R is for Realism

Recently, one of my literature classes has been doing a series of survey lectures on the development of Realism and Modernism in Korean literature. It’s pretty much the same thing that happened in Europe and America. Only that blossomed in the Korean language and occurred about 5 decades late. I thought these literary movements were interesting modes of thought to consider, especially from the perspective of a writer still trying to develop her own style.

SO, to give the super-simplified, over-simplified, simply simple explanation:

Realism: works meant to depict life and people as they are. The words on the page should try as much as possible to directly reflect the subject of the work. In the Korean context, Realism commonly became associated with authors who wrote with a political or social agenda in mind.

Original still life painting by Toni Grote. Pic source: dailypainters.com
Original still life painting by Toni Grote. Pic source: dailypainters.com

Modernism: works not meant to depict life and people as they are. Experimental, ambiguous, arbitrary, all over the place, sometimes dipping into techniques like stream-of-consciousness. In the Korean context, Modernist writers rallied around the idea of “art for art’s sake,” or pure art.

Rene Magritte's famous painting that reads: "This is not a pipe." Pic source: collections.lacma.org
Rene Magritte’s famous painting that reads: “This is not a pipe.” Pic source: collections.lacma.org

These both represent pretty loose definitions. I can see a lot of writers falling into both categories at one time or another; the ambiguous nature of Modernism (my professor described Modernism as only defined by what it is “not”) lends itself to a pretty fluid group of writers, who can get by with just about any style while slapping “modernism” onto it as a decorative badge.

I think, for the most part, my writing tends to be more realistic – perhaps that can be attributed to my educational background. Sure, I use similes, allegories, and metaphors as much as the next person, but for the most part I write what I mean in no uncertain terms. That’s probably true for most people who learn to write in the academia as well. We learn to write concisely, clearly, directly. I’ve known some hippie artistic writers scoff at that; for them, only stuff closer to Modernism can be considered art.

If it’s a poem that nobody can make head nor tails of, chances are some people are willing to dub that a masterpiece.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true, though. Call me conservative, but Realism is also art. You write, you depict something, you express it in a new way. It took effort to produce such work. It might be bad art, it might be crappy art, but it’s art.

It’s my hope that I can develop my writing style while keeping both ends of this spectrum in mind. Not getting bogged down in literal details, but not falling into the abstract worlds which, despite some very interesting results, tend to lose the average reader rather quickly. Maybe there’s some happy medium that can be achieved; maybe it has already been achieved among the hundreds and thousands of contemporary writers being published today.

Do you have any books or authors to recommend, who might be experimenting with the pendulum of Modernist and Realist within their own masterpieces?



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