Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, LITERATURE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 19 August 2017

Twenty-First-Century Realism

Summary and Keywords

Realism has a bad reputation in contemporary times. Generally thought to be an outdated mode that had its heyday in Victorian fiction, the French bourgeois novel, and pre-revolutionary Russian literature, literary histories tend to locate realism’s timely end in the ferment of interwar modernism and the rise of the avant-garde. Outside of the West, realism might be said to have met an even worse fate, as it was a mode explicitly presented to colonized societies as a vehicle of modernity, in opposition to what were deemed the poetic excesses, irrational temporalities, and/or oral-storytelling influences of indigenous literature. Yet despite this sense of realism’s outdatedness and political conservatism, the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century has witnessed, across a wide range of literature and cultural production, what might be seen as a return to realism, not simply as a resistance to today’s new culture of heterogeneity and digitization but as a new way of imagining literary and political futures in a world increasingly lacking the clear-cut lines along which politics, history, and capitalism can be imagined. The arc of 21st-century realism can be seen through contemporary debates around the term, suggesting that considering 21st-century realism not as a residual mode or grouping of texts but as a particular perspective on literary futures—as the coming together, for instance, of unresolved and newer conflicts over relations of power and the politics of knowledge—offers a different story of global form making.

Keywords: realism, 21st-century literature, postcolonial literatures, global modernism, 20th-century literature

Realism has a bad reputation in contemporary times. Generally thought to be an outdated mode that had its heyday in Victorian fiction, the French bourgeois novel, and the “semi-feudal” novels of pre-revolutionary Russia,1 literary histories tend to locate realism’s timely end in the ferment of interwar modernism and the rise of the avant-garde. In such accounts, realism lost its standing following World War II, with the rise of postmodernism and its interest in the play of language, mistrust of narrative, and self-reflexivity that positioned it in contrast to the naive transparency of 19th-century realism. The influence of post-structuralist theory2 and deconstruction further made realism a ripe source from which to expose the precarious disciplinary practices of 19th-century modernity and has made realism more a laboratory for exposing how literature works alongside social normalization than as a productive mode involved in delineating new political imaginaries.

Beyond the West, realism might be said to have met even a worse fate, as it was a mode explicitly presented to colonized societies as a vehicle of modernity, in opposition to what were deemed the poetic excesses, irrational temporalities, and/or oral-storytelling influences of indigenous literatures. In India, one of the first realist novels was written by Lal Behari Day, a missionary who sought to inhabit a European subjectivity by writing a staid description of Indian village life from the perspective of an all-seeing narrator seemingly absent of voice or judgment.3 Day’s Bengal Peasant Life (1878) epitomized the failure of realism to resonate with the Indian imagination and exposed it entirely as a foreign import. This is an accusation from which, it might be argued, the Indian novel has never recovered, so that a Hindu mythical novel like Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) or a rambling epic-like Midnight’s Children (1981) are considered greater works than the “nationalist realism” of Mulk Raj Anand or Premchand4 or the gritty and occasionally crass realism of Aravind Adiga. While an early Nigerian novel like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) demonstrates some realist elements, postcolonial critics have repeatedly made the case for its highly mediated, symbolic, and even modernist quality.5 This is because in Africa in particular, realism was associated with a de-aestheticized verisimilitude that bound the novel closely to “other non-literary discourses”6 such as ethnography, documentary, and reportage. The goal of the novel, from this colonial perspective, was “to yield reflections of Africa … [to] record … an ‘African’ reality that comes without mediation.”7 In response to this reductive reading of the novel as ethnography, postcolonial critics have been understandably skeptical of realism—but with the result that, as Susan Andrade writes, “the literary critical pendulum has now swung violently: anti-mimeticism is valued more than mimeticism.”8 Thus although a range of realist novels have been written in the postcolonies over the last several decades, Day’s staid realism and its ethnographic impulse, on the one hand, and Rao’s and Achebe’s attempts to indigenize the novel, on the other, have established a paradigm in postcolonial literary criticism, in which, turning on its head the conventional wisdom of colonial criticism, the more realist a work the less authentic it is seen to be, and vice versa.

These criticisms of realism, combined with the charisma of global modernism9 extending from the center to the peripheries, has meant that many critics have been more than ready, by the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, to write realism’s eulogy as an outdated mode unequipped to accommodate the vagaries of late capitalism, globalization, new digital imaginaries, and the rapid movement of ideas, people, and things. The democratization and simultaneous commodification of literary cultures, the end of official political colonization and the rise of a more insidious neocolonialism, the proliferation of movements for social justice, increasing social inequality due to the unlimited expanse of capitalism, the growth of a massive middle class in the former colonies, the real and perceived threats to Western power from emerging markets, the growth of transnational political movements and the so-called war on terror, queer politics and the queering of politics, and the communicative possibilities engendered by the internet and social media, along with many other factors, seem to have rendered realism irrelevant, insofar as it is assumed to be a humanist and transparent mode associated with the circumscribed bourgeois democracy of the 19th century.

Yet despite this perception, the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century has witnessed, across a wide range of literature and cultural production, what might be seen as a return to realism, not simply as a resistance or conservative response to this new culture of heterogeneity and digitization but as a new way of imagining literary and political futures in a world increasingly lacking the clear-cut lines along which politics, history, and capitalism can be imagined. The new realism is shaped in part by global capitalism, which breaks down some walls and erects other ones, but also serves as a means of imagining new futures outside of it. It thus eludes the divide between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic literatures. It returns to some of the epistemological and political questions asked by earlier realist writers even while it reflects the new conditions in its form. Thus 21st-century realism is not a finished mode, but one perennially in progress. Its interest in political representation, on the one hand, is contradicted with epistemological uncertainty, on the other. Thus it is able to shed new light on these questions: What is the relationship of literature to a world defined both by connectivity and fragmentation? Where, in literature, is the space of the political? What is the status of knowledge in the digital age? What is the fate of humanity in an age of rampant global capitalism? How have the emergence of third worlds within the first, and first worlds within the third, changed how we imagine the globe? What are the new political relations that bear the traces of colonialism but are marked by transformed power relations?

The category of 21st-century realism itself—one that inherently defies the logic of a progressive literary history (in which realism is displaced by modernism)—allows us to begin to dismantle some of the long-standing boundaries along which literary studies have been structured for so long: between realism and modernism, form and aesthetics, politics and genre, high and “low” literature, first and third worlds (or center and periphery), and between what is considered the Anglo-American tradition and the Anglophone. Considering 21st-century realism not as a residual mode or grouping of texts but as a particular perspective on literary futures—as the coming together, for instance, of unresolved and newer conflicts over relations of power and the politics of knowledge—offers a different story of global form making.

To focus on realist fiction, not out of some claim that fiction is realism’s most apt vehicle, but precisely the opposite, suggests that because realist fiction contains an inbuilt paradox, it is a designation in which the term “realism” sits with perhaps the greatest unease or instability, in a way it does not in, say, realist documentary film or nonfiction writing. This unease is at the heart of the problem of realism itself as a conceptual and formal category—and thus where it is most evident it is, ironically, most characteristic of realism as a whole. Thus the 21st-century realist novel functions as a problematic that can be used more generally across genres and media.

The Two Paths of Realism

Novelist Zadie Smith has been at the center of a series of recent debates around realism; indeed, as a figure who is both British and postcolonial, a fiction writer and theorist, and who experiments with different forms of writing that might variously be seen as modernist, postmodernist, and realist, Smith’s hybrid persona makes her an apt emblem for both the problem of realism and its potential future in the 21st century. Her interest in realism not as a fixed category but as an experimental mode exemplifies the possibility embedded in the term even while remaining cognizant of the contradictory ways in which it circulates globally today.

Conservative literary critic James Wood coined the term “hysterical realism” in 2001 as part of a largely negative review of Smith’s novel White Teeth (2001)—a term that represents Wood’s sense that 21st-century literature no longer offers an authentic experience of human character but presents instead an onslaught of connections and connectivities, a frenzy of relations without content among words, things, and ideas. Along with Smith, he criticizes Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace for the same problem. “The big contemporary novel,” Wood writes, “is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity … Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked.” He finds such stories “unconvincing … precisely [because of] their very profusion, their relatedness.” He finds the emphasis on connections to be a “cover-up” for the lack of real human emotion: “Since the characters in these novels are not really alive, not fully human, their connectedness can only be insisted on … Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness.” The characters are “theatrical” and “caricature” rather than realistic or rounded. Thus “it is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful … Information has become the new character.”10

In a piece in the New York Review of Books called “Two Paths for the Novel,” Smith lays out a well-developed critique of the “lyrical realism” that Wood praises so highly, suggesting that the problem with that kind of realism is less its content—the value on humanness, character, and so on—than the fact that it comes to us already formed.11 She locates the problem with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), for instance, a novel that she identifies as an exemplum of this mode, in that “it seems perfectly done … It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis.” Netherland is “anxious” about its own status in a world increasingly skeptical of realism, of the bourgeois idea that “the self is a bottomless pool.” The novel fleetingly registers the outdatedness of this idea but wants to assert it nonetheless: “Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self.”12

Thus Netherland, according to Smith, tries to have its cake and eat it too, an endeavor that Wood appreciated in his own review of the novel, in which he praised O’Neill’s “attentive, rich prose about New York in crisis that, refreshingly, is not also prose in crisis: it’s not overwrought or solipsistic or puerile or sentimental, or otherwise straining to be noticed”—even as it “has a world-directed curiosity, an interest in marginal lives.”13 This seems an ideal balance for Wood: a novel that registers the sometimes confounding realities of the contemporary movement (“an interest in marginal lives”) but does not sacrifice its aesthetics to do so. For Smith, however, O’Neill’s project fails precisely because of the disjuncture between form and content. Netherland seeks to uphold a certain “literariness” but in doing so imagines the novel as something whose form precedes the realities it seeks to describe, and thus its contemporaneity is a ruse rather than an essential component. Birke and Butter sum this up usefully: “On the one hand, there is the conservative opinion that classic realism in the mould of the nineteenth century is the most adequate way to represent reality … On the other hand, there are those who think that art continually needs to develop new forms for an adequate representation of reality because the old forms become fossilized and our world itself continually changes.”14

What, then, is the task of 21st-century realism? Smith contrasts O’Neill’s novel with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a work that, Christopher Holmes writes, “deconstructs its own authenticity in order to open the text to counter modes of thinking, new incompossibles that cannot yet register on the level of structure.”15 Again, as Holmes suggests, Smith is less interested in this deconstructive conceit than in Remainder’s openness—suggesting that at the heart of the debate is not merely a contrast between realism and postmodernism but a renewed conception of the nature of the relationship between representation and reality. This has significant consequences for the meaning of form itself: form no longer functions as a preestablished reality but as something open to the vagaries of the contemporary—something fundamentally “unfinished.”16 21st-century realism, potentially—ideally—is the mode of this openness. It is not postmodernist, because it is receptive to the real conditions of the world it tries to represent, nor is it naively or nostalgically realist, because rather than hold a stable set of values as a response to the world, it refuses the formal closure characteristic of 19th-century realism in order to represent a reality constantly in flux, and as that reality gets stranger and more diffuse, the novel will change to represent it.

In this sense, 21st-century realism might be an entirely different creature from its 19th-century, bourgeois predecessor—or at least from the imagination of 19th-century realism dominant today. (Georg Lukács’s studies of Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy, by contrast, reveal much more openness and contemporaneity in their works17 than critics like Wood see, with his rather quaint investment in “human beings,” “human depth,” and “strong feeling.” Likewise, Fredric Jameson has shown how 19th-century realism is constituted not by an inherent form but by the dialectical pulls of récit and affect.18) 21st-century realism begins from the premise that the contemporary world is worth representing, but beyond that promises nothing. In this way, it frees itself from the reliance on predetermined aesthetic or formal criteria and makes the lack of those criteria precisely its asset, thus opening itself up to—and risking complicity with—the still unresolved questions of the contemporary world.

Realism from the Peripheries

Both Wood and Smith avoid direct references to the questions of race, gender, and global inequality, so that “lyrical” and “hysterical” realisms never quite fall along preestablished lines of identity. However, in suggesting that Netherland is “one of the most remarkable post-colonial books [he has] ever read,” Wood inadvertently highlights the political stakes of thinking about realism as a preestablished versus open form. If realism is to remain a fundamentally empathetic mode, bonding readers to their characters in moments of human connection, then how accommodating does such a mode remain to the vast heterogeneity of the world today—specifically, to writers who are not European, white, and male? How much does empathy preclude radical/racial alterity? Wood’s almost Habermasian rendering of realism, when seen from the perspective of difference, appears strikingly provincial, especially in a context in which, as Jed Esty and Colleen Lye argue, most of the new realist works being written today come from the global peripheries.19 What does peripheral realism offer the idea of 21st-century realism more generally? How might the category of 21st-century realism, reconsidered from the peripheries, begin to call into question terms such as empathy, character, and beauty in its bid to represent our current stage of global capitalism?

For one, the “hysterical realism” so dismissed by Wood, even when it originates in the West, often has a wide geographical reach and situates its characters in a network of global relations—what Caren Irr characterizes in the American context as “the geopolitical novel.”20 What appears as hysteria might alternatively be read as an inability to contain stories within conventional national boundaries—a much-needed recognition of the United States’s inextricable political and economic ties to the rest of the world. This broad geographical sweep is part of what Wood criticizes in his satirical rendering of the kind of story found in a typical contemporary novel: “Toby Awknotuby (that is, ‘To be or not to be’—ha!) … is introduced in London … then we will be swiftly told that he has a twin in Delhi … and that their mother belongs to a religious cult based … in the Orkney Islands, and that their father (who was born at the exact second that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima) has been a Hell’s Angel for the last thirteen years.”21 Wood scoffs at such globe spanning; yet from the perspective of a world in which the United States has always been known for its insularity, this type of global imaginary is a significant indicator of the gradual dissolution of first-world exceptionality in the novel—the 21st-century equivalent of immigrant writing, perhaps—in which we are forced to think about the relations between center and periphery anew. Thus we start to see startling similarities in the global imaginary of Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace, on the one hand, and Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Mohsin Hamid, Roberto Bolaño, and Kamila Shamsie, on the other.

At the same time, however, as some divides begin to dissolve, new ones take their place, and peripheral spaces now appear not only in the global south, but as pockets within nations and neighborhoods—products, among others, of the way capitalism intensifies inequality and racism in phenomena such as gated communities, ghettoes, and gentrification. It is very much in these new peripheries that 21st-century realisms are strongest. In a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly (MLQ), guest editors Jed Esty and Colleen Lye make the provocative case that the wholesale dismissal of realism within mainstream American literary criticism is in effect a silencing of peripheries new and old. They find that “the tendency to read against realism”22 has meant that attention has been paid to the modernist peripheral texts—by William Faulkner, Salman Rushdie, James Joyce, J. M. Coetzee, Franz Kafka—at the expense of alternative “genealogies of the global novel.”23 Movements such as progressive realism in India and experiments such as Richard Wright’s naturalist realism—just to name two—consciously sought to distinguish themselves from the legacy of Anglo-American modernism in order to fashion a political stance worthy of the anticolonial/antiracist project. The descendants of these political traditions can be found in many of today’s oppositional literary cultures, such as in the refashioning of autobiography in Dalit writing24 and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s use of the blog in her most recent novel Americanah.25 Critical emphasis on modernism obscures these important progressive genealogies.

The articles in MLQ show how “reading for realism” renders visible a range of political projects by women, minorities, the formerly colonized, and other marginalized subjects that might well have been obscured in the modernist lens. As Sharae Deckard writes of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, for example, “realist aesthetics are impurely intermingled with the irreal,” which “is crucial to the novel’s registration of the uneven structural relations of capitalist modernity.”26 And as Stephen Best notes regarding Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, the author develops a new relationship to the past that is predicated on its unknowability; whereas Beloved had sought “to ‘recover’ [death] for knowledge, as a means of articulating how the past structures our present,”27 A Mercy is structured over “failed scenes of address,”28 so that the novel “appears less invested in either unmasking or bearing witness to historical trauma and more in … building a set of ‘defenses against being read,’ seeking no given assembly of hearers or readers, and repelling every approach.”29 In both cases, the authors invent realism anew to throw into relief the assumptions on which novelistic knowing itself relies. Realism is retrieved out of the modernist accusation that it was merely a project of humanist empathy and reoriented toward contemporary concerns, suggesting that realism is a mode of potential alienation under a capitalist regime.30

The very notion of the peripheral gets transformed in the course of these and other such texts, showing how far we have come from Lal Behari Day and the postcolonial mistrust of realism as a colonial ideology in aesthetic guise. Once realism is shorn of its predetermined aesthetics, it is able to shed light on the unfinished project of capitalist modernity. Postcolonial criticism’s overwhelming emphasis on 20th-century modernism, magical realism, and other forms of aesthetic dissent overlooks this self-reflexive quality of realism. Recent realism is taking this critique even further. As 21st-century realisms proliferate, the project of aesthetic sanctification embarked upon by critics such as Wood seems less viable than ever.

Realism and the Contemporary

If realism is an open, receptive mode, one that calls into question the solidity of form itself, then what new insights do we gain into the local problems and manifestations of contemporary capitalism? In the United States, Adam Kelly argues, we have the birth of a “new sincerity” that self-consciously rewrites postmodernist irony as the search for authenticity while being acutely aware of the impossibility of “returning to” an earlier and more authentic age.31 U.S. ethnic fiction is marked by what Ramón Saldívar calls “speculative realism,” which “represents a new stage in American fiction, racial politics, and the aesthetics of its symbolization.”32 In Germany, we have seen a return to political themes in the novel with a focus on pressing contemporary issues such as refugees and the recent financial crisis.33 But a place like India is a remarkable “periphery” from which to grasp the interlinked questions of capitalism and realism—terms that, as Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge write, are linked in a variety of ways.34 Both capitalism and realism were brought to India in the 19th century as normative values that were to be part of an overall rationalization of society determined by colonialism.35 During the rise of the anticolonial nationalist movement, realism began to be increasingly associated with socialism, influenced by the Soviet model, and capitalism was increasingly marginalized as un-Indian. The skepticism around capitalism continued even as realism began to lose its appeal and a generation of diasporic writers, spearheaded by Salman Rushdie, brought global modernism to India. But things have changed with the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s and the expansion of the middle class and the Indian publishing industry. Not only has capitalism lost its aura of fear, but new spaces of dissent have opened up that exist in partial complicity with capitalism. The rise of a new realism is thus constitutively paradoxical: both a product of capitalism and a space of dissent within it, it is positioned to track capitalism’s ambivalent pathways in India.

The criss-crossing fates of capitalism and realism in India preclude any easy analysis of this current phenomenon. Far from realism simply reflecting the impact of global capitalism on contemporary Indian society, we can see how the form has been used—at times dramatically bent and reshaped—to rethink realism’s political and epistemological conventions anew from the perspective of local transformations. Thus we seem to be at the crossroads of a new literary culture, one that at least partially transcends the postcolonial, a literary mode that reached its height in the 1980s and 1990s. This new literary culture, very much a 21st-century realism, forges a new relationship between the novel and the complex, transnational world it attempts to represent.

An example of this is Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008), possibly the first Indian novel to represent the contemporary, post-liberalization moment as an aesthetic (or in this case, aesthetically unappealing) phenomenon. The novel is set in the present and written as a set of letters from its protagonist, Balram Halwai, to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier. This epistolary structure strips the novel of its conventional distance and makes its realism immediate. Each chapter, for instance, ends on an open temporality repeatedly verging on the now: “That was at 11:37 p.m. Five minutes ago”;36 “It is a little before midnight now, Mr. Jiabao. A good time for me to talk”;37 “11:52 p.m.—and it really is time to start”;38 “That is all for tonight, Mr. Premier. It’s not yet three a.m., but I’ve got to end here, sir.”39 These moments of novelistic rupture threaten to overreach the diegetic space of the novel and impact the life of its assumed upper-middle-class reader as well, in the form of a potential threat of violence from her own employees (whom, the novel suggests, she likely mistreats). This perceived threat ironizes Balram’s rags-to-riches parable. He begins as a lowly tea-stall waiter in Bihar and through a combination of wiliness and luck manages to acquire a job as the “number two driver”40 in Delhi for a foreign-returned businessman from a feudal family. His relationship with his boss becomes increasingly complex as Balram, with his organic intelligence, begins to ask questions about the relationship between the rich and the poor in India. He begins to see his boss as a sort of doppelganger, and he makes small changes in his routine and dress in an attempt to remake himself in the image of the “new India.” Finally, he murders his boss and takes on his identity, becoming the ultimate “entrepreneur”:41 literally, by starting a business of his own in Bangalore, and metaphorically, by taking his destiny into his own hands. Although seemingly successful in his social mobility, Balram’s story is undercut with violence that also manifests itself at the level of form.

Indeed, the novel presents Balram’s vision of the world as a crude one, hardened by life experience and jaded with the failed history of India’s elitist experiment with cosmopolitanism: “Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people,” Balram tells Wen Jiabao in his first letter, “and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.”42 At times, Adiga hints at the demise of language itself in the service of representing the “new India,” for instance in Balram’s claim that “Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English,”43 or in his repeated use of the expletive “What a fucking joke44 as a stand-in for complexities that cannot otherwise be conveyed.

How different is this 21st-century realism from that of another Indian novelist of capitalism, Amitav Ghosh, whose recent Ibis trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015), trace a web of financial and cultural interconnections across the Indian Ocean in the late 19th century. Critics of Adiga contrast him unfavorably with Ghosh, whom they see as offering a literary sensibility that enables a complex consideration of the nature of capitalism—both the pressure it puts on humanness and the possibilities it engenders for new subjectivities. The Ibis trilogy shows not only that capitalism was exploitative, but that new relationships were fostered in the ebbs and flows of international trade and travel and in the process of fortunes being made and lost. The ship becomes a crucible of new selves and communities formed in transit. If there is a problem with capitalism, it is that it is too willing a victim of its own ideology of unceasing growth and thus ends up destroying the precarious freedoms it engenders. But Ghosh’s realism, unlike Adiga’s, is at odds with the cutthroat capitalism he describes; his literary sensibility remains untouched by it. Even empire cannot destroy the pleasures of human eccentricity that Ghosh’s prose lays bare. All characters are flawed but empathetic, and Flood of Fire’s extended discussion of onanism, otherwise irrelevant for the plot, manages never to be crude.45 Adiga, by contrast, turns the society’s obsession with money into a feature of realism itself; the novel is not apart from the desire, aspiration, and greed it describes but is a product of these most crude human impulses in its lack of empathy, the cold-blooded murder that lies at its heart, and its grotesque imagery. When Balram is deciding whether he should kill his master, he imagines a pro-and-con chart to appear in an oozing puddle of paan expectorate in the middle of the road.46 The chart, reproduced on the page, is simultaneously a moment of utter clarity, where Balram understands his lack of options in an oppressive social system, and of utter madness, where the spit puddles become the voice of reason. The coincidence of conceptual clarity on one hand and the breakdown of novelistic form on the other are the mark of 21st-century realism.

R. Raja Rao’s 2015 novel Lady Lolita’s Lover is another text that puts pressure on the normative assumptions of realism in order to offer a new account of contemporary India. The novel is inevitably read in the shadow of Rao’s 2003 novel The Boyfriend, which is considered India’s first gay novel. In contrast to The Boyfriend, Lady Lolita’s Lover has less focus and intensity, its story is somewhat haphazard and built on coincidences, the characters are hard to relate to, the ending is surprisingly utopic, it seems scattered with references and citations whose significance is not always clear, and the narrative is marred by several perspectival and location shifts that weaken the story’s impact. But from the perspective of 21st-century realism, these aesthetic breaks and deviations allow Lady Lolita’s Lover to experiment with the queering of realism, mounting a critique of the humanist impulse with which the mode has historically been associated, even while it brings to light the largely unrepresented world of Mumbai’s gay subcultures.47

Why present gay Bombay as a pastiche of references from elsewhere? The novel’s excess of references seems to refuse interpretation, even as it makes a political assertion. The title, for instance, is a combination of two well-known novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita. Its story of Lolita’s transgressive, cross-class affair with an underage lover begins to explain the two individual references, but not why they are combined into one slightly unwieldy alliterative phrase; this is a puzzle that Rao never allows us to solve. Moreover, in the second half, when Sandesh moves in with the wealthy queer lawyer Jeevan Reddy, he learns about the gay movement mostly through quotations from other texts. In an attempt to teach Sandesh about the problems faced by gay-marriage advocates, for instance, Reddy quotes three extended passages from Ruth Vanita’s Love’s Rite, which, we read, “JR regarded as more significant than the New Testament.”48 Reddy also quotes a line from Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, a seminal novel in South Asian gay writing. But perhaps the strangest reference comes earlier in the novel, when Rao quotes two extended passages from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to describe Sandesh’s injuries resulting from a fight he had with his lover’s husband. This quoted text of over 120 words taken from a description by another Indian author to represent a scene in Rao’s own novel is, at first glance, baffling. It is presented without any irony or metafictional intent, but rather introduced with the somewhat clumsy phrase “If Lolita turned to page 310 of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy … the following passage, hyperbolically, would apply to her lover.” Some reviewers have read this extended citation as a sign of bad writing, but we might interpret it alternatively as a provocation on form—a queering of the Indian novel in English, and indeed of realism as a whole. Rao’s queer novels radically juxtapose disgust and desire, pleasure and squalor, love and debasement to question historicist accounts of the contemporary (i.e., as simply progress from the past), even as they assert queer desire as legitimate. Rather than use realism to invoke supposedly universal themes such as desire, love, and beauty in an attempt to empower the gay subject, Rao bends realism—in this case via a non-ironic version of a citational pastiche—to queer those themes and to rewrite the Indian novel as partial and contemporary rather than, as Roy’s novel was, fully or beautifully formed. In a passage in The Boyfriend, the protagonist’s mother is looking through his bookshelves for something to read, but only finds Midnight’s Children and In an Antique Land, two novels “that lulled her to sleep.”49 In the context of the queer contemporary, this is less a criticism of the two books specifically than a jab at the lyricism of the postcolonial novel more generally. From this perspective, the long quotes from Roy reflect not an exhaustion of Rao’s authorial capacity, but a critique of postcolonial aesthetics, so that the very ideas of humanity, beauty, and empathy are exposed as false right at the moment when queer desire is represented in the Indian English novel. Like The White Tiger, the experience of reading this is uncomfortable and at times even unpleasant. But both novels demonstrate what we might call a reconstructive deconstruction of realism, suggesting, not unlike Zadie Smith, that this might be the only way the form can be reborn in the 21st century.

Adiga and Rao are only two examples, but their works demonstrate the potential for 21st-century realism to work as political texts even while questioning the epistemological assumptions of more traditional realism. The works mentioned are two of the numerous 21st-century novels from around the world that rewrite realism as an open and contemporary mode. They suggest a new periodization of contemporary literature across national boundaries—one that is receptive to the transnational reality of the contemporary age while still attending to new forms of peripheralization. These novels both mobilize the longer history of a politicized realism from the global peripheries50 and simultaneously free themselves from the constraints of genre, and thus open new possibilities for what it might mean to write politically in the 21st century. They are tied to new forms of capitalism but not subsumed by them. They refuse a predetermined idea of the literary, instead offering new aesthetic experiences that reflect and imagine alternatives to the ambivalent nature of lived capitalism. But as such, they remain unfinished. It is this dialectical struggle between openness and form that marks the realism of the contemporary.

Review of the Literature

There has been a steady resurgence in scholarship on 21st-century realism, although it is still a small field, with most scholars of contemporary fiction interested in its modernist or postmodernist qualities. Notable are two special journal issues, one of Modern Language Quarterly from 2012 titled “Peripheral Realisms” and one of Novel in 2016 titled “Worlding Realisms,” which contain articles by scholars from a range of geographic specializations that attempt to theorize contemporary realism in a global context. Jed Esty and Colleen Lye do a particularly impressive job of laying out the problematic terrain of realism in the present.

A few trends are visible in these newer writings. There are theorists of realism who take their cue from Georg Lukács, even if they criticize his limitations. Susan Andrade considers the political possibilities of naturalism in African literature,51 in opposition to Lukács’s wholesale criticism of naturalism as a superficial, bourgeois mode. Eli Park Sorensen theorizes character types and totality in postcolonial realism, based on a close reading of Theory of the Novel.52 In my own work I consider how Lukács’s interest in writers on the European periphery, such as E. T. A. Hoffman and Tolstoy, might allow for a broadened understanding of what realism is outside the West.53 Other theorists are more interested in realism as a way of imagining totality in a world in which lines of connectivity have been unsettled by global capitalism. Thus Sharae Deckard reads realism in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 as “the novel’s registration of the uneven structural relations of capitalist modernity.”54 Toral Gajarawala’s book takes a third approach, reading realism as an ethical imperative that writes the story of caste into the postcolonial and global literary epistemes.

Further Reading

Andrade, Susan Z. “The Problem of Realism and African Fiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42.2 (2009): 183–189.Find this resource:

Anjaria, Ulka. Realism in the Twentieth-Century Indian Novel: Colonial Difference and Literary Form. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Anjaria, Ulka. “Realist Hieroglyphics: Aravind Adiga and the New Social Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 61.1 (2015): 114–137.Find this resource:

Anjaria, Ulka. “The Realist Impulse and the Future of Postcoloniality.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 49.2 (forthcoming, 2016).Find this resource:

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard. 49–55. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Best, Stephen. “On Failing to Make the Past Present.” MLQ 73.3 (2012): 453–474.Find this resource:

Birke, Dorothee, and Stella Butter, eds. Realisms in Contemporary Culture: Theories, Politics, and Medial Configurations. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.Find this resource:

Deckard, Sharae. “Peripheral Realism, Millennial Capitalism, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.” MLQ 73.3 (2012): 351–372.Find this resource:

Esty, Jed. “Global Lukács.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42.3 (2009): 366–372.Find this resource:

Esty, Jed, and Colleen Lye. “Peripheral Realisms Now.” MLQ 73.3 (2012): 269–288.Find this resource:

Gajarawala, Toral Jatin. Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Holmes, Christopher. “The Novel’s Third Way: Zadie Smith’s ‘Hysterical Realism.’” In Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond, 141–153. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.Find this resource:

Jameson, Fredric. “Realism and Utopia in The Wire.” Criticism 52.3–4 (2010): 359–372.Find this resource:

Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso, 2013.Find this resource:

Kelly, Adam. “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction.” In Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. Edited by David Hering, 131–146. Los Angeles: Sideshow, 2010.Find this resource:

Lukács, Georg. Studies in European Realism. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.Find this resource:

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Quayson, Ato. “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It.” Research in African Literatures 25.4 (1994): 117–136.Find this resource:

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative 21.1 (2013): 1–18.Find this resource:

Shonkwiller, Alison, and Leigh Claire La Berge. “Introduction: A Theory of Capitalist Realism.” In Reading Capitalist Realism. Edited by Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge, 1–25. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013.Find this resource:


(1.) Georg Lukács, Studies in European Realism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), 138.

(2.) Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 49–55; Alain Robbe-Grillet, “From Realism to Reality,” in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (New York: Grove, 1965), 157–168.

(3.) Satya P. Mohanty, Introduction to Six Acres and a Third by Fakir Mohan Senapati (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 16–23.

(4.) Aamir Mufti, “A Greater Short-Story Writer Than God,” in Subaltern Studies XI: Community, Gender and Violence, eds. Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 11.

(5.) Simon Gikandi, “Preface: Modernism in the World,” Modernism/modernity 13.3 (2006), 420.

(6.) Ato Quayson, “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It,” Research in African Literatures 25.4 (1994), 119.

(7.) Quayson, 122.

(8.) Susan Z. Andrade, “The Problem of Realism and African Fiction,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42.2 (2009): 183.

(9.) Gikandi; Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Mark A. Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(10.) James Wood, “James Woods’ Classic Takedown of Faux-Dickensian ‘Hysterical Realism,’” The New Republic, July 24, 2000.

(11.) Christopher Holmes, “The Novel’s Third Way: Zadie Smith’s ‘Hysterical Realism,’” in Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 145.

(12.) Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 2008.

(13.) James Wood, “Beyond a Boundary,” New Yorker, May 26, 2008.

(14.) Dorothee Birke and Stella Butter, eds., Realisms in Contemporary Culture: Theories, Politics, and Medial Configurations (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 386.

(15.) Holmes, 151.

(16.) Holmes, 148.

(17.) Ulka Anjaria, Realism in the Twentieth-Century Indian Novel: Colonial Difference and Literary Form (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 8–12.

(18.) Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013).

(19.) Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, “Peripheral Realisms Now,” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (2012): 269–288.

(20.) Caren Irr, Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

(21.) Wood, “James Woods.”

(22.) Esty and Lye, 274.

(23.) Esty and Lye, 275.

(24.) Toral Jatin Gajarawala, Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

(25.) Ulka Anjaria, “The Realist Impulse and the Future of Postcoloniality,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 49.2 (2016): 278–294.

(26.) Sharae Deckard, “Peripheral Realism, Millennial Capitalism, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666,” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (2012): 351.

(27.) Stephen Best, “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (2012): 467.

(28.) Best, 468.

(29.) Best, 471.

(30.) Alex Woloch, The One vs. The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

(31.) Adam Kelly, “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” in Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, ed. David Hering (Los Angeles: Sideshow, 2010), 134.

(32.) Ramón Saldívar, “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative,” Narrative 21.1 (2013): 6.

(33.) Rainer Moritz, “Is German Fiction Returning to the Social Novel?Scroll, March 27, 2016.

(34.) Alison Shonkwiller and Leigh Claire La Berge, “Introduction: A Theory of Capitalist Realism,” in Reading Capitalist Realism, eds. Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013), 2–7.

(35.) Anjaria, Realism, 7.

(36.) Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (New York: Free Press, 2008), 3.

(37.) Adiga, 5.

(38.) Adiga, 7.

(39.) Adiga, 145. I have written more extensively about The White Tiger in Ulka Anjaria, “Realist Hieroglyphics: Aravind Adiga and the New Social Novel in India,” Modern Fiction Studies 61.1 (2015): 112–135. See especially pp. 117–118.

(40.) Adiga, 58.

(41.) Adiga, 1.

(42.) Adiga, 3–4.

(43.) Adiga, 1.

(44.) Adiga, 5.

(45.) I have written on this topic in Ulka Anjaria, “Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga: Two ways to write English in India,” Scroll, August 9, 2015.

(46.) Adiga, 210.

(47.) Portions of this section have been published in Ulka Anjaria, “Lady Lolita’s Lover shows us there can be no great Indian novel right now,” Scroll, January 30, 2016.

(48.) R. Raj Rao, Lady Lolita’s Lover (Noida: HarperCollins India, 2015).

(49.) R. Raj Rao, The Boyfriend (New Delhi: Penguin, 2003), 197.

(50.) Esty and Lye, 269.

(51.) Susan Andrade, “The Problem of Realism and African Fiction,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42.2 (2009): 183–189.

(52.) Eli Park Sorensen, Postcolonial Studies and the Literary: Theory, Interpretation, and the Novel (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

(53.) Ulka Anjaria, Realism in the Twentieth-Century Indian Novel: Colonial Difference and Literary Form (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(54.) Deckard, p. 351.