Reality’s a fantasy

Just finished Zola’s ‘L’Assomoir’ (‘The Drinking Den’), and once again been pondering the fantasy / reality gap. Zola saw himself as a Realist; closely allied with the Impressionists, he sought to create a prose equivalent to their vivid, journalistic depictions of everyday Parisian life.

Zola and the Impressionists broke cultural and aesthetic taboos, and both – in their day – were seen as exciting, dangerous artistic revolutionaries. But nowadays, both fit very easily into a very conservative view of how the arts work, and what they’re for. They’ve achieved a respectability that’s denied to genre fiction, of any kind.

That’s because of a very interesting shift. The argument for Realism has triumphed. To be perceived as having a serious moral purpose, art – and in particular writing – has to be seen to directly reflect reality. Zola’s work is now praised for the qualities that originally drove its condemnation.

And that creates problems for fantasists. Writing that makes no claim to direct realism immediately steps away from a key plank supporting critical approval. It doesn’t teach; it can’t improve; and so it’s not worthy of serious consideration. Ironically, the more fiction that a work is perceived to contain, the less it’s respected as fiction.

But such a view misses something very important. Zola writes fiction, and that makes him a fantasist too; and in that act of writing he shares very important motivations and goals with the best modern genre writers, the Moorcocks and the Mievilles, the Harrisons and the Peakes, and their peers.

First of all, there’s the fact of the fiction itself. ‘L’Assomoir’, for example, is a very built book, divided into thirteen chapters with a central turn in chapter seven, six chapters on either side mirroring each other in close and complex ways as its heroine Gervaise rises and then falls again. Throughout, imagery and action support this central, entirely artificial structure.

For all its claims to realism, ‘L’Assomoir’ is – like every other novel – an aestheticised, constructed fantasy of the world, not the thing itself. It’s built according to the writer’s need, to make a particular, more or less conscious argument. Zola summed up that argument very pithily: ‘Shut the drinking houses, open schools’.

If this were a conversation, it’s entirely possible that at this point someone would say – ‘But Al! Surely that disproves everything you’ve just said – because Zola is trying to create real change in the real world, whereas fantasists do their best to escape from it.’ And in response, I’d look at this person over my pint of Porter (because such conversations very often take place in pubs), and say:

Not at all. Any kind of writer – fantasist, realist, whatever else – is trying to create real change in the real world, using the inherently unreal tools of fiction. To read is to be changed. The word tells us that; its root comes from an old German verb, whose ‘original senses… are those of taking or giving counsel, taking charge, controlling.’

To read is to be counselled, to control information and at the same time to allow yourself to be controlled by it. Just like any other good writer, the best fantasists use that control to try and accomplish positive change in the reader and, by extension, in the world.

Michael Moorcock defined this kind of writing very precisely in a recent barnstorming Interzone editorial; the goal of such a writer is to ‘confront the present, rather than exemplify it’. He’s talking about writers like those above, like Ballard, Burroughs, Dick and others, but it’s a literary goal that I suspect Zola too would have heartily endorsed.

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