What is realism?
In America, it is often said that great writing captures the world with a “journalistic eye”. That is, the very best writers copy the world in exact detail. They study patterns of speech, construct naturalistic backgrounds for their stories and painstakingly describe environments and characters. All of this is to ensure that their work is “believable”, which is to say that it is “realistic”. The goal is to create characters and stories that are unsentimental, that are not idealized; to show the world as it is. Every type of fiction—written or filmed—has been influenced by this goal, from standard literary fiction to Game of Thrones.
But what, exactly, does it mean to show the world as it is? What is the difference between real and artificial portrayal? This distinction, to which we appeal so readily, is far less clear than we imagine. Supposedly we can point to the difference in realism between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Rabbit, Run. Yet, both works are fictional; non-real. Can one non-real work be more real than another? And what counts as real, anyway? If we are to understand realism, these questions must be answered.
Plot structure all the way down
Exactly one year ago, we posted an article that compared the Western three-act plot to the Japanese and Chinese kishōtenketsu. Its popularity surpassed our most ambitious expectations; and it spread widely. Although it is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of those who contributed to the article’s success, a few high-profile examples are Brian Michael Bendis, Scientific American and Kelly Sue DeConnick. But, despite the buzz surrounding it, the article left questions unanswered and paths unexplored. More remains to be said. One year later, then, we have decided to revisit the subjects of kishōtenketsu, the three-act plot and the significance of plot without conflict.
“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ — as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.”
Taken from “On Fairy-Stories” (1939) by J. R. R. Tolkien.
breathinginsilence asked: hello! I was wondering if you have any examples of books/tv/films that play out with a Kishōtenketsu narrative?
Thanks for your interest. We have received this question several times, but we have answered it publically only once. As we said then, a few examples would be Makoto Shinkai’s She and Her Cat and the shorts within Kunio Kato’s The Diary of Tortov Roddle. A longer-form example would be the first episode of the anime series Allison & Lillia.
At the beginning of the episode, we are introduced to the protagonists Allison and Will; and details about the setting are revealed. These elements are developed in an undirected manner until the third act, when Allison and Will meet an old man who tells them a secret and is then kidnapped. In the fourth and final act, Allison and Will set off to rescue the old man.
Another example would be our writer’s story Unknowable, which was published in Gone Lawn last year. In the first act, a general setting is sketched out, the protagonist and his companions are introduced and a woman appears. The second act tells us more about the protagonist and his surreal, lonely condition, and the woman buys him a meal. A stranger arrives and he and the woman leave together during the third act. In the final act, the protagonist finishes eating and wanders off by himself, which shows the result of the third act’s interruption.
Obviously, there is strife in these scenarios; but it is not uncommon for kishōtenketsu-based stories to contain strife. It simply is not required, and it may be included or excluded at the writer’s discretion. Kishōtenketsu can be used in everything from a war movie to a conflict-free slice-of-life story.
If you are interested in finding other modern examples of kishōtenketsu, you might consider watching anime films or TV shows while paying attention to their structures. The three-act plot is gaining popularity in Japan, but kishōtenketsu is still used regularly.
We hope this was helpful.
greengang asked: After reading your most recent article, I have a few questions (though I'm having trouble putting them into words). Is highly crafted/symbolically dense plot insincere? Is it possible to judge a piece of writing based on how "sincere" it is and how does one disconnect this from judging how the authors lived their lives? What reason is there to return to a text that eschews density/one that one can conclude is the personal experience of the author?
Thanks for your interest. First, it must be emphasized that symbolism, in itself, was not our writer’s complaint. Symbolism is one element of the obsession with subtext in general (what Saul Bellow refers to as “deep reading”), which also includes themes, ironic discrepancies, authorial intentions and other things. In his essay, Bellow argues that there is a distinction between symbolism and deep reading: one does not necessarily entail the other. With deep reading, as Bellow says, “Things are not what they seem.” Sincerity is the alignment of statement and meaning; and so deep reading (or deep writing) must necessarily be insincere.
This is not the case with what Bellow calls a “true symbol”, such as “the handkerchief from Othello”, and, we presume, the skull of Yorick from Hamlet. Deep reading devalues the surface by making it secondary to subtext, while a true symbol, one might surmise, expands the surface. The symbolism of Yorick’s skull creates no disconnect between the bare facts of the play and their “meaning”, but rather adds a flourish to the surface: Yorick is dead; Hamlet ponders death; Yorick’s skull, in all of its particularity, is a symbol of death.
Ernest Hemingway, another American Nobel laureate, expressed related ideas in a 1954 article published by Time:
In the past, hardly anyone ever suspected Hemingway novels of symbolism. Then, in The Old Man and the Sea, people saw symbols—the old man stood for man’s dignity, the big fish embodied nature, the sharks symbolized evil (or maybe just the critics).
"No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in," says Hemingway. "That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better." He opens two bottles of beer and continues: "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks.
But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”
A rich, even exaggerated (“truer than true”) surface is the most meaningful thing. The Old Man and the Sea is meaningful for the very reason that it rejects “meaning”, which is to say the kind of meaning found in subtext.
As for your second question, no connection exists between judging an author’s life and judging the sincerity of their writing. A work of fiction is sincere if its contents are allowed to be themselves. If fiction is about surface, then it is not necessary to refer to subtext—including the author’s intentions—to determine a work’s sincerity. This is because it makes no sense at all to ask what Hemingway, for instance, meant when he wrote about the Old Man. His fiction is about the surface: its ”meaning” is nothing other than the events themselves and the feelings that they inspire in the reader.
Finally, the purpose of “A new beginning for American literature” was not to lobby for the death of density and the revival of autobiographical fiction. Both of these things are happening already. The idea was to ask for a return to true density—the kind offered by particularity. The fiction that relies most on subtext is, in fact, the shallowest. As Bellow writes, “Still the knowledge of even the sophisticated is rather thin, and even the most wised-up devils, stuffed to the ears with arcana, turned out to be fairly simple.” Bellow and Hemingway, not John Updike and those like him, were the ones who wrote dense books.