I am not a fan of realism for the sake of realism. Nor was legendary film director David Lean, who once said films should feel like dreams. I would argue the same should be true for novels, and I am not a fan of stories that strive for realism at the expense of dramatic satisfaction, regardless of the genre.
As a reader I find it deeply frustrating when interesting dramatic situations and conflicts are swept aside in an unsatisfactory way in the name of realism, often in critically acclaimed novels. Atonement is a good example of this. Just because in real life the lead characters could easily have died in a sudden bombing that intrudes on the narrative mid-plot – before certain injustices could be properly explored and resolved – doesn’t make it a good dramatic choice. That may have been the point, but if so it’s a deeply frustrating one.
Charles Dickens had the right idea. He loaded his books with relevant, challenging social themes, making them “realistic” in the sense that you could feel the grime under the fingernails of Victorian Britain. But at the same time his works are deeply satisfying, superbly crafted tales that do not place “realism” above all else.
Some argue that whether or not a novel or film should submit to realism depends on subject matter, but I don’t think that is true. Lawrence of Arabia is about historic fact, but nonetheless feels like a dream, in accordance with the ideals of its director David Lean. The appalling Victorian social injustices exposed by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist are wrapped within the framework of a narrative that feels almost like a fairy tale.
As an aside, I find that large doses of realism actually work very well in fantasy writing. The shocking sudden deaths in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are a good example of this. The film Pan’s Labyrinth is another example, with the gritty realism of the Franco’s war against communist guerillas providing a backdrop to the fantasy elements. They may seem like oil and water but in fact they compliment one another perfectly.
In my own writing, I am currently penning an animal fiction novel about wolves in Alaska that combines elements of realism with more metaphysical elements. Time will tell whether or not I succeed in this, but at no point in any of my writing do I strive for realism at the expense of all else. Like David Lean, I want my stories to have a magic to them, regardless of the subject matter. I want them to feel like dreams.