“Indeed, art has never been great when it was not providing an iconography for a live religion.” – George Bernard Shaw
The problem with contemporary “social realism” is that it frequently comes no closer to reality than an abstract of all the newspaper articles in the United States would. Time Magazine in particular, loves to hail the emergence of “The Great American Novel” (despite the continued existence of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby) once a decade, and the novel in question is usually some such journalistic pap, relating the exuberant pettiness of American life in our time: Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom are good examples of this much-vaunted, late-coming “Great American Novel.” Freedom was supposed to be a realistic depiction of Suburban Upper-Middle-Class Lowest Common Denominator America at the beginning of the 21st Century, but it failed even in that modest aspiration… with a whimper. The book was attacked largely on irrelevant grounds—an argument was stirred up about why “chick-lit” writers can’t be considered geniuses if Jonathan Franzen can… which is a good question, if you turn it on its head, since Franzen isn’t a genius but is a pretty okay chick-lit writer.
But it really deserved to be attacked on firmer grounds: David Brooks offered some perceptive negative comments in The New York Times, noting that Franzen had created a world where everyone lacked passion and interest, where the rock musicians don’t even seem to like playing guitar and the kids can’t get excited for basketball practice, and succeeded in making Suburban Average Americans look a lot more lifeless than they really are—as difficult as that might be (Franzen did this intentionally, to some extent—but that’s not much of an accomplishment). Time devoted a cover to Franzen—as they did with Tom Wolfe—but both writers already seem to be fading into the light of common day. What they provided may have been decent journalism, but still—like a lot of accurate journalism, and despite plenty of superficial flash—drab: their characters don’t actually have inner selves, because nothing genuinely interests them or seems to get their wheels moving (except, maybe, for boning or for social status or, in Franzen’s case, for the honest drudgery of sentimental familial duty in the end.) They have no real loves and obsessions, no interior monologue that you would really want to tune into. They’re just words on a page — unlike Huck or Holden or Nick Carraway or Owen Meany.
I think this can be traced back to the fact that Franzen has no real religion—not even the religion of Art or of Communism—but is a sort of preachy, watered-down American liberal—a very, very common type these days. All such preachy, watered-down American liberals are intermeasurable by one another (paraphrasing Blake)—“a very agreeable situation, in which I, for one, do not agree.” And Wolfe, like Franzen, can moralize when he wants to (though Wolfe is a Republican and an odd mix of the Capitalist critic and cheerleader), but he doesn’t really have any Icons he’s interested in making or smashing—or, at least, he doesn’t break any of the really interesting Icons.
Dostoevsky and (late-period) Tolstoy are the great models of genuine realism—for them, true Good and true Evil are part of our world, and their presence needs to be reckoned with. Dostoevsky gets to the heart of the matter with his Christ-like Alyosha and his Satanic nihilists, Smerdyakov and Svridaigalov. In between these brilliantly contrasting sets of personalities, he interposes the tormented man, the Hamlet-like intellectual who cannot reach beyond the mind’s limit to touch the essence of Good or Evil, who cannot commit himself to God or to nihilism—Ivan Karamazov and The Underground Man torture themselves at the crossroads forever. And Tolstoy accomplishes something perhaps greater in his depictions of truly “average” men in stories like “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and “Master and Man,” exploring the immense layers of repressed love and desire that continue to murmur beneath the external fronts of even the most seemingly trivial human beings.
But you don’t need to be Dostoevsky or Tolstoy to write a great realistic novel. John Irving has written some pretty good ones, and as wild as Cormac McCarthy gets, I don’t think you can dispute the fact that he gets at the core of American reality today (and human reality for forever) – he’s our best living writer, in my opinion. Is there, then, a recipe? No—as T.S. Eliot said of literary criticism—“the only method is to be very intelligent.” But, also, as a corollary—try to be “religious” about something—invest your strength in a serious cause and not just in the sappy good feelings of Lowest Common Denominator inhuman humanism. If you can’t have some other religion—if you lack the zeal to put your talents at the service of Buddhism or Bolshevism or Creative Evolution— make Aestheticism your credo, at least. And, failing that, just try to be momentarily interesting every now and then.