Dirty Realism is becoming my home

Dirty realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction. – Bill Buford, Granta 8, 1983

This is what I do when day drinking, think and talk about writers, writing, and good music.

I’ve been working on a book.  I am in the midst of revising and editing and that has caused me to think about what I’m trying to do and how I’m trying to do it.  I started with the writers like to read the most what it is about their writing that I like the most.

I guess it started with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner and those gentlemen lead me to Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and more recently Larry Brown (not the former UNC point guard/assistant coach/NBA coach/current SMU coach or Dallas Cowboy/Oakland Raider).  Learning more about those final led me to Dirty Realism.

The term was coined in the above quote from Granta 8 in 1983 edited by author and journalist Bill Buford.  That issue of Granta included stories by Carver, Ford, and Tobias Wolff.

Two things drew me to these writers and their work:  1)The economy of words and 2)The subject matter.  The economy of words the minimalism makes these writers the direct literary descendants of Hemingway.  They never use 20 words when 5 will do.  That is something that really comes home to me as I edit and revise this book.  My first pass through the first chapter of the book was me just taking out as many adjectives, adverbs, and $50 words as I could.

The second thing that drew me may be more important to me.  These authors all seemed/seem to write about people I know.

I love reading and I love reading good writing.  That means I have read a lot of books and short stories.  One of my favorite short story writers is John Cheever.  As much as I love his writing most of his characters have no relation to me.  They are almost all white people from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Westchester, NY, or other tony parts of New England.  Again, I love reading these stories but I read these stories completely detached from the characters and their circumstances.  The first time I read Carver in college, that detachment disappeared.

These stories and novels are worlds that I know, live in and walk through on a daily basis.  The best definition of dirty realism that I’ve found comes from the website dirtyrealism.com:

Dirty realism uses fictional techniques to shed light on the dirty unwritten (and often unspoken) truths that we individually and collectively censor from public dialog. Characters and settings are closely based on real people and places, though certain identifying characteristics may be changed to protect the innocent–and guilty. Plots follow real-life sequences of events, which tend to be less linear and predictable than traditional forms of fiction. Language should be accessible to the literary center of our population while providing sufficient precision and depth to challenge our most learned. Grammar and style are strongly influenced by informal spoken language. All efforts should be made to present authentic language with minimal complexity. No attempt should be made to superimpose prescriptive rules of grammar and mechanics upon natural language.

One of my favorite shows growing up was Picket Fences.  It is probably my favorite David E. Kelly show.  The original point of the show was the happenings in this small town in Wisconsin and the “dirty unwritten (and often unspoken) truths that are individually and collectively censor from public dialog.”  The things that happen behind closed doors between people fascinate me.  What people are really like and not what they act like in public is to me one of the things art, music, and literature are good at exposing.

Economy of words, real people in real situations, and finding the hidden truth that we all try to hide in one way or another are how and what I want to write about.  One of the people I follow on Twitter, Ray Burton (@RayBurton), said it best this morning, “Finding your genre is like finding home, with blankets and hot chocolate… wrapped in unicorns.”

I think dirty realism may be the only place I’ve ever felt home.


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