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.
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.”