"Magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish." ~ Gene Wolfe
Magic realism "is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy." ~ Terry Pratchett
Is the label 'Magic Realism' nothing more than a bit of literary snobbishness? Are its writers simply writers of Fantasy? (Not that there is anything simple about Fantasy or its writers.)
In Fantasy, the magic arises from the logical underpinnings of its world. It is part of the fabric of existence. In MR, it is thrown in somewhat off-hand, seeming at times nothing but whimsy. Although it goes unquestioned, a part of the nature of things, there is no reason for the magic to be. It simply is.
This places MR closer to Surrealism than Fantasy. In the Surreal, the magic has psychological symbolism. It is 'the stuff of dreams.' The reality of a dragon in Surrealism comes from the mind. In Fantasy, it -- although it has metaphoric content (assuming it is good Fantasy) -- is an actual creature that belongs in its world.
What is true of Fantasy is also true, it should be mentioned, of Science Fiction. Both must have a logical basis; both attempt to make the unreal seem believable. MR makes no such effort; it simply presents the 'unreal' as real.
So what is a dragon in Magic Realism? Certainly, it also has meaning as a metaphor. But why does it exist? The answer is that it simply does. There is a dragon next door just as there is a shoe under your bed.
Yet the writer must have had a reason to place that dragon there. If it was only a bit of whimsy, then it was bad writing. The point in both Surrealism and Magical Realism is to jolt the reader with these symbols. For the Surrealist, the symbolism is psychological, how the mind perceives existence.
But the 'magic' in Magic Realism is just that. It is akin to the symbols of a Kabalist: metaphors for deeper truths, things we can not understand directly but only glimpse sideways.
Admittedly, this also exists in Fantasy. It exists to some degree, perhaps, in all truly good fiction. Ultimately, though, MR's goals and methods are most closely aligned with those of Surrealism.
Is there a fundamental difference or is it simply a variant of the Surreal, a different angle of attack? It would have to be noted that Magic Realism arose from the Surrealist movement, not from Fantasy (although the latter most definitely did influence it). It is 'Modern.'
It is of the school that says the image is of primary importance. It places these unexplained and unexplainable occurrences before its audience and says 'make what you will of it.' That sets it apart from Fantasy.
And it makes Magic Realism, at least, the child of Surrealism, its descendant in the Post-modern world.
Stephen Brooke ©2012
Certainly not -- nor intended to be -- any sort of in-depth analysis! I also recognize that genres inevitably overlap. As usual, I wrote this out to get my own thoughts into some sort of order.
Incidentally, I would recommend Tolkien's essay on fairytales to anyone who wants to investigate what makes up Fantasy.