Literary realism cowers in the shadow of virtual reality…
Soir Bleu, Edward Hopper, 1914
From The Smart Set:
VR offers experiences not readily available through physical reality, including the simulated experience of suffering. But its positive advocacy of new experiences makes it more adventure travel than understanding the lived reality of another person.
With contemporary literary as with virtual worlds, it is important to ask what we are trying to do in simulating our world or worlds that are not quite our world. Do we care to understand reality, as well as escape it? And how do understanding and escape go together?
Horace, the Roman lyric poet who lived at the beginning of the Roman Empire, claimed that art should both delight and instruct, and artists through the millennia have followed that injunction. In aspiring to, if not yet achieving, both, VR situates itself in the artistic tradition, and seeks to combine the immediacy of visual art with the immersion of literary narrative. That effort at combination isn’t, of course, new — it’s in many ways the current iteration of an evolution that began with photography and has moved through film, TV, and video games. Arguably, it has even deeper roots in popular theater.
To be able to bring all kinds of worlds alive visually, virtually, is incredibly powerful. We are entertained, educated, moved, and come away from these experiences influenced to see differently.
Recognizing that power, writers of fiction are mired in a decades-long crisis of self-faith, questioning the role of literature in a world awash in more immediately accessible, socially potent art. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s answer in the 1980s was to use novels as a form of cultural capital, a way of distinguishing the lettered elite from the TV-hungry masses. A small group of “dirty realists” — Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy among them — offered an alternative in depictions of the undersides of ordinary American lives. But look at contemporary fiction: overwhelmingly written by educated cosmopolitans about the concerns and interactions of educated cosmopolitans and more about distinction than connection or transcendence. Bourdieu would be pleased.
The fiction of distinction represents a retreat from fiction about wider-reaching societies and politics and the daily labor at the center of it all. In many ways, it’s a practical retreat, a recognition of what fiction does best. If the arts of the screen have colonized the external world, fiction will cultivate the internal.
But literature must not separate the self from the universe.