Genre trouble: toneless realism (definition with polemic asides)

Back in 2011, one of my NaNo buddies asked me to define “toneless realism,” which I’d used in the course of critical response. The e-mail I wrote in response is an essay with examples, reproduced here.

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What is toneless realism?

I do believe that Ernest Hemingway is one of the granddaddies, though he was more stylish by far than any of the current practitioners. Call them his bastard great-grandchildren, who’ve had three generations in which to inbreed.

Toneless realism is best defined by what it isn’t. But first, what it is:

The pose is “just the facts, ma’am”: the POV character’s sensory input, the stuff cluttering the set (often with product-placement and brand names), flat language. Frequently, to cut off the horizon even further, it’s done in present tense. The most egregious examples are to be found in the minimalist short story writers in the 1980s, which not coincidentally seems to be when the whole university-based creative-writing institution came into its own. Everything is reported in a flat, factual way: dialogue, setting, etc. Permissible settings are present-tense America, with upper-middle class corporate or academic settings as the unspoken default and standard: which is not to say that people from other backgrounds aren’t written, only that they are written with implicit reference to the foregoing. To judge from student short-story collections from the Loft Literary Center, blue-collar (read ‘trailer trash’) and rural settings fascinate such writers, but there’s always a layer of (unadmitted) disdain between writer and subject matter. In these University of Minnesota alumni fiction contest stories, the 2011 entry stands out for its flatness. It isn’t about subject matter, but the way it’s approached. A writing buddy nailed it when he said that it was written like an operations manual–the affect is just that flat.

What is not permitted: any sort of dream, hallucination, supernatural happening, pulling-back the camera to a larger view, definitely NO authorial asides, any sense of the deep past or absent characters, no excursions into the fantastic, no stylistic flourishes, no reference to larger historical movements, definitely no extremes of emotion. Some examples: In David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes, the opening-up of the class divide in New York City is very far in the background, but in my opinion far more interesting than any of the characters in the foreground. In this 2010 U of M alumni contest winning story about a burger-joint manager, I would have liked to have put the creative-writing-grad-student’s class prospects alongside and asked the question: so, how much better will your life be? (And what is the good life, anyway?) Because frankly they’re about on a level, given the economic prospects for humanities grad students this last decade and more. Furthermore, the prospective grad student isn’t even aware that he’s in for brainwashing far more extensive and thorough than what the blue-collar franchise owner has gotten.

The beautiful thing about making this the standard style is that you effortlessly eliminate whole tracts of writing: i.e. everything but currently acceptable litfic, not to mention all the nasty social commentary you can smuggle in under cover of ‘once upon a time’.

The first time I encountered the term was in Carol Bly’s book The Passionate, Accurate Story in which she observed (correctly, I think) that toneless realism is the default for first-draft writing, because first draft is note-taking. The next thing is key: she said that first-draft is characterized by pain avoidance. The problem with toneless realism is that it keeps a layer of bulletproof glass between the details and the reader, so that no feeling gets through. A good story, a really good story, gets you in the heart. (or for those of us more violently inclined: it’s a mugging. You lure them into the alley, and zonk them on the head.)

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