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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Psychological Realism

Posted by Daniel Green on 05/11/05 at 04:49 PM

Responding to Lee Siegel’s assertion that “Nowadays, often even the most accomplished novels offer characters that are little more than flat, ghostly reflections of characters. The author’s voice, or self-consciousness about voice, substitutes mere eccentricity for an imaginative surrender to another life,” Maud Newton further describes the way in which she decided to focus her own attention on “books that delve into a character’s thoughts and motivations and idiosyncratic take on the world.” Both Maud and Siegel are expressing a preference for “psychological realism” (a preference also shared by the literary critic James Wood, among others), an approach to the writing of fiction that perhaps gained its initial impetus in the late work of Henry James, but that probably became most identified with the work of such modernists as Joyce or Woolf.

(I think Siegel is wrong in claiming that 19th century writers “plumbed the depths of the human mind with something on the order of clairvoyance.” Before James (or Flaubert, or Chekhov), the reigning narrative model was the picaresque, which surely emphasizes event over reflection, and which generally produces characters that are flat indeed--although not necessarily without color or vibrancy. One could say that writers such as George Eliot or Hawthorne or Melville plumbed the depths of the human soul, but they did not do so using the techniques of pyschological realism as we have come to know them. It was as an addition to the strategies used by 19th century writers that stream of consciousness and what might be called psychological exposition--in which the writer describes what’s going on inside a character’s mind in the same way he/she might describe landscape or event--came to be identified as “modern” in the first place. And while Siegel blames Freud for the ulimate decline of “character” in fiction, he neglects to mention that the great modernist writers were partly inspired by Freud to try out the possibilities of “plumbing the depths” in the first place.)

I would argue that it is a misperception of most contemporary fiction to claim that it neglects either character or psychological “insight.” Siegel identifies “postmodern and experimental novels” as the main culprits in fiction’s deliberate turning-away from psychological depth, its refusal to “surrender to another life,” but the vast majority of current fiction still focuses resolutely on character, and most of it uses the same strategies pioneered by Joyce and Woolf. Maud thinks that creative writing workshops put too much emphasis on “externalizing” through the “show, don’t tell” rule, but most writers are neither minimalists nor postmodernists, and the chances are that if you were to pick out at random a work of literary fiction on your Borders shelf, you would find an entirely recognizable attempt both to establish character as the center of interest and to present the character’s thought processes as the primary way of making him/her seem “realistic.”

To this extent, Siegel’s essay is just another backhanded slap at literary postmodernism (and some further by now superfluous stomping on the grave of Sigmund Freud), and in my opinion not to be taken seriously as a critique of contemporary fiction.  However, Maud’s concern for the “novel’s pyschological possibilities” is not misguided (and to her credit she correctly identifies the temptation to “endless, largely banal psychological reflection” as one of the pitfalls of psychological realism). That the novel has “psychological possibilities” is undeniably true. Indeed, the illusion of psychological depth is something fiction can provide more thoroughly than the other narrative arts, and if you think “imaginative surrender to another life” is finally what fiction is all about, then such illusion is one of the defining features of fiction as a form. But it is an illusion, and in my view if you’re going to stories and novels to acquire your understanding of human psychology, you’re going to the wrong place. First of all, what gives novelists themselves a superior understanding of the psychological make-up of human beings? Isn’t this like expecting them to somehow possess a special wisdom about human life simply because they’re novelists? Second, is merely recording in prose what one considers to be the typical operations of thought (which can finally only be done in a kind of shorthand, anyway) really probing human consciousness in anything but the most superficial way?

Better to think of psychological realism as just another strategy a writer might use to give a work of fiction a sense of unity or purpose--another way of getting the words on the page in a way that might compel the reader’s attention. This might be done through other means, including the “self-annulling irony, deliberate cartoonishness, montage-like ‘cutting’” Lee Siegel disdains. Privileging “psychological realism” over all the other effects a work of fiction might convey, all the other methods of creating an aesthetically convincing work of literary art, ultimately only diminishes fiction as literary art. It perpetuates the idea that fiction is a “window"--whether on external reality or the human psyche--rather than an aesthetic creation made of words. (Perhaps some still consider fiction to be an inferior or inappropriate form for achieving this kind of creation, at least as compared to poetry, but why should those who condescend to the form get to pronounce on its possibilities to begin with?) It reduces fiction to a case study in social science just as much as the insistence that it “reflect” social and political realities. There are plenty of great novels that reveal human motive and the operations of the human mind. But their authors didn’t necessarily set out to make such revelations. They set out to write good novels.


That’s interesting, Daniel, in lots of ways.  You are so right, I think, that psychological fiction hasn’t really gone anywhere.  The front tables at Borders and Barnes and Noble are jammed with novels replete with “endless, largely banal psychological reflection.” In fact, I suspect this is exactly what a large part of the market for contemporary fiction wants and what seems like print fiction’s distinctive competitive advantage re movies and TV.  It does give the internal rumination of thoughtful, deep, troubled people.

I think what Siegel realizes is that in the contemporary literary field this stuff seems, well, middlebrow.  There’s a big audience for it, but it doesn’t have the critical credibility that someone like, say, DeLillo until recently was reflexively accorded.

The more serious problem, I think--apart from the fact that it’s such a narrow furrow--is as you suggest: it doesn’t give such vivid or perhaps even deep accounts of character at all. My feeling is that the big issue here is the artificial distinction, circa James and Forster, of character from plot.  You can certainly see why those guys were suspicious of the trickery and seductions of plot. But it’s also interesting how deftly they used it, and how much work it did for them.  But the less of it there is, the less character there is too.  By the time of the late James, it’s not even clear what thought is in whose head. 

I guess all I’m saying is that I’m partial to the Lukacs side of the debate.

By on 05/12/05 at 06:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe one could argue that such fiction is but a symptom of our own disappearing subjectivities.  When the psychology of characters in fiction is brought forth, perhaps it is but nostalgia for times when people actually had character.

By RIPope on 05/12/05 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that psychological realism is one among many strategies, but it’s one that I’m partial to. I wonder if people would agree that someone like Ian McEwan, for instance with his most recent _Saturday_, might be an exemplary practicioner of the kind of psychological realism that reaches (or comes close to) the status of “literary art”? Other examples of believers in the “psychological possibilities” of the novel would be welcomed by me.

By on 05/12/05 at 03:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I’m cross-posting a comment I posted at Dan’s personal site earlier this afternoon.)

Interesting thoughts, Dan. Since you’ve characterized my thoughts and comments, I’d like to include a link to a follow-up post I wrote on Monday: http://maudnewton.com/blog/index.php?p=5123.

As I said in that post, I find a great deal to admire in many of the traditions Siegel disdains. From Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “Jealousy” to Barthelme’s short stories to DeLillo’s “White Noise” and beyond, I’ve admired many post-WWII writings that do not directly probe characters’ psychology. Moreover, I think Siegel discounts the psychological depth of many post WWII novels, including Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea” and even last year’s “The Plot Against America” (ultimately a flawed novel, but the first 2/3 is oustanding).

Nevertheless, I believe that much of the writing that is touted as high, contemporary U.S. literature today follows in what, for lack of a better way of making the generalization off-the-cuff, I guess I’ll call the postmodern tradition, but does a poor job of it—or, worse, makes the mistake of substituting cultural references for actual insight into the characters’ psyche. So many books these days are Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” run amok. That book was fresh at the time, but unmoored, ultimately meaningless cultural references now make their way with regularity into many literary novels.

While it’s true that many novels grouped under “literature” at Barnes & Noble offer or attempt to offer psychological insights, most of them (another recent exception—Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”—springs to mind) are, quite frankly, terrible.

My concern is that viable psychological literature is in danger of being supplanted by more experimental, or surface, writing. To put it simply, I would like to see more young American writers plumbing the depths of their characters’ internal lives in a meaningful way.

By Maud on 05/13/05 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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