Crossroads: Negotiating the Unreal in Magic Realism and Fantasy

Perhaps the most important insight I’ve gained from my research for my Crossroads series is that the borders between genres are very fluid, and the more one genre (or sub-genre) resembles another, the more contentious their relationship is likely to be.

Gene Wolfe once condescendingly remarked that “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish”, and Terry Pratchett has (perhaps more solicitously) said that “[magic realism] is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” The dynamic in many ways reminds me of that hoary cliche about two neighboring families, practically indistinguishable to an outsider’s eye, yet enmeshed in a bitter feud for which neither side can remember the root cause.

Where does this defensiveness stem from? Is it a question of marketing/presentation? Is magic realism just a respectable term for fantasy? Or do magic realism and fantasy use fantastic devices in some fundamentally different fashion?

The Marketing Question: How Magic Realism is Positioned

Without a doubt, magic realism gets more “literary credit” than traditional fantasy. Where ill-informed critics among the mainstream have tended to lump fantasy into the “elves and Dark Lords” camp, they have instead embraced magic realism as a valid literary movement with social and artistic import beyond that of an individual work.

That’s because magic realism has a more clearly-defined critical pedigree than “genre fantasy”. The term goes back to the mid-1920’s visual arts, particularly in the writing of German arts critic Franz Roh, who used it to describe the post-Impressionist New Objectivity (itself related to but distinct from its contemporary cousin, surrealism). Were it not for Roh’s essay being reprinted in José Ortega y Gasset’s influential Revista de Occidente in 1927, magic realism might have stayed firmly in the visual world. But following Ortega y Gasset’s reprinting, Roh’s essay went on to heavily influence a generation of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American (and to a lesser degree Italian and French) writers.

Fantasy has a much murkier past, with roots and influences far more diverse, and with narrative devices or structural conventions more varied than those typically found in magic realist fiction. Plus, fantasy has had to explicitly wrestle with the nineteenth century’s condemnation of fantasy as “children’s stories”, which historically consigned the genre to critical irrelevance.

Looking at the question cynically, this critical history places magic realism firmly in a historiographical context as a comfortable descendent of post-impressionism, a kissing cousin to surrealism, and dovetailing with contemporary post-colonial approaches to critical thought. In other words, magic realism’s critical pedigree makes it more accessible for mainstream literary critics whose familiarity with criticism of fantasy is often rooted in Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of the nineteenth century fantastic.

On a superficial level, calling a book “magic realist” rather than “fantasy” has consigned a certain degree of respectability to it. Yes, the story might feature ghosts (One Hundred Years of Solitude), psychic powers (The House of the Spirits), impossible libraries (“The Library of Babel”), or girls with glass feet (The Girl with Glass Feet). But by dint of labeling it magic realist, the story’s context within a critical canon becomes simpler (particularly for those critics ignorant of fantasy’s history).

But going beyond that superficial level, do magic realists stories differ structurally or creatively from their fantasy cousins?

Negotiating the Unreal

On the one hand, as I look at fantastic devices used by magic realist texts, I can sympathize with the argument that magic realism “simply” uses impossible devices in the same way as fantasy. How can we look at Vivianne Rocher’s little domestic magics in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, or the ghosts in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Clara del Valle’s psychic powers in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and not call them “fantasy”?

Magic realist works use “magic” in ways very similar to a major strain of fantasy. Of course, magic realism rarely makes use of secondary worlds, so we’re unlikely to see elves and dwarfs and the like. But at its heart, magic realism is rooted in some version of our world, however mythologized or re-imagined.

At first blush, this makes magic realism come across as similar to some urban fantasy. The world presented is recognizable to us as our own, evoking real history, plausible objects, actual cultures, and (often) recognizable locations. Yet within that mimetic presentation, we come across the numinous, the unreal, the magical. For example, Allende’s Clara del Valle has psychic powers very similar to those of Megan Lindholm’s Wizard (in Wizard of the Pigeons).

Yet magic realism diverges from most urban fantasy in treating the impossible just as mimetically as it does the mundane. A great deal of urban fantasy treats the unreal as an intrusion on the characters or the world, where even if the characters accept its existence, the story’s narrative arc forces them to negotiate that unreality in some fashion. Magic realism eschews this negotiation, instead exploring the character’s negotiation of very mundane (and often political) reality while employing the unreal as a metaphor for a mythologized past. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that magic realism is so closely associated with a post-colonial approach.

It is here – with its central themes and concerns, rather than with the superficial devices and conceits – that magical realism tends to diverge most significantly from fantasy.

Incidental Unreality and Its Relationship to Plot

In the majority of fantasy, the unreal is central to the narrative’s plot. In some fashion magic must be used, understood, or controlled so as to affect some type of actualized and external change. Whether we’re looking at Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Miéville;s King Rat, Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels, or Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere or countless other examples, the characters have real agency and use it to interact with the numinous.

In magic realist traditions, that relationship is turned inside out. The characters have agency, but use the numinous to interact with the “real” world. The magical is purely incidental to their concerns, no more or less important to their arc than an arm or a leg.

This focuses the narrative arc of magic realist texts on the internal (emotional, philosophical) experiences of the characters, and diminishes the reliance on actualized metaphor. In this, this aligns magic realism with the plot conventions more characteristic of mainstream literary fiction than with fantasy. Fantasy texts, by contrast, tend to actualize their metaphors, and to use the magical and the numinous as a fulcrum on which the plot turns.

The Spectrum of Fantasy and Magic Realism

The respective focuses of magic realist texts and their fantasy counterparts makes magic realism “quieter” than most fantasies. There is little – creatively – in common between a book like Laura Esquivel’s wonderful Like Water for Chocolate and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. They come from two very different traditions, have completely different narrative goals, and use entirely different techniques to achieve those goals. However, the creative distance between Like Water for Chocolate and John Crowley’s liminal classic Little, Big is far smaller.

Just as there is a broad spectrum in fantasy, with many sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, so too is there a broad spectrum in magic realism (and by extension in mainstream literary fiction). There is overlap between the genres, and there is a space on that spectrum where the differences boil down to the imprint on the book’s spine. But once we get out of that narrow overlap, the differences become more pronounced and become apparent in the plot conventions that each genre uses. Are they incompatible? I don’t believe that they are. But they are different, and they generate different reactions in the reader and use different tools to produce such reactions.

Magic Realism vs Fantasy - Venn Diagram

The axis along which these differences run extend along the spectrum outside of magical realism as well. As we’ll get into next week, a similar difference in focus and approach affects the broader categories of “fantastical” or “science fictional” mainstream literary fiction. Though at the same time, the overlap (and so contention) between genres there is far greater. But that’s the discussion for next week.

Until then, what do you think of magic realism? Do you enjoy it? And what do you think of its relationship to fantasy?

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  1. For me, the difference between the two is that in magic realism the magic says something as in it’s a metaphor; in fantasy, the magic is something in and of itself.

    I’m not a big fan of magic realism, not a big fan of literary novels either since I overdosed on them in graduate school, but I’m reading what I’d call literary fantasy right now. It’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern. It’s got a sense of magic realism in the magical circus, but magic pervades the world of the novel so the novel is fantasy.

    1. Hmm…I’m not sure that the metaphor-angle is a complete way to separate magical realism from fantasy: too many fantasies use magic both as something intrinsic to the world and simultaneously as metaphor (e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin, Mercedes Lackey, etc.).

      I do like your characterization of The Night Circus, though. I think your characterization of the novel as having “a sense of magic realism” while being a fantasy deserves some more thought. Can a book simultaneously have a sense of magic realism while not being a fantasy? It’s an interesting idea, and I’ll need to give it some thought.

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