Is this a realistic narrative? A little girl with dimples and pink ribbons gets the puppy she wanted for her birthday, even though her mother has said they couldn’t afford it. The girl wraps her pudgy arms around her mom’s neck and whispers, “Thanks, Mommy-cakes. I love you so much.”
Not very realistic? Why not? Such things don’t happen? Or does the tale sound like the type of story that makes people smile and feel good. It may be “heart-warming,” but it isn’t what we call “realistic.”
Take a moment and imagine a more “realistic” version of this story. Feel free to change it in any way you like, as long as it retains the little girl with dimples, her mom, and the puppy.
How about this for a more “realistic” version? What if we give the girl sun-bleached hair and a scab on her knee and say that the puppy was found behind a dumpster in the trailer park? What if her divorced mother has just lost her job and now she is not sure how she is going to feed herself and her daughter, much less a dog? What if the mom and her daughter have a terrible fight about the puppy, so the girl runs away with her doggy, but is caught by a homeless man with scabies, sexually assaulted, and abandoned on the train tracks? As she loses consciousness, the puppy begins to lick up the blood, pooling between the railroad ties, of the poor little girl with dimples. In the distance, a train whistles.
Is that more realistic? Did your version include any of these elements: “rude words, grinding poverty, brutal gestures, sexual depravity, intense human interest, unhappy marriages, a sordid background and an atmosphere of acute misery” (from Introducing Barthes by Philip Thody and Ann Course)? If so, then you were employing the conventions of realism to create an impression of reality. These elements are typical of realistic fiction, but are nothing more than symbols which represent “realism.” Since they are conventions, they are no more real than the conventions of science fiction.
Roland Barthes, who helped identify the conventions of realism, said that every kind of writing depends on conventions: scientific articles, long legal briefs, academic writing, even blogs. When someone works against these conventions (as I am trying to do), they are actually affirming the existence of those conventions, by pointing at them and saying, “That is not what I am doing.” If a piece of writing truly broke all conventions then it would be gibberish, alphabet soup, scribbles on a page. We cannot write without participating in genre, and what is realistic about genre?
So, get real. Realism is fantasy.