What is Magical Realism?
As a genre magical realism is usually shelved as a drop-down stepchild of Fantasy. For marketing purposes, it’s convenient but misleading. Fantasy takes place in strange new worlds. Magical realism takes place in your home town.
What makes this genre unique is not wizards and world-building, but an exploration of hidden mysteries that exist in the here and now. Luis Leal, Mexican-American writer and literary critic, describes this awareness as one "to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.”
Because it can be incorporated to a greater or lesser degrees in a variety of fiction, books with any degree of lo real maravilloso (the marvelous real) will often be categorized under primary genres such as alternative history, historical fiction, supernatural, and of course, fantasy.
Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, tagged in Goodreads as Magical Realism, is currently in Amazon's top 100 books under Metaphysical and Visionary. Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman, which may not show up anywhere as magical realism except in my mind, is categorized on Amazon under Literary Fiction, and curiously under Reference. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is an Amazon favorite under Fantasy and Psychological Thrillers. It's no wonder this category is under-recognized and elusive.
There’s a lot of confusion and lack of good ‘press’ about magical realism. Misunderstanding of MR is enough to drive critics crazy enough to dismiss the genre altogether. Even the beloved Terry Pratchett, prominent fantasy author, commented that claiming to write Magical Realism was “a polite way of saying you write fantasy". One of the problems is the term itself. Like the word ‘awesome’ the term ‘magical’ is overused and ends up trivializing the concept.
What are other differences between fantasy and magical realism?
Fantasy is a genre where alien cultures, species and histories are indispensable to the plot and setting. Fantasy stories take place in worlds that exist only in our imaginations.
Contrast that concept with a world where everything looks normal at first glance. We recognize the settings until we are challenged to look behind the scenes. A new light is cast upon our familiar world, revealing unexpected layers of the extraordinary and often a deeper insight into our human nature.
But unless the story also contains magical creatures and invented imaginary worlds, MR isn’t a sub-genre of Fantasy.
What's in a name?
Critics and scholars who analyze this genre use a wide variety of terms: psychic realism, mythic realism, even grotesque realism. Because stories in this genre often explore the essence of things rather than their materiality it could be also called ‘metaphysical realism’. Not to confuse the issue, but to clarify my own perspective, I’d like to add yet another term. Mystical realism.
Names for this category can inspire heated and opinionated discussions. Oprah’s Book club referred to the dilemma of its name with a short piece called “Magical Realism: What's in a Name?”
Call it what you will, Magical Realism is a special lens through which writers view their story.
What makes magical realism unique?
"Magical Realism is a world that requires a special kind of looking...one with a slightly tilted head...a curious mind...a serious playfulness..."
MR erases perceived boundaries that isolate the material from the ethereal world. Its stories challenge our perceptions of existence. They allow for an easy co-existence of the secular and sacred, where these concepts might appear awkward or incompatible in other genres. They take us to places that lie just beyond the grasp of our corporal sensibilities. Places where ghosts and devils and angels reside.
According to Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, editors of a group of scholarly essays, there are ‘several repeating elements’ that define magical realism.
- “MR is a mode suited to exploring—and transgressing—boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic.”
- “MR often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction.”
- “The propensity of magical realist texts to admit a plurality of worlds means that they often situate themselves on liminal territory between or among those worlds—in phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common, where magic is a branch of naturalism, or pragmatism.”
From Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris
Note: I never set out to write magical realism. In fact I’d never encountered the term until after I’d written Guardian Cats, a fantasy with elements I discovered to be magical realism. Because of its unique perspective and lack of world-building, Guardian Cats doesn’t fit neatly into fantasy, a genre which feels awkward and ill-fitting for the Cats. Since publishing Guardian Cats, magical realism has played an even bigger role in my writing, especially the collection of short stories, poems and micro-fiction for which this site was created. I wrote the following piece in my attempt to understand this elusive genre as most of my stories seem to fall within its dreamlike dimensions.