Magical Realism: subgenre of fantasy or distinct genre?


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Magical Realism: subgenre of fantasy or distinct genre?

Muokkaaja: elokuu 22, 2021, 2:49 pm

Hello FantasyFans,

I want to hear what you think about magical realism. Do you consider magical realism to be a subgenre of fantasy, or an entirely different genre? What are your favorite magical realism works? Do you notice differences among the Latin American tradition of magical realism (notably exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez), the Japananese tradition (notably exemplified by Haruki Murakami), and other traditions?

Personally I am partial to the works of Helen Oyeyemi, especially White is for Witching, as I think that magical realism and horror can be a great combination. The slipperiness of magical realism, where you are not sure whether the fantastical elements are happening in the world of the story or the protagonist's mind, really adds to the sensation of being haunted.

Edited to correct touchstones.

elokuu 22, 2021, 2:09 pm

I think of these as separate: fantasy; fantastic literature; magical realism. Fantastic literature would be the oldest (early example--Lucian of Samosata's A true story); magical realism would become a byword with García Márquez (1950s/60s), and fantasy in its current, most common perception would get shaped by Tolkien and his imitators.

Magical realism to me generally seems to distinguish itself by having a political component because it is useful (has often been used) to address obliquely issues that for various reasons it is not advisable to tackle explicitly.

As for the reasons to separate fantasy and fantastic literature, I base it on people's expectations. This would be the litmus test: if a person asked you for a fantasy book, and you gave them Borges or Petronius Arbiter, would they consider themselves understood or not? I'd say that the chances are that they meant "Tolkien and similar".

Well-read experts such as Michael Moorcock dont agree and have included, in their 100 Best Fantasy lists such books like Frankenstein etc. But to me that's just a wishful attempt to educate and make genre more respectable.

elokuu 23, 2021, 8:24 am

I definitely don't include magical realism in the fantasy genre because I strongly dislike magical realism and I like fantasy.

I define magical realism as those stories that are basically very realistic until a magical element appears like "deus ex machina." Usually, for me, the story would be much more satisfying if it did not rely on such elements because by the time that they appear, I am invested in the characters and their narratives. The introduction of an element to which I cannot relate sours the milk, so to speak.

With fantasy, I have no expectations that I will relate to the characters or their situations except in a very rudimentary way. Fantasy is escapist.

>2 LolaWalser:, I like your thought that magical realism has a political component, but I have always thought of it as a cultural component. I find that in some ways it harkens to a more animistic world view, and, in my experience, seems to be more commonly employed by Latinx and African-American authors. As a more of an Aristotelian thinker, I find magical realism difficult. That being said, there has been some magical realism that didn't turn me completely off, such as The Water Dancer and Sing Unburied Sing.

elokuu 23, 2021, 12:49 pm

I think of magical realism as regular fiction which occasionally incorporates fantastic elements for an effect, or to convey something about the personal situation -- unlike fantasy where the fantastic elements are mostly considered quite real. I wouldn't usually recommend Garcia Marquez to a dedicated fantasy reader.

I have no trouble thinking of Frankenstein as fantasy, though perhaps SF would be a better shelf to put it on.

elokuu 23, 2021, 3:52 pm

>2 LolaWalser:
Moorcock and his co-author also included Wuthering Heights and Moby-Dick in their book of 100 greatest fantasies. And I was all like WTF???

elokuu 23, 2021, 4:52 pm

>3 vwinsloe:

I like your thought that magical realism has a political component, but I have always thought of it as a cultural component.

I don't disagree; actually, I think politics subsumes culture, in the broad/classical understanding of "politics". I haven't read much from the African examples, but the Latin American authors I'm most familiar with almost always convey a political commentary through their magical-realist elements (García Márquez, masses of Argentinian authors--Costantini, Soriano, Cortázar, Valenzuela, Arlt etc.--Mexicans too--Boullosa, Rulfo... etc.) I don't think it's a coincidence, with so many repressive regimes in Latin America. Or take Bulgakov for instance, truly a basic example of using "magical realism" to say the unsayable. (Incidentally, if you haven't tried him, you might find The Master and Margarita less taxing than the more poetic versions of magical realism in Latin American literature.)

>4 rshart3:

Yes, the mommy of both genres, really.

>5 Crypto-Willobie:

:) Leads to some fine discussions, though, I'm sure!

I was more annoyed by their repetitive inclusion of some authors--just say "opera omnia" and be done with it...

elokuu 31, 2021, 12:11 am

>2 LolaWalser: Perhaps you can expand a little on this political or cultural component to which you refer? I'm not sure I have such firm grasp on what you're discussing. I can see that allegory and the fantastical could serve as necessary vehicles for political messages in the Latin American or Russian authors you listed ... but would writers from others traditions not count as magical realism? For example, what of Murakami? In my mind, the essential characteristic of magical realism is ambiguity, similar to what >4 rshart3: outlines.

I'm also not entirely sure that I'm comfortable with the definition of fantasy as the genre primarily "shaped by Tolkien and his imitators". Obviously Tolkien is a towering figure, but fantasy draws more broadly on myths and folktales and the unrealistic imagery which appears in the folktales of many different cultures. I'm a fairly avid fantasy reader, but I read books modeled after Tolkien relatively rarely. What about urban fantasy or fairy tale retellings or a myriad of other subgenres which don't draw on Tolkien as their primary influence?

>3 vwinsloe: As someone unfamiliar with the books you mentioned, I would love to hear about what elements they have that encourage you to label them magical realism instead of fantasy. Do the fantastical elements enter the stories well into their runtimes? I've also heard Beloved, which I have read, referred to as magical realism, but I remain unconvinced.

Returning specifically to urban fantasy, it can be difficult to separate modern urban fantasy from magical realism. Looking at first fifty entries of the magical realism tag, I would regard Exit West as magical realism, because it resists a literal interpretation of its fantastical elements, but I consider American Gods to be incorrectly labeled as magical realism.

There is also that category of books which present seemingly fantastical events but which gesture at explanations for these events which do not break any natural laws. Of this category, Once Upon a River has commonly been labeled magical realism, but The Perilous Gard has not, perhaps because the latter is a retelling of Tam Lin. It is also much more specific about the potential supernatural element (faeries), whereas Once Upon a River lays out a handful of different supernatural explanations (ghosts, changlings, etc.), adding to its air of ambiguity.

My favorite uses of magical realism are not the political but the psychological. Murakami does this, portraying dreamlike sequences, but to me, Oyeyemi is a true master of it. The magical elements appear to mostly be from the personal perspective of the main character, and the question of what the other characters in the story perceive and understand is one of the driving tension in her books, a tension that is usually not entirely resolved by the end. That, to me, is a feature very particular to magical realism.

Muokkaaja: elokuu 31, 2021, 1:33 pm

>7 Kanarthi:. To me, the fantastical elements of magical realism are usually a single element that appears out of context in an otherwise rational, realistic story. Everything else, from location, to characters, to plot is utterly realistic.

Exit West was a good example, as I recall that the magical element was the means of travel from one country to another. The Water Dancer does the same, with the magical element being the underground railroad, represented as a magical teleportation. Sing, Unburied, Sing has a ghost, much like Beloved.

I agree that American Gods is not magical realism, as there are multiple fantastical elements that are an integral part of the plot. Very much the same as The Night Circus which is properly labeled fantasy.

Wikipedia has a rather good article on the topic.

syyskuu 3, 2021, 12:05 pm

>7 Kanarthi:

Ah well, first, I was only thinking about what might be said to set fantastic literature, magical realism, and fantasy relatively apart; I'm not interested in defining them Platonically. All these labels are a matter of convention and always fuzzy. Tolkien is a signpost of when the commercial genre took off whereas urban fantasy, as I understand, is a later development. I read very little fantasy and can't comment on its various sub-genres but in general it would seem that in all of them magic or "magical goings-on" are treated seriously, as actually existing and important in their own right. There is a real magic ring in the LOTR, the elves really exist etc. Similarly, in the only urban fantasy I've read (or remember), Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London, the magic is real, magical creatures are really existing etc.

In magical realism the magical elements are not the point as such--as you mention, they are ambiguous--and often don't rise above a metaphor. If fantasy exemplifies unreality treated as real, then magical realism might be said to exemplify reality partly expressed as unreal. The ambiguity, however, is a separate point to what I said about political (or cultural, as vwinsloe added) elements (ambiguity may be present in any sort of genre).

I derive the connection simply from what I read, not as a definitional rule. H. Murakami may indeed not have any sort of political message in his "magical realist" books, but then, I think of him as a literary Hochstapler.

syyskuu 3, 2021, 12:45 pm

I agree with your summary (including fuzziness rather than absolute definition). Thanks for bringing it up; it's useful to think about these things.