In ‘Mythologies’, Barthes notes – ‘it is well known how often our ‘realistic’ literature is mythical (if only as a crude myth of realism) and how our ‘literature of the unreal’ has at least the merit of being only slightly so’.
Elsewhere, M. John Harrison has pointed out that, as soon as you’ve got a spaceship or a dragon, you’re writing metafiction – fiction that’s very aware it’s unreal. That awareness effects the reader’s engagement with the whole, drawing attention again and again to the fact that they’re dealing with nothing more than some ink and some paper.
That would seem to run counter to Barthes’ defense of the unreal as the more real. But he’s getting at something deeper.
All fiction contains ideology. For example, the writer uses words to mimic people, has them behave in a certain way, and then punishes or rewards them – or at the very least, judges them – accordingly. The ideology of a given narrative lies in part in that authorial response to character, and by extension character action.
The metafictional status of the ‘literature of the unreal’ constantly reminds the reader that what he or she is reading is entirely constructed. It’s not a real world; it’s a rhetorical world, created (whether consciously or unconsciously) to articulate a given world view.
Contrasting the ‘literature of the unreal’ with ‘realistic’ literature reveals the flawed nature of the latter. It pretends to be an accurate recreation of reality but in reality – filtered in the same way through a set of authorial values – it’s as mythological as the fantastic. It exerts the same ideological pressure on the reader.
But it pretends not to; it pretends to be a world, rather than an interested representation of a world. It hides the subjective values it embodies, presenting them instead as objective truths. Opinion becomes an artefact – in Barthes’ terms, a myth.
Hence Barthes’ criticism of the ‘realistic’ as being more mythical than the fantastic. Unlike non-realist fiction, it pretends to be something it’s not; a real, objective world, rather than just ink on paper building subjectivity.