SERIES INTRO: As a speculative fiction writer, you need to know your genres. Why? Knowing your genres makes it easier to find your readers. Even if you’re not excited by the thought of marketing your book, knowing your readers helps you make the right creative choices. And, let’s face it, you save a lot of time if you can make those choices earlier rather than later.
The idea behind this series is to give you a tour of the sub-genres you’ll most often find within the different spec-fic genres. It’s a whistle-stop trip, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Here’s the fourth in the series. Don’t forget to read the first three installments: fantasy, science fiction and horror.
What is Magical Realism?
Magical realism is the Marmite of sub-genres: you either love it or you hate it. But what exactly is it?
Research the subject of magical realism and you’ll find a lot of learned analysis from critics and academics. As this is an article for writers, I’d like to get my definition straight from the horse’s mouth.
In his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, magical realist author Salman Rushdie alludes to ‘a commingling of the improbable and the mundane’.
For me, this is as good a description of the sub-genre as you’ll find anywhere.
Infant ghosts come back to join their still-living mothers (Toni Morrison’s Beloved), the right confection can change your character (Chocolat by Joanne Harris), and no-one so much as bats an eyelid at any of it. [Sophie: These are two of my favourite books ever!]
That’s magical realism.
A Note On Terminology
You’ll come across a number of terms related to magical realism. Most often you’ll hear talk of ‘magic realism’, and sometimes even ‘marvellous realism’. These alternatives tend to be used as synonyms for magical realism, which is okay, but not technically correct.
Magic realism more properly describes paintings with fantasy or dream-like elements. Marvellous realism originally pointed to common perspectives found in the art and literature of diverse South American cultures.
What Magical Realism (Probably) Isn’t
The late, great Terry Pratchett once said that identifying yourself as a magical realist author was ‘like a polite way of saying you write fantasy’.
While it’s true that critics and prize-givers value magical realism over fantasy, others see real differences. The academic Maggie Ann Bowers insists that there’s a major distinction between the two sub-genres.
Bowers feels that in fantasy, improbable events are treated as something extraordinary. In magical realism, by contrast, they’re perfectly ordinary happenings.
I’m not so sure the two can be separated so neatly, but this doesn’t seem like a bad rule of thumb.
Where Does Magical Realism Come From?
If you’d asked me this before I did my creative writing MA, I’d have replied, ‘South America, of course.’ But although South American writers have loomed large, I’d have been totally wrong.
The magical realist timeline has its origin in central Europe in 1915, with the publication of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. After an uneasy night filled with bad dreams, Gregor Samsa famously wakes up to find that he’s turned into a giant cockroach and must work out how to keep life as normal as possible.
This, Kafka’s most famous work, was published ten years before the term magic realism was even coined (by the German art critic Franz Roh). It wasn’t for another two decades that South American writers officially entered the fray, but when they arrived, they came with a bang. Borges published The Aleph, and the stage was set for a genre revolution.
I discovered magical realism through the novels of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but in the late 1980s Salman Rushdie very publicly brought the sub-genre closer to home.
Since then, still more English language writers have found their own magical realist angle, among them Alice Hoffman and Audrey Niffenegger.
Major Characteristics of Magical Realism
It’s disruptive – The winning side may well write history, but magical realist authors get to overturn the official version of events. That’s why this sub-genre is so often political. Think Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, which takes a fresh look at the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre.
It’s inclusive – You can’t enjoy magical realism if you think your perspective is the only truth. The very act of reading works in this sub-genre will broaden your horizons. That’s why it has the ‘Marmite’ quality I mentioned earlier.
It’s credible – This is a tough challenge for the writer. When writing magical realism, you must make your readers believe in the mundanity of the magical events. ‘So your hubby has a genetic mutation which leads to spontaneous time travel, eh? Bummer’, is the sort of response you’re looking for.
It never explains – Unlike other speculative fiction sub-genres such as hard fantasy and science fiction, magical realist writers don’t disclose the causes or mechanisms of magic. This withholding is seen as an important factor in creating a realistic effect. So we never do find out why Gregor became an insect, and Kafka’s story is all the better for it.
Magical Realism and the Writer
When you write a work of magical realism, you join a tradition that includes some of the greatest authors in history. You’ll also be creating a work that sits somewhere between conventional literary fiction and fantasy: the very embodiment of transgression.
It takes a confident writer to handle this particular reality.
But now I’m interested in hearing your views on magical realism. Is it simply fantasy with a Nobel Prize? Do you love it, or do you hate it? Let us know in the comments section below.
Hey, let’s stay in touch.
Never miss a post. Sign up to Liminal Letters – fortnightly insight into my life as an editor.
Plus, receive my ‘Project, Profit and Efficiency Tracking’ spreadsheet (and guidelines) to help you run your own editing business. Honestly, it’s one of the most useful tools I use as a professional editor.