In an article on "literary realism" in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott McLemee contends that, given the sociological and political approach exemplified by the realist writers he discusses, it is surprising that academic critics do not give more attention to them. This is probably true, but, on the other hand, it is not so 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 really did not take up the writing of fiction for its aesthetic potential, anyway.
Its 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. Aside from Dreiser, these writers no longer hold anything but an historical interest, as examples of the later development of the naturalist mode and of writers who could be called “socially engaged” just before and after World War I.
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 reveal the integrity of its own internal logic, to go where it will.
Dreiser did manage to produce work with aesthetic integrity, 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." Unless it can be shown that books like these work first of all as skillfully shaped and convincing examples of literary art (and I admit I don't think this can be shown), they will in the future attract few readers other than these kinds of historians.
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."