From the blogs I read and the people I talk to, I haven’t heard the phrase “magical realism” much. What is it, exactly? How is it different from fantasy?

From what I can gather from a post I recently read, called Why I Write Magical Realism, my best guess is that “magical realism” is fantasy for folks who don’t want to be considered fantasy authors.

Athol Dickson writes:

My novels include magical realism because I want to write more realistically about this world, not because I want to escape it.

This is either a meaningless statement, or a snobby statement.

In one sense, I’m not quite sure what Dickson means by this. If you didn’t want to escape this world, why write at all? Just because your fiction uses the real world as its place setting does not mean it is the same as the real world; it is still a different world in the sense that it is still full of fictions that you create (characters that aren’t real and situations that never really happened). Therefore, you still must escape the real world to write. So this is not justification for writing magical realism. I doubt Dickson is claiming that the difference lies in the escapist intentions of the author (as if to say, “not because I want to escape it, even if I inadvertently do escape it in the process”), as that would be pretty pretentious.

So, in another sense, it makes it sound like Dickson is distinguishing magical realism from fantasy in terms of to what degree the writer wants to escape this world. That is snobby, because it presumes to understand the intentions of other authors.

Dickson later writes:

So if I write a scene in which one character witnesses another’s transformation into something god-like or demonic, I’m not doing it because I want to create an escapist novel. I’m doing it because I want to describe life more accurately.

I’m not sure what Dickson thinks an “escapist novel” is. Firstly, every work of fiction, lest it be completely pointless, must be relatable and therefore must describe life to a certain degree of accuracy, especially in the realm of character emotions and decision-making. (That is, you can’t write: “Bob wanted the waffles so badly, he stabbed his brother in the neck with a knife several times; being in prison for murder for the rest of his life didn’t matter as long as he could have waffles that morning.” Unless it’s a strange comedy, but even then, at least the motivation is understandable, if completely ridiculous.) Secondly, as stated before, every work of fiction is escapist in the sense that the audience must suspend its disbelief to understand the story; it must deal in the hypothetical for the story’s sake.

So how do we define “escapism”? We could say that it has to do with the level of the suspension of disbelief required to understand the story. That is, how many elements differ from the real world compared to other works of fiction? (And perhaps Dickson would claim that that scale would also distinguish fantasy from magical realism, though that would mean that any work of fantasy fiction would always be more escapist.) But this definition implies that the reader is a natural moron and that the more he must suspend his disbelief to understand story elements as they relate to the story, the further he moves away from the real world, which is obvious rubbish.

Or perhaps we could say it lies in the reader’s hands. If the reader is reading and trying to forget some painful circumstance of the real world, he’s using the novel as a way to escape; if he’s constantly on the look out for lessons he can actually apply in the real world (though fiction novels do not often offer much in the way of concrete actions), he’s being less escapist (though he is being highly inefficient and he’s probably a moron). I think most readers are somewhere between the two; at the end of the fictional journey, the real world is not hard to come back to, and we usually don’t leave it completely, but we do suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story. (There is a greater philosophical / psychological subject here: “the problem of fiction.” How and why are we humans able to do this suspension of disbelief thing? But that’s a whole different subject.) Anyway, this understanding of “escapism” means that anything could possibly be escapist: music, movies, artwork, long walks on the beach. Even toasters, if a toaster owner studies and obsesses over a toaster’s design to forget the pain of a dead family member or something. In this sense, there are no escapist novels. Only readers who are able to escape while reading.

If we take the first definition, Dickson’s quote makes plenty of sense, but seems to assume that readers are stupid. If we take the second definition, which I’m more inclined to, Dickson’s quote makes little sense.

Dickson writes:

Fantasy stories convey truth without needing to be grounded in the reality of this world.

What? At first glance, that sounds like complete and utter nonsense, but I guess it depends on what he means by “the reality of this world.” As I already mentioned, there is plenty that still has to be grounded by the reality of this world for any work of fiction to be understood as one. I’m guessing Dickson is referring more to time and place settings, limits of magic systems, and the existence of things that don’t (and perhaps couldn’t) exist in the real world. Fantasy (to Dickson, perhaps) implies different time and place settings, magic systems with less limitations, and the existence of quite a number of things that don’t really exist. I think most fantasy authors wouldn’t understand the need to distinguish between greater or lesser degrees of these elements, at least not in defining fantasy. “Oh, there’s magic in this book, but not enough for it to be considered fantasy.” What? So, at best, Dickson is simply making up his own definition of the fantasy genre based on degree of the use of the fantastical.

Dickson describes the book One Hundred Years of Solitude and writes:

None of this is technically impossible of course, therefore it is not “fantasy” in the literary sense.

So “fantasy” “in the literary sense” is a matter of plausibility? This is too problematic for me. In this sense Gone with the Wind might be considered fantasy, because the events of that story are impossible. Or we could argue that magic is indistinguishable from any sufficiently advanced technology, therefore all fantasy stories are plausible(therefore there are really no fantasy novels).

I simply don’t understand the point or the method of trying to differentiate magical realism from fantasy. (My guess at the point is that academic literature professors are sometimes snobby morons, afraid others will be too reminded of the emptiness of so much commercialism to want to associate their fantasy with non-academically-written fantasy, therefore they must think up another name for it.)

Perhaps the most snobby-seeming statement from Dickson, though it has less to do with writing:

Perhaps Garcia Marquez (the world’s best known author of “magical realism”) has simply written about life as it really is for the millions who are driven to mass insanity by labor on the treadmill of materialism, exhausted to the point of forgetting why they started running in the first place, yet goaded to keep at it by the omnipresent advertisements which remind them they need this thing and that thing in order to continue to forget who they really are.

Woah! You assume the masses buy things in order to “continue to forget who they really are”? Firstly, what makes you think you know who people are better than they do? Secondly, how dare you assume to know why people buy things! Ads aren’t that effective.

Dickson ends with:

In other words, I write magical realism because most of us need to get a little distance from our lives to see them as they really are.

Uh . . . bit of an empty statement? Isn’t that at least a part of why anyone writes any fiction? “Escapist” or not? Or is Dickson claiming that only magical realism has the appropriate amount of distance?

In the comments, a commenter called Juliette wrote:

All fantasy needs a grounding in the real world or it would be meaningless. I must confess, I’m surprised to see someone quote CS Lewis but then go on to speak in such a derogatory fashion about other-world fantasy. Both Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy worlds are firmly grounded in elements of our world, and in Tolkien’s case, of our history.

Magical realism is a sub-genre of fantasy, just like urban fantasy is. Both take place in our world rather than a fully realised fantasy world and both tend to avoid certain elements like swords and wizards but both are still fantasy.

Indeed, I agree.

The blog’s owner replied:

I confess I’m shocked that people are interpreting post as derogatory towards fantasy. We included the wording about fantasy just to try and distinguish it from magical realism, which are two genres with blurry lines and are often difficult to categorize.

Replying to the subject, perhaps trying to distinguish magical realism from fantasy is what feels derogatory towards fantasy. If you write what most fantasy authors would consider fantasy, but insist on some other term to describe the genre, it feels like you’re saying “I want to play with you guys, but I don’t want to be seen with you.” And that makes it feel like you’re saying: “I think I’m better than you.”


7 Comments

Jill · September 19, 2011 at 2:46 PM

I don’t disagree with you that magical realism is a sub genre of fantasy. However, I think it was arrived at by different means. Meaning, it didn’t spring from English fantasy novels so much as it sprang from Latin-American novelists who were imitating the surreal style of visual artwork that was popular in the early 20th C. So magical realism might, by its very nature, fit into a larger category of fantastical literature, but it definitely wasn’t following the English (as in English-speaking world’s) trend of fantasy. Early magical realism authors such as Borges wrote of the real world, but with surreal elements that weren’t always explained, and were generally accepted as being normal. It isn’t snobby to distinguish this literary trend from fantasy. It simply acknowledges that Latin American authors created their own genre of fables that happened to include magical or surreal elements. I’ve read a fair amount of books from both fantasy and magical realism, and I appreciate both–but their styles are quite different. Perhaps Dickson didn’t describe the differences very well, but the differences exist none-the-less.

Scott · September 19, 2011 at 7:47 PM

If you want a good example of magical realism (as I would understand it), read George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (or watch the HBO series based on it — “Game of Thrones”). There are dragons and magic and all kinds of fantasy stuff, but it’s never a cop-out to make the plot appealing, nor is it the central focus, nor is its use without its downsides.

S P Hannifin · September 19, 2011 at 9:12 PM

Hi Jill, thanks for the comment!

I guess the issue comes down to how one defines “fantasy” as a genre. The differentiation between English-speaking fantasy traditions (different combinations of medieval kingdoms, dragons, kings, etc.) and Latin-American fantasy traditions (whatever they are) makes sense, though I didn’t get the impression that that was what Dickson was talking about. (He says nothing about Latin-America or differing traditions, and if readers are supposed to understand the difference already, why attempt to explain it with things like escapism and plausibility and distance from “realness”?)

Anyway, even differentiating between English-speaking traditions and Latin-American ones doesn’t really say anything about fantasy as a genre itself, unless fantasy is defined as just a style of English-speaking traditions, which would mean only the English write fantasy, which makes no sense. So it makes no sense to differentiate magic realism from fantasy itself, but from other fantasy sub-genres according to cultural influences (i.e. English / Western vs. Latin-American), or maybe theme (i.e. magic realism vs. sword and sorcery).

To distinguish the literary trend from fantasy can be snobby depending on why it’s done. (“I don’t want people to think I’m writing fantasy!”) At best, it’s just nonsensical, like trying to differentiate vanilla ice cream from ice-cream in general, as if most ice-cream eaters don’t already understand there are different flavors out there. (Or, again, one is just using a different definition of fantasy.)

Yeah, Scott, I do want to read George R. R. Martin at some point, and watch the series. But I’m not sure everyone would categorize Game of Thrones as magical realism because of the presence of dragons and castles and knights and whatnot.

Luke · September 19, 2011 at 11:34 PM

I could not recommend anything for this problem more highly than C.S. Lewis’ “An Experiment in Criticism”. Of course, he predates the popularity of magical realism, but your foyers into Dickson’s fuzzy logic echo some of his brilliant conclusions about fantasy and escapism. It will change your mind on literature in general, I think.

As for magical realism, I suspect that it is an actual genre, distinct from fantasy, but that few of its adherents actually know that 😉

S P Hannifin · September 19, 2011 at 11:50 PM

Thanks! Looks interesting, I’ll add it to my to-read list! Hard to go wrong with C. S. Lewis nonfiction.

Athol Dickson · September 20, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Wow. Why all the hostility? Virtually everything you wrote is based on pure assumption and misunderstanding. It’s as if you’ve gone out of your way to take everything I wrote in exactly the wrong way.

Why not take a minute to get some facts before you start slandering me?

On Rachelle’s blog you could have asked me to clarify these points, but apparently it’s more fun for you to just assume the worst and fling insults.

Well, congrats, Scott. You’ve managed to defame me here in public for no good reason, and now I feel about one inch tall.

Happy?

All I was trying to do was help readers who are new to magical realism understand the difference between it and fantasy. There IS a difference, which you will learn for yourself one day if you keep writing.

But there was NO intention on my part to disrespect fantasy because for the record, I love fantasy fiction. LOVE IT. If I do not write it, it’s not because I would be in any way ashamed of it. I in no way whatsoever view what I do write as superior. So if there is a snob on this blog today, Scott, it’s you.

One of these days, if you manage to get published as I hope you will, people may ask you to blog about what you’re learned. When that happens I hope nobody writes anything this mean about you. I wouldn’t wish this kind of cyber bullying on anyone.

S P Hannifin · September 20, 2011 at 1:27 PM

Hi, Athol, thanks for the comment!

I think you mean to address me, Sean, the writer of the post, not Scott, who just made a comment.

I’m sorry my post offended you. However, it is not a personal attack or slander in any way; it is a response specifically to what you wrote. If you take it as a personal attack, a discussion would be very difficult or impossible anyway.

Though my conclusions may certainly be wrong, I explain how I got to them in my blog post. I can understand that you had no intention of disrespecting fantasy (or at least disrespecting fantasy readers, fans, and authors, as I’m not sure how one can disrespect a genre in general), but hopefully you can understand how some of your writing (as quoted in my above post) could come across differently, especially to those of us unfimiliar with what you mean by magical realism.

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