The Moral Worlds of Contemporary Realism by Mary K. Holland; book review by Laurence Carr

When I read a book that I’m going to review for Lightwood, I often highlight lines or passages that I want to reference for our readers. As I read Mary K. Holland’s complex but rewarding book, ThMoral Worlds of Contemporary Realism, I found I was highlighting paragraph after paragraph and nearly entire pages until the book looked like a yellow-leafed maple tree in mid-October. The book traces literature’s explosion into post-modernism and its aftermath leading up to what many now call “contemporary” literature. It focuses primarily on fiction of the second half of the 20th century and into to our 21st and examines how writers have perceived reality in fiction and how literary reality has evolved throughout the decades. Dr. Holland’s commentary throughout is delivered in strong, thoughtful prose, with a smattering of acerbic wit. 

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            Holland’s book investigates time and space in modern literature through numerous works that explore “Quantum Realism” which plays with narrative’s language, form, structure and genre. The “quantum reality” of fiction may depend upon who is narrating, and there can be multiple narrators with multiple points of view creating simultaneous action. Post-modern and post-post-modern fiction (a term many hate) along with what is now called contemporary fiction is often not satisfied with exploring the “what” of the story (the linear plot) but addresses the “how” of the story—how the work is constructed and how the reader takes in the narrative which can be seen from different points of view. It might be akin to how we perceive light. The argument had been: Is light made up of particles or waves? And the cosmic answer is—both a particle and a wave depending upon the relationship of where the viewer is located.

            “Quantum Realism” can create a “now” in the reader’s mind—a constant present that stimulates the reader through its fracturing of time, space and multiple and shifting narrators. To illuminate her points, chapters focus on Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella; Story of Your Life from which the movie Arrival was based and Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being. One chapter, “Quantum Realism Case Study: On Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist”, is a deep dive into the DeLillo novel with the author’s manuscript pages of notes included. 

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            Much of what the book investigates is the idea of the “real” and “realism” in fiction and the shifting realities that a writer creates. Simply writing the words “real” and “reality” in quotes here may help the reader journey through Holland’s book. By no means is the book a psychological study, but it is one that examines the pathways that writers have taken during the evolving trends of fiction and how they explore new methods of storytelling. Many contemporary writers have moved on from the intellectually driven, sometimes rambling inner (some might say “navel-gazing) monologues that marked so much of post-modern novels. A new empathy and a connection with the reader has been established. To quote Holland speaking about Ted Chiang’s, Story of Your Life

“Rather than pointing to the loss of the real, the physics foundation of Chiang’s “Story” asserts that a real, measurable world that matters and is made of matter exists, quite apart from our or any other species’ ideas and equations . . . On the largest scale, “Story” also uses this quantum framework to demonstrate that empathy—sharing another’s feeling and point of view—is only possible when we are willing to see the world as others see it, and to speak their language, which is almost the same thing.”  (164)

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            Literary questions are presented: Must literature be a fixed form or does is change as culture and technology changes? How does a contemporary author frame a story? How is the world of the story created, and how do authors keep us engaged?  Is contemporary fiction investigating humanity’s moral center more than in works from the post-modern era? Mary K. Holland’s book opens new doors of literary thought that guides us through the challenging (and often complex) routes that contemporary fiction travels.

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            This book energized me; it kept me thinking about the nature of reality and how artists in all forms have tried to capture it. I want to view (or review) the dances of Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham: those who moved away from the dance narrative (Swan Lake; Romeo and Juliet) and created pieces powered by abstract human movement. I thought about my former days in NYC watching the theatre pieces of Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, of Richard Schechner  and The Performance Group (later The Wooster Group) among others, whose scripts fragmented both time and space, and formed new languages that melded the visual, sound, movement and text to create total theatre, and whose scripts if read on the page would appear more as outlines than “the well-made play.” The story was not shaped as old-fashioned narrative but was engineered by interior thoughts and dreams (collective and individual) with visuals serving as signposts moving us down new path created through the interplay of artists and viewer.

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            Near the beginning of her book, Mary K. Holland lists fiction “realisms” that have developed and been foisted upon readers throughout recent decades. I found this both insightful and amusing. It made me think of the visual art movements of the 20th century such as abstract expressionism, pop-art and op-art. And here in literature, we realize how critics and readers (and sometimes writers themselves) need to categorize or pigeon-hole forms of writing. Here is a sample of literary “realism” movements. And rest easy, there will not be a test.

British postmodern realism (Amy Elias, 1994)
Crackpotrealism (Melvin Jules Bukiet,1996, after Richard Powersin1988) zz Traumatic realism (Hal Foster, 1996)
Tragic realism (Jonathan Franzen, 1996)
Figural realism (Hayden White, 1999)
Hysterical realism (James Wood, 2000)
Meta-realism (Philip Tew, 2003)
Speculative realism (Ramón Saldivar, 2007)
Agential realism (Karan Barad, 2007)
Disquieting realism (Katarzyna Beilin, 2008)
Capitalist realism (Mark Fisher, 2009)
Post-postmodern realism (Madhu Dubey, 2011)
Poststructural realism (Holland, 2013)
Metonymic realism (Pam Morris, 2013)
Ecocritical realism (Reinhard Hennig, 2013)
Relational realism (Zuzanna Jakubowski, 2013)
Metafictive realism (Holland, 2014) 

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            The book examines how language and not simply plot and character shape modern fiction. And how these new narratives explore moral codes and ethics.

To quote Mary K. Holland:

“Writers have also been using form and technique to reinvent realism itself, motivated by cultural and technological changes in the real world, and by newly influential ideas about the nature of that material world that insist we see it as inherently ethical and that allow us to conceive of a continuity between language and the world that had been lost since structuralism. The ultimate result of all these theories of language, literature, and reality is renewed intimacy—between reader and writer, between language and reality, between beings in the world—an intimacy produced not in spite of but because of the productive engine of poststructural realism.” 

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            The Moral Worlds of Contemporary Realism may not be your bedside reading. Although if read at the end of day, it may lead you to a literary dreamland that echoes the realities of contemporary fiction. Dreams may indeed be our personal narratives that create their own language and structure through our subconscious. I’m reminded of Joseph Campbell who talked about myths being collective dreams and dreams being personal myths. And each of these create their own reality through which the individual maneuvers. Perhaps much of fiction in the postmodern through contemporary eras are writers’ attempts to create personal myths that can merge into our collective consciousness as well as our unconscious dreams.

            If at times, I had to slow down my reading of the text, it was because it made me stop and think about modern fiction, and how from its age-old narrative trunk newer limbs spring forth with branches bearing new fruit, sometimes exotic in their look and unfamiliar in flavor. But all are worth tasting. 

            I kept wanting to know, as in all good narratives—what will happen next? How does one literary form influence another? How do we read contemporary literary critics who investigate the writers of the late 20th and 21st century?  I admire anyone who tries to make sense of modern fiction, with its variety of styles, genres and sub-genres and can maneuver through them. It even made me want to dip back into the novels and stories that are dissected in the book. A literary critic as Mary K. Holland cannot do better than that.

Mary K. Holland is Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz, where she teaches contemporary literature and theory. She is the author of two monographs on contemporary literature (Bloomsbury 2013 and 2020) and co-editor of a teaching volume (MLA 2019). Currently, she is co-editing two anthologies about bringing #MeToo to bear on literary critical practice and pedagogy, designing new courses on contemporary women’s writing, reading apocalyptic fiction somewhat obsessively, and dreaming now and then about Zoom teaching amid a zombie apocalypse. 

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