Oct 23 2008 3:39pm

Magic realism: not fantasy. Sorry.

Some years ago I was at a con in Cambridge where Steven Brust, during his otherwise very fine GoH speech, made an offhand crack about “magic realism—which we all know is just fantasy written by a Latin American author!” The crowd laughed and applauded, but I did not. I had just read Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, and I couldn’t help thinking: not so fast, Steve. It’s more complicated than that.

Right now I’m traveling through Colombia, and I’ve been rereading local hero Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic-realist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has a strong claim to being the best book ever written. But is it also, like Mr. Brust claimed, a fantasy novel?

That’s a question that can lead to tedious semantics with dangerous ease. I have no interest in arguing classifications: all fiction is fantasy, it’s just a matter of degree. But I do think it’s worth asking, is “magic realism” indeed included in what SF readers mean when they say “fantasy”? Is it in fact just a label used by highfalutin university professors and literary critics to canonize those fantasy novels they like, while simultaneously dismissing “fantasy” as genre crap?

No. Sorry. It’s more complicated than that.

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.

Consider Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a terrific novel about two types of magic: one a rational science bound by rules and algorithms, the other the wild, unpredictable power of Faerie. But even the latter follows rules. There are humans, and there are fairies; there is our world and there is theirs; some items, places, persons, and rituals are magical, and some are not.

Now consider One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s chock-full of magic, no question. Flying carpets, ghosts, insomnia plagues, telekinesis, prophecies, premonitions, alchemy, unexplainable deaths and inescapable smells, blood that flows upwards, landlocked galleons, a woman whose presence drives men mad, a bag of bones that clack constantly together, to name just a few examples. But all this magic is random, chaotic, surreal, of no lasting consequence to any but those who experience it; and all these supernatural events are told in the same casual, matter-of-fact tone used to describe lunches and money problems. In one famous paragraph a character suddenly and without warning ascends to heaven while hanging sheets on a clothesline. She is never seen again. Nor are the sheets.

It might be easy to read the above paragraph and think “So the magic in magic realism is just a bunch of random, arbitrary weird stuff happening, with no consistency and no examination of the ramifications?” And, well, you wouldn’t entirely be wrong. But if you went on to conclude that this is just bad fantasy—honestly, you couldn’t make a worse mistake. Again, I’m talking about what may well be the best book ever written.

(No, really. And it’s not just me who says so: OHYOS basically singlehandedly won its author the Nobel Prize, and the New York Times famously called it “required reading for the entire human race.” Lest that leave you thinking that it’s dull-but-worthy stuff, let me assure you that it’s full of insane amounts of sex and violence, a compendium of every sin under the sun, and that it has also sold some 20 million copies since its release and is widely beloved around the world.)

Let’s take a step back. “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. (Yes, we could probably add another axis or two. No, I’m not going to.) 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 centre-right. Julian May is way out on the right, as is, um, most (though not all) Steven Brust.

I may have some details wrong there—I’m going on fuzzy memory in a couple cases—but bear with me. The natural question that follows is: why does the oft-despised-by-genre-folks Literary Establishment trumpet the left, and treat the right with contempt?

Well, I’m sorry to say it, but you know what, they may kind of have a point; or at least they’re being consistent. Surreal fantasy is more celebrated partly because by its nature it tends to use magic mostly to illuminate and explore its characters. But more importantly, surreal fantasy, far more than systematic, is about the real struggles of our real world.

Consider their pedigrees. Systematic fantasy tends to come from Western writers, who live in nations where “peace, order, and good government” (to use that wonderful Canadian phrase) more or less rule. Oh, there are wars and depressions and tragedies, but by and large, the phones work, the roads are smooth, and you’re not likely to be massacred without warning.

Surreal fantasy comes from more troubled lands. Midnight’s Children is set in post-partition India; The Famished Road in Nigeria; One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombia. Their magic is random, surreal and arbitrary because their worlds are random, surreal and arbitrary.

Take Colombia. It’s a place where strange things happen. Ten years ago, the mayor of Bogota hired 420 mimes to control the city’s rush-hour traffic by mocking jaywalkers and reckless drivers. In 2006 the women of the city of Pereira went on a sex strike to convince their men to surrender their guns. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s friend Alejandro Obregon once rode to their local bar on an elephant to convince the owner to open early. Amusing stories all ... but lurking behind and fuelling all this charmingly erratic behaviour is the story that no one here wants to talk about: La Violencia, Colombia’s endless and ongoing history of terror and civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and rendered millions homeless.

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. What the surreal fantasists have to say about desperation and tragedy and violence is more powerful because, alas, the desperation and tragedy and violence they’re writing about isn’t fantastic at all.

Sammy Jay
2. Malebolge
The Master and Margarita! Possibly my favourite Magic Realism novel, and utterly distinct from fantasy- magic there has no rules, there is no them and us, it's just something that happens.
Chris Palmer
3. Chris Palmer
Great article and, IMO, a correct analysis on the spectrum of fantasy.

That said, does your central thesis still stand? It sounds like you only moved from "fantasy written by Latin Americans" to "a type of fantasy literature that comes mostly from authors in troubled lands". As you said, books like Little, Big certainly fall within the gray areas in the middle of the spectrum.

Don't get me wrong, One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books and I would be hard pressed to classify it as "fantasy", but on the other hand, much of Jorge Luis Borges work I would classify as fantasy and ditto for Italo Calvino.

But trying to narrow down the spectrums and sub-genres, to me, just slides into that territory of the "a book is SF or fantasy (or mystery or romance or some other genre) unless it's a really good book, then it's just fiction (or literature)" argument that leads to having a hard time finding a particular book in the bookstore. I don't expect to find Garcia Marquez in the SF/Fantasy section, but I also don't expect to look for Neal Stephenson or Neil Gaiman in the Fiction section, particularly when different books by the same authors are in different sections (and now we can add Young Adult sections to the problem).
Chris Palmer
4. Heather J.
EXCELLENT post. This is an issue that I've had trouble defining myself, and I think you're spot on with this.
Cassie Ammerman
5. leanoir
I think your article has some really interesting ideas, but I really hate how specifically we're breaking down genres these days. This is part of what makes it impossible to "browse" on a site like Amazon.

If you're so focused on defining sub-genres, I feel like you miss out on so many other things! Novels are supposed to have elements and layers, and the more sub-genres they fit in, the more interesting they are.
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger
Very interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter. I love magic realism and fantasy and the connection between them is a rich topic for discussion.

A few questions come to mind. What distintion in genre, if any, is there between Lem's Cyberiad and Calvino's Cosmicomics? Lem is considered scifi and Calvino magic realism, but those books (and up to a point I think some of Bradbury, too) seem to be the same genre. Is it scifi? Fantasy? Magic realism? I don't know, but whatever it is, they both are part of it.

Also as Chris Palmer asked above, I can't also help but wonder if the thesis itself isn't a variation on the concept you're trying to disprove. And it seems to me that the post begins saying "magic realism isn't fantasy" and goes on to make the overall argument fantasy is a spectrum and what you called surreal and systematic fantasy are on that continuum.

I like the spectrum concept and think it works. I just don't know if it isn't contradicting your initial position.
Jon Evans
7. rezendi
@3 Chris, @6 Jason:

Alas! Through sloppy writing I've turned this into exactly the kind of semantic discussion I didn't want to get into.

The problem is I overloaded the word "fantasy" by using it in at least three different ways above. There's Fantasy1, which includes all fiction; Fantasy2, fiction with magic; and Fantasy3, which is what SF readers and booksellers (usually) mean when they say "fantasy" - call it the right-hand two-thirds of the Fantasy2 spectrum, more or less.

I'm disputing the claim "magic realism is just Fantasy3 written by Latin American authors", and also saying "however, there's a Fantasy2 spectrum includes both magic realism and Fantasy3."

Hope that helps, in a somewhat tedious and pedantic way.

@5 Leanoir: Actually, I come to merge subgenres, not to divide them.

@2 Malebolge: I love that book. I opened it expecting dull-but-worthy, and was so delighted to find a (brilliant) effervescent romp instead.
Chris Palmer
8. randwolf
The other well of magic realism is Meso- and South American native culture, just as one of the great wells of genre fantasy is the pre-Roman cultures of Europe, especially Northern Europe. I have a good friend who is an amateur of Mesoamerican native culture. She has studied the old Mexica language, Nahuatl (the "tl" is unvoiced, if you are wondering) and one of the things she did in the process was read conquest-period Spanish documents. It is all very plain, blunt language, except when there is a native influence. So the flowery Mexican Spanish? It's a result of cultural contact. And this, I think, extends into magic realism.
Chris Palmer
9. EmmetAOBrien
The "troubled lands generate surrealism" notion works for me because it also fits with Desolation Road, Northern Ireland being troubled/violent/surreal.

I also want to say I, personally, like finer breakdown of genre, and genre as a more fine-grained tool. Humankind is the animal that makes classifications, and I think they are definitely useful in this case if they map onto genuine differences which one can correlate with one's tastes, as well as constructing specific things one can then use in interesting ways, bioth as ways of writing and as perspectives on ways of reading - cf. Delany on reading SF as a different protocol from reading mainstream.

Also also, Dragon Waiting is pretty much entirely systematic, to my way of thinking, there's nothing in it that isn't adding to a very clever structure at several levels; just not at a world-building level of logic. (Going into details here would entail absolutely massive spoilers, though.)
Joe Sherry
10. jsherry
I think I'm missing part of the argument here: Magic Realism is not "fantasy" and yet it is placed on a spectrum of "fantasy". Now, I know you didn't want to get into the semantics of what is fantasy but outside the realm of all fiction being "Fantasy" because it never happened, I think even magic realism falls under the greater umbrella of fantasy, even if it falls more to the edge and doesn't look like "western" fantasy. It's still fantasy, right?

When I really care to define the "genre" I break out science fiction and fantasy by the Bradbury rule - "Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the couldn't happen"

Magic Realism can't happen. It is part of the unreal. You get into this a bit in comment #7, but talking about systematic fantasy and surreal fantasy seems to be simply splitting hairs. At least, it does when the article is posted as part of a SFF community hosted by a SFF publisher. I think readers here do (or should) understand that there are different aspects of fantasy which don't all follow the same rules and that Brandon Sanderson writes a very different kind of fantasy from GGM.

Of course, if this was published by the New York Times my reaction might be closer to wondering why, once again, there is someone attempting to distance certain books from being labeled as "fantasy", as if it were taboo or wrong to hint that magic realism is fantasy because it fits under a very large umbrella of Fantasy as Unreal.
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11. heresiarch
I think that may have been a valid distinction before One Hundred Years of Solitude or Midnight's Children were read by almost every literary and sfnal writer in the world. Now you have, on one hand, Annie Proulx writing The Shipping News, and on the other, you have China Mieville's New Wierd short stories. If those definitions you offered were ever valid, they sure aren't anymore. Magic realism has been incorporated into everything else.
c gilbert
12. frumiousb
Interesting essay. I often tend to think about magic realism aas being linked to the resistance of poverty and local culture to more dominant cultural norms. The surreality is an offshoot of that project, not so much a characteristic in itself, I think. As such, I don't agree with 11. (Heresiarch) that it can be incorporated into anything else in the way he/she means. Magic realism isn't magic realism without the accepted version of "real" as counterpoint.

The whole question of what constitutes fantasy as an umbrella term strikes me as a kind of useless discussion. Your axis seems useful as a kind of diagnostic, but not as much as definition. If that makes any sense.
Stephen W
13. Xelgaex
But what if Steven Brust meant fantasy2 and not fantasy3? :)
Chris Palmer
14. Tim Walters
rezendi @ 7: Fantasy2, fiction with magic; and Fantasy3, which is what SF readers and booksellers (usually) mean when they say "fantasy" - call it the right-hand two-thirds of the Fantasy2 spectrum, more or less.

This seems wrong to me--I find that SF/F readers are the ones who want to lump together F2 and F3, and decide whether something is fantasy or not purely on the basis of whether it contains impossibilities. But this distinction can't bear the weight it's often given. If asked to separate (1) The Three Musketeers, (2) The Swords Of Lankhmar, (3) Pale Fire, and (4) The Dead Father into two categories, I would pick (1, 2) | (3, 4) as being much more natural than (1, 3) | (2, 4), despite the fact that that would mean splitting across the mundane/non-mundane border.

So I question the one-dimensionality of your spectrum, because it implicitly assumes that we've already divided books along that border, and that we don't have an equal interest in connecting books across the border.
Chris Palmer
15. Tim May
randwolf @ #8
the old Mexica language, Nahuatl (the "tl" is unvoiced, if you are wondering)
If by "unvoiced" you mean "silent", then, no, it's more complicated than that. If you mean it's phonetically a voiceless consonant, then you're right, but I'm not sure how many people here can be assumed to know what that means. Perhaps the more important point, for an English speaker without much knowledge of phonetics, is that it's not syllabic; "Nahuatl" is two syllables rather than three (the stress falls regularly on the penultimate, so in this case the first syllable).

(Please forgive this rather pedantic digression, but once the matter had been raised, I wanted to make sure it was clear.)
Dave Bell
16. DaveBell
One definition of Magic Realism, I recall seeing, pointed at one of the Aubrey/Maturin books. They're on the run in France, and Jack Aubrey is disguised as a dancing bear.

When you think about it, this certainly isn't realistic, and it's hardly Magic, but I think it may be a good marker for the border regions.

And, yes, I can imagine Russell Crowe in a bear suit, and if you'd never seen a bear before I suppose you might be fooled.

In the book, you don't necessarily think about the scene while you're reading, and there's a bit of commentary on the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. This is, in a sense, Maturin's world, and in that Aubrey is no more than a dancing bear, almost a reversal of their status when on board ship.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
I don't think the magic in magic realism is surreal.

I think it's literalised metaphor. It's the "what ought to happen" of events.

I also have a thought on the random violence breaking through and the magic being code for that -- Angela Carter is often classed as a magic realist writer, and yet she was English. However, most of her work that I have read (The Magic Toyshop, The Bloody Chamber) is using magic realism to write about the out of control randomly violent lives of children.

However, the other thing this made me think of is the idea that the first modern generation of fantasy writers, Tolkien, Lewis, Peake, Eddison, had been through WWI and had seen horribly real things close up and personally in a way that their successors have not.
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18. heresiarch
bluejo @ 17: "I don't think the magic in magic realism is surreal. I think it's literalised metaphor. It's the "what ought to happen" of events. "

Right! It's the opposite of surreal--it's realer than real.
René Walling
19. cybernetic_nomad
But more importantly, surreal fantasy, far more than systematic, is about the real struggles of our real world.

The other side of your thesis is that systematic magic is influenced by something else. Why is that less real?

I think this question needs to be answered. And I think the literary establishment will need to seriously rethink itself when (if!) it does so.

(And no, I don't have an answer, just questions)
20. rogerothornhill
This is an amazing post and an amazing thread.

I agree with the core idea that magic realism and standard-issue fantasy reflect different "realities" but I also wonder if the word "surreal" may not be the right one here. It might be interesting to connect all this up with Michael Denning's treatment of magical realism in Fiction in the Age of Three Worlds, which really does a good job on showing how developing nations developed a different mode of fiction during the Cold War because their writers were reflecting a different kind of reality.

A further question, which I've asked on another thread, is how does science fiction from developing nations look different from the more mainstream examples of the genre produced in the U.S. and Europe?

I would love to hear everyone's ideas on any of this. My brain is now officially buzzing.
Jon Evans
21. rezendi

Hmmm. I think I largely disagree.

Going back to OHYoS again: I think a lot of the magic, especially that mentioned more or less in passing - the flying carpet, the insomnia, the galleon, etc - really is intended to be surreal. Their point being that this is not a world where everything is tied nicely into the tapestry of a story; it's a world where things often happen for no reason and with no meaning.

Now there are also magical events that are part of a tapestry, literalized metaphor as you say - the events around Jose Arcadio's death leap to mind. (Although, mind you, if intent-of-the-author counts for anything, Marquez once said something to the effect that some of the things in the book people ladle symbolic portent onto were actually in-jokes. Not that they can't be both...) But I think it matters that they occur in a surreal and unpredictable milieu, rather than have all the magic be metaphorical. The latter would be too much like a jigsaw puzzle. "Oh, look, magic! Hmm, what does it really represent this time?"

There's a part of the book where a character dies even though, the author tells us, it was his destiny not to. The point being, I think, that not even destiny is necessarily above the arbitrary and sometimes cruel capriciousness of the universe. I think that's a mindset that probably comes naturally from a place beset by internecine civil war, where your community is turned against itself, under a government that might save you and might slaughter you, and with hidden rebels who are equally likely to do the same. (I haven't read Angela Carter but I can certainly see how children's worlds can be like that.) That in turn I think is quite different from fighting in, well, systematic wars between nations, as the early Western fantasists did.
Koldo Barroso
22. Koldo_Barroso
As an illustrator, I market my work as MAGIC REALISM. I don't think the term "Fantasy" applies to my work because I think is often related to dragons and warriors and my work doesn't really have to do with that -with all respect to dragons and warriors. On the other hand, I have always like better the term "imagination" rather than "fantasy".

I think arguing about terms and etiquettes is pretty much like talking about colors, it's so subjective. They are just tools that we use to understand each other and the only important thing is the way we use them to communicate. I don't think there's very many artists who would say than a category fits 100% their style. At least I wouldn't myself. But you need to use these categories so the people have an idea of what you're talking about when you say I do this or that. If you get stuck into labels then you're missing the point but if you just take them as an introduction to the real thing then is OK. It shouldn't hurt anybody!
Chris Palmer
23. David G. Hartwell
I guess each generation has to rediscover literature and fantasy without reference to literary history. More than twenty years ago, there were many discussions of magic realism and its relation or lack thereof to genre fantasy. Even fights, for instance, at the Seattle World Fantasy Convention between panelists and audience. I recall one panelist claiming Nathaniel Hawthorne for magic realism and leaping to the conclusion that therefore todays genre was a good as Hawthorne. Then the shouting started. Brian Evenson, who knows what he is doing, published a small press magazine called Magic Realism. The issue then, and perhaps now, was, can we declare genre fantasy more literary by maintaining in a loud voice that magic realism is just what the literary establishment calls fantasy. And the answer was, and is, no. In truth, some genre fantasy is of extremely high literary quality, and still not MR, and much is not.

Arguing about terms is critical discussion, when it is clear and rigorous and grounded in examples, and emotional blather of the "same difference" variety when it is not.

There is a move afoot to abandon the discussion of fantasy versus other literary varieties in favor of discussion of the fantastic in literature, of which genre is a subcategory. That's what most literary critics are beginning do, and if you step into such a discussion without reference to any prior discussions--and some of these ideas go back at least to the magical realist movement in art in the 1930s--you won't be able to progress much.
eric orchard
24. orchard
I wonder how the framework of your argument would define a work like Pan's Labyrinth. Pan's Labyrinth is pretty solidly fantasy but the magic in that world is used in the surrealist method of making strange or showing the distance between inner and outer realities-the softness of the fantasy contrasts with the shocking brutality of fascism. It seems to me to be mainly an American
(and Canadian) concern-defining and separating magic realism( and other sub genres) and fantasy.I sometimes worry we stifle the growth of these things by being so concerned with their bones. Or maybe it doesn't matter at all. I do tend to read more fantasy then anything else.
René Walling
25. cybernetic_nomad
Perhaps rather than look at the best of fantasy and the best of magic realism, we should look at the worst of both in order to start defining the difference between the two?

After all, the best works in any genre often expand the boundaries of said genre and may thus make it harder to define.
Arachne Jericho
26. arachnejericho
Oh, there are wars and depressions and tragedies, but by and large, the phones work, the roads are smooth, and you’re not likely to be massacred without warning.

I sort of take exception to this bit.

If you're actually fighting in the war, things are not so normal. Granted it's not Battle of the Sommes anymore, but anything that induces PTSD is something that has ripped apart a vital part of you that believed in Things Happening Normally versus Things Happening Elsewhere.

Similarly for abuse, which in some cases is more or less "bad things can happen to you at ANY time and you have absolutely no control over it" (that was my childhood and the teenage years). I don't imagine that people involved in Katrina are unscathed either.

Granted, it's not a nation-wide disorder. But I think you put some things too lightly. The worst symptoms of PTSD carry too much of the taint of magical realism with them. Example: contrary to popular opinion, flashbacks do not cleanly demark the current time from the past time; they are two different times and places crashing into one place. You aren't even aware that the distinction is there. And even better, a flashback-like state underlying your conscious mind can extend over weeks. How do you even begin to describe that?

Many parts of One Hundred Years of Solitude didn't make me blink an eye as to its weirdness. (Except for the priest who levitated through the power of hot chocolate.) Maybe entire countries have PTSD.

Although probably not most of the West.

But I think you put too lightly some things that affect individuals very strongly---and as it's individuals what do the writing, it's a strange stance to me.

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27. heresiarch
rezendi @ 21: "I think a lot of the magic, especially that mentioned more or less in passing - the flying carpet, the insomnia, the galleon, etc - really is intended to be surreal. Their point being that this is not a world where everything is tied nicely into the tapestry of a story; it's a world where things often happen for no reason and with no meaning."

But isn't that just another way of saying the crazy events are a metaphor illustrating the capricious and irrational nature of the world the characters (and the author) live in? To the extent that they communicate something important and meaningful to the reader, they cannot be surreal.

David G. Hartwell @ 23: "The issue then, and perhaps now, was, can we declare genre fantasy more literary by maintaining in a loud voice that magic realism is just what the literary establishment calls fantasy. And the answer was, and is, no. In truth, some genre fantasy is of extremely high literary quality, and still not MR, and much is not."

I'm not sure that that's quite the question I have in mind. I'm curious whether magic realism is sufficiently distinct from (other?) fantastic sub-genres like high fantasy or urban fantasy--all distinct from each other--that it falls outside the larger genre of fantasy. I don't think it does. While magic realism has a very different pedigree from most genres of fantasy, they are all engaged in the same basic activity: illuminating reality by stepping outside of it. While they had different beginnings, they have arrived at the same place. A case of convergent evolution, if you like.
Chris Palmer
28. Cairenn
thank you! I've been saying that for years, fantasy and magic realism are not the same, not even similar ...
I studied latin american literature in college, but I love SF literature also. and if you read enough of fantasy and magic realism, you can easily compare them and see what they're about and how different they are.
also, I think that in magic realism isn't just important what's it about and what kind of surreal or fantastic theme it has, but it's also important how it's written and how the tale is told. and why the magic is beeing used anyway ...
very complex issue indeed :)
Chris Palmer
29. Chris Palmer
As far as magical realism movies go, I would place Pan's Labyrinth in that category. Then again, I would also place Steve Martin's L.A. Story in that category as well (if any of you remember that one).
Chris Palmer
30. deCadmus
I suspect that at right angles to one end or the other of your surreal-to-systematic continuum (danged if I can decide which) lies the axis of that stuff we call Religion.

Neat post. And thought provoking.
Chris Palmer
31. Nick Mamatas
One day someone will write an article on whether or not magical realism can truly be considered a subset or subgenre of realism.

That'll be fairly illuminating, and could potentially help clean up all the "everything that has impossible stuff in it is fantasy!" arguments.

Oh, what a day that'll be...
Chris Palmer
32. zentinal
Interesting. How would you categorize Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate" where the magic is highly systmatic (based as it is upon cooking). Seems to me to be as systematic as a druid with a cauldron.
Chris Palmer
33. Sara51
I agree with your comments on fantasy but would take magic realism another step further to say not all magic realism intends to be such. Some writing is just in the guise of MR, and some writing is trying to put magic back where it belongs into the reality of multidemensional experience where it is accepted by many tribal or native peoples and more and more, by many who have had experinces that have opened them to what it means to be fully human.
Chris Palmer
34. Dausuul
The distinction between "surreal fantasy" and "systematic fantasy" is a good one, and I'm filing it away for future use.

I do, however, want to point out that genre fantasy - the stuff that gets put in the fantasy/sci fi section in the bookstore - is not at all limited to the systematic side. Indeed, the defining work of modern fantasy, "The Lord of the Rings," is very much in the surreal-fantasy camp. At least centre-left, possibly even far left, to use your terminology.

There is no sense whatsoever of "systematic" magic in LotR. There is no bright line, nor even a dim blurry one, marking off magic on one side from mundane on the other. Galadriel points up this fact when she says to Sam, in reference to the Mirror:

"For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy."

One would never expect to find such a statement in a "systematic" fantasy novel. Galadriel is without doubt a powerful sorceress, so how could she possibly not know what magic is? The answer, of course, is that Middle-Earth cannot be neatly categorized into magic stuff and normal stuff. Everything in Middle-Earth is both magical and mundane.

(It's also worth noting that Tolkien, though he lived in a wealthy Western nation for most of his life, had plenty of experience of senseless horror; "The Lord of the Rings" is strongly informed by his experiences in World War I.)
Chris Palmer
35. martyred_cars
I just found this post, and it's a breath of fresh air. I got an M.F.A. in a university creative writing program, and I got so sick of anything that was slightly absurd or fantastic or magical getting slapped with the "magical realism" label.

I didn't read all the comments carefully, but I wanted to ask a clarifying question about an early comment. Someone described Bulgakov's Master and Margarita as magical realism, which I can understand if the book is taken out of context, but if I remember correctly, most, if not all, of the magic in that novel is rooted in Russian pagan mythology, and possibly some Orthodox mythology as well, with the devil playing a prominent role, and a whole side plot about Pontius Pilate. (Forgive my vagueness, it's been a few years since I read it.) Where does this feature on the spectrum? To some extent it is magic derived from the absurdity of early Soviet culture, but does the fact that the magic tracks back to mythology make it more systematic?
Chris Palmer
36. Madison Woods
This is probably the single-most informative thing I've read on the fantasy/magical realism genres. I've been trying to figure out where my own ms falls in the spectrum and now you've given me examples across the board. This will help bunches. Thank you!
Chris Palmer
37. Amanda Brudex
OYoS was a terrible terrible terrible book. So terrible that it was terrible in Spanish as well as English. If you want Magical Realism, which is a horrible term in an of itself, talk to a little kid.
Eliza-Rose Lartey
38. lerenardvert
This has just crept up the list to be my most favourite distinction between Magic Realism and Fantasy.
Chris Palmer
39. Brent06611
Apologies for having not read all the comments, but there are quite a few.

I took a class on Magic Realism a few years ago, and the professor defined the genre in a fantastic way: magic takes the place of the things that are too difficult and too horrible to tangibly comprehend. Magic is a storytelling tool, a means to fill in the parts of life that our subconscious blacks out to protect us, a story we tell ourselves for the illusion of completeness.
Chris Palmer
40. Brent06611
@34 I think magic is a matter of perspective. What would be systematic to humans or to hobbits would be like breathing to Galadriel. It's like how dogs can smell things that are imperceptible to us, but that doesn't mean that the production of those smells isn't systematic.

Does that make sense?
Chris Palmer
41. DarrenJL
How did you move from "fantasy" to "bad fantasy"? And why would awards prove that a book was "more than" fantasy? That's some genre-hating, there.
Chris Palmer
42. Brad Pohl
I love both genres, fantasy is simply an extension of magic realism.. as magic realism is an extension of realism. They overlap extensively and to a large extent depend on the individual's perception. Who knows, to Ben Okri the magical realism he writes about is his own "realism" ... I'm probably off subject here as I haven't read through all the comments, but I believe that people should just get over themselves, good writing is good writing. I've read some absolute shite in all genres.. lol
Chris Palmer
43. Nimrod
Good post. However,
I'm disputing the claim "magic realism is just Fantasy3 written by Latin American authors", and also saying "however, there's a Fantasy2 spectrum includes both magic realism and Fantasy3."
it isn't necessarily the case that "fantasy" in the oft-quoted "magic realism is just fantasy written by Latin American authors" is in fact Fantasy3. At face value, it may already be Fantasy2. It's the truth in this that elicited humor, and it's the same truth which you have extracted through a sharper analysis that removed the ambiguity.

I would say though that the systematicity or randomness of magic, while obviously true, doesn't appear like a fundamental dichotomy to me. I think it's an outcome of the combination of the more or less magic and an open vs. reticent authorial attitude. The systematicity of fantasy comes from both an abudance of magic (because the fantastical is the principal component of the world) and an open attitude toward giving it explanatory treatment. The randomness of magic realism comes from both a paucity of magic (even if there is a lot of it, it plays second fiddle to a material reality) and a reticent attitude toward exploring it. If somehow the magic takes over the world in magic realism, and the material reality evaporates, then you get pure surrealism.
Chris Palmer
44. Irena
In my ideal world (a fantasy) there would be no genres, just books all thrown together. Defined genres may seem convenient, commercially and for finding books grouped according to similarity, but the mental compartments they create aren't real or necessary.
Chris Palmer
45. Karen Wyld
Great article and I agree with so much of what you have said. You have become my newest favourite commentator on magic realism; and I look forward to hearing more of your views on this genre.

I believe that there is a difference between fantasy and magic realism, but as its such a flimsy, shifting line of distinction, that difference doesn't seem to be easily seen or understood.

I recently was pondering a similar comment (as the one that inspired you to write the above post), and came to a similar conclusion as yourself. I think that it is the origins of the writer that is a contributing factor to magic realism. And magic realism is distinguised by what messages the author is sharing, as much as how it is said.

A few months back, I tried to develop my own (uneducated) definition of magic realism, which I posted on my blog. Since then, I have relaxed a little bit from my hardline approach, but still I think that magic realism is best written by authors who have lived and/or hereditary experiences of the worst injustices that humankind inflict on each other, such as: genocide, dispossesion, slavery, colonisation, diasporia.

Writing from my own sense of identity and heritage, I said that: "Magic realism uses devices still found within indigenous storytelling; an oral tradition which continues despite all attempts of cultural genocide. It subtly tells historical facts by blending the difficult-to-swallow parts with the 'magic' or arcane elements found within traditional storytelling; for the purpose of planting greater understanding in a reader's awareness of humanity, to gently shift the worldviews of those who have not had the experiences that the author endures/has endured."

Excuse me in advance if it is bad form to post a link, but I would love for you to pop over and read my definition, as I value your feedback. It is my aim to one day write authentic magic realism (with an Aboriginal Australian twist), but for now I will continue to borrow elements of magic realism (as well as fantasy) in my fiction.
Sanne Jense
46. Cassanne
To me the difference is: does it take place in 'our' world (magic realism), or somewhere else? (fantasy)

Now, if you take our world and add systematic magic, it instantly becomes not-our-world anymore. Making it fantasy.
Yet if it takes place in a strange world with two suns and elves and whatnot, and there's random magic (like LotR) it's still clearly fantasy.

Questionable cases are where it's
a) unclear if the magic's systematic or random or just in the protagonists head (Lovecraft, maybe?),
b) unclear if it's 'our' world or not and the magic is clearly surreal. (all examples are by nature debatable)
Chris Palmer
47. Bethany E-P
Wonderful article here. I think the difference between fantasy and Magic realism is the attitudes the authors have towards the supernatural. Fantasists want the supernatural to exist, while Magic Realists want it to leave them the hell alone.
Fantasy's reaction to magical events: Can you kill it? Have sex with it? Be trained in it? Befriend it?
Magic Realism's reaction: Here we go again ...

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