Realistic vs. Romantic Literature – The Sunday Re-Blog

This post originally appeared on Comparative Geeks, as the end of a series of posts I had done and have shared over here as well. The post is long, so I will keep my intro short – but let me just say this, this is a post I am proud of!

Hello my readers, time again for me to touch on a series of posts I’ve written over the course of the blog so far. It all started out from a definition of science fiction I read in a book, which led into a blog post exploring that. Then, for comparison, I explored a definition of fantasy based on a quote that’s floated around social media. So between the two, I had pitted Frank Herbert against J.R.R. Tolkien. Then, for another look at it, I compared Star Trek and Star Wars. I still really like my genre exploration there.

And then I listened to George R.R. Martin on the Nerdist Podcast, and it got me thinking that all this work of putting things in genres, and holding one over another or pitting them against one another, was wrong; and I was working on coming up with new terms or new ways of thinking about the differences, of trying to really articulate what I was trying to say.

That’s when I got a comment back on that first post, questioning what I meant about science fiction, making me really think about what I was saying. The commenter – who had the opportunity to interview the author, Paolo Bacigalupi – recommended and discussed The Windup Girl. So I felt I needed to read that first and consider it. And to consider what it is I have been trying to articulate, to think of the terms and groupings and ways that we talk about these sorts of stories, and so that is where I am coming from with this post. Let me know in the comments what you think!


One of the large ways of slicing up writing in general is into Fiction and Non-Fiction. Some of what I really like about Frank Herbert’s quote is the way that he places his genre – Science Fiction – in line with the sorts of things happening in Non-Fiction, really comparing in my mind with philosophy or political theory.

But really, what I want to consider is Fiction, and the ways in which I think that Fiction can be instructive. I think we can – and do – learn things from Fiction. But maybe not facts, or figures, but ideas. Ways people think. And an interpretation, sometimes, to the question: “What if?”

So let me tap into The Windup Girl, for instance. I don’t feel like I learned facts about Thailand in the book – to be fair, I have been to Thailand, and had a couple of amazing hosts who taught me much about their understanding of the culture – meaning I went into the book knowing much of what he references. I’ve been to Ayutthaya (and many of the other old capitals). I know what a Chedi looks like, I know what it looks like when people wai to each other. So someone else might read this book and learn something – or else glaze right over these details without some context.

What I got instead was a whole lot of “What if?” What if the waters rose, and we fought to protect cities like Bangkok? What if crops ended up with diseases that kept them from living beyond one or two harvests? What if the world fell apart at the seams? I agree with him – the Kingdom would stand, and would fight for its independence.

I got to think about all of these ideas, to consider the author’s interpretation, to add in my own. To engage with the book, both intellectual, and then just enjoying it. The book is fantastic – it leaves you wondering what is going to fall apart first almost all the way to the last page. I highly recommend it. But then – as my commenter was saying – is this someone working against the sort of definition for science fiction that I put forth?


That’s where I decided, maybe what I’m thinking of does need different terms than just the genre terms. But I don’t need to invent the new terms – maybe they’ve always been there. In literature, they talk about Realistic Literature – kind of what it sounds like – and then Romantic Literature – which for me is the speculative, is the What if, is the invented worlds.

When I turn to Fiction – and I think a lot of geeks and nerds would agree – I’m not looking for big-R Realistic Fiction. Yes, we like worlds that are realistic – want real, fleshed-out, well-rounded characters, worlds with real power systems and set rules that are internally consistent. Think Game of Thrones – the cut-throat, everyone-has-their-own-plan atmosphere is chillingly realistic. And we even love worlds that have a solid grounding in our world – take The Windup Girl, or, for a new example, how about Harry Potter?

I’m not looking, when I turn to Fiction, to learn facts, to explore real-world places through the words of the author, or through the visuals on a screen. I mean, maybe sometimes. It can be like a vacation. But for us, Escapism like Tolkien describes is so much more. Yes, I can escape to Europe… or I can escape to Middle Earth.

Romantic Literature allows an escape from what we know and what is around us, and gives us insight into another world. Into other experiences. And makes us question, what would I do if I were there? Are the ways the characters reacting realistic – is their wonderment, or their heroism, realistic? Does it instruct us – not on the economic climate of the day, but on the very depths of what it means to be human.

Let me argue in a slightly different way. We have mentioned the documentary Girl Rising a couple of times. And as you listen to these young girls, from around the world, presenting their stories – and their love for education – it made me think a lot about it. What is the purpose of education? What is the value in education?

And while there are quantifiable things like literacy and math, again, to what point and purpose? What is the point of being able to read? And for many of these girls, which I especially picked up with a second viewing after having thought about it – it’s about seeing something different from yourself. It’s about seeing a world that is not your own. And when you live in a society where you feel – where you are – repressed, even just finding out that there is or could be something else provides so much hope. And where there’s hope, there’s change, and the statistics they provide in the documentary really back that thought up.

Or, to put it in more philosophical terms: there is the Cartesian doubt that things exist. You know – I think, therefore I am. However, it’s hard to prove anything outside of oneself. But exploring fiction stories – seeing into the minds of other people, and especially into the new and amazing worlds they can create – that is a level of proof to me.

And it’s not with every story. Some I love reading because I feel like, given the time and skill, I could have written them. That enough of the knowledge, and the logical progression, match how I think and my experiences. The Windup Girl, with all of its Thai references, was a bit like that for me – though again, give me lots of time and skill to get there!

But then some stories take you somewhere else. Somewhere you don’t know. Somewhere you wouldn’t have thought of, somewhere you didn’t expect. And it’s those stories that show there is another mind from your own out there – show that you are not alone. And I think it is in Romantic Literature that you can see this.

A Realistic Literature Example

Alright, so I thought of an example of an awkward title in Realistic Literature. The Da Vinci Code. Wildly popular when it came out and since, a ton of people read and were talking about this book. And it was definitely and clearly researched, and there was lots of factual information in it, I’m sure. Or at least some solid conspiracy theories. However, some of the clearly fictional – if plausible – elements really caught people’s imagination.

So maybe the question is: did you know, The Da Vinci Code is fiction?

That was the question I kept thinking as I heard people talking about this title. People who clearly read a lot of Realistic material, and used it as a way to learn more about this world, to see into places and experiences they hadn’t had, but, you know, someone probably did somewhere. Maybe the author. But I was used to Fiction that happened almost exclusively in the creator’s mind, was Romantic and different in nature.

So I could not understand why so much of that book was being taken as fact by people. Why people were so upset, and arguing against it, and banning it, and doing all sorts of things.

Realism can get a little too close to real, and then, are we just creating urban myths? Then, do we learn anything, do we think? Or do we accept as fact, as truth?


Here on Comparative Geeks, we’re dealing with these “genre” sorts of fictions, these products of Romantic Literature, all the time. And sometimes, we ask big questions because of it. Meaning I have a few examples from what we’ve done here to consider.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

One is with our ongoing series on Science Fiction and Religion, where I built up to asking a big question: are we living in the Best of All Possible Worlds? The phrase comes from the Rush album (and then novel) Clockwork Angels, but it seems like a good one. We invent and think of all these worlds – something only happening in Romantic Literature! – and yet, are any of them Utopia?

After all, there are the stories created to show Utopia, or attempts at Utopia. And inevitably, what we find are the cracks in the system, the holes and the injustices. As a thought experiment, this is important. If Lenin had worked on a bit more of this, how different might world history be?

But I digress. By creating all of these worlds, we point at something interesting about our own. About how it has so much potential. About how it lacks some of the evils we can envision, while leaving the room to do much of the good we can envision.

The One True Timeline

So another idea, from our explorations into Time Travel, is the idea of The One True Timeline, the idea of what you might be able to call the universe prime, the original, before time-traveling changes occur. Because I feel these sorts of changes would be known.

This came from an idea in Final Fantasy XIII-2a time-traveling adventure to try to save the world. They save the world just in time to break the timeline, and spin off the third in the series, which we’re playing now. Again, I digress. They have some great ways of thinking about Time Travel, such as, a change in the future would change the past – because if you mess with future time travel, then it won’t travel back to the past in the same way, thus changing the past.

So are we living in a world unmodified by time travel? And does this just place us in the prime universe – or does it mean time travel is impossible? Questions you can see in Romantic Literature, but not really in Realistic!


The point for me comes back to education. And thinking it through maybe has an answer for me. Maybe we read mostly Realistic Fiction in schools because the goal is to teach us a variety of things at once – about the history of literature, at the same time as the sorts of historical facts contained within the books.

We read Steinbeck to know more about Dust Bowl America, or read Shakespeare to know more about the history of the English royal line. And then for their literary merit.

But my problem is that I always feel like I’ve gotten a lot more to think about when engaging with Romantic Fiction. And that I feel like, if I had it to teach, I would assign entirely different books. Engaging in entirely different ways. Which leads to feeling like an outsider from the norm – the place that we geeks and nerds so often end up.

The rise in geekdom now may have to do, then, with the Internet allowing us to find out that there’s a whole bunch of us outsiders, and to connect and realize how many we are. And maybe this will bring the sorts of acceptance I want to see for Romantic Literature in education. But at this point, I’m past the point where it matters for my life, so maybe I just keep going with this blog, just engage with the culture on our own, and ask the big questions. Lifelong learning is one of the modern buzzwords, so there we go: lifelong learning through Romantic Literature.


About CompGeeksDavid
Co-founder, editor, podcaster, web comicer, forum moderator, and writer for Comparative Geeks. Father, husband, geek, nerd, gamer, librarian, Christian, Libertarian, Science Fiction philosopher, and probably a number of other descriptors.

4 Responses to Realistic vs. Romantic Literature – The Sunday Re-Blog

  1. Gene'O says:

    Nice. I think the privileging of realistic literature is a contemporary phenomenon, and, as with almost everything else we talk about, it’s complicated. Here are a few of the elements that I think might play a role:

    1. The rationalization of public administration, and especially education, which happened from the turn of the 20th Century and through the 30s in the U.S. Just think about the differences in the way the government worked during the administrations of the two Roosevelts, and that will give you some idea. what I mean.

    2. Modernism in literature (and several other fields), photo-realism in visual art, and the rise of cinema, radio, and television. All those play a role in popularizing realisim – some for aesthetic reasons, some because they just make realistic representation easier.

    3. The infantilization of childhood and adolescence. That sounds more harsh than I intend it, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. What I mean is, thanks to overwhelmingly positive things like child labor laws and child protective services, we don’t expect children to act like adults by the time they’re 12, and haven’t for a long time now. The cultural downside is that it’s easy to sell children short – to forget how smart and subtle they are. So, it’s natural, especially given the cultural implications of all that stuff in #2, to pigeonhole romantic art as for children. And that happened, to some degree, in nearly every field around the middle of the 20th Century.

    I do think romantic art is coming back, and I’m glad that I know so many people who regard it as worthy of serious study and who use romantic techniques in their own projects. And I love that connection to lifelong learning.


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