Magic realism defies genres
by Neil Ayres
Resorting to pigeon-holing fiction is a very well-established practice. It was not so long ago that reading novels was not considered a respectable pastime at all, and this prejudice persists in graduated form. In Britain a parallel to the class system is easily-drawn, with high-brow literary achievements from Oxbridge graduates at the top, the aristocracy of the fiction world; the popular culture of the middle-classes (mainstream thrillers, chick-lit and bubble-gum fiction) in the middle; and gritty police procedurals and crime realism, the staple of the working classes, at the bottom.
What, then, of science fiction, fantasy and horror? Unless itÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Harry Potter or Philip Pullman, these are surely the socially inept teenagers and their Second Life-dwelling grown-up counterparts. With one exception: magical realism. This sits squarely with the literary elite, right at the top of the ladder, doesnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t it? Look how many magical realist novels have been short-listed for, or indeed won, the Man Booker prize over the years. The Booker of magical realist Bookers is perhaps MidnightÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Children, surely a tome that deserves to be recognised both as indisputably of its genre and worthy of inclusion in the mainstream literary canon.
So whatÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s the difference between magical realism and fantasy? Definitions of what magical realism is and isnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t abound, but for the sake of brevity, letÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s say it should incorporate the following: a reality similar to our own, in which the impossible can occur without comment; and a self-aware narrator, prepared to embark on a relationship with the reader outside the one afforded by the story.
But couldnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t this definition apply to any number of fantasy or horror books? IÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½m thinking of authors like Jonathan Carroll and Neil Gaiman. Of course it could. The original magical realist movement Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ Borges, Marquez, Calvino and their ilk Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ mostly had something else in common. They all bore a connection to Latin America, as does Yann Martel (another Man Booker winner), and as do thoroughbred modern magical realists like Isabel Allende. No wonder, then, that Gene Wolfe, mainstay of intelligent high fantasy, described magical realism as: Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Fantasy written in SpanishÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½.
Personally I think he has a point, but it has its limitations. There is certainly an intangible quality to some Iberian and Latin American writing, even that based in reality, like the work of Arturo Perez-Reverte and Luis Garcia-Roza, that contain the essence necessary to convince me that I am reading magical realism and not some half-cocked literary or fantasy version. On the other hand, I would go so far as to suggest that there are works of high fantasy (by high fantasy, I mean fiction set in an entirely invented world), like Jeff VandermeerÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s City of Saints and Madmen, that are without a shadow of a doubt closer to the (somewhat grey) principles of magical realism than they are to the world-building comfort-zones of Tolkien and his inheritors. And Rushdie and Kundera (also oft-cited when the genre is discussed), as far as I know, are far removed from Latin America. As is Indra Sihna, this yearÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Man Booker short-listed flyer of the magical realist flag.
So what is it about magical realism that lets it sit happily with the literary judges, where other genres canÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t? I think itÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s very simple: magical realism is what stories have always been about, from the earliest fables filled with gods, angels and talking animals, to the earliest novels, written by Cervantes (CervantesÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ El Coloquio de los Perros is a book consisting of a dialogue between two dogs), Swift and Voltaire. You could call these works of fantasy, but thereÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s a certain preconception of what fantasy is. Why arenÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t GulliverÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Travels, Never Let Me Go and Oryx and Crake to be found on the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves alongside novelists like M John Harrison and Ursula LeGuin? Why should China Mieville and Justina Robson be forced to share shelf space with Raymond E Feist and tie-ins for Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Other than covers designed to aid marketing, I donÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t know, but whatever the reasons, theyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re the same reasons these books are nominated for Hugo Awards instead of the Man Booker.
So, we kind of have a working model for what magical realism is, but why is it so successful at getting under the skin of the literary judges? For a novelist, or a literary critic, I see several problems with realism that magical realism successfully overcomes. Firstly, suspension of disbelief, which seems oxymoronic I know, but itÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s true. The problem with realism is itÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s at odds with a good story. Take a fairly decent novel like The Kite Runner. The book, like millions of others, is completely undermined by its reliance on contrivance of situation. A contrivance that could happily be incorporated Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ referred to even Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ in a magical realist text.
One way to avoid such contrivance is building the story of a novel (not the novel itself: theme, character, mood, etc.) around a single observation, which results in the groan-worthy anti-climax Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ excuse the pun in relation to On Chesil Beach Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ epitomised by some of Ian McEwanÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s work.
An option for avoiding these pitfalls, and my preferred one in relation to realism, would be that employed in other successful literary novels: (Iain BanksÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ Dead Air, for example) ending the action at a suitable spot, once everything the author wanted to comment on has been commented on. Of course, no matter how well written, this might result in a good novel, but itÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s unlikely to result in a great story, is it?
Magical realism, by dint of being self-aware, and also by addressing the reader as such, immediately obliterates these pitfalls. Some, like David Mitchell in his interview with Ian Hocking, assert that this makes experimental fiction, including magical realism, far easier to write than realism. True, maybe. I think it, along with genre fiction, can certainly be far more fun to write, but does that make it any less deserving of our attention or admiration? Even if it is true, it doesnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t follow that every book of realism is superior to every book willing to take liberties with reality, or comment on the human condition by presenting experiences outside it.
From the wealth of experimental and magical realist writing on the Man Booker shortlist and winnersÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ podium over the years, the judges would seem to agree. So it wonÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t be the decision to write outside of our own reality that causes AnimalÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s People to win or lose this year, it will be the quality of the writing. ItÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s just a shame the same canÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t be said of all the great eligible science fiction, horror and high fantasy that has been published.
There is interesting work in this area coming from the left-field, mostly from America, with magazines like Lady ChurchillÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Rosebud Wristlet and Electric Velocipede tending a stable of successful mid-list authors working across the gamut of genre. Some have attempted to present a manifesto, define it as a movement, or at least seek a common thread running through the work of these authors. In my opinion, though, the only common thread is that these authors are writing outside of realism, whether in science fiction, fantasy, horror and steampunk, absurdism, surrealism, or magical realism.
With Man BookerÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s ongoing recognition of the quality of the talent writing in magical realism today, perhaps the future is looking up for well-written, original speculative fiction of all kinds.
This article originally appeared on the website of the Man Booker prize.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Neil Ayres. All rights reserved.
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About the author
The quintessential jack-of-all-trades and master of none, Neil can put up a wonky shelf, write a half-decent story, train a dog to do a higgledy-piggledy send-away and order a meal in Spanish with minimal use of hand gestures and pointing.
Originally from East London, guv, he now lives halfway between the Capital and the south coast. He hasn't been to a university in Cambridge, Oxford or anywhere else for that matter.