So, one of the first questions someone always asks me when I bring up magical realism is, “Is [insert book title here] magical realism?”
My first instinct is always to say no, because if it were magical realism it would be marked as such and you would know, since magical realism is pretty much unlike any other genre. But I know that it is the way people relate to a genre they’re uncertain about — they want to know if a book they’ve read is a part of that genre, because then at least they have a reference point. And magical realism is a small enough genre that plenty of people haven’t encountered it conceptually, let alone read a book in the genre.
Where this becomes a little problematic is that a great deal of magical realism is its association with specific cultures and races, and the interaction between the genre and books outside of it in that sense.
Well-known fantasy novels are the most likely to be relisted as magical realism. There is a list of magical realism novels on GoodReads that I consulted when I was recommending books to people, mainly to jog my memory, and only about half of the novels there ought to be classified as magical realism. I’m not a hundred percent certain why this is, but I suspect it’s so that fans of the genre will have more to read, or to pad out the book list — or, as mentioned above, so that people have a reference baseline from which to build their knowledge. Admittedly, a certain snobbery may be involved in the perception of “true” books in the genre; magical realism is seen as literary, while fantasy is seen as genre, a lower “class” of reading. I don’t agree that genre literature should be considered a lower art form than literary fiction, but that is a fairly widespread perception even now.
The problem with reassigning popular novels to magical realism is that magical realism is its own very specific genre, and a well-known novel may edge out a more qualified one. If you can read (for example) a Neil Gaiman novel, which are popular, easy to find, and accessible, why would you go for the cryptic, difficult, and rarer work? (Before anyone shouts, I have not read all of Neil Gaiman’s novels, so I do not know if some of them are in fact magical realism, but I know they are not officially classed as such and that his writing is ordinarily much easier to read and absorb than many magical realism novels.)
This becomes more problematic because magical realism originated in Latin@ culture. There is some Surrealist influence from writers who visited Europe in the early 20th century, but magical realism is a genre born in South America and still predominantly populated with South American (and to some extent, Southwestern-US) writers. The vast majority of magical realism novelists, whatever their nationality, are of non-white origin.
Meanwhile, many novels that are “reassigned” to magical realism are by white male writers: Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, Ransom Riggs. This is not necessarily appropriation by these writers, who don’t usually claim their books are magical realism, but it can be seen as an appropriation of the genre by readers and critics. Adding these books to the ranks of Isabelle Allende, Julio Cortazar, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami devaluates writers whose central genre is magical realism, not to mention diluting the genre into fantasy. Because fantasy novels are much more well-known and widely read, this can result in white writers pushing writers of colour out of their own genre. In particular, reducing magical realism to a sub-genre of fantasy is a mistake, and I think it is often done because people are uncomfortable with how inexplicable magical realism can be.
Mind you, I say all this as a white male writer. But there is nothing inherently wrong with people of any race or gender writing magical realism. The mistake is in
a) Failing to acknowledge the genre’s roots
b) failing to defend the genre when writers who are not deliberately working with magical realism are mistakenly ascribed to it, and
c) as with any genre in publishing today, giving undue attention and exposure to cishet white male writers, who are incorrectly considered a baseline of normal.
Magical realism is a great genre, in part because of how difficult it can be to read; it is a genre that is intentionally, almost universally concerned with social commentary and issues of class and race, and it is deliberately designed to make you work for it. That’s not to everyone’s taste; lord knows it’s not even always to mine. But I think the result is worth the work, and I think the work is worth protecting.