Long considered epistemologically naive, realism has, in the last ten years or so, undergone something of a rehabilitation, as scholars such as Anna Kornbluh, Caroline Levine, and Matthew Beaumont have shown realism to be, in Kornbluh’s words, “a mode of production rather than a mode of reflection.” If this work has often focused on nineteenth-century texts, another set of scholars has described what Devin Fore’s 2012 book helpfully calls Realism after Modernism. Jed Esty and Colleen Lye’s special issue of MLQ
Doris Lessing’s early essay “The Small Personal Voice” is often considered the fullest elaboration of her realist aesthetics.
Serialized in the first years of Japan’s modern Shôwa period (1926-1989), Hayashi Fumiko’s wildly popular Diary of a Vagabond (Hôrôki) recounts, in playful turns both confessional and elusive, its author’s formation in the provincial mining communities of southern Japan and the booming Tokyo metropolis of the 1920s.
Realism is a famously tricky term. In literary studies it can denote a genre, an (anti-)aesthetic, a narrative mode, a philosophical literary attitude, or any combination thereof.
Whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.
—Walter Benjamin, “News About Flowers”
From its inception, much of the discussion around the terms realism and modernism stems from the fact that both are responses to a historically shifting conception of the “real,” naming different procedures for representing it, with implicit and explicit claims as to their adequacy for doing so. This means that modernism can become either another iteration of what was called realism, or a renovation of it.
At the heart of the dichotomy between modernism and realism is the question of form. Modernist writers linked the upheavals of modernity to a crisis of representation—a sense that the established forms of representing the world and of artistic expression were no longer adequate. The modernist revolt was directed at various targets, with slight variations depending on genre. For narrative prose—as for painting—it was realist aesthetics—for poetry, it was romanticism.