I'm mostly quite sympathetic to Jonathan Lethem's fulminations against the privileging of "realism" over other approaches to the writing of fiction:
. . .Fiction is a gigantic construction, a bauble. A novel is not life. That’s why it’s so pointless that this relentless baiting goes on, where ‘realist’ fiction is pitted against ‘anti-realist’ fiction as though one of the two has made some kind of commitment of integrity to be real, a responsibility the other has abdicated. Listen: every novel is a piece of wrought plastic. Readers may not wish to dwell on this fact, and I feel no necessity that they do, but writers, in order be intelligent about the innate properties of their medium, must come to grips with it. Fiction, like language, is innately artificial and innately fabulous. It’s made of metaphor. . .
Although his next assertion is more difficult to accept:
Language itself is a fantastic element. It’s not possible to plant words in the ground and have seeds grow up and feed on the results. It’s not part of the biological or mechanical world.
I understand the point Lethem is making--language in fiction and poetry is used for verbal creation, not for "reflecting" the "real world" in some unmediated way--but of course language is a part of the biological world. It's an innate capacity of the biological creature called a human being, and human beings use written language--which is an artifically constructed system, if not a "fantasitic element"--to among, other things, write novels. This is as "natural" a human activity as any other. What is required for works of literature to be accepted as the kind of distinctive activity their authors conceive them to be is for everyone involved--readers, critics, writers themselves--to acknowledge that in this particular instance, the exercise of the imagination we call fiction or poetry, language has a license to wander where it will, if necessary unmooring itself completely from the constraints of representing reality in its most familiar forms. This is a pragmatic move, not one demanded by the "innate" qualities of language (either as innately representational or "innately fabulous").
And I really can't agree with this, either, although again I understand Lethem's impatience with the critics he's referring to:
. . .When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations—which we’ll call ‘realism,’ for want of a handier term, though I’ll insist on the scare quotes—represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it’s a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it’s not a literary-critical operation. It’s a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond. When ‘realism’ is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you’re no longer in a literary-critical conversation; you’ve entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin. . . .
I don't believe that a preference for realism is the expression of a class bias. Perhaps there are times when "mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself," but these are more often occasions for ideological critics and hack journalists to express their own professional anxieties and intellectual limitations than deliberate attempts to shore up class boundaries. It's more often the case that particular critics, even critics who otherwise take literary criticism seriously, simply don't have much use for the notion that reading fiction should provide us with a specifically aesthetic experience (or don't have the ability to experience it that way). Instead, they view it as another way acquiring information, of gaining insight about "social conditions" or "culture" or "Mind," an opportunity to reflect on various and sundry ideas. Such critics disdain experiemental or irrealist fiction (or even just insistently comic fiction) because the farther one gets from realism conventionally defined, the harder it becomes to apply these critical methods.
Lethem is on firmer ground when he suggests that "Once you begin looking at the underlying premise—a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered—the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself." Confining what's acceptably literary to "realism" is an efficient way of dispensing with all those quarrelsome writers who break the rules, who think literary art is necessarily "impure" insofar as its possibilities are still being discovered. It keeps literature stagnant, which is effectively to destroy it.