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A Note on Realism


The realist novel, for reasons I’m still figuring out, gains in power from a certain excess and messiness. This is why Chekhov and Turgenev write excellent novels, but nothing on the level of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy; Chekhov, master of plays and short stories, is not a lesser writer, he’s just a lesser novelist—and he’s a lesser novelist because his novels aren’t messy enough. This goes against the conventional idea of “fine writing,” which exalts economy and precision, and regards V. S. Naipaul’s humorless, metaphor-poor restraint as a model of great English prose. I’ve tried to figure out why this is, why Melville trumps Hawthorne, why Joyce trumps Woolf, and in my opinion, it’s not a matter of size so much as inclusive messiness. I think this is because a good “clean” realist novel represents life, while a good “messy” realist novel, especially in the case of a writer like Tolstoy, actually replicates life. In the former kind of novel, you get a butterfly pinned to the paper; in the latter kind of novel, you get the meadow, sun, spring, and wings of your own to flit with.