Why “Realism”…Isn’t

Today’s Throwback Thursday is one of my more-popular Superversive posts:

Subversive Literary Movement

Today’s post is a polished reprint of a post I did several years ago. This subject came up in the comments of my last post, so it seemed topical.


Moments of Grace


Why “Realism” Isn’t

I have never liked dark, gritty, ‘realistic’ stories—the kind that are unrelentingly grim. The kind where there’s no hope, everything is covered in dirt, and terrible things are happening one on top of another like a stack of pancakes. (Sometimes, these stories have a lot of blood or sex, sometimes not.)

For a long time, I could not put my finger on why.

Friends would say, “Oh, I understand, they are too dark for you.” Or “They don’t bother me, I don’t find them scary.” But that did not seem to put into words the impression I suffered when reading/watching such stories.

I wasn’t scared. Something else was wrong.

Oddly, it was a funeral that finally solved the mystery for me.

It was a few years ago. A friend’s father-in-law had died. It was a very sad thing. She had never known her own parents, and her upbringing had been difficult. This man had stepped in and become the father she had never had. His passing devastated her and shook her family. It was as if they lost a mainstay that kept them going. On top of this, they had new responsibilities. They needed to take care of an ill mother-in-law, for whom the father-in-law had been caring.

I was not able to attend the funeral, as I was out of town. What I remember was the looks on the faces of the people who had attended. When they talked about this man, light would fill their eyes. Again and again, I heard how they had not realized, until the funeral, how wonderful this man had been, what an amazing person and father he had been.

This death was a terrible and sad thing, but it touched their lives and brought to them an awareness of something greater. It brought a moment of grace.

I have read stories of soldiers in the battlefield suffering terrible conditions, yet often these stories are accompanied by someone rising above their ordinary circumstance to do something generous, something caring, something brave. Sometimes these events are extraordinary, but not always. Sometimes these are small things…but they are small things that stick in the minds of those who experience them.

Small things that make a difference.

What is missing from dark, “realistic” stories, in my humble opinion, are moments of grace – those precious moments when we see the silver lining of Heaven shining against the clouds of despair.

In real life, when things get bad, that is when we are called upon to rise beyond our narrow view of ourselves and exhibit something more.  In real life, we can always find signs of hope, if one is willing to look. What I don’t like about dark, “realistic” works is that they are stories about people who are not willing to look for hope, and that strikes me as unrealistic.



  • Funny, I was thinking of this post when reading about Lepanto, where Don Juan, commander of the Catholic fleet, was more dashing and heroic than anything a writer could make up. And he was very real. Imagine writing a story where a 24 year old kid gets put in charge of a badly outnumbered force charged with saving an entire civilization – and not only does it, but with style! That’s real, baby! Then, he gives his share of the spoils to those who had been wounded, and deflects all praise to his men. Wow. I’m sure there were a thousand act of great heroism that terrible day – but it helps to be lead by such a one.

  • Karl Gallagher

    I’ve always found those kinds of “realistic” stories unrealistic in that they show much destruction and hardly any construction. If that was a “realistic” look at things the cast of Game of Thrones would be standing in fields of rubble instead of soaring castles.

  • I don’t know if it’s necessarily realism that some of these readers seek. I have come across more than a few who are actively looking for darkness in their stories, including intentionally unhappy endings. One theory I’ve seen is that people who have never experienced truly dark periods in their lives want to do so vicariously through stories, but I don’t know if it quite covers it. The reverse seems to be true, though. I often see friends on social media saying they want to read “happy” stories because real life has been difficult.

  • The problem with Realism is that isn’t realistic.