Top Five Most Realistic Books—(You do not have to agree with me!)
Ulysses. The passing tram, the lemon soap. Molly in bed—it's all so real!
Invisible Man. That protagonist goes through a lot, and even though we may not see him (that's metaphorical, by the way) or even know his name, the novel's crazy pace seems pretty accurate for a story about someone being chased all over New York City.
Lord of the Flies. If you don't get why this is on my list, spend a little time with a Cub Scout group or something—I can't help you.
Sister Carrie. The American Dream gone down the toilet. The flophouses, dirty streets, cold-water flats: so grim, and yet so… real. A book for times of economic recession.
Absalom!Absalom! Doesn't matter if you weren't brought up on a dilapidated plantation where everyone is related (in a creepy way) and thinks in page-long sentences. This book is the South—or at least Faulkner's very compelling version of it.
Top Five Least Realistic Books
The Great Gatsby. Who has that many silk shirts? Also, I've never been to a party like that—and I lived in Berlin in the 1920s!
Animal Farm. Look, I can appreciate an extended dig at totalitarianism, but pigs and horses just do not talk.
Gone with the Wind. You know I'm all about the everyday detail, the simple gesture, and the earth-bound moment, but I've never felt convinced by Scarlett O'Hara's speech as she clutches that clod of dirt and, gazing skyward, vows "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again." Plus, she's a slave-owner, so how on her side can you be?
The Tropic of Cancer. I'm going out on a limb here because I know this book is pretty much a (very exaggerated) autobiography, but in spite of the convincing representations of poverty—what with the licey beds and dry, moldy bread crusts—my beef with the book is that no man who is that much of a scrub could get that many women to love him. I'm not buying it.
Middlemarch. I'll get some heat on this one because I know that the general consensus is that this masterpiece (subtitle: A Study of Provincial Life) by George Eliot usually lands at the top of the list of all-time best realist novels ever. But I have a small bone to pick. Sure, Eliot gives us a detailed picture early-19th-century English life in the country, but someone please explain to me why Dorothea supports Ladislaw's silly political aspirations at the expense of her own happiness? I just don't believe that plucky female protagonist would do that! There's such a thing as psychological realism, right?