hatred glistened magnificently with dew?

Gogol says, “Strange events happen in this world, events which are entirely improbable.”

I say: Show me now what cannot be, so that I will be prepared for it when it happens.

Get Notes on a Foreign Country at Bookshop or Amazon

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About the author

Brian Allen Carr splits his time between Indiana and Texas. His first novel is coming out with SOHO in 2017. He is the winner of a Wonderland Book Award and The Texas Observer Story Prize. His story "Whisper to Scar" was adapted as Weightless, directed by Jaron Albertin.

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