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Literary realism

Terry Eagleton is a literary critic you can trust. He has read everything, his judgements are invariably sound and his humour is the icing on the cake.


Sean Sheehan


The subject matter of “The real thing” is fiction, mostly novels that come broadly under the umbrella of literary realism, asking and interrogating the meaning and use of the term.

It might seem obvious to say that realism is about seeing things as they really are but Eagleton knows this throws up all sorts of problems and can take the unwary from one extreme to the other. Referring to postmodernism’s cultural relativism, he observes: “They assume that if the truth is not blazoned in the skies in luminous Gothic script, then there is no such thing”.

He considers a philosophical case for asserting that the world is independent of our thought about it while at the same time accepting that we describe and organize it in different ways. What is not considered is Źiźek’s position which is equally opposed to postmodernism but in a more radical way: truth itself is non-all, reality fails to stack up because it is incomplete and necessarily inconsistent. This is also a form of realism for, as Eagleton notes, the term is a family group and like most families members of it do not always see eye to eye.

Novels have the rare ability to invent a world that is convincing yet which exists only in the language used to make it up. It “produces the very reality it appears to replicate”, says Eagleton, a mix of the mimetic and non-mimetic that constitutes styles of writing as different as those of Dickens and Henry James. It is difficult to lay down ground rules for literary fiction and there are writers who are anti-realist but politically conservative, like Jorge Luis Borges.

All fiction, even the most outlandish, relates to reality and in a sentence that is characteristic of Eagleton’s humour and insight he writes: “As long as aliens from Alpha Centauri travel about the cosmos in space craft, speak to those they abduct in robotic voices and take a clinical interest in their genitals, they are really not aliens at all, regardless of whether they stink of sulphur and have no idea who Britney Spears is”.

The range of writers touched on in this book is refreshingly broad: George Eliot and Thomas Hardy but also Jane Austen and Cervantes, Flaubert and D.H. Lawrence. The chances are that whoever your favourite writers are at least some of them will be featured in one of the chapters. Some notable literary critics are also looked at, though not in the detail they are accorded in his recent Critical revolutionaries, and there is an interesting account of the Hungarian communist critic, Győrgy Lukács.

We read fiction for pleasure but also for knowledge and Eagleton makes a convincing case for reading books that are enjoyable in themselves but also capable of telling us truths.

“The real thing: reflections on a literary form” by Terry Eagleton is published by Yale University Press.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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