Realism Versus Escapism Versus Absurdism


When we first start writing fiction, we do it because it’s fun, because we enjoy it, because it allows us to create and exist in worlds and amongst people that we are unlikely to ever encounter in our real lives. Sometimes that includes worlds and people we would never want to meet in real life.

It’s often only when others start reading our fiction that analysis begins and labels are bandied about. Genres are so varied and specific these days that there is almost always one to suit anything that is being written. And if there isn’t, we create new ones.

Beyond genre, though, there are three categories into which everyone’s writing will fall. They are categories that when we are writing we don’t think much about. But our writing will inevitably fall into one or snugly somewhere between two. Those three categories are realism, escapism and absurdism.

These are the definitions from my beloved Macquarie International English Dictionary:
*Realism: lifelike representation of people and the world, without any idealisation
*Escapism: something such as fantasy or entertainment that makes it possible to forget about the ordinary or unpleasant realities of life for a while
*Absurdism: the idea that the universe is without meaning or rational order and that human beings, in attempting to find a sense of order, conflict with it

Speaking generally, a lot of literary fiction will fall into the realism category and a lot of genre fiction will fall into the escapism category.

Absurdism is more uncommon and these days you are less likely to find an entire novel of absurdism and more likely to find a novel with elements of absurdism scattered here and there throughout. Why?

My personal experience tells me that absurdism can be difficult to read for a number of reasons. It can be difficult to relate to. It can be nonsensical. And it can often seem pointless. These three things alone can make absurdist fiction a nightmare to find an audience for and in these days of the almighty dollar, a potential market is key. No market? Then no point publishing.

Most books written, and most books enjoyed, follow a linear path with a beginning, a middle and an ending and along the way an exploration of the philosophies of humankind takes place. It may be a complex philosophy, such as existentialism, or it may be a more undemanding and popular subject, such as love. But by the end of the novel, we tend to have an answer of sorts or at least be closer to an understanding.

Franz Kakfa’s Metamorphosis falls into the absurdism category. While I don’t claim to be an expert literary analyst, having read the tale of a man who wakes up one day and realises he has transformed into an insect, I can at least recognise that. But why?

Absurdist novels are never tied up neatly because the idea that plots and by extension lives can be neatly tied up conflicts with the entire theory. The universe is “without meaning or rational order” and attempts to imbue it with such cannot help but fail. But many, including myself, read in order to better understand the world. If a novel’s underlying principle is that the world cannot be understood, then why bother reading an entire novel in order to be told that? I can save myself the trouble.

Generally, I prefer escapist fiction. Heroes and heroines with unique skills sets on a mission to save the world from villains you can often be drawn to just as much, falling in love along the way and even if they’re not winning the war, they’re winning enough battles as they go. I’m a sucker for a good plot that follows a logical pattern, meaning that if you’re smart enough as well, you can figure out who the bad guy is and how to stop him, making you one of the good guys, too.

I’m less drawn to character-driven realist fiction. I’m always terribly disappointed when I put down a book having read the last page and say to myself, “But nothing happened! Nobody did anything and nothing changed.”

“That’s right!” they say. “It’s an accurate reflection of life itself.”

Which is poppycock. Life changes all the time. People change, some more frequently than others. Sometimes it’s only the ravages of time but that’s change nonetheless. MH Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terms points out, “Casanova, TE Lawrence, Winston Churchill were people in real life, but their histories, as related by themselves or others, demonstrate that truth is stranger than realism. The realist sets out to write a fiction which will give the illusion that it reflects life as it seems to the common reader.”

Part of my problem with realist fiction is that when others read it and realise it isn’t like their real life, they wonder what’s wrong with them instead of wondering what’s wrong with the book.

The majority of the fiction I write falls into the escapism category and if I dabble in any other area, it’s realism. But just toes dipping in the pond at the edges of realism. No absurdism for me. I wouldn’t know how to write it and if I could, I’m not sure I would find much pleasure in it. And surely if I don’t find pleasure in writing it, no one could find pleasure in reading it.

For me, the story comes first (obviously escapism). Then I populate it with characters (with a dash of realism). And if the two work together, then meaning bubbles up from the cauldron in which I created them both (anti-absurdism). So far I’m happy with the results.


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