Lately, I’ve been writing and reading realistic stories with a hint of guilt. Why guilt, you may ask?
Because I’ve been a staunch defender of the literary merit of fantasy, sci-fi, and magic realism, and because my turn to realism in middle age is accompanied by a bit of skepticism about the paranormal and a bit of boredom with its fiction, even as these genres are gaining status in the publishing world and as writers are beginning to blur genres with greater effect and fewer apologies.
In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Samantha Hunt said: “’Magic’ is a tricky word. It separates the unexplainable from our daily experience. Yet eyeballs, snowflakes, quantum physics and birth (along with many other things), are magical and habitual. I prefer the word ‘science.’ I like to write about wonder found in the ordinary.”
Basically, she’s saying, reality is so amazing that she uses the concept of magic to call attention to it. That’s sort of what I do—use magic to externalize emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual truths – make metaphor materially (or at least verbally) manifest.
But while I agree with Hunt that molecular structure is wonder-inducing, calling into question, as it does, the nature of solidity, I disagree that science equals the magic or the miraculous. The words “magic,” “supernatural” and “miraculous” specifically mean that which is beyond nature – that which has no rational explanation.
So why do we keep using it in fiction if what we are really talking about is our perception of reality? Why, in the wonderful featured story, “The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change,” does author Virginia M Mohlere use the tiny dragon to symbolize the main character’s need to let her own inner monster out to fight the very real monster of her abusive, alcoholic mother? Why didn’t she just write a realistic story about that? Wouldn’t that be more complex to have the character fight her own battle, thus inviting the question of whether it’s right to fight violence with violence?
I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I’ll try: the tiny dragon is a more delightful, more beautiful, more loving solution to rancid reality. The dragon is allowed to be an animal. It’s right and correct for the dragon to bite and scratch the mother—because it is acting in accordance with its true nature, whereas it would be wrong for the narrator to do that because humans are supposed to transcend their basic nature, to transcend violence. The dragon construct, therefore, allows us to have both. It allows us to deal with a heavy subject in a light way.
But, at the risk of offending, I wonder when approaching my own writing on this score, if I’m dodging the difficult. If one goes much further down this road one might conclude, as some do, that all of fiction is a contrivance, and that only “real stories” are worth reading. Is there something wrong with relying on a construct? Is a construct the same as a contrivance?
Ursula Le Guin, in her essay, “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists,” would object to this line of questioning. She says, to assert that fantasy is mere metaphor or allegory is to reduce it and negate its primary power, which is to point us outside the box of quotidian life, which she sees, I think, as an inherently good activity because it opens us up to tolerance for difference and to imagining a better life.
Of course, we all know how subjective reality can be. And we’ve all heard the adage that fiction (good fiction anyway), is truer than truth.
I remain conflicted and curious about this issue, and ultimately, I think the world takes all kinds of fiction and needs all kinds. After all, there isn’t just one version or a willow, but thousands, and new ones crossbreeding every day.