The Magical Realism Page

The Magical Realism Page

Date last modified: 30 Apr 2006 (minor addition 11 May 2009)

This page grew out of the continuing discussion of magic(al) realism and the eternal question: "Is magical realism just another term for fantasy?"

Contents
A Beginning
One Perspective
Other Perspectives
A Practical Approach
An Exchange
A Long List
Links



A Beginning

The term "magical realism" was coined by a German art critic, Franz Roh, in the late 1920s for painters trying to show reality in a new way. A Venezuelan literary critic, Uslar Pietri, first applied to it to Latin American literature, but it was when Miguel Angel Asturias used it to describe his novels when he won the Nobel Prize that it really caught on, and then it was "used and abused in the 1960s by just everyone in Latin America" (according to Marcial Souto).

(Someone else notes that in 1926 Massimo Bontempelli used the Italian term "realismo magico" reagrding his book SEPARATIONS. It is unclear [to me] if Roh preceded Bontempelli or vice versa.)

Roh described it as a form in which "our real world re-emerges before our eyes, bathed in the clarity of a new day" (according to Brian Evenson in "Magical Realism," New York Review of Science Fiction, March 1998).

Note: The terms "magical realism" and "magic realism" are used interchangeably here--and just about everywhere else.



One Perspective

Felix Grant (FelixGrant@POboxes.com) says:

Magical Realism is, like all such categorisations, impossible to define precisely. It also overlaps other genres -- including "fantasy" and "science fiction." Watertight agreement on a "canon" is difficult to obtain, and I wouldn't claim it for my list. Perhaps the first seven titles below could be said to belong within the canon; beyond that the borders are hazy.

These seven are generally accepted and quoted by a range of authorities as definitive examples of Magical Realism:

A lot of fiction which predates the term Magical Realism is nevertheless recognised as falling within its definition. The most obvious example is Kafka, and in particular:

I teach my own lit courses on the basis that the following are indicative examples of the range covered by the Magical Realism label, and my immediate colleagues are in general agreement, but they are not sanctified by universal acceptance! I've limited myself to one book per author only for brevity and clarity.

William Gibson's novels have been widely suggested to fit Magical Realism, but I haven't found the consensus broad enough to include them here.



Other Perspectives

Gene Wolfe's definition: "Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish."

John Clute and John Grant have a broader category--fabulation--which includes Absurdist SF, Fictionality, Magical Realism, Slipstream, and Surfiction. In Clute's words: "a Fabulation is any story which challenges the two main assumptions of genre SF: that the world can be seen; and that it can be told."

Why Jorge Luis Borges Is Not a Magical Realist


Other Ideas

Joe Bernstein (josephb@tezcat.com):
As best I understand it, much of the literary project behind magical realism is explicitly an effort to create new traditions, to merge the Spanish, African and Native American heritages into something original. (For the South Americans anyway.)

[Ray Girvan (ray.girvan@zetnet.co.uk) replies, "That may be specific to a particular branch of magic realism, because I don't see "creating new traditions" as underlying all of the examples I know. There's a lot of recycling of authors' personal mythologies, but it might equally lie in modern influences: for instance, Rushdie draws a lot on motifs from Asian "Bollywood" cinema."]

Giles Boutel (boutel1g@wcc.govt.nz):
My own definition would be somewhere along the lines of:

The reality of magical realism must be recognisably ours with the addition of the magical element.

So no dragons, no orcs, and no talking animals. This immediately separates it from much fantasy.

The magic of magical realism must be natural, inexplicable, and uncontrollable.

This is not magic in the sense of casting spells or manipulating reality - it's magic in the sense that it exceeds the boundaries of the purely realistic setting--becoming part of a new setting. So no dread lords or talking swords--the magic is either innate within people (the most beautiful girl in the world--the best pool player in the galaxy) or purely environmental (raining flowers, racing blood). Those who experience such magic are not its initiators--they merely exist within a world, described in realist terms, where magic is part of the reality and is described as such. It could be used as a metaphor to illustrate an internal pyschic landscape, but that a reading on that level isn't a necessity. The magic is not derived via scientific or quasi-scientific explanation, from sleeping demons, or from arcane knowledge--it is simply there--part of the world.

Cambias (cambias@heliograph.com):
Magic Realism is what highbrow readers call fantasy when they want to read it. Consider: the chief criticism levied at both SF and fantasy is the old canard "when anything can happen, nothing is important." (The phrase originated with H. G. Wells, who was explaining why he rigorously based his stories in reality.) In Magic Realist stories, anything can happen, but the writers manage to convey a sense of importance anyway.

Suzy Charnas (suzych.@highfiber.com):
My sense of magical realism is that it incorporates as "real" elements of folklore and folk history specific to the locale/culture/mythology of the story, as "real". That as certainly true of the first work of magical realism that I ever read, The Palm Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola, of Nigeria.

Frossie (frossie@jach.hawaii.edu):
I believe "magic realism" is mostly a description of style whereas "fantasy" is mostly a description of content. They need not overlap, but they often do.

Debbie Gascoyne (dwg@bc.sympatico.ca):
If I could dare venture what I think is the difference: one (fantasy) relates to plot: genre, setting, conventions, even characters. Quite apart from the fact that magic realism is grounded in the "real" world, which I think is a red herring, I would suggest that magic realism is a thematic device, what someone said about it representing the imagination at work in the "real" world.

Ray Girvan (ray.girvan@zetnet.co.uk):
The "magic" in magic realism generally isn't that in the usual fantasy/SF sense of spellcasting. "Magic realism" seems to me a label for a (broadly) real-world literary novel where you get diversions from normal reality--things like impossible events, transformations, or untrue history--that happen unremarked and unexplained.

Nancy Lebovitz (nancyl@universe.digex.net):
In my humble opinion, magical realism is mostly fiction set in consensus reality, but with non-logical intrusions of fantasy. I've heard one definition of magical realism which requires that all the fantastic elements be explainable as dreams, hallucinations, lies, etc. I'm not sure that this is sound. I've read a magical realist novel in which the main character is a centaur. There's no good explanation of why there should only be one centaur (apparently) in the world, but unless I missed something, the guy was quite literally and physically a centaur.

And later:

Magic realism is fantasy for people who don't want to deal with world-building. Or, fantasy is fiction for people who want to doodle around the edges of the unconscious without acknowledging its chaos.

Kevin J. Maroney (kmaroney@crossover.com):
Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("Gabo") has said in at least one interview that there is no magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude, just realistic events depicted as if they were magical. The two that stand out in my mind are:

  1. the ascension into heaven of the girl who was too beautiful for Earth; and
  2. the stream of blood racing across the village to tell the woman of the death of her husband.

Gabo was quite explicit in the interview that neither was literally true even within the world of Macondo. The ascension is a story made up by the girl's mother when the girl runs away from town; the blood is a metaphor for how bad news spreads like a flowing stream.

In this way, One Hundred Years of Solitude is actually closer to the original sense of Franz Roh's phrase "Magical Realism" (in which "our real world re-emerges before our eyes, bathed in the clarity of a new day") than most modern uses: Gabo uses magical imagery to help us rediscover the real world.

Ethan A. Merritt (merritt@u.washington.edu):
I predict that drawing a hard border between "fantasy" and "magic realism" will be just as non-productive as the periodic attempts to draw the same sort of boundary between "fantasy" and "science fiction". You can make up definitions all you want, but that doesn't ensure that the interesting books will fit any of them.

And later:

The discussion in this thread has reinforced my impression that magic realism was dreamed up as a label with the intent of applying it to a specific group of writers. The works written by these writers clearly share many features, of course--that was the point of it. The original definition seems to me to have been by its very nature exclusionary. It was intended to apply only to a certain body of work, not to other fantasies that coincidentally embodied many of the same literary elements.

Debbie Notkin (kith@slip.net):
Magic realism is about magic woven into reality in such a way that the boundaries between the two are either fluid or nonexistent.

Anton Sherwood (dasher@netcom.com):
In magic realism, the characters don't notice that there's anything unusual about the fantastic elements.

[Glen Engel-Cox (MrWrite@ix.netcom.com) replies, "That's always been my contention for magic realism, as well. This differs from fantasy in that the setting looks and feels like our 'reality', but things are just a little off and the characters don't feel it odd."]

Old Toby (plainair@mindspring.com):
I think you are overdoing it with this "nobody finds it strange" stuff. Is this really a requirement for Magic Realism? Does it really distinguish it from Fantasy?

I haven't noticed it as a prominent theme in my (admittedly somewhat limited) exposure to agical Realism. For instance, Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh centers on the life of a man who ages at twice the rate of ordinary men. While this occasions somewhat less comment then one would expect in real life, there are several occasions in which people simply refuse to believe it is true.

On the other hand, much of Fantasy features magic that is integral to the world, which everyone knows about and no one finds odd.

As I have said before, my view is that the difference between Magical Realism and Fantasy is not in the quality of the magic, but in the other elements of the book. Here are some criteria to distinguish between MR and Fantasy:

Magical Realism				Fantasy
==					=======
"Real" World				Imaginary world
"Realistic" characters			Heroic or Archetypal characters
Murky morality				Good/Evil dichotomy
Personal and Interpersonal 		Social, Political, or Cosmic
	Conflicts				Conflicts
Denigrates or marginalizes		Focuses on Grand Passions and
	Grand Passions				makes full use of them

Obviously not every book in each category will meet every criterion. but nobody said there was a clear line between the two. Also, I feel that Magical Realism probably needs a higher threshold then Fantasy.

Doug Tricarico (trike@ix.netcom.com):
I've often considered Magic Realism to be a subset of Contemporary Fantasy (fantasy which takes place today), where the magic takes place just out of sight and you can only catch glimpses from the corner of your eye.

[Brenda Clough (clough@erols.com) replies, "But then can older works be magical realism? This definition would easily cover the works of Charles Williams, for instance. Or The Man Who Was Thursday.]

Graham Wills (gwills@research.bell-labs.com):
Has anyone pointed out that the very name of the genre "magic realism" is paradoxical? It is this paradox that, I feel, gives the genre its identity. When I read a story which contains a situation that is presented as a realistic story, but with magical elements, I think "magical realism". The paradox is that otherwise mainstream, normal people are walking down a street talking to an ape in a suit as if this were an everyday event.

If they expressed surprise, or wondered where this ape appeared from, then the story becomes fantasy (or, possibly science fiction). If the bulk of the story is clearly not realistic, then again, it's fantasy or science fiction.

The key element for me is a paradoxical juxtaposition of magical elements in a world of realism; "magical realism".

And later:

  1. Does your novel take place in a world which, apart from any magical elements, would be regarded by you as the very close to the real world?
  2. Does your novel have elements that transcend natural laws (i.e., is there magic)?
  3. Do these transcental elements surprise the inhabitants of your world because of their magical nature? In other words, is the magical nature itself surprising, as opposed to their effects?

Match your answers to this grid:

NN?--Lots of possibilities: Science fiction, fanstasy, alternate history .. NYN--Fantasy NYY--Hmm. Tricky. Probably science fiction or science fantasy (e.g., Wild Cards) YN?--Mainstream fiction YYN--Magical realism YYY--Fantasy, probably urban fantasy

As you reply to this, think about the possibility that this might be just a vague indication, not an absolute rule...

Jo Walton (Jo@bluejo.demon.co.uk):
In fantasy everything makes internal sense on its own level. There is magic, and strange creatures, but the logic of their own reality is carried through in context. In magic realism there is no such obligation. Dream logic is sufficient. It doesn't have to make sense.



A Practical Approach

Pete McCutchen (pmccutc103@aol.com):
Surely you don't think that there's going to be a right answer to such a taxonomic question? I mean, the people on this group can't even figure out the difference between fantasy and science fiction, though there does seem to be some agreement regarding paradigmatic works (The Lord of the Rings = paradigmatic fantasy; Mission of Gravity = paradigmatic science fiction.)

I suggest that you look at this as a marketing question, rather than something to which there is a right answer. Do you want to be liked and respected by the literati? Are you looking to win the Nobel Prize for literature? Well, then, label your work "magic realism" and go forth. If anybody accuses you of writing science fiction or fantasy, get a sort of sick look and suggest in a contemptuous tone that your interlocuter obviously didn't understand your work, which may look like science fiction but is really something far more profound. If you don't yourself want to do the background reading neccessary to construct your argument, well, hire some graduate student or unemployed English Ph.D. to do it for you and prepare a list of talking points.

If, on the other hand, you are interested in appealing to the hard core genre science fiction/fantasy audience, then label your work fantasy and say, "I'm just interested in telling good stories," whenever somebody uses the words "Magic Realism" in your presence.

If you want to appeal to the literati and the genre audience, you've got a somewhat tougher task. It helps if you have lefty-feminist-green politics, little interest in putting much "science" in your science fiction, and no understanding whatsoever of basic microeconomics. Being a really good writer doesn't hurt, either.



An Exchange

Debbie Notkin (kith@slip.net):

[Randall] Garrett was writing from a perspective that goes something like this: "Since we live in a world that depends on science and denies magic, what if I wrote a book in which magic took the place of science? What would that magic look like? How would it be like science? How would it be different?"

García Márquez is writing from a perspective that goes something like this: "The world we live in is continually full of underappreciated and, in fact, underacknowledged magic. Miracles happen every day, and yet the mass of people persist in denying their existence. What if I wrote a book that laid bare the miraculous in everyday life, so people would be better able to see it?"

Both of these are, of course, vast oversimplifications. But do you see the difference? Garrett is "making something up" for fun and profit and, were he alive today, would be the first to tell you that the Lord Darcy magic is completely fictional. García Márquez is (or, more certainly, says he is) writing from the depth of his heart about something he believes to be figuratively true, and perhaps literally true.

I think that begins to define the distinction.

Elizabeth Moon (elizabeth.moon@sff.net):

[Since García Márquez contends that his books are about an entirely real and plausible world, in which he believes] , could it be that the key to the whole thing lies in that phrase "...in which he believes..."? That the difference lies in the writer's belief about the reality of the magic in the world he writes about, and not in the seamlessness or inextricability of the magical/realistic interface? Randall Garrett did not (to my limited knowledge) believe that the magic about which he wrote was real. He made it up; he knew he was making it up. But if García Márquez believes that the kind of magic he's writing about infuses the real world--our world--that's very different.

If this is what's going on, then the difference is that if the writer believes the magic is real, then it's magic realism, and if the writer believes the magic is not real, then it's fantasy. And that begins to look like the difference between a sane writer who can keep the difference between reality and nonreality straight, and the writer (one hesitates to hint that any writer is actually insane) who can't. Similarly for readers. If you know the writer thinks the magic is real, and you think the magic is real, then you both think it's magical realism--real magic. So writers and readers who agree that magic exists also think magic realism is distinct from fantasy--and would probably classify folktales of magic as magical realism ... or would they?

And writers and readers who do not regard magic as real are less likely to see a difference between magical realism and fantasy, though they may easily see a difference between the quality of writing of a García Márquez and (name your least favorite fantasy writer...) If they see a difference, it will be hard to define (as it has been for me.) They might be more likely to classify folk tales involving magic as fantasy.

Christopher Pound (pound@is.rice.edu):

The key to the whole thing is that magic realism is always recognizable as social critique: whether you're talking about Latin America (e.g., García Márquez, Allende, Rulfo, Fuentes, and many others, since that's where the genre originated), India (e.g., Rushdie's Midnight's Children), or Russia (e.g., the movie Burnt by the Sun), the inexplicable becomes embedded in otherwise historical circumstances to offset the painfully heavy-handed stories we would expect of those circumstances. The allegorical effect is to open up various structures of feeling that our expectations might have elided, but which may be important for a more careful interpretation of the real life events to which the story relates.

The contrast to magic realism isn't fantasy but rather social realism, which is depressingly coherent. Would you prefer to imagine those folks living through colonialism, Stalinism, or whatever as experiencing the subtle, intangible wonders of life alongside their brutal social reality, or do you like your brutal social reality straight? I don't just mean gritty--I mean abject Salaam, Bombay! or Houseboy kinds of brutal social realism in which nothing good can possibly happen to anyone. Magic realism occupies the same ground, but has a lot more room to maneuver in.

Fantasy novels can of course be allegorical, in which case they usually wind up sugar-coating the heavy-handed story a magic realist would have wanted to avoid in the first place. "Sugar-coated" and "heavy-handed" are, in fact, good approximations of the dictionary definition of allegory, though the term has many wider applications. But most fantasy novels are more realistic than allegorical: the world makes sense, and not only is interpretation of it considered optional, what there is to interpret is merely symbolic/thematic (e.g. forces of light and darkness; stuff that's "internal" to the story, thus preserving the illusion that all you need to think about is there in the book). Note that that covers Lord Darcy pretty well (except for the odd in-joke or two for mystery fans).

I guess I've heard people sometimes use "magic realism" the way we now use the word "surreal," i.e., to talk about phenomena that wouldn't fit even a generous set of criteria based on the first use of the term, and that's great for making nifty phrases more relevant to our common experience. However, it makes definitional discussions like this thread seem insoluble, because those who've read García Márquez know it's different from Lord Darcy but can't pin down why (probably because they diverge on an axis largely irrelevant to fantasy fiction but well- developed in the mainstream section), and those who haven't read any original sources hear the term applied to just anything where there's magic in the real world, which seems ignorant if you're a fantasy reader because the word fantasy has covered that for such a long time.

Ethan A. Merritt (merritt@u.washington.edu):

These are both fascinating ideas, and I am delighted to see discussion of both of them. Of course, one problem with Elizabeth Moon's suggestion is that in general the reader doesn't know what the writer believes in his/her innermost heart. So by that view it's not possible to unambiguously recognize magic realism. (That's fine by me, I started off by saying that I find such attempts at distinction to be pointless.)

Christopher Pound suggests that magic realism is the use of surreal elements to render examination of a depressing social state less painful. That seems promising, but there remains the problem that one can point to "fantasy books" which do the same. Consider Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons; it's an extended portrayal of a social underclass, the homeless population of Seattle, interspersed with a look at post-traumatic stress repercussion in Viet Nam war vets. Sounds pretty grim, eh? But it is dramatically turned into a much lighter story by narrating the story as if the homeless people had surrealistic powers. Can the protagonist really call upon the powers of the air, or is he just delusional? Is this grim reality or escapist fiction? Or, more to the point, is this magic realism or is it fantasy?

When Wizard first came out, I discussed it with a good friend who claimed to have hated the book. Since we had generally similar tastes in SF, and I really liked the book, I was curious as the the source of his strong negative reaction. Well, it turns out that at the time he was working at the VA Hospital giving psychiatric care to delusional Viet Nam vets. "Look", he said, "if I take this story at face value then I'm spending my life debunking the only thing that makes life livable for these vets. I'm trying to cure them of being delusional, but Lindholm is showing a view in which being delusional is the only thing making their life worth living. So I hate it, and wish I hadn't read it."

So, by Pound's definition I'd conclude this is definitely magic realism. But I have yet to see Megan Lindholm put forward as anything but a writer of fantasy. So even if one concedes that Pound has put forward a workable definition, it isn't being universally applied. There must still be a large component of Wolfe's remark also ("magic realism is fantasy written in Spanish"), and also the "ghetto-ization" of fantasy writers to the point where they are simply not considered eligible for mainstream classifications such as magical realism.

Christopher Pound (pound@is.rice.edu):

[Lindholm is a] good example. I wouldn't dispute either categorization of the book you described, though I haven't read it. But, it does bring into view a couple of points that could support a more dogmatic conclusion. First, the "Is it real?" theme with respect to insanity is older than magical realism. Second, homelessness is a widespread social problem, but I can't tell from your description if it's supposed to point up to capitalism (etc.) as a general sociopolitical condition of domination or dissensus (like colonialism, Stalinism, or the post-Independence affairs of a deeply divided nation). The question may be how bounded the problem is vs. how relevant to the most general state of affairs. Having briefly lived in India, I can tell you that it makes a difference when a problem seems not just overwhelming but total, and India's okay these days compared to a lot of places and times you can read about ...

But I suspect generalizations made from those points would quickly lead to the exclusion of "accepted" magical realist texts.

It's totally true that magic realism is strongly associated with "Third World" or "post-colonial" literatures. You can probably find plenty of syllabi on the net that lump it together with social realist novels from Africa, India, etc. So the term isn't universally applied, but the difference is presumed to be one of perspective as well as language, e.g. "magic realism is a post-Imperial realism that uses fantastic elements to stand in for unknowable possibilities of ordinary experience under pervasively sad sociopolitical circumstances," not just "fantasy written in Spanish." Sometimes, it does make a difference where you're coming from when you write something, so there's no reason to expect genre labels to be universally applicable.

But that's a very academic definition that conceals, I freely admit, the way book reviewers (and others who casually search for the bon mot to describe what they've read) might use the term to ghettoize fantasy and/or "rescue" a favored text from the fantasy label.

Moreover, that definition still doesn't necessarily exclude Wizard of the Pigeons from being magical realism. I'm fine with that. :-)

Doug Tricarico (trike@ix.netcom.com):

If magical realism is categorized as a reaction against a grim reality, then the social and political aspects (and intent) of a story must be taken into account when trying to serve up a definition.

I suppose a definition of magic realism should include some hint of "political satire" or "social commentary" to make the cut, since those are the roots of the movement. Combined with the notion that it takes place in the author's present (which allows us to include works of yesteryear) and has some sort of fantastical goings-on around the edges, it gives a thematic (or at least tonal) separation from more mainstream, stereotypical fantasy which can be sketched as "escapist literature." (I sort of like that idea: classic fantasy is escapist while magic realism isn't. It opens another can of worms we've seen before--"Was Lord of the Rings a sociopolitical commentary?"--but it does serve as a jumping-off point.)

Elizabeth Moon (elizabeth.moon@sff.net):

But ["if magical realism is categorized as a reaction against a grim reality"] is a big "if," and one I'm not comfortable with yet. This has been asserted, but has it been demonstrated--and if it has, has it been demonstrated to be uniquely true of magical realism? Many other kinds of fiction, obviously not magical realism, could be considered a reaction against a grim reality.

But [your definition works] only if you accept the validity of the original assertion. And if it is true, again, then "political satire" or "social commentary" are very broad, shallow tints which don't seem to define magical realism clearly.

Hmm. Anything that isn't magical realism, and is fantasy, is "escapist?" No, I think it's a false dichotomy, at least from my reading experience of some of the "central" works of magical realism as listed here. I'm particularly uneasy with the tone of comments suggesting that serious writers with real issues in mind produce magical realism as a response to grim reality, and it's full of wonderfully deep and convoluted social and political commentary, while the people who write fantasy are shallow fluffheads who avoid any social or political commentary while spreading sugar icing with a lavish hand. This prejudges both groups (would anyone with this attitude find social or political commentary in a non-contemporary fantasy if it were there? And could not some social/political agenda be fabricated to support the notion in something a reader wanted to call magical realism?)

In this context, I think it may be significant that no one so far (in the posts I've seen, which is surely only a fraction of the whole) has mentioned Keri Hulme's The Bone People as an example of magical realism. Marquez affected me as escapist (in the same way that Poe is escapist)--I can wallow in Marquez by the hour, and come out feeling gently bruised, like a gardenia petal. (That has been my general reaction to things considered magical realism--I come out of the book feeling vaguely nostalgic and melancholy, but with no inclination to do anything.) Hulme's effect was very different--and I wonder if that different effect (despite the book's fitting every other criterion I've seen mentioned) explains the lack of mention.

In the interests of educating someone for whom magical realism (as listed here) is an occasional indulgence, like French silk pie, leading to a feeling of lethargy, I hope someone will discuss Hulme in terms of magical realism.

Jo Walton (Jo@bluejo.demon.co.uk)

What I'd really like to do is defend The Bone People from this charge of MR. It's very hard to quite see where to start when it does actually fit all the criteria--even the one about the author/author's culture seeing it as something that could be real.

But it doesn't feel like magic realism at all either, it doesn't have that horrible existentialism dreamlike significance, it's just that the gods are real, the spirit of the land can be called back into it by those people.

I know people who have read The Bone People and apparently entirely missed the end, for whom the end has glanced off somehow and who seem to see it as a tacked on "happy ending." They are people who do not generally read science fiction. So I could claim it needs to be read as science fiction to be understood, but although Hulme (or at least Kerewin but I think Hulme too) has read Tolkien and Lewis and Peake, this is not a book coming out of 20th century fantasy. At all.

So I give in.

It does not have magic and magic events, it has the gods and genii loci being real in the world--ah. It isn't magical realism by Graydon's definition because things don't happen with the logic of the interior world, they don't reflect inner realities or anything.

Can anyone do better than this? Can anyone think of anything else the would say is in the same genre as The Bone People?

Neile Graham (bryer@serv.net)

I don't get that feeling from magic realism--at least most of what I've read. I'm not a Garcia Marquez fan, which might be the difference. His novels are the only ones I've seen mentioned in this thread that do give me that feeling and I now avoid them because of that, though I like much of his short fiction, particularly "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" but that's neither here nor there.

I don't like that feeling, so I avoid it.

Keri Hulme's magic realism is like to that of Salman Rushdie for me, where everything feels very feel [real?], especially the magical elements.

I claim The Bone People as my favourite novel, and I've read it at least three times over the years since I discovered it (before I started reading science fiction and fantasy seriously) and ever time I read it, it feels just a little bit more real and a little bit more revelatory to me. And the relationshhips between the characters feel just a little more powerful, as does the ending.

But it's hard to talk about books in terms of feelings, at least when you're trying to discuss them in a way that makes sense to other people. I'm not sure I'm capable of that with this particular book.

[Responding to: "I know people who have read :The Bone People: and apparently entirely missed the end, for whom the end has glanced off somehow and who seem to see it as a tacked on "happy ending". They are people who do not generally read SF. So I could claim it needs to be read as SF to be understood, but although Hulme (or at least Kerewin but I think Hulme too) has read Tolkien and Lewis and Peake, this is not a book coming out of C.20 fantasy. At all."]

I agree. It seems to come out of itself only. Which may be why she had so much trouble getting it published.

They are more aspects of the exterior reality come real. Like books with personified genii loci, though hers seem less elfy welfy than the rest because she doesn't feel the need to make the palatable in that way.

But try Eva Figes' The Seven Ages. Very different, but there's something similar in the texture. It about a midwife from the Dark Ages to the modern era.

Or just try it because it's a brilliant book on its own if you don't know it already.

Other books I consider in the same league as The Bone People both in quality and the same kind of unmagic/magic feel also include Frederick Buechner's Godric (the life of a reluctant saint) and David Malouf's An Imaginary Life (an imagining of Ovid's exile to the Black Sea where he meets a wolf child).

All of these books have a similar darkness/bleakness that is somehow transcendent.

I wish I could describe it better than that. If it's magic realism (which I've always thought of it as, having a pretty loose definition in my head) it's a particular flavour of magic realism very anchored in place and time and an earthy kind of beyond-what-we-call-real magic. Though the word magic sounds too flighty for it.

Sometime I should probably re-read all of these books at the same time and try to articulate just what it is about them that seems similar and of that particular power to me.

Please someone do better than this. I still would call it magic realism for lack of a better term. Realism made magic by being viewed with a certain clarity that makes it transcendent.

Blegh.

Joe Bernstein (josephb@tezcat.com)

In my alleged history of fantasy, I hope to find a dividing point at which "fantasy" as a literary tradition in English emerges, which is where "tradition" in some sense becomes an issue. I'm not at all sure I can get away with it, but I do think the fantasy tradition (what y'all are calling "genre", a word I'm really uncomfortable with) is profoundly conservative if not reactionary at its heart, and that its original and most common move is to hark backwards.

It's quite clear to me that fairy tales are part of what they hark back to.

In contrast, people like Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, to my mind, are doing something very different, where the unreal is also absurd. They're using the tools of fantasy-as-unreality to react against tradition in some sense.

I tend to think of the magical realists as falling in this latter camp, but they are by far its least plausible residents. As best I understand it, much of the literary project behind magical realism is explicitly an effort to create new traditions, to merge the Spanish, African and Native American heritages into something original. (For the South Americans anyway.) Perhaps I've been blinded by Borges' importance to them - for he's certainly absurdity/originality full blown - because the project I've just described is, with minor changes in proper nouns, exactly Tolkien's also.

Very confused,

but thrilled to have read, if not contributed well to, one of the best threads I've ever seen on Usenet...

Joe Bernstein

Oh, detail note. I've seen various claims that fairy tales were invented, in their literary form I mean, by courtiers of Louis XIV looking for safe ways to argue politics. (Louis not only didn't like people who disagreed with him, he disliked certain arguments themselves; one of the first fairy tales had to do with the banned quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns.) Later they got sanitised into children's stories, not by Disney but by various 18th-century writers. Everything happens over and over...



A Long List [ba=Benjamin Adams, das=David Alan Sellers dn=Debbie Notkin, dt=Doug Tricarico, eam=Ethan A. Merritt, em=Elizabeth Moon, ew=Eric Walker, fg=Felix Grant, gec=Glen Engel-Cox, jb=Joe Bernstein, je=Jonathan Evans, jn=John S. Novak, jw=Jo Walton, ma=Matt Austern, nl=Nancy Lebovitz, np=Nancy Pearl (in "Book Lust"), rh=Rich Horton, rm=Randy Money, sc=Suzy Charnas, soh=Sean O'Hara, son=Svein Olav Nyberg, sm=Steve Magura, cq=Chris Quirke, ts=Tom Scudder, vs=Vince Storti]



Links

Chicon V: "What the Difference Between Magical Realism and Fantasy?"

LoneStarCon 2: "Magical Realism: Fantasy from the Other Side of the Border"

Chicon 2000: "Surrealism and the Fantastic: Magic Realism and Beyond"

Windycon XXIX: "Magical Realism and Fantasy"

Lecture on García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude

Description of Magical Realism, a collection of critical essays about magical realism

Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism


Copyright 2006 Evelyn C. Leeper


Evelyn C. Leeper (eleeper@optonline.net)