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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Magical Realism?

   
Author Topic: Magical Realism?
Meredith
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In researching agents, I've come across one that says she is interested in "some contemporary fantasy or magical realism".

By contemporary fantasy, I'm assuming she means urban fantasy. But what the heck is magical realism?

I tried looking it up. I kind of liked Terry Pratchett's definition--"a polite way of saying you write fantasy."

But is that an accurate description?


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BoredCrow
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I've heard it called 'magic realism' just as often. But from the examples I've come across, in the more classicl magic realism, are nothing like fantasy. Rather, it's more like unlikely coincidences, or minor hints of magic in the way life happens.

Like many genres, it's difficult to pin down its boundaries. You can read about it some in this entry of wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism
Which, of course, has all the ups and downs of your typical wikipedia article, but it gives a basic definition of the different subdivisions of the genre, and links to visual art that I hadn't known about before.

And my favorite line, which is a quote: "If you can explain it, it's not magic realism." Gee, thanks for clearing that up! (and the article also includes the Terry Pratchett quote you found).

This particular genre was defined on many occasions by Latin authors, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende (particularly her earlier works), both of whom go much more for the realism portion of it. Both of their works completely lack on traditional American/British/European fantasy elements; there were no elves, mages or dragons. Again, as the article said, it's much about the attitude of the characters toward the world.

(A Hundred Years of Solitude is a great novel, btw).

[This message has been edited by BoredCrow (edited June 08, 2009).]


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Cheyne
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Salman Rushdie comes to mind. His novels 'Grimus' and 'The Satanic Verses' are definitely magic realism. It is the mix of fantasy elements within a literary story, treated as part of the reality of the story's world. I first heard of the genre in university while studying Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story, 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings'. I read his novel 'Love in the Time of Cholera' which is a great novel but is not magic realism.
I like Pratchett's definition but don't see it as strictly true. Maybe I should read the link before I go on any more.

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Kitti
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For me, the classic example of magical realism will always be Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate). I can't tell you how many times I had to watch the movie and read the book in Spanish classes over the years...!

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One explanation I've heard of the term "magic realism" is that the magic in the story just happens to the characters but they are not surprised by it. I think it presupposes a world view that is more or less superstitious and that expects strange things to happen for no clear reason.

I've also understood that magic realism is considered more "literary" than regular fantasy. (I need to post a definition of good literary fiction that I read on an email list I'm on.) So it's not about the magic per se, or about how it can be used by the characters to bring the story to resolution. Instead, the magic could be a kind of metaphor for the growth and experience the character undergoes in the course of the story.

Huh. I don't know if that is any help or not.

I'm going to go post the literary fiction definition.


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Merlion-Emrys
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I think its just another attempt to put some sort of shorthand label on things instead of actually using whole sentences to explain what one means. And/or a marketing thing. I don't really see how magical realism is anything other than a type of fantasy thats usually in a modern setting and where the magical/fantastical elements are relatively low key.
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Meredith
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Thanks. I couldn't make much of it, other than an oxymoron.

So, some of Charles de Lint's work might fit into this category? I'm trying to think of something I liked enough to remember it or have it on my bookshelf as an example.

I'm really not sure what makes it different than urban fantasy, but, either way, it's not what I've written.


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BoredCrow
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Again, traditonal magic realism (especially in the Latin works, which I am most familiar with) contains no fantasy elements whatsoever. Just unlikely coincidences and happenings. So it's very, very different from urban fantasy, and I personally don't consider true magic realism to be at all related to fantasy.

I can't say what genre Charles de Lint writes in, because I only read a few short stories of his ages ago, and don't really remember any of it.


(edited because I can't spell)

[This message has been edited by BoredCrow (edited June 09, 2009).]


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tchernabyelo
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I don't think Charles de Lint would be consideed "magic realism".

Borges, Marquez, Calvino, Rushdie to an extent... it's the crossover between literary and fantasy, a form of fiction where you can have something outlandish (often a single key element or event, and often not explained) as a trigger for a literary exploration.

Interestingly, if the element is fantasy, then "magic realism" is the classification. If the element is SF (as in, say, Margaret Atwood) there's no equivalent "acceptable" crossover category. What Atwood writes is in many respect little different from the social SF of the likes of Brunner or Priest, but she stoutly maintains (for whatever reason) she doesn't write SF. An external observer who reads The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake knows that, whether or not she claims or intends to, she most certainly IS writing SF, and those books would be classed as SF if they were written by someone without a "literary" background.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Ray Bradbury and Michael Crichton have indicated that they don't write SF either.

I agree that de Lint's work would not qualify as magic realism.

Maybe one thing that could distinguish magic realism from urban fantasy is the idea that in urban fantasy most people don't believe magic exists and would talk themselves out of any evidence of it they might encounter (and they would feel threatened if they were forced to accept that it exists)--so it has to be hidden or at least those who practice it have to be "discreet" about it. The protection of most people's ignorance for their own sake as well as for the sake of the magical people is often part of the conflict in the story.

Magic realism, on the other hand, involves magic that people almost take for granted. (There goes the neighbor boy, flying off with the geese again.) It's there, but it's more "surreal" than it is remarkable.


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InarticulateBabbler
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Don't forget Harlan Ellison. Don't call him a Science Fiction author.
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DWD
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quote:
Don't forget Harlan Ellison. Don't call him a Science Fiction author.

Do you mean he'd likely slap you with a lawsuit if you did? :-)

Maybe, but--sue me--he's a science fiction author. He did more for the popularization of edgy social science fiction than anyone I can think of, and, sadly (in my view), I've noticed it's become difficult to find any of his work in bookstores. His willingness to push the envelope and look controversy square in the face is something I've always admired, and that admiration usually enabled me to overlook his contentious personality. I guess it was harder for his first four wives...

BTW, If you've never read I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, you must read it. You may not like it, but at a minimum you'll see a great many concepts that have been, um, borrowed, in the years since it was written (mid 1960's I think).


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InarticulateBabbler
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I did.

He may sue a lot, but he cracks me up, too.


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Cheyne
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If Harlan cracks you up on paper look him up on youtube -- some very funny stuff. I read everything he wrote for years. He was a big reason I wanted to write. and yes he is a Science fiction writer. A greedy one at that. I have a hard time taking a man seriously when he puts a copyright symbol after his name in a magazine.
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KayTi
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Just a thought/FYI, I think "contemporary fantasy" is a more inclusive concept than "urban fantasy." Urban fantasy to me conjures up the idea of kids in a city setting getting by on wits and magic (and as someone else pointed out, probably obscuring the magic part from the non-magic folk in their world.) Contemporary fantasy seems to me to be a broader term for the telling of a story that could take place today, were it not for some fantastic (but not science-could-be-possible-ish-fiction) elements.

I have a story about a suburban mom who teleports her minivan (accidentally, and at great cost to herself) that I consider contemporary fantasy. Another about Mr. Nobody (the invisible man that lives in your house and hides your socks) - same. Neither are urban setting. Both rely heavily on a fantastic element to make the story work. Without that element the stories wouldn't be about anything (because, as is true with most speculative fiction - the story is about how the characters survive/thrive/live/die by the fantastic element. Another key difference I think between literary and speculative/genre fiction.)

So, just a suggestion to be careful not to collapse the idea of contemporary fantasy into an urban fantasy bucket. If you're dealing with an agent who uses the category contemporary fantasy, you should probably go with that label he/she chose. It would be helpful, too, if they would give examples of the kinds of things they consider in the various subcategories (sometimes you can get this from an agent's likes lists.)


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Robert Nowall
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Believe it or not, there's a documentary about Ellison out right now. I'm not inclined to watch it.
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InarticulateBabbler
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Robert, are you referring to Dreams with Fangs? If so, I definitely want to see it. It covers a lot of territory, has Robin Williams in it, and discusses how L. Ron Hubbard got the idea for Dianetics by interviewing different Sci-Fi authors and blending the results. (Scientology was the eventual result, but it's interesting to be able to watch a religion evolve from it's earliest stages.)
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mikemunsil
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Magical Realism

The "magical" refers to the sense of wonder evoked in the reader; not the inclusion of magic or magical elements. There is no rhyme nor reason to the "magical"; no internally consistent set of magical 'rules'.

Magical realism may contain fantastical occurrences, but no fantasy.

quote:
An example, from "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez via Wikipedia

Remedios The Beauty

... Too beautiful and, arguably, too wise for the world, Remedios ascends into the sky one morning, while folding laundry.


The above is a good example of the fantastical in magical realism. It is extraordinary event, based upon the "ascendance into heaven" of the Christian mythos, and thus not fantasy because ascendance is a magical reality to a great majority of Roman Catholics.

However, the magical reality of this genre is often expressed in the mundane, as well. Here is the first sentence of "One Hundred Years of Solitude".

quote:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Even as he faces death, you can still feel the sense of awe and wonder in the man, who once was a little boy who experienced "ice". This was a magical moment for him, and remained so for this entire reality.

These, IMO, are the defining elements of Magical Realism.


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DWD
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Your definition immediately brought to mind Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. There are certainly no rules of magic in it, but, since we see the world from the perspective of a child, many things that adults see as mundane or coincidental are presented magically.

Would you consider it magical realism?


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Again, traditonal magic realism (especially in the Latin works, which I am most familiar with) contains no fantasy elements whatsoever. Just unlikely coincidences and happenings. So it's very, very different from urban fantasy, and I personally don't consider true magic realism to be at all related to fantasy.


I'm not trying to discredit your definition or anything. I've heard of the works you mention but I'm not really familiar with them, so I accept what you say entirely.

However my experience with recent definitions and examples have led me to my view that much that is called "magical realism" is at least in my own personal definitions a type of fantasy (which for me basically means anything with any degree of fantastic elements whether outright magic, subtle magic or whatever.)

I do have to say though...if the occurences in a story are suffciently "unlikely" to label those stories a seperate genre then they are most likely within the realm of what I at least consider fantasy.


quote:
Magical realism may contain fantastical occurrences, but no fantasy.


I'm not sure I get the difference.


quote:
The above is a good example of the fantastical in magical realism. It is extraordinary event, based upon the "ascendance into heaven" of the Christian mythos, and thus not fantasy because ascendance is a magical reality to a great majority of Roman Catholics.


I'm not sure I quite follow this either. Much fantasy involves things such as the soul which is believed in by a huge percentage of the population and is still fantasy. The Magic: The Gathering card game includes Angels, which are part of Christian doctrine (admitedly along with dragons and the like but still) and is still considered fantasy.

And I personally believe in magic and the supernatural (and I'm not the only one) yet I realize that "fantasy" is the accepted term for fiction with these elements.

I'm not dismissing anyones definitions of anything. I'm just curious as to how people arrive at certain conclusions. Secondly, I'm rather...doubtful...of terms like "magical realism" and "slipstream." One of the points of genre labels is to tell people whats in a story, what kind of story it is, and I'm not sure these terms serve that purpose, because there seems to be very, very little consensus of what they mean. As oposed to terms like "fantasy" or "science fiction" which do at least convey some basics. Of course then the finer points these generalities don't confer become things like "urban fantasy" "hard sci fi" "high fantasy" etc etc...


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If DANDELION WINE isn't magic realism, it is certainly very close, especially in feel.
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BoredCrow
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Oh, my response wasn't directed at you at all, Merilon! I was just clarifying my original point. But you should totally read "A Hundred Years of Solitude." Everyone should read it! Forgetting this whole discussion for a moment, it's a wonderful, classic piece of literature. I'm reading another shorter piece of his now.

Back to the main event: this is the trouble and the frustration with genre differences. There aren't any clear boundaries. (And slipstream as a genre confuses me, especially as how it differs from speculative fiction).

I think it's a difference in tone as much as anything. And maybe another way to put is that magic realism focuses more on the unlikely, and fantasy on the impossible.

I don't know why I keep circling this point like a deranged vulture. Perhaps because I really do feel that magic realism is so far afield from traditional fantasy. It's like magic realism is on the opposite end of the literary spectrum from traditional fantasy. But as of late, they've begun to circle back and connect... thus magic realism with more touches of fantasy.
(I would place speculative fiction on the same side of fantasy, opposite from magic realism).

In other words, we're arguing the difference between types of apples here. And they're all delicious, and we all love them, so there shouldn't be too much stress about the differences. I do, however, very much see the value in discussing this sort of thing. Just, like I said, without stress.

And KayTi, you make an excellent point about contemporary vs urban fantasy. I'm going to remember that.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I think it's a difference in tone as much as anything. And maybe another way to put is that magic realism focuses more on the unlikely, and fantasy on the impossible.


I know exactly what your saying. But, its interesting to consider this. Many of the "impossible" things in fantasy are things that almost everyone once believed in and some of them are things that some people (like me) still do believe are possible.

Likewise I think its probable that some would consider some of the unlikely things you mention as "impossible" as well.


I also agree very strongly with you that many of the differences especially between sub genres, have a lot to do with tone, voice, presentation. For instance I think for many one of the things that would make "high fantasy" and "sword and sorcery" slightly different things would be one having a somewhat lighter tone and the other being grittier.


As I mentioned recently in another thread, my main issue with genre labels...especially some of them...is their unfortunate inability to really serve the purpose of conveying a sense of what a story is or contains, because everyone has different definitions of the terms. The big ones (Fantasy, Science Fiction, etc) do at least tell us a few things that everyone more or less agrees on, but then they are so broad theres a lot more they dont tell...but then when you start trying to narrow and focus, you start to loose the commonality of definition.


I also agree, more or less with KayTi about the terms "urban" and "contemporary" fantasy. Just on a linguistic level, "contemporary fantasy" would/could refer to any fantasy in a contemporary setting of any kind, whereas "urban fantasy" would specifically imply a big city kind of setting. And by nature such a setting would place a strong emphasis on the issue of whether most people are aware of the supernatural elements or not, and if not, on the hiding of them.


quote:
I would place speculative fiction on the same side of fantasy, opposite from magic realism


How do you define "speculative fiction?" In my experience it seems to get used as a super broad catch all for all "genre" fiction with fantastical/supernatural/super science type elements (basically a way of saying fantasy, science fiction and horror (at least horror with those elements.)

Although personally I don't really see Fantasy or supernatural horror as "speculative", whereas to me it'd be a very good secondary term for sci fi or stories set in possible futures etc.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited June 11, 2009).]


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KayTi
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Back to Meredith's original post, I think it's safe to say that an agent who expresses an interest in some contemporary fantasy and/or magical realism is not going to be interested in a swords/sorcery/medeival-setting type of fantasy novel, nor is this agent a likely good agent for my YA sci-fi (teens on a space station.)

In the case of looking for agents to represent our work, sometimes agents specify books that they particularly like as examples of the genres/sub-genres they prefer to work in. You can also sometimes learn what works/authors the agent currently represents and get some good ideas from them.

In researching an agent, it's always a good idea to be sure that the agent is interested in your specific kind of fiction before you send a pitch. Of course, it's not always possible to tell if they'd be interested in your unique take on vampires or lunar living or what have you, some of that is just left up to the pitch. But just wanted to tie the whole discussion back to Meredith's original question.


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annepin
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cats talking = magical realism (Haruki Murakami)

people living for an unnatural long time = magical realism (Garbriel Garcia Marquez)

People fighting zombies = fantasy (or maybe sci fi or horror, depending)(Richard Matheson)

People fighting vampires and working magic = fantasy (Joss Whedon).

It's a gradient. Jeff Vandermeer (<i>Secret Life</i> ) is somewhere between magical realism and fantasy.

"Magical realism" in my experience seems like a term used to describe mostly literary or mainstream fiction books that contain some amount of "fantastical occurrences" that set the tone and milieu of the piece but driving factors in the story.


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Meredith
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quote:
cats talking = magical realism (Haruki Murakami)

Aha! Then Saki (H. H. Munro) wrote magical realism!

Cats talking = Tobermory
Reincarnation = Laura

[This message has been edited by Meredith (edited June 11, 2009).]


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mikemunsil
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Let's see if I can explain further, 'cause if I can't, then it means I'm not really thinking this through.

quote:

quote:Magical realism may contain fantastical occurrences, but no fantasy.


I'm not sure I get the difference.


Fantastical occurrences in a fantasy setting are elements of a system.


quote:
quote: The above is a good example of the fantastical in magical realism. It is extraordinary event, based upon the "ascendance into heaven" of the Christian mythos, and thus not fantasy because ascendance is a magical reality to a great majority of Roman Catholics.


I'm not sure I quite follow this either.



A person ascends into heaven in two books.

In one, the ascent has been carefully led up to by the author in a manner that is acceptable to the reader; in line with the social contract of the genre. There is a chain of events, system of magic, or other mechanism used to achieve the willing suspension of disbelief.

For example, you might be reading a novel in which Christian clerical magic is a strong theme, and in which Jean d'Arc ascends into heaven because she is essentially too good for this world.


In the other book, there is no attempt to do the above. Instead, the event evokes a response in the reader. However, the response is acceptable to the reader because it is a sense of wonder. In order to achieve the sense of wonder without breaking the willing suspension of disbelief, the author has created a 'sense of place' in which the event is acceptable. In "One Hundred Years of Solitude" the 'sense of place' is developed in two separate strands: 1) the unusual town of Macondo, and 2) the tangled weave of the Buendia family down through the generations.

In this case, Remedios the Beauty ascends into heaven.

Further, Marquez has tied into the magical reality of the Latin America Catholic, for whom the ascendance into heaven of a person too good for this world is a reality.

We as writers in this technically-oriented, more secular society, might well choose a different but equally powerful meme.


---

Yes, Dandelion Wine is Magical Realism, to me. Also, to some extent, Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" and "A Canticle for Leibowitz", by Miller.

All depended upon a strong 'sense of place' and fantastical elements that effected a sense of wonder.

So, that's just my opinion. :shrug:


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mikemunsil
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http://www.writing-world.com/sf/realism.shtml
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