(Un)Real city

Just been reading over yesterday’s post about Zola, and I realised that there’s an unstated assumption about the actual process of writing underlying it.

I don’t think that any writer pulls something from nothing. Rather, I think that the act of writing is an act of interpretation. Details of the world are pulled into fiction and made artificial. One component of that artificiality is the context that they’re given, a context that makes them part of a broader, truth-reflecting argument. Fiction makes truthful interpretation happen by stealing from and falsifying the world.

That process of re-contextualisation starts with observation, both direct and indirect. Direct observation means watching the world, listening to people talk, taking in the look and sound and touch of things. Indirect observation means reading and research; finding out about style, gathering content, understanding the possibilities of fiction, learning from those who’ve gone before you.

I can’t imagine writing happening without such a process. Zola, for example, combined direct observation of the people and places of Paris with in-depth reading and research about the modern times he lived in. He’s a Realist in part because he worked very hard to understand how his 19th century reality worked.

The thing is, seen this way, every good writer’s a realist. The most colourful fantasist; the most operatic science fiction writer; all build their fictions through the same careful process of engagement with the world and its products. Direct and indirect observation combined underpin all effective fiction, because fiction, being a mirror, needs this world to look at in order to create its reflection.

So yesterday I argued that Zola was really a fantasist; today, I’m arguing that fantasists are really realists. Both statements are equally true, and both point to the tension between the real and the unreal that lies at the heart of any decent piece of writing, regardless of genre or aesthetic intent.

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