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Dirty Realism

Dirty realism is a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.

The term was coined by Granta magazine’s Bill Buford, an author and editor. An explanation for dirty realism is included in a 1983 edition of the magazine. Buford used the following quote when describing a “new generation of American authors.” He said that they:

write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwanted mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. 

He added onto this, saying that their writing is: “Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.”

Dirty Realism pronunciation: dur-tee ree-uh-lee-zum
dirty realism

Definition of Dirty Realism 

Dirty realism is a literary movement that began in the 1980s in North America. It is sometimes considered part of literary minimalism. The latter is defined by a lack of adverbs and a focus on the context in order to create meaning. Writers want readers to take a role in creating the story. Some minimalist writers include Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, and Charles Bukowski. The latter is one of the most commonly cited dirty realist authors as well. 

Dirty realism is defined similarly to literary minimalism. It uses few adverbs and a general economy of language. This means that authors do not over-write anything. If anything, there are fewer details than a reader might prefer to see. There are no extended metaphors or internal monologues in this style of writing, as noted by Wikipedia. The context, as with literary minimalism, is allowed to dictate the meaning. 

Often, when reading a dirty realist poem or novel, a reader is going to come across characters who are suffering. They are in mundane jobs, dealing with addiction or another kind of adversity. They may have a physical or internal desperation they need to resolve. It should be noted that the authors who are usually associated with this movement have not, as a whole, accepted the term “dirty realism” as a definition for their work. 

Important Authors of the Dirty Realism Movement

  • Charles Bukowski – one of the better known authors associated with this movement. His work was influenced by Los Angeles and addressed the lives of normal working people. 
  • Raymond Carver – a well-loved American author who is considered to be one of the greatest voices of his time. He published fiction collections, poetry, and more. His work is noted for its brevity and intensity. 
  • Jayne Anne Philips – a contemporary American author who has published short stories and novels. These include Machine Dreams and Fast Lanes. 
  • Cormac McCarthy – the author of ten novels, play, screenplays, and more. He is known for his use of graphic details and his interest in post-apocalyptic society. His best-known work is The Road. 
  • Larry Brown – a novelist and short-story writer. He won numerous awards throughout his life. His best-known works include Dirty Work and Big Bad Love. 

Examples of Dirty Realism 

Friendly advice to a lot of young men by Charles Bukowski 

Friendly advice to a lot of young men’ is an unforgettable poem in which the poet supplies readers with absurd pieces of advice. He addresses young men, telling them that it’s in their best interests to seek out as many experiences as possible. This includes traveling to Tibet, breaking one’s head open with a hatchet, running for Mayor, and more. Here are a few lines: 

Brush your teeth with gasoline.

Sleep all day and climb trees at night.

Be a monk and drink buckshot and beer.

Hold your head under water and play the violin.

Do a belly dance before pink candles.

Kill your dog.

Run for Mayor.

The poem concludes with a twist. The speaker, who is likely Bukowski himself, adds that men should do whatever they feel like they need to. That is, except turn to writing poetry as he did. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy 

This dark novel, which is widely popular, is a wonderful example of several genres and movements. It belongs to the dirty realist movement as it does to literary minimalism. It’s also a great example of post-apocalyptic literature. The book follows two characters, neither of which are ever named, as they navigate a world devastated by an unknown disaster. The two, father and son, deal with intense hunger and a desperation that feels incredibly real. Here is a quote: 

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

These lines are direct, and although they do use metaphors and similes, they are also incredibly clear. Short sentences like “Darkness implacable.” are a trademark of this style of writing. 

Love & Fame & Death by Charles Bukowski 

‘Love & Fame & Death’ is a short and intense poem that speaks on the power that love, fame, and death have in life. It is multifaceted with a great deal of subtext. Readers are going to have to interpret what meaning they can from the brief lines. “It” is the subject of the first part of the poem. Bukowski writes: 

it sits outside my window now

like and old woman going to market;

it sits and watches me,

it sweats nevously

through wire and fog and dog-bark

until suddenly

The poem concludes with a meta description of a poem. The way to end it is “to become suddenly / quiet.” 

Read more Charles Bukowski poems


Why is dirty realism important? 

Dirty realism is a small, contemporary movement that includes diverse literature. Based in North America, this movement defines contemporary life in a direct way. When reading these literary works, readers have an insight into the truth of life. It is unobscured by over poetic writing or by idealism. 

What are the characteristics of dirty realism?

Dirty realism is characterized by a brevity of language, concise descriptions, a lack of adverbs, and an interest in everyday life. This usually includes men and women suffering through life’s trials and attempting to contend with inner and outer darkness. 

When did dirty realism start? 

Dirty realism is a contemporary literary movement that’s often considered part of literary minimalism. The term was coined in 1983 by Bill Buford in Granta magazine. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
  • American Realism: a style of writing, music, and art during the 20th century in the United States, specifically in New York.
  • Naturalism: a nineteenth-century literary and arts genre that focuses on the realistic depiction of life and all its struggles.
  • Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
  • Surrealism: a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.

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