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.
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.