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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
magical realism vs. realist magicism 
25th-Apr-2003 07:02 pm
writing: glass cat
I was thinking, schlepping the laundry up and down the basement stairs, about the panel at Minicon 38 on magical realism, which--as it happens-- papersky, pegkerr, and I were all on. I realized two things more or less simultaneously, as I negotiated the laundry basket around a corner: (1.) That was a really good panel and really smart things were said, and (2.) I was already losing the details, and if I didn't write down what I remembered right now, in a month or so all I'd have was, Yeah, dude, that panel was excellent. So these are my notes.

I no longer remember who said what, although my memory tells me that most of the really clever things, like the neat chiasmus of "magical realism vs. realist magicism," were Papersky's. Papersky and Peg, if you remember attributions, please tell me.

Also, I'm going to be extrapolating into new pieces of argument (i.e., things that weren't said on the panel); those bits will be blockquoted and in italics.

The main thing I remember was the definition we managed, that in fantasy, magic is systematic and active. It's something people do and understand. In magical realism (MR), magic is something that happens; no one understands why and the story doesn't have to explain it, either. I remember the example I was using was James Thurber's story about the man who finds a unicorn in his garden.

Magic in MR is about exposing and exploring character. In fantasy, it's part of the world-building

and often I think a major part of the structure of the plot. Magic isn't an intrusion in fantasy; it's part of the furnishings. In MR it isn't necessarily an intrusion per se--the characters seem to accept the inexplicable happenings without fuss--but it is out of the ordinary. The point of magical realism is that something fantastical happens in a recognizable, veristic world. A version of the "real world" with an explicable, coherent, and consistent magic system is not veristic.

I think we talked a little bit about "real world" stories vs. secondary world stories, but I no longer remember what conclusions we came to, aside from the obvious fact that the two oppositions do not map onto each other.

War for the Oaks is fantasy, not MR. Some of Ursula K. Le Guin's stuff comes extremely close to secondary-world MR.

I remember Peg talking about the book she's working on (which sounds fascinating), and then my memory dries up. I feel certain there were other things we talked about, but I don't know what they are. Anyone want to help fill in the gaps and/or continue the discussion?
25th-Apr-2003 05:47 pm (UTC)
I agree about Peg's book sounding fascinating, but I think you said a lot of the cool things. I also liked the way Peg's mouth fell open when I said The Wild Swans could be seen as magic realism.

"Realist magicism" is something I've said before, definitely.

I know I said that you could have magic realism SF, and gave Terry Bisson's The Pick Up Artist as an example. Afterwards I thought of an even better example, Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. (And I could have used that on the metaphor instantiation panel as well!)

I think I touched on my genre=pacing theory as well -- you can tell "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" is magic realism because it's about an academic who finds a bottle with a genie in it on page 140...

And I remember a lot of what you said about the unicorn, and someone from the audience cited Joan Aiken's whimsical short stories -- oh, was it you who wanted to know the name of the book about Cosmo? It's Aiken's The Shadow Guests anyway.

25th-Apr-2003 06:08 pm (UTC)
It was in fact me who wanted the title of the Aiken book. Thanks! My chances of finding it again have just gone up astronomically.

You did mention "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye," which I think I must have been not-quite-remembering when I wrote the bit about magic as part of the structure in fantasy. Fantasy can't wait that long; the magic elements have to be there pretty much from the get-go. (And now I'm going to be reading fantasy novels watching for the deferral of magic. Hmm.)

We also mentioned Busman's Honeymoon didn't we, and the ghosts at Denver Ducis?
25th-Apr-2003 06:27 pm (UTC)
Fantasy can't wait that long; the magic elements have to be there pretty much from the get-go.

And now I'm thinking of something (I think) Pamela once said, about how War for the Oaks didn't originally have that prologue, but Ace was nervous about waiting too long for the fantasy elements. Which is ... interesting, given that "too long" was less than a chapter.

There are Pamela's own books, at least Tam Lin and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, which are fantasy all through but don't necessarily look that way on first read. Not MR, though, the magic is definitely systematic even if the characters don't know the system.

The thing is, I *do* think Djinn is fantasy and not MR. But the first paragraph is key in that, and I don't mind the deferral thereafter.

25th-Apr-2003 06:53 pm (UTC)
Yep, that was me. Ace was nutty about prologues, anyway. As for waiting too long, it was the seemingly mundane setting that they were worried about. Urban fantasy wasn't so usual then.

Terri, not Ace, was worried about Tam Lin, too, but I had had enough of prologues by then. (The Secret Country did not initially nor for many drafts have a prologue.) That's where the walking-into-a-wall scene comes from, though. I'd really prefer to have done without it.

25th-Apr-2003 07:02 pm (UTC)
Urban fantasy wasn't so usual then.

I remember. I have been meaning to post on the changes in genre, actually, and how startling and fresh the things that War for the Oaks and to a lesser extent Moonheart were doing seemed. Except I don't really have anything to say except, "My, things have changed," which doesn't seem enough to write about.

To sort of meld the two topics, I have been wondering if you could do imaginary-world magic realism, and thinking of Patricia McKillip. That would require a definition of magic realism that leaves politics out, which is true of the one Truepenny is offering.

There's Dunsany, but even aside from the issue of chronology, I think both magic realism and fantasy are in dialogue with straight mimetic realism, as opposed to simply ignoring it entirely, or growing from entirely different roots.
25th-Apr-2003 07:20 pm (UTC)
If you don't mind a caveat: good fantasy is in dialogue with mimetic realism. Bad fantasy, which is legion, has its fingers stuck in its ears, singing la la la can't hear you la la la.

But, fundamentally, yes. Genre fantasy is very much about addressing dissatisfactions with realism--which may be another reason mainstream literary critics find it so distasteful.
26th-Apr-2003 11:01 am (UTC)
I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing. Genre fantasy, whether good or bad, depends on some of the conventions of mimetic realism and the psychological novel; Terry Brooks (or at least when I read him at sixteen) and, oh, B-list writer, let's take Patricia Briigs, and Ellen Kushner and hmm, now I'm blanking on examples of mainstream, A.S. Byatt and Michael Ondaatje and so on, all share some generic assumptions about the role of character in fiction that books from other and earlier traditions don't. All four of those novelists, though I don't class them all at the same levels of talent or craft, see part of their task as the creation of a realistic psychological portrait in way that descends directly from 19th-century mimetic realism.

Tolkien, now, I'm not sure is doing at all the same thing; sometimes he uses those trappings, but sometimes he just doesn't care and goes straight for the flat affect of the sagas. And the writers who were first brought to popularity with the term magic realism--Marquez, Allende, Borges--don't seem to me to be interested in character in quite the same way, or to use quite the same tools to build it. Well, maybe Allende, but more in her later books than her earlier ones.
26th-Apr-2003 11:20 am (UTC)
We can't be talking about the same thing, because I am not following you at all. Could you elaborate further?
28th-Apr-2003 08:20 am (UTC)
Well, it may be because my definition of magic realism is impossibly idiosyncratic. But giving it another try:

Both genre fantasy and mainstream realism have inherited the 19th-century psychological novel's model of character. They portray characters as having interiority, as being having interior lives which cannot be captured by the depiction of outward action alone. The characters interact with magic.

The characters in magic realism, by contrast, don't interact with magic insomuch as they *express* their inner lives by it--or their inner lives are expressed by it, as magic in magic realism is seldom a matter of intent or human agency. Instead of interiority being conveyed by reported thought or action, interiority is conveyed by the magical events or the reification of metaphor.

So I would define MR not by whether or not the magic is systemic, but what role the magic plays in the text.
28th-Apr-2003 09:32 am (UTC)
Okay. Yes. That makes sense. We were in fact talking about two different ways of thinking about realism. My fault. Sorry.

The system bit was only meant to be PART of a definition anyway.

And, good grief, what am I going around trying to define things for? Next thing you know, I'm going to be trying to explain the "difference" between fantasy and science fiction. Sheesh.
25th-Apr-2003 09:55 pm (UTC)
Urban fantasy wasn't so usual then.

I remember. I have been meaning to post on the changes in genre, actually, and how startling and fresh the things that War for the Oaks and to a lesser extent Moonheart were doing seemed. Except I don't really have anything to say except, "My, things have changed," which doesn't seem enough to write about.

They have indeed changed, and yeah, that's when they were changing. I remember putting together a brief convention report for Locus about a Fourth Street lo these many years ago (which might actually have been my first paid non-fiction, come to think of it) that quoted Delia Sherman saying, "The city is the new forest." And it was, then.
25th-Apr-2003 09:01 pm (UTC) - I remember . . .
mentioning Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons as an interesting case, because it could be read equally well as a book where something magical is going or where the protagonist is simply delusional. I remarked, "but no one usually says that Megan Lindholm is a magical realist." Which made papersky mention her story "The Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man," which made me squee because that's one of my favorite stories of all time.

I also remember mentioning Gene Wolfe's definition, that magical realism is fantasy written in Spanish.

I can't remember if I mentioned Tim Powers's and James Blaylock's work or only thought of doing so without ever getting around to it.

Here is the site I downloaded and speed read before the panel; it has a nice suggested reading list at the end.

26th-Apr-2003 06:47 am (UTC)
I just hopped-skipped-and-jumped over from pegkerr's LiveJournal and I wanted to say thanks for posting this (and to your other presenters for chiming in to recreate the discussion...)! Because it's almost as good as being there.

My exposure to Latin American magical realism is limited to reading Like Water for Chocolate but one thing I noted in that book was that the characters in that novel seem to just accept the supernatural goings-on as part of life, however inexplicable. (Tears in the wedding cake make everyone cry? Okay!) There's no method to acquire magic, no learning process involved with it, and no expectation that magic should happen on command. Sometimes it just ... happens. But it seemed that there was at least a system in place -- even if that system was emotions and food.
It just wasn't a system the characters could access on demand.

Then again, it's dangerous to extrapolate based on a single example, so I'll shut up now. :)

- Darice
26th-Apr-2003 07:11 am (UTC)
Darice: I think you're right.

I think magic realism magic works on the principle of "It should be, it should be, it should be like that" to quote Dr. Seuss -- the tears in the cake should make people cry who eat it, happy people ought to float up into the air, the gun that shot your father ought to bleed when you touch it, and these things shouldn't be remarkable, it would be remarkable if they didn't happen, if they didn't happen you'd need to say that they should have.

When it works right, you say "of course".


This makes it very hard to do right, and very easy to do badly, especially when you're doing it across cultures. It may explain why Angela Carter who comes from a culture very close to mine does magical realism more successfully for me than most other accepted MR writers.
26th-Apr-2003 08:51 am (UTC)
This makes it very hard to do right, and very easy to do badly, especially when you're doing it across cultures.

I think the reason LWFC worked so well for me (and possibly for many readers outside the Mexican culture) was that the magic was based on cooking. I enjoy cooking, I've seen how a good meal can affect people, I like affecting people that way (making them happy, mainly -- I don't go crying in my cake batter!). So I could easily accept that cooking might be magical.

I think the hardest part of writing MR would be getting past the skepticism barrier in the reader. I live with a confirmed skeptic, and I can be fairly skeptical myself. So the "it should" magic (I love your description, it makes it seem like poetic symbolism made real), runs smack up against the "there's no way that could happen!" Whereas a fantasy novel, with its fully-developed system of magic that has rules and payments, more easily passes the skepticism barrier. Fictionally, we're more willing to accept the supernatural as giant construct (even if the setting is contemporary) than as strange phenomena in an everyday world.
26th-Apr-2003 12:39 pm (UTC)
... poetic symbolism made real ...

I really like that definition. MR is like living in a poem.

That idea also makes the distinction between MR and fantasy even sharper, because that's NOT how magic in fantasy works--at least not in any fantasy novels I can think of. In fantasy, author and characters have, broadly speaking, the same (frequently rather mechanistic) understanding of what magic is and how it works. In MR, the author knows what's going on, but for the characters it's all a great mystery. You can't see the structure of a poem from the inside.
11th-Jan-2004 11:39 am (UTC) - wow; and about culture...
This is an amazing thread, I'm so happy I followed from oursin's LJ.

I've always leaned towards a pretty cultural analysis of this. It feels a little superficial, but it works with Gene Wolfe's definition and is a bit in line with Darice's direction. We can "see" Latin American fiction and LWFC (French village) and some of Isak Dinesan's stuff as MR because it's just based in another (fairly different, often not-first world economically elite) culture. It looks like "traditional" folk tales to us, in which magic things do just happen, and the story isn't necessarily *about* them, but is about other things (Melymbrosia's character exploration point, or some other theme). Never mind that a reader from those cultures would probably say, "actually, this is nothing like our folk tales." They're not the ones right now categorizing it as a genre we can recognize when it happens over there. (Actually, I would be curious how a reader of Marquez categorizes his work in Latin America.) This is like saying, "That culture is another constructed world, just like a fantasy world." Except we don't require the world building apparatus, we just take it for granted, because we're using a lot of baggage about "other cultures" to allow our heads to create it without explictly needing the rules spelled out.

It's harder to identify MR in a culture that looks more like ours, because a modern, urban, Western, scientific-oriented culture doesn't let such things happen as a normal course of events, without questioning sanity (as people above said) or other fundamentals we can't let go easily and still be "in the story." It's harder to make a context in which the same sorts of events can occur without it being "marked" to a reader and hard to swallow. I think folks like Angela Carter achieve it by being stylistically so different you more easily read it as if it's another culture, or a world with rules we expect suspended. I'd put John Crowley in there, too, for Little, Big. If it's not marked stylistically in a major way, it's a lot easier to read it as "the character is crazy and seeing things" because that's how we culturally would have to react, if we aren't helped hard to overcome our expectations about the context and the social setting. (And it's still pretty easy to get there, as I did with McKillip's "Stepping from Shadows" and was on the edge of in "Parsley, Sage" even at the end.)

Then there's our (at least American) ignorance about traditional European folklore (of the fairy and black dog variety)... Our urban myths, science mysteries(including UFOs) and leftover superstitions (ghosts) are what we've got to work with on a Western modern folk level -- or else it's Santa Claus and various religious themes. Anyone doing a Tam Lin here and now is also going to have to fight the lack of awareness of that story in our culture, too. So the parallel isn't going to be very obvious without lots of "signs" that it's fantastical at heart, I guess. (And for the Ace/Terri problem, I'd say there's a legitimate marketing concern about the fantasy genre and what sells and why, which is a different discussion.)

So this is a long post to say "we read Latin as MR because we let it be" and we don't let our urban fantasy be MR so easily. And world building can be replaced by another cultural setting sometimes (although I don't think that alone will make it substitute fantasy). Blah blah... I have to work, so this was more interesting.

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