This piece asks what relation the turn toward a new era of patrimonial capitalism—traced in Thomas Piketty's recent work—bears to the modern rise of fantasy worlds and speculative fiction. The problem of justifying distinction in a world that presumes common humanity beneath surface differences is central to the moral economy of mid-nineteenth-century realism. To live inside a liberal dispensation that takes its realist fictions seriously means recognizing the work that characters like Pip in Dickens's Great Expectations (and persons like ourselves) put into stories about our own “expectations”: stories that justify rather than explain our current standing. Is the taste for fantasy and nonrealist speculation, then, indicative of an escapist tendency to foreclose on the universalist presumptions encoded in realist fiction? The age of patrimonial agglomeration may seem a death knell to fiction's capacity to spark what Hannah Arendt calls “representative thinking”: the act of entering into the thoughts and judgment of others by way of vigorous imaginative extension. The work of Ursula K. Le Guin, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Doris Lessing suggests that certain kinds of speculative fiction may mark not realism's failure but its productive transfiguration. Just as the divergence between wealthy accumulators and the rest of us had to be planned, fought for, and legislated into existence over the last few decades, so too any return to the earlier values of solidarity must be envisioned before it is realized.
Is Realism Failing? The Rise of Secondary Worlds
john plotz is professor of Victorian literature at Brandeis University and president of the Society for Novel Studies. His books include The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics (2000), Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (2008), Semi-Detached: Aesthetic Experience since Dickens (2017), and a children's book, Time and the Tapestry: A William Morris Adventure. He is at work on a book called “The Recalcitrants.”
John Plotz; Is Realism Failing? The Rise of Secondary Worlds. Novel 1 November 2017; 50 (3): 426–435. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-4195048
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