Not long ago, I posted about magical realism on my tumblr, and I got a lot of responses, many of them asking just what the definition of the genre was. Which is a good question, and one that despite having written two books in the genre I’m still not able to articulate without a lot of talking.
I’ve struggled before to define magical realism, which is a small and slippery genre that doesn’t like being defined (which you will find apt if you’ve ever read it). The best definition I’ve found for it is that it “uses magical elements to enhance the reality of the narrative”. This is, like the dictionary definition of irony, kind of useless. There are many good criteria on Wikipedia — fantastical elements in a real world setting, hyperdetailed description, the centrality of the reader, an active political or social agenda — but any genre of fiction is never going to fully conform to a checklist, and a lot of the components listed are a lot more difficult to wrestle with than the fundamentals of the genre.
The night that I posted about it, I ended up chatting with a bunch of friends about what magical realism is and isn’t. It is a little like the famous definition of pornography — you know it when you see it — but that is of course unsatisfyingly vague and doesn’t help people who are just starting in the genre. I believe that most things in this world, tangible or otherwise, can be quantified somehow. It’s just the how that occasionally eludes us.
There room to argue, but in general I’ve found that magical realism uses unreal elements rather than incorporating them — magic is a part of the author’s message to the reader, not a driving force to the plot. The rule of thumb I quoted in the discussion was if at any point someone explains how the magic works, it’s not magical realism. Which was sort of a joke, but is also pretty profoundly true. Luis Leal, in speaking of magical realism, said, “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.” This likely stems from the influence Surrealism had on the genre.
Magical realism does not consist of systems of magic so much as it does magical things simply happening, usually for a purpose outside the narrative. For that reason it can be exceptionally frustrating to readers, especially fantasy readers who are used to formalized structures which are explained to the reader via exposition or demonstration. Unreal elements in magical realism are part of the prose, part of the symbolism of the novel — like the glasses in The Great Gatsby, or Rosebud in Citizen Kane. These are objects which represent something, if not to the reader then to the characters in the book. If that object (or person) is “unnatural”, not rooted in reality as we know it despite existing in that reality, that’s magical realism. If it is not accepted as rational, that’s usually fantasy; highlighting the strangeness of the object isn’t necessary in magical realism, generally speaking, because it stands out without the characters having to point at it. If there is a “system” of magic or an explanation of the presence of, say, fairies or whatnot, that’s also fantasy, because in that case the unreal elements are a fitted part of the world, which means the narrative isn’t set within reality.
One of the best ways to describe this entire thing is a scene from The House Of The Spirits by Isabelle Allende. This novel is set in our reality; there are no actual mermaids. But at one point one of the daughters of the family dies, the most beautiful and beloved daughter, and when they see her body, she has a mermaid’s tail. This is accepted by the family without outrage or surprise, and is meant to be accepted by the reader as a representation of the daughter’s disconnect from mundanity; her beauty and charm was otherworldly, out of the range of the ordinary.
There is another element to the definition of magical realism, which is cultural, but I wanted to make that a separate essay; I’m going to be talking about genre and race and culture, and that’s its own kettle of fish. For now, the point I want to drive home, and which I was wrestling with during the earlier discussion, is that magical realism is as much Realism as it is Magical. The stories are rooted in our existence, our reality.
One of the people in the chat asked, “So all magic realism has to be on Earth?” which I thought was a great question because it queries whether magical realism can take place in any reality as long as the basic function of the magical elements remains the same. Could you create a reality and then set magical realism within that created reality? In theory, as long as the unreal elements were still used representationally, you could. It’s a fascinating exercise, particularly for people looking to write in the genre. And I’ll be honest — I need all the practice I can get.