In a previous post I referred to a discussion in the weblog s1ngularities:criticism in which John Updike was quoted as saying that in the U.S. "realism is kind of our thing." The quote was in reference to Donald Barthleme and his supposed decline in influence, but I've looked up the Salon interview in question (it's actually quite an old one, going back to the pubication of In the Beauty of the Lilies) and Updike had actually mentioned both Barthelme and John Barth, remarking, in full, that "There are fads in critical fashion, but a writer at his peril strays too far from realism. Especially in this country, where realism is kind of our thing. Writing that gives you the real texture of how things look and how people acted. At least there's something there beyond your self and your own wits to cling to, a certain selflessness amid the terrible egoism of a writer."
Updike doesn't necessarily speak contemptuously of either Barthleme or Barth, and if they were "out of fashion" in 1996, they are indeed even more so now. However, Updike's assertion that "realism is kind of our thing" is simply wrong. It can't stand up to an analysis of American literary history in any way.
I'm not sure that Updike's own fiction validates a statement like this one, in fact. Certainly his work represents an effort to give "the real texture of how things look and how people acted," but a number of his books defy the label "realism" in any meaningful sense of the term: The Centaur, The Coup, The Witches of Eastwick, Brazil, S, most recently Toward the End of Time. Furthermore, Updike's sinuous prose style is probably not what most people have in mind when they think of "realistic" storytelling.
Much of the most important American fiction fits more comfortably into the the category of "romance" than realism. (The term goes back to the medieval narrative form, and doesn't have any connection to the modern "romance novel.") Hawthorne famously set out the terms in which the romance is to be understood in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables: "When a writer calls his work a Romance. . .he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material"; this "latitude" allows him to present the "truth" of human experience "under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation" and to "manage his atmospherical medulm as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture."
Going back to the beginnings of American fiction, "romance" would thus encompass the work of Charles Brockden Brown (often identified as the first important American novelist), Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, much of Twain, the later Henry James, Faulkner, Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, Malamud, much of the later Roth, and, in my opinion, almost all of the writers called "postmodern." Of the "great" American writers, only Crane, the earlier James, Edith Wharton, Dreiser, Steinbeck and Hemingway could plausibly be called "realists." (And there are those who think the latter would more aptly be called a "symbolist" rather than a realist.) Currently the followers of Raymond Carver or Richard Yates might fit the description.
Perhaps it's just that the term "realism" gets tossed around much too lightly, used to signal other assumptions about what fiction ought to do: tell dramatic stories, create sympathetic characters, depict current social conditions, reflect "life" as most readers would recognize it. If so, I can't believe Updike actually thinks that this kind of "realism" is either fiction's "proper" mode or that most readers actually do prefer fiction that really, truly, tells the "truth" about human existence or the common lot of most people in our beloved U.S. of A. In my somewhat jaded opinion, most readers still want "escapist" literature--to the extent they want literature at all--that nevertheless doesn't stray too far from ordinary experience. American "literary" writers have really never provided them with this, so the test of how many people are reading a given writer at a certain time is wholly irrelevant.
Having said all this, I like much realist fiction perfectly well. Flaubert is a great writer, as is Chekhov, as is James, as is, in a much different way, Thomas Hardy. If the complaint is that current writers don't write like these folks, well, few writers could. If it's that writers like Bartheleme or Barth don't write conventional narratives with "real" people and identifiable "themes," then it's really a complaint that serious fiction doesn't remain static and hidebound. This is not Updike's complaint, but it's one I hear often enough.
For a much fuller treatment of the romance tradition I've sketched out here, see Richard Chase's The American Novel and Its Tradition, one of the books I listed in a previous post ("On Reserve") as among the ten critical works with which all serious readers should be familiar. That such books have fallen into obscurity is itself perhaps one of the reasons many people misunderstand what the history of American literature actually shows us--and thus what many contemporary writers are actually up to.