While I would agree with Scott McLemee's contention in his recent article on "literary realism" in the July 30 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that, given the sociological and political approach exemplified by the realist writers McLemee discusses, it is surprising that academic critics do not give more attention to these writers, the reason that it is surprising is that the approach taken by most of these critics is itself emphatically sociological and political. On the other hand, it is not surprising that critics interested in the specifically literary and aesthetic accomplishments of fiction would shy away from such writers as Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and James T. Farrell. Their work has little aesthetic appeal in the first place, although, to be fair to them, these writers did not exactly take up the writing of fiction for its aesthetic potential, anyway.
I'm not quite clear why McLemee chose to focus on these particular writers if the object is to bring some attention to "realism" as a literary mode. The realists in American fiction are writers like James, Twain, Crane, and Edith Wharton, or the "colorists" such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather. Lewis, Sinclair, Farrell, and Theodore Dreiser are really "naturalists," a further development of realism to be sure, but one that is inherently programmatic, that is to say, it is an approach that deliberately uses fiction to illustrate larger ideas about, in this case, the biological determinants of human nature and the clash of the biological and the social. Most of the naturalists would be more accurately called commentators or polemicists rather than artists. Again, since the overwhelming trend in academic criticism is to view literature as, at best, an opportunity for polemics and social analysis, it is perhaps correct to say that these naturalist writers are unduly neglected, but if literary study was still mostly about literature these writers would quite rightly get limited attention.
I think we should preserve a distinction between the kind of social realism discussed in Scott McLemee's article and "literary realism" more concretely understood. If analysis of social conditions is what you want from fiction, then probably social realism is where you should go. Realism as an aesthetic strategy, however, requires that both writers and readers first of all put aside the consideration of social conditions and political debates. Well-conceived and -crafted literary realism might finally lead the reader to reflect on the state of society or on political ideas, but this would be a secondary effect, a consequence of the fact that the writer has taken a particular aesthetic strategy--to create an illusion of "real life" sufficiently compelling that the reader is willing to put aside the knowledge that it's constructed, finally just words on a page--and allowed it to discover the integrity of its own internal logic, to go where it will. If social analysis is what the writer wants to provide instead, then that's what we'll get. But it won't be something that could plausibly be called literary art.
As it happens, at least one of the writers to whom McLemee refers, Dreiser, managed to produce work that can be regarded as literary art, even though it's clear enough in reading his books that he had the ambition to be a social philosopher as well. But Dreiser is a good example of a writer whose instincts for fiction to some extent subverted his more schematic intentions. (Flannery O'Connor is another example.) Although Dreiser was surely not subtle, his narratives have a power that comes much less from any insights he may have had into the grinding away of the social machinery than from the impression his novels create that they have proceeded from their original arresting images--a young girl from the provinces on her way to start a new life in the city, a family of itinerant Christian proselytizers plying their trade on the streets--to dramatize the possibilities inherent in those images with great amplitude and discernment, the narrative unfolding in what finally seems the only way it could have developed. Both Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy seem "real" in that they are faithful to the particulars their subjects already--naturally--seem to possess, their worlds and their characters built up out of accumulated details that give them credibility as fictions, no matter how readily we are tempted to interpret them as vehicles for the author's social commentary.
Something like this has to be true of any realist fiction that makes a claim on us as fiction rather than an excuse for dubious political or cultural analysis--and the latter would have to be dubious because making up stories is first of all not a very efficient way of engaging in such analysis and because there's nothing inherent in the act of writing fiction that gives the writer any particular wisdom to convey about politics or social arrangements. Again, an artfully composed work of realist fiction might provoke in readers some reflection on these topics, but it would be the result of the work's success in literary terms, its capacity to stand up to subsequent readings because of its aesthetic interest. Otherwise it is inevitable that "realist" works such as The Jungle or Babbitt or Studs Lonigan are ultimately going to be of concern mostly to the kinds of historians who, as McLemee laments, "treat realist fiction strictly for its documentary value" and who, in the words of one scholar McLemee quotes, "[l]ike strip miners,. . .rampage through texts, interested in only the most obvious social references."
If you want to see a good illustration of the kind of distinction I have in mind, compare the stories of Chekhov with those of his contemporary Maxim Gorky. Chekhov's fiction reveals a great deal about the state of Russian society in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, but we still read these stories because they're splendid examples of the artistic possibilities of a certain kind of realism. Gorky's stories will perhaps tell you something about a Russian radical's attempt to change this society through fiction, but only if you're able to actually read them as something other than propaganda--that is, if you're even able to read them at all.
In his conclusion, McLemee discusses a current scholar's attempt to show that "a careful reading of the American writers reveals a stronger influence that issued from an incongruous source: the deep current of literary romance, exemplified in American literature by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne." He claims further that "The genre of romance -- with its strong tendency toward symbolism and its eruptions of the fantastic and the supernatural -- seems like an improbable influence on, say, Frank Norris." But the very first book to propose the Romance as the dominant strand of American fiction, Richard Chase's The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), included a chapter on "Norris and Naturalism." Writes Chase: ". . .the youthful father of naturalism was in dead earnest in describing his works as romances. . .And in the brief years of his growing maturity. . .he wrote books that departed from realism by becoming in a unified act of the imagination at once romances and naturalistic novels." And of Dreiser Chase writes "[He] performed the considerable service of adapting the colorful poetry of Norris to the more exacting tasks imposed upon the social novelist--very much as James assimilated Hawthorne's imagination of romance into novels."