The Realistic Genre
- Literary realism focuses on fidelity to everyday life.
- A realistic work depicts the world as it is, not as it could be.
- Authors present ordinary people living their everyday lives.
- Fantasy, magic, and supernatural events are absent from the realistic story.
- The protagonist is ordinary rather than heroic, and the events are commonplace rather than extraordinary.
- All fiction is based on artifice but writers of realistic works hide this artifice.
- The concept of realism has evolved over the past century.
- Earlier realistic novels for children differ from later ones, the latter fall under the category of “new realism.”
- Prior to the 1970s, realistic novels such as Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden focused on the typical problems of growing up
- This pre-1970 form of realism is also called “social realism.” Sometimes the stories are also classified as “family novels” since they typically focus on family issues such as conflict with parents or sibling rivalry.
- Protagonists in all forms of realistic stories gain greater self-awareness and maturity by facing challenges and overcoming them.
- The best realistic novelists find something significant and universal in the commonplace and everyday.
- Many post-1970 realistic novels equate realism with the darker, harsher side of life.
- Realism in these stories is often associated with suffering and unhappiness
- Many writers, including the award-winning Katharine Paterson, believe that authors do not help children by sheltering them from the problems of the real world.1
- New realism has introduced subjects that were previously thought unsuitable for children.
- These books are sometimes called “social problem novels” because they focus on problems such as divorce, abuse, parental neglect, violence, and gangs.
- In many of these novels, adults – and especially parents – let children down.
- Children must learn to cope without a loving parental figure in many of these stories.
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Realism versus fantasy
- Some novelists prefer to write realistic novels, others works of fantasy. George Eliot is one novelist who favours realism over fantasy, believing that it is the duty of writers to present life as it is, not as they wish it could be.
- “I would not,” she wrote, “even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields – on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice.”2
1. Katherine Paterson, “Up From Elsie Dinsmore,” in A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (New York: Plume Books, 1995), 109-18.
2. George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), 150-1.
Resources on realistic fiction
Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. “Abandonment: The New Realism of the Eighties.” Children’s Literature in Education 23, no. 2 (1992): 101-106.
Fisher, Leona W. “Bridge Texts: The Rhetoric of Persuasion in American Children’s Realist and Historical Fiction” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2002): 129-35.
Hollindale, Peter and Zena Sutherland. “Internationalism, Fantasy, and Realism.” In Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History, edited by Peter Hunt, 252-88. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Lynch-Brown, Carol and Carl M. Tomlinson. “Realistic Fiction.” In Essentials of Children’s Literature. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2008, 150-67.
Norton, Donna E. and Saundra E. Norton. “Contemporary Realistic Fiction.” In Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2011, 356-94.
Roberts, Lewis. “Nightmares, Idylls, Mystery, and Hope: Walk Two Moons and the Artifice of Realism in Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature in Education 39, no. 2 (2008): 121-34.
Russell, David L. “Realistic Fiction: The Days of Our Lives.” In Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. Boston: Pearson, 2012, 222-50.
Strehle, Elizabeth. “Social Issues: Connecting Children to Their World.” Children’s Literature in Education 30, no. 3 (1999): 213-20.