Is Magic Realism Really Fantasy?

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In general, quibbling about categories and definitions annoys me. Categories are rarely consistent. Definitions rarely capture the whole thing. They are tools for grouping information to help us retain it, yet they can never contain the whole of what they point to. We shouldn’t mistake our finger for the moon, the Zen saying goes.

However, if categorization and definition helps us understand literature better, helps us to interact with it more deeply, I’m all for it. So even though I think magic realism and surrealism belong under the fantasy umbrella, and even though we are venturing into a Borgesian garden of forking paths here, it’s useful to ask, what is the difference between magic realism and fantasy?

Wait, what? Magic realism is a subset of fantasy? Well, the way I figure it, fantasy was the first form of literature. And by definition, fantasy is any literature in which “reality” (defined in western, white, agnostic culture as normal) is altered. Any literature that goes beyond the known, that externalizes the internal and unconscious reality, that inhabits the divine and sublime, in which the impossible and improbable happens, is fantasy.

But for some reason, my literary friends tend to relegate fantasy to the bad lit bin and accept magic realism as good. In fact the king of magic realism, Gabriel García Márquez, adamantly denied that he wrote fantasy: “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts” (quoted in Kroeber 130).

However, as I said in an earlier post, anyone who has heard “a woman screaming in the forest and follow[ed] the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion” will find the origins of fantasy. Anyone who has spun around with beating heart toward that flicker in the peripheral vision knows where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.

Author Jon Evans, in a great blog post for Tor.com “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry,”  says we should think of fantasy as a spectrum with “surreal fantasy” to the left and “systematic fantasy” on the right…

“One Hundred Years of Solitude occupies the far left; a little further in is Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road. Midnight’s Children and Little, Big occupy the centre-left. The Dragon Waiting and Patricia McKillip are dead centre. Jonathan Strange is center-right. Julian May is way out on the right, as is, um…Steven Brust” (Evans).

Seems reasonable. So why was García Márquez so adamant that there is a difference—no, a complete divide– and why does he share the disdain for fantasy that we typically find in universities?

The answer lies in the question of what these books do with reality and what the impact is on us.

(For the faint of heart, quit here and read the rest tomorrow. It was devilishly hard to keep this short, and I didn’t succeed.)

Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts our sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. So says Lucie Armitt, anyway, in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. Todorov claimed that fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers” (Armitt 7). In other words, fantasy calls upon the reader to enter an unreal world and pretend that it is real. It seeks to make the unreal seem real and calls upon the reader to suspend his or her disbelief, as the old saying goes.

Evans agrees that what we typically think of as fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Brooks) operates by certain rules. In it, the supernatural is regarded with amazement – it’s a stark contrast to what we see as reality. Magic is “systematic,” he says.

This would explain many academics’ disdain for fantasy –because they see it as too tidy, too predictable, too comforting. Literature is supposed to make you think and grow. How can we do that if we have absolute closure? More on this later in some other blog entry.

Let’s get back to magic realism, which Todorov thinks of as a subset of the “literary fantastic” along with surrealism. In contrast to fantasy, the literary fantastic has a “disruptive impulse” and “seeks reader hesitancy” (Armitt 7). The story begins in the “real world” and when something unreal happens, and the reader is never sure if the cause is supernatural or natural, such as a psychotic break or a drug induced hallucination (Armitt 8). According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did she see a ghost or hallucinate it? Did the ghost kill the boy, or did she scare him to death? The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is likewise an example: Is she alive or dead? Did imagination save her or kill her? However, where does this put Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis” in which Gregory Samsa wakes up to find he is a giant insect? We are never meant to believe that he is simply imagining this. Likewise, in Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).

Still – as Jon Evans says in his blog post, this literature “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”

Another attribute of magic realism is that supernatural events are described with “a brick face” according to Garcia Marquez (quoted in Writer’s Almanac). The effect on the reader is that our sense of reality is constantly disrupted. We aren’t allowed to escape into another world that is orderly and consistent. We are left straddling many worlds, teetering back and forth uneasily between.

Karl Kroeber echoes this idea: “surrealism is a subversion of meaning, fantasy is a construction of meaning” (quoted in Le Guin). Though I disagree with him when he says that “Surrealism subverts in order to destroy, fantasy subverts in order to rebuild.” The point of the “disruption” or “destruction” of surrealism is, ultimately, to rebuild. Surrealists are not sadists.

Complicating these definitions is the fact that the concept of reality is culturally defined. Orthodox Christians consider God and the Bible real. Atheists consider both fantasy. Roman mythology was at one time was considered real; now the word myth is synonymous with lie. Native American writers such as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to them.

So where does this put Aimee Bender and Karen Russell? Both of them come from the U.S. presumably where peace and (mostly) good order rule. Bender writes both kinds of stories: ones that take place in a recognizable reality and then diverge from it in “Tiger Mending” and ones that start in fairytale land and stay there in “Devourings.” She plays at both ends of the spectrum. So does Amber Sparks, a writer who I hope will soon gain a wider audience. Karen Russell belongs on the left end of the spectrum with her wrinkled old vampire who sits in the lemon grove hardly noticed by tourists and her Japanese women who turn into human silk worms.

I’ve raised more questions here than answers. And that’s the point. Armed with questions we become better readers.

And here’s another thing:

There is good literature, not so good literature, and total schlock. I’m not condemning any of it. They each have their place and purpose. But I think we can call things literary if they have more ideas per page, if they push deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life, if they don’t offer easy answers, if they make us think and wonder, if they use language originally,and  if — when they have characters — the characters are real and complex. Keep in mind, though, that some forms of literature, like folktale, fables and allegory don’t have characters at all, but rather “figures.”The more a writer resorts to clichés and truisms, the less his or her fiction reflects the complexity, beauty and surprising contradictions of life. And this is what we mean when we say it is not literary.

Whether fiction is good literature or not has nothing to do with whether or not life is portrayed as “real” or “fantastical.” After all,  the tension between what is real and what is unreal is inherent in “real life.”  Good fantastical literature can be recognized by how well it employs that inherent tension.

Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Evans, Jon. “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry.” Tor.com. Tor Books. 23 October 2008. Web. 12 March 2014.

Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists.” The Secret History of Fantasy. Ed. Peter S. Beagle. San Francisco: Tachyan Publications, 2010. 355-366.

Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López. Warner Brothers, 2006. Film.

Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove. New York: Knopf, 2013.

“Thursday, March 6, 2014.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. American Public Media, 6 March, 2014. Web. March 12, 2014.

7 responses »

  1. Lale, thanks for that engaging and erudite post. Before reading it, I hadn’t recently thought deeply about the distinctions between fantasy and magical realism. I too see magical realism as more grounded in real events, while fantasy is moreso a diversion, even though it can also deliver messages about society and politics.

    I would add Alejo Carpentier to pioneers of magical realism — some say that he provided the groundwork for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His “The Kingdom of This World” told of the mess of Haiti
    using a similar narrative technique.

    Dave

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  2. Lale, you are entirely correct in your assertion that definitions rarely capture the essence of the question. That being said, I would posit the notion that magical realism and fantasy are merely differing expressions of the same theme.

    –Magical realism is born of the desire to alter, often only slightly, our perception of our own plane of existence—to grant a vision of the mystery and magic behind and beyond our general conception of reality. Magical realism allows an extension of our sense of the world so that we perceive the ‘man behind the curtain’—that is, the workings of magic that are an integral part of the myth and mystery of the world we inhabit.

    –Fantasy is born of the desire to create an entirely new vision of reality, one in which the magical or supernatural is a key element of that world’s primary existence. This is not our world as we know it (or believe it to be). It may be an existence populated with wizards and trolls and megalomaniacal supernatural entities bent on world domination. [cue the mwa ha ha!’s] Or it may be a world in which things that go bump in the night stalk the streets, or unicorns roam in search of virgins (good luck to them).

    But—and here is the point I’m trying to bring home—both these types of works are based in large part upon a bending of reality. It’s really just a matter of scale. To my way of thinking, Magical Realism bends reality to a smaller degree; Fantasy is reality-bending writ large.

    And the lines are becoming more and more blurred between the two types of fiction. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, for example, is a prime example. Harry Dresden’s Chicagoland is a contemporary world that we recognize immediately—with the slight addition of the Never-Never, that parallel plane of reality which adjoins our own, allowing demons and monsters to stalk the streets and create havoc for Harry and his friends. Harry can see the things that go bump (and crash, and biff, and splat) in the night, but most people merely write off the odd things that happen as normal (if unusual) phenomena. And Harry, and the few allies he can count on, are able to combat the forces that enter our world and try to eat us.

    So, is the Chicago of the Dresden Files a world of magical reality—a slight altering of our own plane of reality, in which we’re able (through Harry) to glimpse the monsters lurking under the bed, the magic that pervades the world? Or is it one of fantasy–an entirely new reality which couldn’t exist without the magical/supernatural element?

    My own (so-far-unpublished ) novel Traitor Knight, which I would consider a fantasy, rather straddles the line as well. I’ve created a world in which magic exists and dragons roam. But the fantastical element is not really the basis for the story. It is part of the structure of the world in which it takes place—the background noise, if you will—but the entire thing could be picked up and dropped into another world without the magical elements and for the most part the story would still take place. Because it’s a story about characters and what happens to them, not about magic and how it affects the characters.

    So, having run on rather interminably here, I stand by my contention that both magical realism and fantasy are simply variations on a theme.

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    • Keith,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog and then leave such a thoughtful comment. I love your definition of magic realism, and it confirms for me that I lean to that side of things, as my next post will corroborate. Essentially, we agree, though. They belong in the same course, because dragons, witches and ghosts are a manifestation of how our primitive mind sees things — so not that different from magic realism. At any rate, I tend to like writing which questions reality.
      I look forward to reading excepts of your novel on your site. Here’s a question to ponder: why set your novel in a fantastical world if it doesn’t form the basis? Why not write realism? What does fantasy provide in your novel that realism couldn’t?
      Lale

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      • Hi, Lale,

        Thanks for taking the time to reply to my rather long-winded dissertation. The whole realism vs fantasy thing is something I’ve given thought to before but never really sat down to articulate until I read your post and got inspired.

        Just as a side note, I was at Dave Kalish’s reading at the SS Library a couple of weeks ago, and decided to look you up online (mild stalking?). I wanted to introduce myself that evening but you were knee-deep in folks, and I had to get going right afterwards.

        My novel, by the way, is now in the Quarter-Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Not that I really expect it to go further, but as the guy on the Lotto commercial is wont to say, ‘hey, you never know…’ I think the judges are likely looking for dark, brooding and gritty–all the things Traitor Knight is definitely not.

        One of my major literary influences is PG Wodehouse, and I like to think that Traitor Knight is somewhat in that vein–whimsical, entertaining, with characters you can be comfortable with. To me, TK is a book that you read on a rainy Sunday afternoon, put down and smile and wonder what they’ll be up to next.

        With regards to setting the book in a fantastical world–excellent question, and I probably don’t have an excellent answer beyond the fact that I wanted to create my own world and rule it (cue the mwa ha ha’s again…).

        Actually the whole bloody thing started rather as a lark, with the notion of a knight who has to rescue a damsel-in-distress from a dragon prone to hiccups (and thus can’t actually do battle with him). And the damsel is more thorny than horny, and instantly dislikes her rescuer (took me a while to figure out why, but that’s what led to the rest of the book). Sure, it could have been a contemporary setting, with a guy saving a girl from a car crash, she realizes he’s someone she despises, cue the rest of the conflict.

        Butt was more FUN with the dragon. I liked the idea of a dragon with the hiccups. And I liked the medieval setting, and wanted to be there (and so did my characters–they’ve told me so…). And suddenly because there was a dragon (although no one has seen one for 300 years, until now) there were suddenly wizards as well–although the wizards have come to realize through sad experience that dragons, being creatures of magic themselves, are impervious to any spells the wizards might use against them… It all just snowballs there in the background. And will lead to (hopefully) some interesting plots in subsequent books. Because even though the dragon gets vanquished in this book, he’ll be back… And the wizards are quietly scheming as only wizards know how… And who knows what havoc they might cause?

        But I’d love to have you read through the excerpt of Traitor Knight on my website and let me know what you think. I was involved (started up, actually) a critique group here in Clifton Park, but it dissolved though scheduling conflicts, so I don’t get as much feedback as I’d like. Which is one of the reasons I entered the Amazon contest.

        I’ve also got some short stories on the website that take place in the same (Kilbourne) universe as Traitor Knight; as well as the initial chapter of a cozy mystery series that I’ve got going. Plus I’m working on the sequel to TK, (it was essentially done, and then I had to go and change a bunch of the first book, which necessitated major revisions the the next one—argh!!). And I’m working on ideas for the third in the Knights series. All this while working a full-time job and family commitments. At least it keep me off the streets and out of trouble…

        I also have the book out with a small inde press which requested a full manuscript at the end of February. Still waiting to hear back from them, but definitely glad to have it out there. I’ve shopped it to a lot of agents so far, but unfortunately I did so for many of them before it was really ready to go. I think it’s now in pretty much racing form, as it were, and I’ve been sending it out again.

        So, as Mr. Keillor likes to say, be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

        Keith

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