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Let's get real about 'realism'

October 26, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg

Daniel Handler and his alter ego, Lemony Snicket, have written a lot of books. There are 13 in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," other books in the Lemony Snicket world, three for adults and even one he cranked out for McSweeney's -- "How to Dress for Every Occasion" -- as if he were the pope.

Fans of Handler's work will probably not be surprised to find that he's not a big proponent of realism. "Nabokov famously said that 'reality' is the only word in the English language that only makes sense with quotes around it," he tells the website Bookslut.

"So much of supposed realism," Handler continues, "actually traffics in the stalest of narrative cliches -- plot devices that feel lifted from the cheapest of dramas. I don't mind narrative cliches -- how could I, given my work? -- but it drives me nuts when it's called realism. I was just reading reviews of Richard Price's most recent novel, which I enjoyed very much, and one by one the critics called the dialogue realistic, when it's clearly the result of careful styling. Realistic dialogue would have all sorts of hemming and hawing and redundancies. Just about every line of dialogue in [Handler's novel] 'Adverbs' is something I overheard, but of course I shaped it and recontextualized it. I suppose one could make a case for calling that realism."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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