Magic realism: not fantasy. Sorry.
August 27, 2012 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Magic realism: not fantasy. Sorry.
posted by shivohum (136 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fantasy magic is systematic: there are rules, if implicit, dictating who can perform it, and what it can do, and how. Distinctions are drawn between magicians and Muggles, enchanted items and normal kitchenware. Magic is extraordinary, supernatural, paranormal—anything but quotidian—and the staggering implications of its existence are explored and illustrated.

Evans should probably note that he's talking about a specific genre of fantasy novels - ones nominally set in the modern day. I definitely tripped up on this and started blustering before I caught up. There are whole genres of fantasy novels where magic is pedestrian or quotidian.
posted by muddgirl at 3:43 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


(Or not necessarily 'modern day', but fantasy novels set in 'our world,' but with Magic.)
posted by muddgirl at 3:45 PM on August 27, 2012


Some interesting meditations dressed up as a border skirmish in the genre wars.
posted by grobstein at 3:46 PM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Methinks the writer is tilting at windmills.
posted by chavenet at 3:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


people this can only be settled with a dance fight.
posted by The Whelk at 3:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [13 favorites]


So... where on the spectrum do you put Discworld?
posted by LogicalDash at 3:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Evans should probably note that he's talking about a specific genre of fantasy novels - ones nominally set in the modern day.

He's not restricting himself to that. He pulled in almost all of Brust, e.g. (presumably Brokedown Palace tripped him up there).
posted by gurple at 3:51 PM on August 27, 2012


Sounds like hooptedoodle.
posted by zzazazz at 3:52 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I will ever understand the drive to mark and enforce the boundaries of genre.
posted by dng at 3:54 PM on August 27, 2012 [22 favorites]


It really reads to me like just one attempt by someone who considers X, Y, and Z worthy to wall it off from the unworthy A, B, and C. Since the criteria are actually developed after the fact, I wouldn't expect them to make much sense.
posted by tyllwin at 3:57 PM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Perhaps a better, subtly different form of distinction is noting that "fantasy" fiction tends to center directly around some sort of magic or system of magic, whereas "magical realism" is, as notes this article's author, fiction primarily dealing with characters and systems of characters who sometimes encounter random magical happenings.

I would agree with the article's author that magical realism does *not* fall within the realm of fantasy, but that's just my humble opinion.
posted by fignewton at 3:58 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where does Harry Potter fit in then? Part of the point is that what seems fantastic or magical in one society is bog-standard normal in another (see Arthur Weasley's fascination with Muggle tech). It's systematic, but doesn't fit the "not quotidian" marker. (i suppose my bigger question is "normal according to who?")
posted by divabat at 3:59 PM on August 27, 2012


It's amusing that the genre of magical realism is frequently the victim of moving goalposts.
posted by gilrain at 4:00 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm gonna say fantasy is a broad enough term to encompass elves & dwarves nonsense, Narnia, the works of Neil Gaiman, Kafka AND Maguc Realism if you want it to. Like SF it's better to think of it as a fuzzy spectrum of things rather than a clearly marked off area.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have no interest in arguing classifications

So I'm going to do so at length!

Fantasy magic is systematic: there are rules, if implicit, dictating who can perform it, and what it can do, and how

This is hugely overbroad to the point of falsity. He needs it to be the case to draw the distinction he wants to draw, so he simply begs the question.
posted by Justinian at 4:04 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


whereas "magical realism" is, as notes this article's author, fiction primarily dealing with characters and systems of characters who sometimes encounter random magical happenings

This is the ol' "SF is about spaceships and rayguns! I write about people, so it isn't SF!" line of reasoning.
posted by Justinian at 4:05 PM on August 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


Gabriel Garcia Marquez made similar points far more eloquently in his address to the Nobel Prize committee in 1982, claiming that the outlandish and outsized reality of Latin American history required such tall tales to do it justice.

It seems to me that the move to claim a magic realist literature in North America is an acknowledgement of a cultural milieu that is becoming increasingly ridiculous, absurd and unbelievable. Every day it feels like we must live in a mirror reality where things are going more and more askew.

And to me that style of fantasy is far truer to fantasy's roots than the regimented magics of Harry Potter. That kind of magic turns magic into a science, predictable and banal. I disagree with the blogger: magic that has rules, even if those rules demarcate it from the unmagical, IS mundane. It is predictable.

I'm much interested in fantasy that stems from the unpredictable, the chaotic, the inexplicable. The weird and uncanny. The horrific and sublime. To say "That's not fantasy" seems to be ignoring an entire literary history.
posted by crackingdes at 4:06 PM on August 27, 2012 [13 favorites]


When you live amid papered-over blood-soaked horror, like Nigeria’s Biafran civil war and corrupt dictatorships, India’s partition and Emergency, and Colombia’s La Violencia, then the surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational. That’s the well that magic realism draws from.

That's a really strong claim. I appreciate his idea of a continuum, but instead of blurring boundaries and keeping the categories complex and multiple, Evans insists on a continuum with clear lines and prescriptive boundaries along the way. "Not fantasy." "That's the well magic realism draws from."

Why do that? It's useless to assert these things as clear categories. "Papered-over blood-soaked horror" is not the only well "magic realism" can draw from.
posted by mediareport at 4:08 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is hugely overbroad to the point of falsity. He needs it to be the case to draw the distinction he wants to draw, so he simply begs the question.

On preview, what Justinian said.

There's lots of so-called fantasy in which magic is not systematic in the ways he describes. By that same token, just because an underlying system is unfathomable or poorly explained, does not make that system somehow nonexistent and, while I don't have any ironclad examples off-hand, I'm sure one could make that kind of a case for some magical realism.
posted by juv3nal at 4:08 PM on August 27, 2012


Jon Evans: Not making sense. Sorry.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:08 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Harry Potter is bad systematic fantasy. The Chronicles of Narnia too. But they're both pretty good series. (Note, JRR Tolkien agrees with me regarding Narnia: cf. Middle Earth is well done systematic fantasy.)

I think this guy makes a meaningful distinction for people who are connoisseurs of systematic fantasy, though I'm not sure magical realism is actually fantasy either.

Magical realism is for evoking a point, a mood, a metaphor... It's incredibly powerful. It has its own logic. But it's not a story logic, a causal logic.

Systematic fantasy is about things that are not real where what happens actually matters later. It's about places with different rules.
posted by zeek321 at 4:09 PM on August 27, 2012


He's not restricting himself to that.

Then his comments about magic being paranormal don't make any sense. Many of the magical system of, say, The Lord of the Rings is textually non-mystical. Other explicit fantasy books are also non-systematic (Narnia, as mentioned before).
posted by muddgirl at 4:11 PM on August 27, 2012


Or rather, non-metaphysical.
posted by muddgirl at 4:11 PM on August 27, 2012


I'm not really comfortable with how the assertion that these wartorn areas of the world lead to the magical realism can very easily be tipped into the realm of considering that people in these places don't also have all the same mundane hopes and troubles that people in more economically and socially stable places have.

Am I making any sense? Somebody with more sleep and eloquence needs to say it better for me. It's a slippery slope, is all.
posted by Mizu at 4:13 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I'm not sure I will ever understand the drive to mark and enforce the boundaries of genre."

There can be no knowledge without an understanding of distinctions and differences.
posted by oddman at 4:14 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think the real debate is whether it is "magical realism" or "magic realism", OK?

What is this "magic realism" nonsense.
posted by mysticreferee at 4:15 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can certainly construct a definition of "fantasy" that excludes most prominent "magical realism" works. The question is, will anyone except those magical realist readers who wish to distance themselves from the hoi polloi, agree with it?
posted by tyllwin at 4:18 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure I will ever understand the drive to mark and enforce the boundaries of genre.
Well, to start with, there are those who like to break things down into categories and those who don't.
posted by b1tr0t at 4:20 PM on August 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


Easy litmus test: how much slash fiction is associated with the book in question?
posted by uosuaq at 4:22 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, to start with, there are those who like to break things down into categories and those who don't.

Charles Darwin, 1857: "Those who make many species are the 'splitters,' and those who make few are the 'lumpers.'"
posted by mediareport at 4:26 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was just reading along and then I suddenly drifted away as I began to lose the thread of what the author was talking about. I was never seen again. Neither was the thread.
posted by me3dia at 4:27 PM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


I agree completely with everything in this article except it's "magical realism" instead of "magic realism" because "magic realism" sounds stupes.

Favorite MR works: Nova Ren Suma, Imaginary Girls; Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:30 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I started 100 Years but never finished it. On the other hand, I've read a lot of Borges, and while I'm not a huge fan of the term "magic/al realism" I'm pretty sure the point is that in these types of stories (whither Latin or otherwise) the "magic" isn't being used with the same, er, aesthetic intent. Michael Moorcock is not gunning for the same goalposts as Marquez. Same could be said for a writer like Vonnegut being classed as a science fiction writer. Sure the identifying marks are there, but he's not even really in the same room as Dick, even though they're both pretty damn good writers! The entire aesthetic is just so different.

In my own shorthand: fantasy = popcorn fun, magical realism = time for a bit of a sit-and-think...generally speaking. And it's a spectrum, you know? Sometimes they blend (re:Dick, as above). Sometimes writers break your expectations. It's OK. We can all be friends here.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:32 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I like about good magical realism is that it makes you feel slightly nauseated, like a very vivid dream made real. I see it as fundamentally surrealist whereas fantasy is fundamentally science fictional. But I wouldn't argue with someone who thought MR was a type of fantasy, even if I'd disagree.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I see it as fundamentally surrealist whereas fantasy is fundamentally science fictional.

The part of this that I find funny is that science fiction fans sometimes dump on all fantasy because they see science fiction 'magic' as systematical while fantasy magic is all made up to suit the plot purposes.

Personally, I think it's unfair to the entire genre of fantasy to limit it to popcorn novels, and I say that as someone who loves popcorn novels. I think there's room in fantasy for sit-and-think novels, whether or not magical realism counts.
posted by muddgirl at 4:36 PM on August 27, 2012


(If it's not clear, those two paragraphs are in reply to two different people)
posted by muddgirl at 4:37 PM on August 27, 2012


Better to imagine a spectrum, with what I’m going to call “surreal fantasy” to the left and “systematic fantasy” on the right.

It seems to be that everything is on a spectrum or a continuum. Race. Gender. Fiction genres. Even the color grey.
posted by vidur at 4:39 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, in other words, as a privileged, first-world white male, I am once again denied standing, this time to write good fantasy (the kind that comes in trade paper for $14.99), and can only produce trash fantasy (mass market paperback, $7.99). Sigh.

Well, at least between climate change and the Republican party, there's every hope that America will go sufficiently to shit that I'll be able to produce something of literary merit before I die. No doubt in some kind of mass civic unrest.
posted by Naberius at 4:40 PM on August 27, 2012


In my own shorthand: fantasy = popcorn fun, magical realism = time for a bit of a sit-and-think...generally speaking. And it's a spectrum, you know? Sometimes they blend (re:Dick, as above). Sometimes writers break your expectations. It's OK. We can all be friends here.

Not gonna be friends with somebody whose definition of fantasy is that it is, basically, mindless dreck.
posted by Justinian at 4:41 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Michael Moorcock is not gunning for the same goalposts as Marquez.

Would you say Gene Wolfe is gunning for the goalposts used by Moorcock or Marquez? How about John Crowley? Jonathan Carroll?
posted by Justinian at 4:42 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are so many examples of non-systematic fantasy from outside the developing world that the regional stereotyping is a bit ridiculous. Gulliver's Travels, Lud-in-the-Mist, Neverwhere and Neil Gaiman generally, The Wind on The Moon, Archer's Goon are arguably Western examples of "magic realism", if one chooses to apply the term in that way.
posted by howfar at 4:42 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Where do contemporary Japanese writers like Murakami fit in.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:42 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh and Steppenwolf is a pretty fucking significant example of European "magic realism" too.
posted by howfar at 4:43 PM on August 27, 2012


It's all jazz to me, daddy-o.
posted by not_on_display at 4:45 PM on August 27, 2012


The part of this that I find funny is that science fiction fans sometimes dump on all fantasy because they see science fiction 'magic' as systematical while fantasy magic is all made up to suit the plot purposes.

Yeah of course, that's silly (and you get the same thing with hard vs soft SF). But I see most fantasy and SF writers engaged in devising plausible worlds--SF writers plausible worlds that grow out of old laws of science, and fantasy writers as growing plausible worlds out of new laws of science. They're writers concerned with worldbuilding. I don't think MR writers are concerned with that at all as much as evoking emotional responses from the jarring juxtaposition between supernatural events and the physics of our world. Which isn't to say that F/SF writers aren't concerned with emotional responses, juxtapositions, or supernatural events, but rather that they seek to make it all seamless and whole and MR writers resist that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:46 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't read books, I just read words, mannnnnnnnn.
posted by sendai sleep master at 4:47 PM on August 27, 2012


There can be no universal distinction between genres, because genres exist for no reason other than to alleviate the confusion of the group that recognizes them. The sci-fi/fantasy divide persists because there are a lot of reasons who don't want dragons in their spaceships and vice-versa. Magic realism may not have any algorithm to determine what magic can or can't do, since there are a lot of readers who find such things tedious, but there's also lots of stuff on the fantasy shelf where the magic does whatever's funniest or most dramatic. The publisher didn't push it as magic realism because they thought that would be a falute too high, or something.

If you're making distinctions between texts, and you're not basing those distinctions on stochastic models of word frequency or something, you're basing them on subjective impressions--not necessarily your own. That's fine, of course, but subjective impressions change depending on what you're looking for--that's the "look and ye shall find" principle. So if you're going to draw a distinction based on subjective impressions, you have to be clear about what you're looking for. Just for instance, lots of fantasy fans find that a magic system can in itself function as allegory, and lots of magic-realism fans find that bizarre supernatural events are more evocative than your average description of an emotional state. Now you can make a distinction that helps people find books they like.

If you're just making a distinction for the sake of distinguishing things... have fun with that.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:47 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"charmingly erratic behaviour"

Wow, is he trying for some kind of record? He managed to shoehorn in a "non-Western cultures are irrational" sideswipe while denigrating Western fantasy as insufficiently serious (apparently, there's no random suffering in the West, so Western fantasy is all bubblegum stuff). Eesh, what a horrible argument.
posted by jiawen at 4:54 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure I will ever understand the drive to mark and enforce the boundaries of genre.
Genre and marketing demographics have a feedback-loop relationship. Publishers use genre to determine what will sell, so authors write to genres.
posted by deathpanels at 4:54 PM on August 27, 2012


Magic realism: not fantasy. Congratulations! might be more appropriate, given the rote by-the-numbers nature of so much 'fantasy' fiction these days. Although I'm sure there's lots of good stuff amidst the dross.

Would you say Gene Wolfe is gunning for the goalposts

Gene Wolfe is so far beyond the goalposts that they look like itty-bitty matchsticks way back there in the distance. Heh.

I enjoy the magical realism school a lot, because I really have found that life out on the fringes, where I spent a couple of decades wandering around doing stupid things with dangerous people, really is magical (for lack of a better word) and mysterious sometimes. Outright fantasy, though I don't have anything against it, doesn't do it for me as much, because I tend to feel the world we have is rich enough in wonder and excitement and horror and Big Stories, and bleeds over into the magical pretty easily where the fabric is stretched thin.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:55 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


And then there's your Slipstream and Transrealism and other Rudy Ruckeresque subgenres of... Fantasy? Magical realism? SF?
posted by Artw at 4:56 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't slipstream more of a venn diagram than a category?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:58 PM on August 27, 2012


You can certainly construct a definition of "fantasy" that excludes most prominent "magical realism" works. The question is, will anyone except those magical realist readers who wish to distance themselves from the hoi polloi, agree with it?

Ah! The "Atwood".
posted by Artw at 4:58 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Isn't slipstream more of a venn diagram than a category?

It's Venn diagrams all the way down, really.
posted by Artw at 4:59 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


There was a time in my life when Steven Brust could have told me anything and I would have believed him. Then I turned 15.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:02 PM on August 27, 2012


I just finished 1Q84 and I think it lands on the Magical Realism side. It's magic seems rooted in the source culture as opposed to any character. To me, that's the difference between Fantasy and Magical Realism (if one needs a difference).
posted by DaddyNewt at 5:03 PM on August 27, 2012


It is very simple. In fantasy the magic is literal magic. In magical realism it is an allegory. It is more akin to a fable or folk tale.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:04 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


VAGUE SPOILERS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVEN'T READ GAME OF THRONES

******************************




Where does A Song of Ice and Fire fit into this? I mean, it's obviously fantasy, set in a medieval fantasy world. But the fantasy world is treated realistically. And the "magic" in Westeros seems more like Marquez-style magic than the systematic wizard magic you would expect. It's pretty random and seems almost allegorical. Although there are implications that magic was once systematic, and that people are going to figure it out again.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:09 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just want to be clear, Justinian, that I did not intend for popcorn fun to mean mindless dreck. Like I said, it's a spectrum and some things are a little of both. I like fantasy!

I'm still chewing in this. I'll be back with more thoughts in a little while.
posted by Doleful Creature at 5:11 PM on August 27, 2012


The presence or otherwise of some kind of D&D style magic system seems a particularly poor dividing line, if you're going to have one.
posted by Artw at 5:11 PM on August 27, 2012


What does it mean that I got up to the last 30 pages of Solitude, but just didn't care enough to finish it, but I read the hell out of the Dragonlance books in 8th grade because I had a page-per-month quota for getting a grade?
posted by lkc at 5:13 PM on August 27, 2012


It seems to me that any genre delineation which attempts to claim political / cultural commentary for one side devolves into "this is serious, and that is fluff." It seems clear to me that works that are very clearly fantastical can explore the real world very effectively: consider Mieville's work, or heck even C. S. Lewis. A Song of Ice and Fire is another example, yes.

Internal consistency does seem to be a better defining feature. Fantasy is prone to world-building (and its antithesis, the dreaded retcon), while magical realism is defined by its lack of rules and flagrant inconsistencies. Magical realism, taken to one extreme, rejects the possibility of a divinely-ordered or rational universe.
posted by mek at 5:13 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's something in what he says. I do not enjoy magical realism because it seems so random to me.
posted by Ery at 5:17 PM on August 27, 2012


Where does A Song of Ice and Fire fit into this? I mean, it's obviously fantasy, set in a medieval fantasy world. But the fantasy world is treated realistically. And the "magic" in Westeros seems more like Marquez-style magic than the systematic wizard magic you would expect. It's pretty random and seems almost allegorical. Although there are implications that magic was once systematic, and that people are going to figure it out again.

To me it seems to be fantasy because it's set in a world that allows for wild magic, which is different from a book being set in our world upon which wild magic intrudes. Which is the same reason that most contemporary urban fantasy is also fantasy; it's expanding the physics of the world to include shapeshifters and the biology to include vampires rather than, say, creating a world that does . . . well, what the world in Kelly Link's "The Hortlak" does. It's something else, something different (I quite like it!), but I'm not really sure how to describe it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:21 PM on August 27, 2012


Well, then there's Moorcock, who'll do a bunch of word building and then melt it all down into metaphysical chaotic madness about once a novel cycle. And also there's your weird fiction authors, not just your Lovecraft's but your Clarke Ashton Smiths and your Dunsanys and your William Hope Hogsons... Is The House on the Borderlands really like wholey like and Tolkien and wholey unlike Marquez?
posted by Artw at 5:23 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree that I'd generally define magical realism as different from fantasy -- our world, but weird stuff happens, instead of our world, plus magic/fairies? But I can think of exceptions. The two seem to slide into each other, and depending on how broadly you want to define fantasy, magical realism can be a subset.

I just finished 1Q84 and I think it lands on the Magical Realism side

Which proves that magical realism can be bad, just like fantasy! I liked a lot of his books, but I really hated 1Q84.

posted by jeather at 5:24 PM on August 27, 2012


For me, fantasy is something that explicitly takes place Somewhere Else, even if it's Quite A Bit Like Home. Magic realism takes place in our world, and makes it fantastical.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2012


Also a "fantasy world treated realistically" is pretty much the hallmark of good fantasy worldbuilding--any well-drawn fantasy or SF work will be "realistic" in that it will seem predicated on rules, logic. Systems. Which is I think where this guy is right, though I disagree on the value judgments.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am going to stick to my guns and say that the lack of internal consistency in magic realism magic is because it is allegory/literary device/fictive effect. We tell magic stories all the time that are not literally true. Paul Bunyan, Brer Rabbit, hundreds of creation myths. Much like the magic of 100 years are to that world these magic stories are part of collective mythos. None of them are meant to be taken to be literal magic that really happened in a consistent world.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:26 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


weak piece. By his analysis, magical realism is derived from whacky non-northern european failures of governance. This would mean that the work of Jaime and Beto Hernandez, clearly within the Latin American magic realism tradition, is not, since they are from, work in, and reflect the culture of Southern California in their material. Ulness what he is really saying is that you can recognize magic realism because it is written by people of non-northern european heritage, which, surely, he can't be. Can he?
posted by mwhybark at 5:29 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of an question that I've been pondering lately: what is magic, anyway? I ask this (mostly) in a literary context, where magic fulfills some kind of narrative function (if only as a flashy gimmick, as is often the case). Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic may be a bit glib, but there is some value to the point.

After all, in many books, magic and spells don't seem much different from science and technology. Magic is just a set of metaphysical rules, and spells are reproducible recipes for exploiting those rules in a useful fashion. At least, that's the standard representation of magic in literature, and arguably, a pretty poor representation. In such fictional worlds, the division between magic and science seems mostly a matter of trappings i.e. robes versus lab coats, chanting versus soldering. In a number of instances, this lack of fine distinction is made explicit. At least this is purposeful, albeit perhaps a bit misguided.

I haven't read a single novel of the magical realism genre, though I've read a little about it. From the way that this article describes it, magical realism sounds like a more legitimate interpretation of magic than the bog-standard fantasy approach. Randomness and unpredictability are very much against the scientific paradigm. In fact, as this poster has stated, this randomness sounds like a deliberate and resonant theme, in such works. Thus, it sounds like a good corrective to a lot of misguided fantasy.

What did I get out of this? Apparently, I have to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.
posted by Edgewise at 5:34 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then there's Zeitgeist, Bruce Sterling's Fantasy novel in which Magucal Realism is the magic system.
posted by Artw at 5:41 PM on August 27, 2012


I like very much that this thread is happening in parallel with this one.
posted by Artw at 5:44 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is the Iluminatus Trilogy magical realism?
posted by Ad hominem at 5:45 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is Cosmic Trigger?
posted by Artw at 5:46 PM on August 27, 2012


PhoBWanKenobi: "What I like about good magical realism is that it makes you feel slightly nauseated, like a very vivid dream made real. I see it as fundamentally surrealist whereas fantasy is fundamentally science fictional. But I wouldn't argue with someone who thought MR was a type of fantasy, even if I'd disagree."

Yep. This seems to be exactly how I feel about magical realism -- the whole thing feels kind of like a fever dream. Some details are grossly exaggerated, while others are fuzzy or left out entirely.

My other interpretation is that most magical realism seems to be written from the perspective of a guy with a massive hangover, trying to recall the events of the previous night.

Also: Fantasy is much more broad than "wizards & orcs." Still, I don't think that most magical realism belongs within its borders.

Also also: Random invocation of deus ex machina does not qualify a work as fantasy or magical realism, nor does a work such as Harry Potter, where magical beings are set in our own world — that's not the kind of 'realism' that we're talking about.
posted by schmod at 5:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


With they're dense systemisation it's clear that the novels of Richard Bach are fantasy while the more free form works of Tom Robbins are magical realism.
posted by Artw at 5:51 PM on August 27, 2012


Like whoa I totes agree with schmod and PhoBWonKenobi re: that hangover/fuzzy feeling and magical realism. Spot. On.
posted by Doleful Creature at 5:54 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


And then we have the later works of Philip K Dick.
posted by Artw at 5:57 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


To me it seems to be fantasy because it's set in a world that allows for wild magic, which is different from a book being set in our world upon which wild magic intrudes. Which is the same reason that most contemporary urban fantasy is also fantasy; it's expanding the physics of the world to include shapeshifters and the biology to include vampires rather than, say, creating a world that does . . . well, what the world in Kelly Link's "The Hortlak" does. It's something else, something different (I quite like it!), but I'm not really sure how to describe it.

Also a "fantasy world treated realistically" is pretty much the hallmark of good fantasy worldbuilding--any well-drawn fantasy or SF work will be "realistic" in that it will seem predicated on rules, logic. Systems. Which is I think where this guy is right, though I disagree on the value judgments.

What makes me want to lump A Song of Ice and Fire in with magical realism is that most of its realism is magic-free. The systems and world-building are political, economic, and social systems. (And much like the Latin American authors mentioned, there's a whole lot of strife going on.) There are enough non-earthly elements to make it undeniably fantasy but they aren't actually magic. When magic does show up, it's irrational -- "wild magic" is a good term. And, much like in magical realism, people don't act sufficiently astonished for the amount of weirdness involved (perhaps because of all the other, mundane strife). Magic's job is kind of to break the world's rules, especially in the early books.

Unrelated: has anyone read Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery? It's like Pynchon's V mixed with Bradbury and a heavy dose of Marquez/Allende style magical realism (complete with prophecies of the ultimate fates of characters every so often). It's pretty good.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:01 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my own shorthand: fantasy = popcorn fun, magical realism = time for a bit of a sit-and-think...

I think this sums up the problem most people have with this kind of article.

In theory, it's obvious and useful and interesting to observe and talk about the differences between Garcia Marquez and Tolkien and the various authors who follow in each of their footsteps.

In practice, some fans of Magical Realism can't seem to resist claiming that Magical Realism (as a genre) is better, smarter, more serious, more worthwhile than Fantasy. Garcia Marquez is a fantastic author, but that doesn't mean that any given work Magical Realism is more worthy of a "sit-and-think" than any given work of Fantasy.
posted by straight at 6:05 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


The difference is as said above: in fantasy, magic is a real part of the world and is part of the story; in magic realism, it is allegorical/metaphorical and comments on the story.

You can have fantasy just as literary as magic realism -- see Geoff Ryman's The Warrior who Carried Life (which, despite the cheesy-pulp fantasy cover in this link, is usually sold with a "literature" style cover and even sometimes as a trade paperback, though Ryman is a white, first-world author), and is as well written as many magic realism books (not saying as it's as good as Marquez, but who is?). But it is definitely fantasy, rather than magic realism.
posted by jb at 6:16 PM on August 27, 2012


also fantasy, and literary: Jeanette Winterson's Boating for Beginners (re-telling of Noah and the Ark)

and Pratchett pretends to be silly fantasy but has gotten more profound overtime -- and is one of our most important satirists working in any genre.

SF and literary: other than the obvious - 1984, We - I would point out Joan Vinge's Snow Queen, which is definitely a "sit-and-think-and-think-and-think" series (along with many other great SF&F novels).
posted by jb at 6:22 PM on August 27, 2012


William Burroughs Vs J.G. Ballard.
posted by Artw at 6:25 PM on August 27, 2012


Is the Iluminatus Trilogy magical realism?
posted by Ad hominem at 8:45 PM on 8/27


Fantasy,

or non-fiction, depending on your perspective.

also fantasy: Utopia, Gulliver's Travels, the Grimm's Household tales, Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book -- in all of them, the supernatural things really are happening, and are the story (rather than a comment on the story) - though they also have metaphoric meanings.
posted by jb at 6:27 PM on August 27, 2012


The 'magical' events in 'magical realism' are really are happening, and are both the story and a comment on the story. It seems a bit narrow-minded to say that 1000 Years of Solitude, say, is entirely metaphorical.

I have a really hard problem drawing a line between Borges and Grimm's fairy tales.
posted by muddgirl at 6:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Only one hundred years. The other 900 are fantasy.

(Note that I have no problem if booksellers, authors, and readers want to classify magical realism as something different from genre or literary fantasy. I just delight in poking at the edges of classification systems. Probably a streak of troll in me).
posted by muddgirl at 6:36 PM on August 27, 2012


There can be no knowledge without an understanding of distinctions and differences.
Right, but this is a reason to define your terms before moving along, not a reason to argue about terms. The word "fantasy" is just a loosely shared convenient descriptive term, and whenever "loosely" is a significant part in that phrase, "convenient" isn't, in which case just give up on the word and use a longer more precise description of what you mean instead. There is no Platonic ideal of a "Fantasy Story" to which various real fantasies are better or worse approximations.
posted by roystgnr at 6:38 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


So... In true magic realism the fantastical element must be decoration only and of no cinsequence? That WOULD differentiate it from a lot of the works above. On the other hand, fantastical element is still fantastical element.
posted by Artw at 6:40 PM on August 27, 2012


Also, Kafka and Gogol. Although much of their work is clearly driven explicitly by whacky failures of governance.

Dismissing non-rational plot events as not-real within the world of the fiction is an inaccurate and dismissive tack, by the way. In the world of "The Nose" the nose lives a life independent of its original host, and of course, there is the case of that well-known cockroach. Identifying the transformation of Gregor Samsa as purely metaphorical is a possible, even predominant, reading of the story, but the story explicitly says that the transformation occurs.
posted by mwhybark at 6:45 PM on August 27, 2012


Grendel: fantasy or magic realism?
posted by mwhybark at 6:47 PM on August 27, 2012


The Bible.

Gilgamesh, motherfuckers.
posted by Artw at 6:48 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, PhoBWanKenobi! I haven't read anything quite like that since Bears Discover Fire.
posted by TreeRooster at 6:48 PM on August 27, 2012


Cúchulainn: magic realsim reflecting whacky failures of governance. not fantasy. wild celtic warriors in pre-rational metaphor!

(I am being unfair, I know, consider it japery. possibly wild celtic japery.)
posted by mwhybark at 6:52 PM on August 27, 2012


This reminds me of Parks & Recreation's Ben Wyatt talking about Game of Thrones: "It's a crossover hit. It's not just for fantasy enthusiasts. They're telling human stories in a fantasy world."

Why are we giving a shit about this classification again? It says nothing about a book's tone, or about its characters, or about anything else that might plausibly matter to a reader. This sounds like yet another argument by a member of one literary caste attempting to solve a personal grudge through snobbery.

I don't consider "fantasy" a useful genre to begin with. Some fantasy works are heavy on the politics, some on romance, some on action; some are coming-of-age stories and some are epics and some are comedies. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a fantastic epic. Whether a fantasy has rules or whether it's surreal and open-ended doesn't matter to me, except for inasmuch as those rules affect the story told.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:54 PM on August 27, 2012


It seems a bit narrow-minded to say that 1000 Years of Solitude, say, is entirely metaphorical.

You are right, some of it may be allegory and some may be a parable.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:54 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I always thought of magical realism as a plot chock full of coincidences, or rather you could call it synchronicity. No fantasy involved, more like the playful contrivances of the author.
posted by zardoz at 6:54 PM on August 27, 2012


Only an asshole dies over a marketing category.
posted by Artw at 6:56 PM on August 27, 2012


If I accept his societal explanation of Latin American magical realism, then I think the North American counterpart is horror. Guys in assless bear suits giving blowjobs in evil hotels. The structure of the world is bad, the structure of the world will not save you from the madness. Beyond the structures and systems, the "magic" is dangerous, deadly, and horrific.
posted by fleacircus at 6:58 PM on August 27, 2012


I don't think it's fair to say that the fantastic is always metaphorical in MR. The zombies in "The Hortlak" are literal zombies. They're there in the story and treated as zombies. But the rules of the story are slippery. The world is full of contradictions, whereas in fantasy, those contradictions are resisted.

It says nothing about a book's tone, or about its characters, or about anything else that might plausibly matter to a reader.

Those things might not matter to you as a reader but I know plenty of readers who dislike MR because it wigs them out or doesn't make sense to them and yet they enjoy traditional rules-based fantasy. Lots of readers like coming of age stories with orcs but not aliens. Genre categories aren't just snobbery; they help readers find what they like.

There are enough non-earthly elements to make it undeniably fantasy but they aren't actually magic. When magic does show up, it's irrational -- "wild magic" is a good term. And, much like in magical realism, people don't act sufficiently astonished for the amount of weirdness involved (perhaps because of all the other, mundane strife). Magic's job is kind of to break the world's rules, especially in the early books.

I've only seen the show, but aren't psychic magic wolves and zombies are present from the outset? People don't act surprised in that universe for the same reason that people don't act surprised by Spock's mindmelds in Star Trek--the magic is expected, part of the established universe. Magic can be unpredictable but still part of the fundamental fabric of a fictional universe and completely integrated within it. The whole "there were dragons before and oh, look, dragons again!" thing is all very fantasy. Now, if we were told there were dragons before and then a man in a sheep suit shows up. . .
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:10 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


For reference, here's a definition of Magical Realism, quoted at the Garcia Marquez "Macondo" pages at The Modern Word:

The term magic realism, originally applied in the 1920s to a school of painters, is used to describe the prose fiction of Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, as well as the work of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia, Gunter Grass in Germany, and John Fowles in England. These writers interweave, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as with materials derived from myth and fairy tales. Robert Scholes has popularized metafiction as an overall term for the large and growing class of novels which depart drastically from the traditional categories either of realism or romance, and also the term fabulation for the current mode of free-wheeling narrative invention. These novels violate, in various ways, standard novelistic expectations by drastic -- and sometimes highly effective -- experiments with subject matter, form, style, temporal sequence, and fusions of the everyday, the fantastic, the mythical, and the nightmarish, in renderings that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic.

Note the presence of European authors in that definition. There's also a set of links there to an old site I'd forgotten about, Margin, which collected lots of interesting links to discussions about magical realism back in the day. These arguments have been going on for a long time, at much greater depth than in Jon Evans' brief take.
posted by mediareport at 7:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


The judgement in the title is a bit of a trollish Metafilter no-no, one unsupported by the linked article. The piece clearly calls magic realism a type of fantasy literature, and not just by dint of all fiction being a fantasy:
“Magic realism” and “fantasy” are a false dichotomy. Better to imagine a spectrum, with what I’m going to call “surreal fantasy” to the left and “systematic fantasy” on the right.
posted by NortonDC at 7:46 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've only seen the show, but aren't psychic magic wolves and zombies are present from the outset? People don't act surprised in that universe for the same reason that people don't act surprised by Spock's mindmelds in Star Trek--the magic is expected, part of the established universe. Magic can be unpredictable but still part of the fundamental fabric of a fictional universe and completely integrated within it. The whole "there were dragons before and oh, look, dragons again!" thing is all very fantasy. Now, if we were told there were dragons before and then a man in a sheep suit shows up. . .

I suppose you are right. But there are some things that strike me as being just as bizarre and unexplained as "a man in a sheep suit". In particular, there is a really psychedelic sequence involving Daenarys that is made much less weird in the TV show. And (vague spoilers again, don't read ahead if you don't want them) the resurrections of various characters, and the red priests' powers, strike me as a similar kind of unexpected intrusion, as does the fact that the ritual towards the end of the first book/season actually works. Some of these scenes gave me the same feeling as the scenes in House of the Spirits where folk magic works. One of the red priests who is doing magical things says he had no idea that he had any powers, and didn't think his religion was real.

I think the key difference is that George RR Martin at least implies that there will be an explanation towards the end, what with prophecies etc.. AND HE BETTER DELIVER

Also, this picture is relevant.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:52 PM on August 27, 2012


I guess One Hundred Years of Solitude COULD be the best book ever written. But it's not.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:57 PM on August 27, 2012


I guess One Hundred Years of Solitude COULD be the best book ever written. But it's not.

Sigh.
posted by ovvl at 8:00 PM on August 27, 2012


Actually, The Famished Road is the best book ever written... you could prove me wrong by checking it out, go ahead, do it...
posted by ovvl at 8:18 PM on August 27, 2012


I wonder if we can harness the power of the internet to discover the best, or at least most popular, book. Anyone have a lot of twitter followers? Let';s get a #bestbookever hashtag going and tabulate the results. Like "The Old Man and the Sea #bestbookever"

Also, you guys are probably right that not all magic in MR is allegorical, it has been many long years since I read 100 years of solitude, I'm sure there is some legit magic in there I forgot.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:18 PM on August 27, 2012


you know what. scratch that. Internet polls don't work. It will get trolled and we end up having to declare mein kampf or busy, busy town the best book ever.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:24 PM on August 27, 2012


1000 years of solitude would be
About a very bored lich. Probably in the end he invents owlbears or something.
posted by Artw at 8:26 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, The Famished Road is the best book ever written... you could prove me wrong by checking it out, go ahead, do it...

Huh?

But seriously, despite not being my cup of tea (too cloying and cute), Marquez is not an author lacking a fanbase or critical recognition. Nor is Allende (who Evans weirdly doesn't mention despite being such a fan of magic realism). Are people actually refusing to read OHYOS because some dude called it "fantasy"? Is one joke about your personal favorite book enough reason to publish a ranty, nonsensical essay? Are we just constructing strawmen to watch them burn now?
posted by oinopaponton at 8:35 PM on August 27, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about this in the past few hours. I mean, on the one hand this is a pretty old and tired argument, and on the other hand it's not necessarily a resolved argument since new interlocutors keep arriving.

It's a reasonably accepted truth that genre labels exist largely for organizational purposes of one sort or another (such as book store shelves, discussion groups, dating profiles, literary criticism to an extent). And maybe it's facile to say things like "it's a spectrum, mmmkay" but on a personal level it really is like that. Some of it is baggage: genre labels can sometimes imply seriousness or appropriateness. But once again these are largely external problems that aren't necessarily germane to the actual process of reading something.

But we have to deal with the external problems even when we don't want to. I get why a lot of fantasy writers grouse about this. It's that old "ghetto-ization" chestnut. And I kind of agree. It is slightly unfair that writers like Dick and Wolfe end up sharing shelf space with Piers Anthony and Warhammer 40k novelizations. It's not the end of the world, but I can see why a lot of these fantasy authors get upset, looking wistfully over at that other book section at B&N, unhelpfully marked "Literature" and just teeming with books by writers like Borges, Marquez, Priest, Vonnegut, Susanna Clarke, and even Stephen Goddamn King.

It helps me to think of the term "magical realism" not as a distinction from fantasy, but rather a distinction from "realism", or rather "regular literature". After all if it was really trying to be distinct from fantasy, a more apt label would be "literary fantasy"...since ultimately that is what the complaint is really about. Writers like Brust don't really care that Marquez has his own sub-genre, they care that the sub-genre has better academic credibility and thus, in their minds, better success, access to less furry readers, etc...

So what about Shakespeare? Some of his works have Decidedly Magical Shit going on, but I don't think anyone really thinks of them as works of fantasy. Weird, but hey it's the Bard so I guess he's kind of untouchable. Fortunately for book store clerks there is a Drama section and nobody seems to mind the Shakerspeare is shelved right next to Shaffer, Simon and Sophocles (!).

I like the idea that magical realist works tend to be more about characters, while straight-up fantasies tend to be more about Big Ideas or systems. This seems to play out more often than not, but again, writers are notorious for not following the rules so these definitions only take us so far. Gene Wolfe is a great example. He does a lot with unreliable narrators, and adds layers upon layers, and creates strange fringey almost archetypical characters and it all rolls together so well you think "dang, why don't they teach this stuff in in school, kids would dig it" and part of that reason really is because he's still thought of strictly as a fantasy or SF writer. Wolfe's other problem might be that his writing is, insanely, too smart for its own literary (heh) good. Interestingly after I read Book of the New Sun I felt like I was emerging from a stupendous fever dream, the same sensation I get every time I read a Borges story, or whenever I decide to crack open 100 Years or Crowley's Little, Big.

Way on the other end of that dumb spectrum is fantasy, which I previously shorthanded as "popcorn fun". Not the best description ever, but then again I did say it was only a shorthand and that it doesn't always fit. Of course even a really fun romp of a fantasy story can make you think, though I've found that to be the exception and not the norm. Similary, Borges is really, really great reading but it ain't exactly "fun", in that a Borges story doesn't make me want to become an Argentine gaucho or a blind librarian or a boy in the jungle. But after I finished Night Watch you bet your ass I wanted to sign up with Vimes and crew to solve magical crimes and stuff. Aw yeah (bonus: Night Watch had some profound moments for me).

Finally, regarding Game of Thrones. It occupies a weird place. By all accounts it's regular fantasy. Yep the magical wolves and the ice zombies are there from the get-go, but one interesting difference is the inability of the narrative to commit to these things in a concrete way. Magical Events are definitely happening, but they are rare and just as often disbelieved or dismissed. When they do incontrovertibly happen they seem to be grounded in some pretty serious earthy blood-sex-magick ways, and lots of lore-talk is called forth. These things tend to crystallize as the books progress and by the time you get to the latest books the idea that Westeros is a Fantasy Realm is pretty solid. The most meta magic thing going on is the red comet in the second book, but I don't recall a lot of other magical hooks like that throughout the rest of the series. There's a clear escalation of Magic Going On as the story progresses, which strikes me as decidedly not like magical realism ("winter is coming" becomes more than just an adage).
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:45 PM on August 27, 2012


The original Borges comparison I made was between Borges and fairy tales, since the claim was that magical realism != Grimms fairy tales.

I don't see the fundamental difference between Borges and other fairy tales - they're both myth-making. It's not like I read the original "The Little Mermaid" and think "Gosh, I'D like to be sea foam!" But I'll also accept that fairy tales aren't 'fantasy' by the genre label.
posted by muddgirl at 8:56 PM on August 27, 2012


But I'll also accept that fairy tales aren't 'fantasy' by the genre label.

I completely agree. Especially if we're talking about the actual Grimm tales (the sea foam reference suggests that). Those stories are pretty awful and not really fun in the way, say The Lies of Locke Lamora is. I definitely don't have a problem with the idea of folk tales being on the same path as magical realism. Makes a lot of sense to me.

Is The Colour of Magic myth-making? What about The Hobbit?
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:04 PM on August 27, 2012


I was just reading along and then I suddenly drifted away as I began to lose the thread of what the author was talking about. I was never seen again. Neither was the thread.

Oh, that must be literary fiction then. If it were genre fiction, you'd be more likely to finish what you were reading.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:08 PM on August 27, 2012


Excerpt from the OED's definition of magic realism. Sorry, they use magic, not magical realism for the listing:

Art and Literary Theory.

Originally: a style of painting which depicts fantastic or bizarre images in a precise representationalist manner (first used in German to describe the work of members of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement). In extended use: any artistic or esp. literary style in which realistic techniques such as naturalistic detail, narrative, etc., are similarly combined with surreal or dreamlike elements.
1933
J. Leftwich tr. F. Werfel Saverio's Secret in Yisroël 526 You will find it in all the little shop windows in the rue de la Boëtie, that magic realism which is the new word.

1963
B. S. Myers Expressionism v. §29. 229 In the hands of progressive Germans of the twenties (as with the Americans Charles Sheeler and Georgia O'Keefe, the Frenchman Pierre Roy, and others), Magic Realism is a meaningful and historically important movement.

1970
R. S. Rudder tr. A. Serrano-Plaja (title) ‘Magic’ realism in Cervantes.

1987
M. Atwood Sunrise in Bluebeard's Egg 246 People bought her paintings though not for ultra-top prices, especially after magic realism came back in.

1991
E. J. Smyth Postmodernism & Contemp. Fiction i. 35 Fantasy also figures centrally in the work of Salman Rushdie, its interfusion with the more prosaic material demonstrating Rushdie's incorporation into the novel in English of the exuberant magic realism developed, by South Americans such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:14 PM on August 27, 2012


Those stories are pretty awful and not really fun

...and that's where I start to lose you. I simply don't see why fantasy has to be fun. Game of Thrones is not 'fun'. It's miserable. The Alchemy of Stone is definitely a steampunk fantasy novel, but it's not really 'fun.' Demanding that fantasy be 'fun' does the entire category a disservice.
posted by muddgirl at 9:14 PM on August 27, 2012


Demanding that fantasy be 'fun' does the entire category a disservice.

QFT. The main Dragonlance series (mainly the Chronicles and Legends), most of Guy Gavriel Kay's stories, and His Dark Materials were definitely not 'fun'.

There are 'fun' fantasy novels out there but they are definitely only a subset of a much larger whole.
posted by Alnedra at 9:29 PM on August 27, 2012


Game of Thrones is not 'fun'. It's miserable.

Good point. I need to rethink my word usage (I guess 'fun' is what pulp fiction is for, eh?). Of course you're right; I didn't think Perdido Street Station was very fun either but it's definitely fantasy. But is it magic realism? Hmm...I'm missing something. Eh, maybe it is a false dichotomy and kind of a silly thing to argue about. Still...hmm hmm hmm *scratches chin*
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:29 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


All I got from that is that Jon Evans has An Opinion, but he is pretty confused about what it is. He:
1) is unhappy with Steven Brust identifying magic/al realism as fantasy by any other name,
2) creates categories that separate the finction he labels "fantasy" from what he likes ("magical realism"),
3) states this is actually a false dichotomy and
4) describes instead a spectrum of fiction that includes both fantasy and magical realism

Which, if you call that spectrum "fantasy", is pretty much what Brust said in a dozen tossed-off words. Apparently the labelling is important to Evans.
posted by N-stoff at 10:04 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


For some reason, comparing fantasy to magic realism makes me not want to read either. I think that magical realism really does excel at expressing the synchronicity and sometimes uncanniness of human experience-- but so does some awesome sci-fi. Like Dune, for instance, where the plot contrivance of seeing forward and backward in time allows Herbert to say often beautiful things about the passage and flow of time, or the burden of fate. Or the various cultures of strategic diplomacy, which give Herbert an excuse to elaborate on the subtleties of inflection and intonation (not to mention the dissonance between thought and mood) to great effect. I have a difficult time coming up with exactly what impresses me about fantasy, though. I guess great myth-building gives me the sense of the timeless struggle of the ascension of the human spirit-- that's pretty cool, but I can't think of any specific examples right now.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:37 AM on August 28, 2012


I guess my point was that I am CONFOUNDED BY THESE CATEGORIES.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:39 AM on August 28, 2012


This is the ol' "SF is about spaceships and rayguns! I write about people, so it isn't SF!" line of reasoning.

And yet there is a difference between genre sf and fantasy and non-genre fantasy & sf, let alone something like magic realism, if we set aside the occasional well intentioned if usually failed attempt by a "mainstream" writer to write sf&f proper. It's just hard to articulate the difference without being offensive.

But there is a difference in how you treat fantastic or sfnal elements in your stories, as objects of interest in their own right, or as tools.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:58 AM on August 28, 2012


*Sigh*. When did "magical realism" become "magic realism"? Another victory for the "Let's Use Nouns For Every Goddamned Part of Speech Ever" movement, I assume? What a world.
posted by Decani at 3:33 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


*Sigh*. When did "magical realism" become "magic realism"?

Um...1937?

I too am disgusted by this modern trend of linguistic change. I only speak Proto-Indo-European at home.
posted by howfar at 3:48 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


*Sorry, that should be 1934
posted by howfar at 3:57 AM on August 28, 2012


mek: It seems to me that any genre delineation which attempts to claim political / cultural commentary for one side devolves into "this is serious, and that is fluff." It seems clear to me that works that are very clearly fantastical can explore the real world very effectively: consider Mieville's work, or heck even C. S. Lewis. A Song of Ice and Fire is another example, yes.

Well, I'll claim political/cultural commentary for fantasy, not as an exclusive thing but because so many ignorant polemics against it try to reduce it down to men in furs tromping through forests.

And not even Tolkien did that. Tolkien had something to say about fall, mortality, and machine, and many of his magical devices involve mortal creatures vainly struggling against their fall and mortality. Other fantasy writers use the fantastic to reify more radical politics than Tolkien's latent philosophy. Ankh-Moorpork may be an emerging industrial city but Diskworld and its protagonists are often distinctly postmodern and deconstructionist.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:12 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


On reflection, while I disagree with the large majority of Evan's introductory paragraphs, I think Evan's axis from surreal fantasy (I would put many horror novels in this category) to systematic fantasy is a good one. I think we need a second axis, but I can't decide what it is. Maybe classifying worlds where magic is remarkable vs unremarkable?

Horror novels are worlds where magic is remarkable but surreal (paranormal, etc).
Magical realism features worlds where magic is surreal but unremarkable.
Fantasy is worlds where magic is systematic and either remarkable or unremarkable.
posted by muddgirl at 7:04 AM on August 28, 2012


(I know that starts to classify, say, Midnight's Children as a horror novel, but honestly that's not too far off.)
posted by muddgirl at 7:05 AM on August 28, 2012


*Sigh*. When did "magical realism" become "magic realism"? Another victory for the "Let's Use Nouns For Every Goddamned Part of Speech Ever" movement, I assume?
Umm, nouns like "magic" that are also adjectives? From the French adjective magique and the Latin adjective magico?
posted by mbrubeck at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2012


It's that old "ghetto-ization" chestnut. And I kind of agree. It is slightly unfair that writers like Dick and Wolfe end up sharing shelf space with Piers Anthony and Warhammer 40k novelizations. It's not the end of the world, but I can see why a lot of these fantasy authors get upset, looking wistfully over at that other book section at B&N, unhelpfully marked "Literature" and just teeming with books by writers like Borges, Marquez, Priest, Vonnegut, Susanna Clarke, and even Stephen Goddamn King.

Occasionally, I have that thought -- and then I remember that I LOVE how SF&F is ghettoized, and I don't have to search through endless mundane titles to find the stuff that I want.

As for whether fantasy is pulp: a hell of a lot of it is. A hell of a lot of mundane fiction is also pulp - we call it romance or mystery or thrillers or just plain beach books - and it's a lot of pulp: predictable stories whose plots are exciting but not challenging to follow, that are dramatic without being upsetting/depressing, whose characters are interesting but not disturbing or difficult to like -- books that will entertain, but probably won't change your life. I love that stuff -- but I prefer if there are also some dragons or alien worlds or something to spice it up with a otherness that can engage my imagination, which is also why I like historical fiction. But not too much otherness -- I shouldn't be struggling to figure out what is happening or be facing so many made-up words I need a dictionary to read it.

Actually, really, there's a spectrum from pulp to literary/challenging. I went for the pulp for a long time because work was stressful and I didn't need entertainment that was stressful, but now I'm thinking I need to find more middle-brow reading -- books that will interest and challenge without being hard work to read. Dragons are still a plus, though.
posted by jb at 9:19 AM on August 28, 2012


"What makes me want to lump A Song of Ice and Fire in with magical realism is that most of its realism is magic-free. The systems and world-building are political, economic, and social systems. (And much like the Latin American authors mentioned, there's a whole lot of strife going on.) There are enough non-earthly elements to make it undeniably fantasy but they aren't actually magic. When magic does show up, it's irrational -- "wild magic" is a good term. And, much like in magical realism, people don't act sufficiently astonished for the amount of weirdness involved (perhaps because of all the other, mundane strife). Magic's job is kind of to break the world's rules, especially in the early books."

Yeah, no, ASIF isn't magical realism by any stretch of the imagination. It's not realism, first, even though it's more realistic than most fantasy. The magic is presented as part of a well-established tradition, even though that tradition has become degraded. It's just hard to imagine starting with any actual magical realism and then saying that ASIF is like enough to be the same genre.

I do think there are books that overlap at the edges — The City and The City gets pretty close. But the mass of magical realism is connected by the ways that the rational world is undermined by events so far out of the norm that it takes an allegorical, surreal or magical explanation to make sense of it. I don't think that's exclusive to the global south, as seems to be implied by the article, but it's a really different starting point with really different aims than what fantasy shoots for, in the main.
posted by klangklangston at 10:06 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The global south thing is 100% Genre as marketing category.
posted by Artw at 10:10 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


My next story will be a piece of magical realism entitled This Magical Moment, featuring a boy wizard with a magical wand, which he uses to do magical tricks, until he's chastised by the headmaster for refusing to say the magical word: Please. We can argue later over whether this would technically be called "magical realism" or "fantasy," but at least there won't be any more of these bitter disputes over whether the word "magic" can be used as an adjective.
posted by crackingdes at 11:05 AM on August 28, 2012


The "Realism" in Magical Realism comes, I believe, primarily from the attempt to portray psychological realism. I tend to agree that the presence of fantastical events in fiction doesn't make it "fantasy", but then I absolutely love Magical Realism, while I find that most Fantasy leaves me cold. In part, I expect it's because Magical Realism hews to the literary convention of prioritizing complex characterization. I understand this doesn't mean Fantasy and SF don't have this devotion to psychological realism, but in my experience, most Fantasy/SF books are more focused on explaining and establishing the rules of the world, whereas Magical Realism leaves those elements as a given. I'm probably totally prejudiced because I work in this genre. And yeah, I'm one of those people who prefers "difficult", stylized language to jaunty plots.

The question of genre is an important one because, unfortunately, that's how most people choose what to read. If I'm looking for something in the vein of Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie or Jorge Luis Borges, I know I won't find it in the Fantasy section of the bookstore. The worst question I get is "what kind of stories do you write?" because there's no simple answer. They're too "magical" to be straight literary fiction, but not so far afield from reality as it's commonly understood to be experienced to be properly classified as "fantasy."
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:37 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Question: Is Borges's The Aleph fantasy or magical realism? And for what reasons?
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:22 PM on August 28, 2012


So... where on the spectrum do you put Discworld?

red orange yellow green blue indigo violet octarine <- here
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:58 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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