The Realism Canard, Or: Why Fact-Checking Fiction Is Poisoning Criticism. - Parabasis
This odd tension-- that narrative art creates its own world yet helps shape our view of ours-- has given birth to (or at least popularity to) a new brand of criticism that measures a story against real life to point out all the ways that it is lacking. You've seen it before, right? "Five Things Parks & Rec gets right about small town budgeting bylaws." Now with Gravity busting box office records, we're getting astronauts and scientists telling us that there are many points where the film departs from real life. Entire critical careers are now founded on churning out "What X Gets Right/Wrong About Y" blog posts, posts that often completely ignore issues of aesthetics, construction, theme or effect to simply focus on whether in "real life" a given circumstance of a story would be possible.
In real life, people don't talk the way they do in movies or television or (especially) books. Real locations aren't styled, lit, or shot the way they are on screen. The basic conceits of point of view in literature actually make no sense and are in no way "realistic." Realism isn't verisimilitude. It's a set of stylistic conventions that evolve over time, are socially agreed upon, and are hotly contested. The presence of these conventions is not a sign of quality. Departure from them is not a sign of quality's absence.
The Realism Canard is the most depressing trend in criticism I have ever encountered. I would rather read thousands of posts of dismissive snark about my favorite books than read one more blog post about something that happened in a work of fiction wasn't realistic or factually accurate to our world as we know it. Dismissive snark, after all, just reflects badly on whomever wrote it (at best) and (at worst) cheapens the work it is written about. The Realism Canard gradually cheapens art itself over time. It's worse that the reduction of art to plot, or to "content." Those can still form the basis of interesting conversations. Instead, we're talking here not only about the complete misreading of what something is (fiction vs. nonfiction), but the holding of something to a standard it isn't trying to attain and often isn't interested in (absolute verisimilitude). We're talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. We're talking about reducing the entire project of fiction so that we can, as Grover Norquist said of the Federal Government, get it to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub.
And I suspect on some level this is part of the point of the The Realism Canard. That art in its size and complexity is too much to handle sometimes, and too troubling. That even though we say fiction's job is to take us out of ourselves, we don't really want to be pushed. So we must take it down a peg, to a point where it is beneath us and thus can be put in its place. And the easiest way to do this is to cross check it against "real life" and find it lacking.