Burgess Laughlin

What is naturalism?

6 posts in this topic

PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE

My purpose in this topic is to explore the meaning of a concept, "naturalism," as Ayn Rand uses it in the esthetics branch of her philosophy. The members of our local Objectivist Storytellers group have discussed this idea off and on for several years. We have, at various times and in various degrees, had trouble defining naturalism and identifying particular elements of particular stories as naturalistic or not. We have also had some trouble disentangling nonessential issues from essential issues.

Perhaps this topic-thread, here in THE FORUM, can serve as an arena for discussion, debate or both, as needed. Personally I prefer conducting such discussions in writing, and in a public forum, as otherwise I tend to react with emotions strong enough to sear anyone sitting near me in face-to-face exchanges.

Usually the issue of the nature of naturalism (and by implication, romanticism) applies to fiction writers. However, I am beginning to see that the issue can be important to nonfiction storytellers as well. The common question is what standard a writer should use to select elements of his story.

Following are my notes on this issue, offered as background.

RESOURCES

1. Ayn Rand, "Naturalism," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, containing three pages of excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto.

2. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, especially the two essays "What is Romanticism?" (Ch. 5) and "The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age" (Ch. 6). See also the many entries in the index of RM, under "Naturalism."

3. Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, pp. 182, 198, 200, 204-207, 212, 215-218, and 223-224. Ayn Rand here presents informal comments on various aspects of naturalism. Though these comments are not part of her philosophical body of writings, I found them to be helpful in understanding naturalism and applying that understanding to mixed-case fiction writers.

MEANING OF NATURALISM

Ayn Rand describes literary naturalism as a broad category of art. The basic premise of this category of literary art is determinism ("anti-volition premise"). That premise is an essential distinguishing characteristic of naturalistic writing, causing other characteristics -- such as theme, characterizations, style, and especially plot -- to be what they are, if the writer is consistent with his premise. (See ARL, pp. 329-330; RM, pp. 81/99 [hb/pb] and 83/101)

My dictionary suggests these basic usages of the term naturalism --

"1. Literature. a. a manner or technique of treating subject matter that presents, through volume of detail, a deterministic view of human life and actions.

b. a deterministic theory of writing in which it is held that a writer should adopt an objective view of the material written about, be free of preconceived ideas as to form and content, and represent with clinical accuracy and frankness the details of life.

c. a representation of natural appearances or natural patterns of speech, manner, etc., in a work of fiction."

QUESTIONS

1. What is and is not naturalism? Are the definitions of naturalism (and, by implication, romanticism) clear enough that a writer can use them as a guide for writing?

2. Can the same element -- say, hair color or a speech peculiarity -- be either romanticist or naturalistic depending on the literary context? If so, what factors determine which it is?

3. What writing issues are not issues of naturalism but are often confused with it?

KEEPING ON TOPIC

Anyone who participates should, of course, be generally familiar with Ayn Rand's views on this subject.

Please be prepared to define your terms and give examples -- ideally from a romanticist work such as The Fountainhead, which presumably we have all read, or with brief quotations from other, naturalistic works.

The issue of the nature of naturalism (and by implication the nature of romanticism) is fundamentally important to writers. Let's stay on topic. If you want to fully debate secondary issues, please start other topic-threads. Of course, secondary but essential issues must sometimes be explored briefly before returning to the main topic.

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In the process of trying to respond to your questions, Burgess, I've discovered a more narrow issue that interests me, so I'm going to just dive right into it:

While reading an otherwise Romantic work of fiction, if I encounter a scene that is subjective (i.e., out of focus) or one that is overly detailed for my taste (i.e., reportorial), I usually just assume that it's a mistake, or I wonder about the author's purpose. I don't assume as a rule that it's a sign of latent naturalism. (Burgess, this came up when we reviewed The Enemy by Lee Child, among others, but I don't remember which passage.)

Sure, a would-be romanticist who is steeped in a world of naturalistic literature may pick up some bad habits by cultural “osmosis”, and because writing springs so deeply from the author's subconscious, he may have trouble recognizing and dealing with these influences. In that case, it may be true that a seemingly “naturalistic” passage is just that. On the other hand, the writer may simply have made a mistake for any number of reasons, including inexperience, rushing too fast, trying to convey an abstraction that is beyond his skill to convey, being so familiar with the material that he fails to be objective as a reader and he lacks the editing skills to catch the error, and so on.

Also, the range of individual styles open to both naturalists and romanticists is vast. In fact, their styles may overlap. For example, some readers love to get mountains of details in their descriptions. The effect of this style can be an almost hyper-realism. So-called "hard science fiction" is written this way. While it's usually too detailed for my taste, and it may even be a misuse of the art form in some cases, I'm not convinced that its always naturalism.

(By the same token, when Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea using a severely austere and mostly concrete style, I do not believe that he was somehow betraying any latent romanticism. To my eyes, that story is purely naturalistic.)

So, locating examples of naturalism from the style of a particular passage alone can be challenging.

Maybe the issue is semantic. Maybe when we say "naturalistic touch", we are not saying, "He is being a naturalist." Nevertheless, this is confusing to me.

I'll dig into the issue a bit deeper in a follow-up post.

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Here is my longer response:

But first, I should mention that it is very difficult to have this discussion without bringing in specific examples. Unfortunately I don't have many to offer, partly because this subject has not come up recently in conversation and because I don't have time to pore over a stack of stories just to find them. So I'm writing here only to those who are already familiar with a variety of both naturalistic and Romantic stories.

QUESTIONS

1. What is and is not naturalism? Are the definitions of naturalism (and, by implication, romanticism) clear enough that a writer can use them as a guide for writing?

I won't attempt to recreate your fine definitions, Burgess. It is clear to me that naturalism involves the rejection of volition, whereas romanticism follows from the premise that man has free will and must choose his destiny, i.e., man is a being of self-made soul. Based on my own reading of fiction, this distinction makes perfect sense. For example, writers such as Ayn Rand, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas create characters who fight for their values and display extraordinary virtue. Meanwhile, writers such as Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway create characters who muddle through life with little direction, are generally buffeted by inexplicable events, and show weakness in place of strong virtue. The essential difference between these two camps, then, is thematic.

So what does this essential difference mean in practice?

There are four basic aspects of literature: theme, plot, character, and style. (I've mentioned theme already.) Plot and characterization clearly follow from the author's choice between volition and determinism. If man must fundamentally make his own way, then a purely Romantic writer will necessarily create a hero who has some aim or driving purpose for his life. This selection of purpose then shapes the plot; that is to say, the characters' choices ultimate determine the action. Therefore, a Romantic story becomes a battle of wills.

If, however, man's life is determined by caste, genetics, or luck, then a purely naturalistic writer will take great pains to avoid the impression of will. This is hard to accomplish in practice, because everyone expects characters in a story to do *something*. Therefore, a character who wills himself into action in one scene will have to be beaten back down by some unforeseen event in the next. In this way, a naturalist selects a chain of weakly-related, but semi-interesting events in lieu of a character-driven plot.

With that in mind, I find that the best way to determine the theme of a novel and whether it is Romantic or naturalistic is to examine the characters and how they motivate the story line (or remain victims of it, according to a naturalistic premise). Style, however, is a different issue, and I think this is where I'm having the most trouble.

Both naturalists and romanticists display a variety of styles. Some even overlap. Even so, the most common — and I think most essential — difference appears to be that of objectivity. In short, the prose of one camp tends to tell and the other tends to show.

Naturalists often, but not always, write with a subjective style, meaning one that is overly abstract from the narrator's point of view. In practice, this means that they often tell the reader something when they ought to be showing it to him. Here's an example from Henry James, The Bostonians:

"She had the sweetest, most unworldly face, and yet, with it, an air of being on exhibition, of belonging to a troupe, of living in the gaslight, which pervaded even the details of her dress, fashioned evidently with an attempt at the histrionic."
After reading this passage, we have no idea what this woman really looks like or anything else about her. I grant that Henry James probably had some sense of her image in his mind, but he failed to show us that image.

Romanticists generally employ a more objective style, meaning that they cast their descriptions in terms of concretes so that the reader might draw his own conclusions from the "evidence". Here's an example from The Fountainhead:

"Guy Francon's office was polished. No, thought Keating, not polished but shellacked; no, not shellacked, but liquid with mirrors melted and poured over every object. He saw splinters of his own reflection let loose like a swarm of butterflies..."
Now there's a sharply focused image! We see an essential aspect of Francon's office in sharp relief. Henry James would have written something more like, “Guy Francon loved the accoutrements of his office, and it showed.”

And I think this is basically the limit of the difference between the two camps stylistically. Most other aspects of style — tone, rhythm, length of sentences, register of language, narrative technique, and so on — are not necessarily tied to any one camp.

Additionally, I don't think that the act of overwriting a scene, meaning rendering it with too many details, is an essential aspect of naturalism. Some noted naturalists do it, such as Henry James, but others do not, for example, Ernest Hemingway, who is capable of severe austerity, and Sinclair Lewis, whose prose would work perfectly well for a romanticist if not for its mild subjectivity.

Ascribing naturalism, then, to an overly detailed scene in an otherwise Romantic novel can be problematic — at least from my point of view. I look forward to hearing others.

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Most other aspects of style — tone, rhythm, length of sentences, register of language, narrative technique, and so on — are not necessarily tied to any one camp.

Additionally, I don't think that the act of overwriting a scene, meaning rendering it with too many details, is an essential aspect of naturalism. [...]

Ascribing naturalism, then, to an overly detailed scene in an otherwise Romantic novel can be problematic — at least from my point of view. I look forward to hearing others.

Agreed, overall. In fact, to provide a clearer target for criticism, I will go further (out on a limb) and say that exactly the same passage (for example, describing a sunset) could be written by both a naturalist and a romanticist. The essential distinguishing characteristic of romantic literature versus naturalistic literature is not the number of words, the words chosen, the length of sentences, the level of detail, or other inessential factors. Instead, what essentially (causally) distinguishes naturalistic writing from romanticist writing is whether the author is reporting reality "as it is" (naturalism) or the author is selectively recreating a reality within a volitional, value-charged context (romanticism).

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Here's a relevant quotation that puts an interesting twist on this topic:

Naturalists—or the good writers among them—are extremely selective in regard to two attributes of literature: style and characterization. Without selectivity, it would be impossible to achieve any sort of characterization whatever, neither of an unusual man nor of an average one who is to be offered as statistically typical of a large segment of the population. Therefore, the Naturalists' opposition to selectivity applies to only one attribute of literature: the content or subject.

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Here's a relevant quotation that puts an interesting twist on this topic:

Thank you for pointing that out. I think I do understand the point that both writers are necessarily selective. To acknowledge it indirectly, I would amend my earlier unbalanced statement to say:

Instead, what essentially (causally) distinguishes naturalistic writing from romanticist writing is whether the author is reporting reality "as it is" (naturalism) or the author is recreating a reality within a volitional, value-charged context (romanticism).

In other words, once a writer has made that basic choice -- reporting his world as-is versus recreating a world according to his own values -- he then faces the same optional style choices (consciously or subconsciously) that other writers face, for example, how much detail to include, which details to include, the average length of sentences written, and the particular words chosen for a particular slanting of the content he presents.

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