A Theory of Genre: Romance, Realism, and Moral Reality, 33 AMERICAN QUARTERLY 367 (1981).
In her own unassuming but penetrating way, Virginia Woolf strongly advised authors "to live in the presence of reality." Since "philosophic words, if one has not been educated at a university, are apt to play one false," Woolf could not define precisely what she meant by "reality." It was, she said, "something very erratic, very undependable- now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodili n the sun." She could describe reality only by noting that whatever it "touches, it fixes and makes permanent"; reality is what appears when the world is "bared of its covering and given an intenser life." Reality is "invigorating." The writer's business, Woolf concluded, was to find this reality, to "collect it and communicate it to the rest of us."
Woolf's concept of "reality" is complex, and its implications are worth examination. It differs considerably from the idea of reality which is prevalent among literary historians, and which is exemplified by Rene Wellek's definition of realism as "the objective representation of contemporary social reality." For Wellek reality is not, as for Woolf, a normative concept. It is instead a collection of facts which exist independently in the world and await reproduction by the writer. This same concept of reality underlies Jose Ortega y Gasset's distinction between realist and modernist art: comparing the work of art to a window pane, he said that works of realism look through the glass and make it invisible, whereas modernist works focus instead on the glass itself and see only a confused blur of color and form.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Post, Robert C., "A Theory of Genre: Romance, Realism, and Moral Reality" (1981). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 219.