What are Fantasy and Magical Realism Anyway?

I was going to write something more about the connection between science fiction and academia, but Jon Evans’ post last week about the difference between magical realism and fantasy—and the ream of comments it produced—was too interesting to pass up. Genre definition questions are endless, of course, but they’re fun to talk about because they get at the heart of why each of us loves books; why we’ve spent countless hours of our lives looking at letters printed on bleached sheets of pulped wood.

Anyway, the post sent me racing back to David Lodge. As a literary critic, Lodge is in a relatively unique position in that he’s also a successful novelist, and one of the pleasures of reading his essays is to witness the way in which he can switch roles in mid-argument, speaking as a creator and a recipient of both books and criticism about books. This is most apparent in “The Novelist at the Crossroads,” an essay from 1971.

In this essay, Lodge—who, by his own description, writes “realistic” novels, by which he means simply novels about plausibly real people doing plausibly real things in plausibly real places—is responding to what he saw at the time as a crisis in definition as to what the heck a novel was any more.1 Faced with people like Norman Mailer on one side and William S. Burroughs on the other, Lodge writes:

The situation of the novelist today may be compared to a man standing at a crossroads. The road on which he stands…is the realistic novel…but the pressure of skepticism on the aesthetic and epistemological premises of literary realism is now so intense that many novelists, instead of marching confidently straight ahead, are at least considering the two routes that branch off in opposite directions of the crossroads. One of these routes leads to the nonfiction novel and the other to what Mr. Scholes2 calls “fabulation.”

Lodge, brave soul, then attempts to define fabulation:

Such narratives suspend realistic illusion in some significant degree in the interests of a freedom in plotting characteristic of romance or in the interest of an explicitly allegorical manipulation of meaning, or both. They also tend to draw inspiration from certain popular forms of literature … especially science fiction, pornography, and the thriller. Of these, science fiction has the most respectable pedigree.3

I know, I know—inherent in Lodge’s formulation here is the yawning gulf he creates between literary fiction and other kinds of fiction, and the value judgment that gulf always seems to imply. Let’s forgive Lodge what appears to be his condescending attitude toward science fiction, because I don’t think he means to be a jerk.

The point he’s making is that for the writer, issues of genre label conventions and their importance to what the writer is trying to accomplish aren’t constraints: they’re choices. They’re only as important as the writer wants them to be. She can choose to work within the bounds of a particular genre and write straight-up realistic fiction or the hardest of hard SF or the surrealest of the surreal. Or, she can mix and match the rules of these separate genres to her heart’s content.

Another way to put it: From the writer’s point of view, the genres aren’t categories; they’re tools in a toolbox. Which tools—and how many—should the writer use? It all depends on what you’re trying to build, doesn’t it?

A critic, however, doesn’t have that kind of freedom.4 Here’s how Lodge describes it:

We seem, indeed, to be living through a period of unprecedented cultural pluralism which allows, in all the arts, an astonishing variety of styles to flourish simultaneously.… In this situation, the critic has to be very fast on his feet. He is not, of course, obliged to like all of the styles equally, but he must avoid the cardinal error of judging one style by criteria appropriate to another. He needs what Mr. Scholes calls “a highly discriminated sense of genre.”

What I’m getting at, thanks to Lodge, is that the question of whether magical realism is fantasy—which is another form of the question of what either label means by itself—is mostly a critical one. By which I mean that, when we seek to pin down genre labels, we should ask why and for whom. Critics need to have the different genre labels mean something because they need the labels to do their jobs well—and I don’t mean this as a criticism at all. But writers don’t need the definitions to be hard and fast—and neither do readers. To bring this back to magical realism, take this wonderful quote from García Márquez himself, from an interview in 1977, in which he describes how he came up with his aesthetic (ellipses in original):

You guys can’t imagine what it meant for a scholarship kid from the Coast enrolled at the Liceo de Zipaquirá to have access to books … Probably Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was a revelation … It was in 1947 … I was nineteen … I was doing my first year of law school … I remember the opening sentences, it reads exactly thus: “As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” … Holy shit! When I read that I said to myself, “This isn’t right! … Nobody had told me this could be done! … Because it really can be done! … So then I can! … Holy shit! … That’s how my grandmother told stories … The wildest things, in the most natural way.”

With this one paragraph, García Márquez complicates the discussion we’re having here on Tor.com: It seems that the tone of voice he uses is a combination of surrealism and, well, his grandmother. The rest of the interview makes it worse, as García Márquez numbers among his major influences Faulkner, Hemingway, and vallenato, a style of music in Colombia, especially as performed by Rafael Escalona. Most interesting, we get to see García Márquez defending himself from Colombian intellectuals at the time who accused him of not being well-read enough in Colombian literature to make an important contribution to it (!). Which brings him to the money quote (made in the context of the music he likes, but still): “I don’t make distinctions, I recognize that everything has its value.”

I think by and large, readers have the same kind of attitude. Certainly, there are books we all like and dislike, and we’re all here on this website because we like science fiction and fantasy in particular. But as Evans’s terrific essay and the wonderful conversation that followed showed, what we all mean when we say “magical realism” and “fantasy”—and, I have no doubt, “science fiction,” if we were to sit down and talk about it—seems to vary pretty widely from person to person, even as we all agree that there is a difference; like Justice Stewart and obscenity, we know it when we see it. For things that carry such weight among critics and within the book industry, however, they’re startlingly ephemeral.5

I’m not saying that the genre labels are inherently meaningless; I’m saying that they’re always moving and being redefined, by writers, critics, and mostly readers. Which is an excellent thing. It allows science fiction and fantasy to be big tents, with room for both a sense of tradition and constant rejuvenation. It means that the genres are alive, and will likely remain so even when we’ve switched ink for pixels, and whatever comes after that.


1 One of the fun things about reading criticism from decades or centuries ago is in seeing how everyone is always seeing themselves as living in important, exciting times, times of great change and ferment and new ideas. The novel is always dying, it seems; always being reborn, too.

2 Full disclosure: I do not know who this Mr. Scholes is.

3 It’s interesting that he doesn’t include fantasy in that list of genres, though I don’t know enough about the development of that label to know why. It’s possible that he doesn’t touch on García Márquez in his essay simply because of bad timing: One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in translation in 1970, and given the lag from writing to publishing in the book world, I’m assuming that Lodge had already written the essay and submitted it for publication by the time García Márquez’s book was available in English.

4 Here, I’m playing a bit fast and loose in my interpretation of Lodge, who, for the record, doesn’t necessarily see the various genre choices as freedoms; he sees them more as responsibilities. He adds: “For the practicing artist today, the existence of a bewildering plurality of styles presents problems not so easily solved; and we should not be surprised that many contemporary writers manifest symptoms of extreme insecurity, nervous self-consciousness, and even at times a kind of schizophrenia.” Whoa!

5 Here, I’m getting dangerously close to the topic of Lodge’s sequel to his 1971 essay—called “The Novelist Today: Still at the Crossroads?”—which he wrote in 1992.

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