Terminology and Aesthetics
the Real and the Realistic

'nobody knows anything about the laws of fiction; or what its relation is to life; or to what effects it can lend itself. We can only trust our instincts'

Woolf, Virginia. 'The Art of Fiction'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, p. 53.

"Maximum verisimilitude" is frequently named as a key characteristic of literary realism, if not an actual definition of the genre.

what is verisimilitude?
Verisimilitude is an aesthetic effect, also known as technical realism. It is rarely limited to a single device or technique, but combines several in order to give the appearance of the real. Verisimilitude does not necessarily refer to or represent something real or concrete, but gives the appearance that it does, suggesting to the reader that what they are reading is "real" or could be "real".

In a literary context, we may say of a text that it is realistic if the sequence and manifestation of events are plausible. We may say of a text that it is real if we can relate to the characters or if the atmosphere transport us into the text's reality. We may remark on the realism of complex environmental description or social detail. All of these elements lend to an appearance of the real, the realistic, the likely, i.e. verisimilitude.

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what makes a genre?
Plausibility, relating to characters, atmosphere and verisimilitude are part of it, but not all. How do we differentiate between, say, a work of literary realism and a work of fantasy? How do we know which we are reading? As Roman Jakobson observes, 'No one will call Hoffmann's fantastic tales realistic', suggesting there must be denominators which help us identify the difference (45).

These denominators are the conventions and conceptual attitudes of the genre.

function of conventions
Reader-response theory identifies literary conventions as stylistic, thematic and/or conceptual markers, in the form of literary devices, motifs, and aesthetic effects, which function as the rules whereby a text is constructed and received. By familiarising ourselves with the different rules that apply to the different genres, and by knowing ourselves and examining our response to the text, we may know what we are reading. The text signals to us by means of its conventions what we may expect of it and how we are expected to interact with it. Without these conventions, we would have no referent of understanding and would be faced with potentially endless possibilities. The conventions reduce the possibilities and make reading possible (Iser 69).

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generation of verisimilitude
The appearance and sense of the real are generated by the aesthetic effects and conventions of a text, such as description, referent, and style. The realistic is likewise suggested by a text's conventions. Verisimilitude is, however, not exclusive to literary realism.

We may say of a fantasy novel that it feels real, because the author manages to convince us of the reality of the environment and characters that he or she has created. We may be convinced of the naturalness of events which we might otherwise deem improbable or fantastic. We may be thus convinced because the referents of a fantasy novel lie beyond the usual scope of accepted reality; we assimilate and accept this and the reality of the fantasy text. We identify that other rules apply to this particular reality. We adjust our expectations and our attitude to the text accordingly. The conventions of the text, such as referent, style and subject-matter, signal this to us, indicating both a textual and conceptual attitude, generating a response from us. The phrase "once upon a time", for example, is a classic stylistic marker which we are all acquainted with. It immediately triggers a set of expectations in us. Likewise a narrative which begins with 'The little town of Verrières is one of the prettiest in Franch-Comtè' (Stendhal 23) instantly provides us with a specific geographical and cultural frame of reference, i.e. a "real" place and time, and therebye invokes a different set of expectations.

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all fiction generates the real
One might also argue that all fiction generates the sense of the real. As Wolfgang Iser explains, the 'dynamic interaction between text and reader has the character of an event, which helps to create the impression that we are involved in something real' (67). Reading is 'a continual process of realization, and so reading itself "happens" like an event ... at one and the same time concrete and yet fluid' (68), like the experience of tangible, changeable reality. The more complex the inter-action is, the greater the sense of the real.

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cannot rely on verisimilitude
We can thus not depend on the appearance or sense of the real and the realistic as reliable nor exclusive indicators of the genre of literary realism. Literary realism makes use of verisimilitude, but it is a genre, which is so much more, a living idea that has fostered a specific form of literature, which is not just characterized by the appearance of the real, but by a wide range of conventions and attitudes, and which is constantly evolving.

In order to identify and appreciate literary realism, we must look at the relationship between literary realism and reality; its attitudes to its representation, and what genre-specific conventions it makes use of to indicate and represent it.

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On the following page, I will address the relationship between reality and fiction.

Works Cited

  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The John Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Jakobson, Roman. 'On Realism in Art'. Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Cambridge : The MIT Press, 1971, pp. 38-46.
  • Stendhal. Scarlet and Black. Translated by Margaret Shaw, Penguin Classics, 1953.
Suggested Further Reading

  • Barthes, Roland. 'The Reality Effect'. French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, edited by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by R. Carter, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 11-17.
  • Morris, Pam. Realism. Routledge, 2003.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown'. Collected Essays, vol. 1, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 319-337.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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