“Magic realism” or not???

One of the things that’s funny for me is that my books gets classified as fantasy. And while I ADORE fantasy, I tend to divide books in my own head between “fantasy” and “magic.” I have no idea if anyone else agrees with this distinction, but it’s how my brain shelves books.

I’ve blogged about this before, but there’s a big difference for me between a book in which a young adventurer sets forth to seek his destiny in a world full of unicorns (fantasy), a book in which a kid in THIS world finds a unicorn in their closet (magic), and a book where a kid from THIS world is magically transported into a world full of unicorns (both? I don’t know. It depends more on how much the land of unicorns affects this world, I guess, and whether the kid comes back. Maybe it’s also an issue of tone.)  These terms seem pretty arbitrary, I guess.  But arbitrary classifications  are sometimes useful for mulling and organizing.

While I like to read books about other worlds, I’m generally most interested in writing books about how realistic and magical elements in life bump up against each other. A unicorn or a dragon in your house is a PROBLEM, and it may be FUNNY, while also being AMAZING AND TRANSFORMATIVE, but no matter how many unicorns you may have in your closet, you will still have to deal with picking up your room/ failing math/ your best friend deciding he doesn’t like you any more, or your big sister’s meth problem. If you choose NOT to deal with those things, and to instead obsess over your unicorn, there WILL BE CONSEQUENCES.

Magical elements can function in all kinds of ways when they rub up against the real world. They can be escape, or education. They can become more real than the real world, or be outgrown. The main character can be aware of all of these factors, or clueless about them.

As a writer, the world building is different with a magic book.  There’s less work to do in some ways. You don’t have to construct a logic for the universe. You don’t have to invent the wheel.  In other ways, you can easily back yourself into a corner, trying to apply the logic of your magic to the rules of this world.  I think this is why time travel is so hard to execute, in particular.

Recently, I’ve been hearing the term “magic realism” applied to children’s books.  Some people have called Bigger than a Bread Box an example of “magic realism.”  I find this interesting, and I’m not sure what I think about it.  I encountered this term a lot as an undergrad, reading authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.   So far as I can tell, we’ve never had to apply this term to Kidlit before, because we’ve always just done whatever the hell we felt like with magic. Magic is fun to write about, and so we do it.  I’ve always assumed that literary fiction had to adopt a fancy term to make it okay to write about magic, because grownups get weird about fantasy and magic. Being all adult and mature and wise and whatnot. They’ve outgrown games and fun and imagination.  So they prefer a different term.

Which is fine. Sure, Whatever. Postmodern blahblahblah.  Meta etcetera.  You all know you secretly watch Game of Thrones and True Blood.  But I’ve asumed that “magic realism” is intended to elevate certain writers ABOVE the ghetto of fantasy.  I have been  bothered by that, and so I’ve disregarded the terminology with regard to my own reading and writing.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s something useful in it– a reason for the terminology. Maybe it’s related to my own fantasy/magic divide.   Maybe it isn’t just a divisive thing, but a way of understanding how magic functions differently in different kinds of books.

What do you think? The same person who loved Wizard of Earthsea might not love Half Magic. They’re very different, right?  Though both are “fantasy” in a lot of bookstores.  Which style do you prefer?

I’ve especially been thinking about series in which both get accomplished, but in different books.  Over Sea Under Stone and The Dark is Rising are NOT the same book, though they belong in a series together.  Likewise, A Horse and His Boy is very different from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

What are some of your favorite contemporary “magic realism” titles? Favorite “fantasy” titles?

What books are hybrid examples?

How do you divide them on your own shelves? Or do you choose not to?

What about the paranormal trends in YA? Is Twilight an example of magic realism?  Fantasy?

Is this sort of categorization up to the author? Or up to the reader?

Or is this all me overthinking?

(disclaimer: I LOVE Marquez. I love a lot of adult books that are considered “magic realism” in lit classes.  I understand where it fits into the canon historically.  I’m just curious about how it differs from fantasy as the definition of fantasy changes, and about why that categorization is needed today)

4 Responses to ““Magic realism” or not???”

  1. Jeannine Hall Gailey Says:

    In my experience, writers of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism take the differences very seriously. Haruki Murakami and Kelly Link are my two favorite writers of magical realism right now. My female friend who has been in Asimov’s several times worries she might be pigeon-holed as a sci-fi writer when she is also very capable in the fantasy realm and magical realism (re-tellings of folk tales, worlds in which men become animals, etc.) She perceives different markets and audiences as having very specific, separate criteria.
    Sci-fi writers have told me their worlds are based on science and the world of real possibilities within the scientific realm (Isaac Asimov), while fantasy writers might include things like fairies, the aforementioned unicorns, dragons, and etc (Lewis and Tolkein.)
    Magical realism usually includes a fairly mundane world except for certain unusual abnormalities that are not treated as all that unusual – a boy might sprout wings unexpectedly, a man goes to sleep and has a dream except that dream has repercussions on his waking life, a girl has a purse that contains a hidden universe.

  2. Kate Messner Says:

    As the mom of a kid who LOVES books like Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME, Wendy Mass’s ELEVEN BIRTHDAYS series, and BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX, I find magic realism to be a really useful label, if only because it immediately alerts her that she’s probably going to love something. She doesn’t dislike fantasy – but it feeds a different appetite in her, and more often than not, she wants to read about regular kids, like her, who have something way cool (and magical) happen to them. She loves Harry Potter, for example, but I suspect that when it comes right down to it, she relates more closely to your Rebecca than to Hermione, you know?

    Anyway – I love this post. I’ve been thinking about this a bunch because my book-on-the-back-burner right now is in this genre, and I’m fascinated by the distinctions & rules. Thanks for the food for thought!

  3. Irene Latham Says:

    The way I learned it was this: in magical realism, no attention is drawn to the magic. There’s no, “omg, a unicorn!” It’s just incorporated into the story, i.e. talking animals, or in the case of Coraline, the Other Mother just through the door. It’s never made to feel like a big deal, it just is. Love your third paragraph especially, Laurel. And personally love the dream-like, meandering nature of magical realism (also a difference from the world of fantasy). I think the term magical realism is confusing to many, but what a joyful place for a writer to muck around in.

  4. Mike Jung Says:

    A relatively subtle example of this is Kurtis Scaletta’s MUDVILLE – the unending rain isn’t GIANT SPARKLY FANTASTICAL MAGIC magic, but it is a very evocative and effective way of taking a very mundane phenomenon and turning it into something dreamlike and otherworldly.

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