Social Realism Sucks

In high school, in Slovenia, I was made intimately acquainted with the art genre of social realism. I was also instructed on the correct interpretation of this movement, how important it was, how much it contributed to our national history and how it uplifted humanity.

Already at the time, this orthodox line on the role of social realism felt like so much schlock.

By the time I first encountered social realism I had been an avid reader for some years. You will imagine the dissonance I felt.

Here was a genre with, patently, terrible stories. The protagonists were dismal, their character arcs tended ever downwards, and the writing … well, uplifting it was not.

At the same time, the critical interpretation I had to memorize to pass my grade gushed breathless. The little person given spotlight! Oppression revealed! Activist literature! Lessons for the reader!

And yet the stories were terrible.

Here’s a typical social realist story.

Peasant is born in poor peasant family. Peasant perseveres. Sibling dies. Perseveres. Pregnant a few times. Husband beats her then dies after a horse kicks him in the testicles. Perseveres. Muddy bare ankles. Manure. Children raise themselves on poor farm. War comes. Two children die in war. Child goes to America. Sends home money. Dies. Peasant perseveres. Peasant dies. Surviving two children and six grandchildren remember her perseverance.

Stretched out to a hundred pages. Or whatever.

The characters are idealized box-ticking cliches.

The story brow-beats the reader with simplified didactic narratives.

The power of the individual is downplayed.

The systemic factors oppressing the protagonist are magnified.

The final lesson is clear: as long as the big system does not change, the potential nobility and humanity of the character does not matter. Only as a community coming together will the chains of oppression be broken and the happy check-box characters live dignified lives of labor and communal joy.

It’s boring, unimaginative, block-headed.

Good literature entertains, transports, engrosses, connects, and surprises. It lets us imaginatively experience other places and lives, yes, but it does so by stealth. We first enjoy ourselves, and then realize that we have also learned something.

Heroes and villains, tragedy and comedy, high fantasy and low cunning mix in literature, offer escape from the daily round and transform us in the process.

Then you have social realism.

It’s like a dour preacher come to your door to shout in your ear.

“The world is ending. The camel is walking through the needle’s eye. You are bad. A sinner. Do this. Don’t do this. Be good. Here is how. Do what I say. Do what I say.”

It’s a humorless genre that confuses joyless preaching for literature.

A genre that imagines it will change attitudes and values and norms by pounding its message point-blank in the reader’s brain, well, it doesn’t understand human brains.

And, to be fair, I suspect I know that flaw’s seed in social realism.

See, the Slovenian social realism I encountered in high school was rooted in the approved socialist threads that were made canon by the communist party of Slovenia after that marxist-leninist party’s revolution during and after the second world war and the imposition of Tito’s personalist dictatorship of the proletariat.

Now, yes, certainly, the communist party was dour, humorless, murderous, and authoritarian. However, it also subscribed to an ideology that fundamentally misunderstood human brains. After all, communism is an excellent system of government for eusocial insects. Less so for status-obsessed monkeys.

No wonder then, that the social realist canon that was transmitted to my adolescent brain in high school struck me as so repulsive.

After all, wish though I might, I am a primate and cannot become an ant.

I am quite glad social realism’s day is passed.

A literature without humor and adventure, without heroes and villains, highs and lows, changes and agency, that would be a terrible entertainment to suffer once more.

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