For the Last Time: What is the Difference Between Fantasy and Magical Realism?

· How colonial discourse has shaped popular literature in North America. ·

A common question I get from literature students and avid readers alike is about the categorical difference between fantasy — particularly paranormal and urban fantasy — and magical realism.

While I think there are some pretty good resources out there explaining the different qualities of each genre, what is less explored is the common perception of who writes which genre, where the genre originates from, and why this matters.

Fantasy vs Magical Realism

To start, I’d like to offer up a basic understanding of the differences between fantasy and magical realism. Consider fantasy to be a kind of parent genre; it’s a broad, umbrella term that encompasses many sub-genres, all of which have one thing in common: magical or fantastical things happen.

Magical realism is included here. Even science fiction could be considered a sub-genre of fantasy as it incorporates presently impossible forms of scientific knowledge and technologies to create a fantastical world. Although it’s not strictly ‘magic’, I would argue that the lines between magic and science are thinner than we’d like to believe — but that’s a topic for another day.

Another sub-genre of fantasy is paranormal, which is generally understood to be a kind of contemporary fantasy that incorporates elements of spiritualism. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, more broadly incorporates urban legends and mythology around supernatural creatures in cosmopolitan settings. It’s here where people get confused about what exactly the difference between fantasy and magical realism is. According to Merriam-Webster, magical realism is:

 “A literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.”

For all intents and purposes this doesn’t seem terribly different from paranormal or urban fantasy, but there are key elements that separate these genres. In his pivotal work of literary theory, The Fantastic (1973), Tsvetan Todorov noted that what distinguishes magical realism from conventional fantasy is this: magical realism unsettles the notion of reality we take for granted by blurring the boundary between the mundane and the fantastic. Conventional fantasy, on the other hand, creates an entirely different reality with its own set of rules. When we talk about consistent world-building in fantasy novels, this latter point is what we refer to. Intrinsic to itself, the world created by conventional fantasy makes logical sense; the world created by magic realism does not.

Who Writes Magical Realism?

I said earlier that magical realism is a sub-genre of fantasy, but not everyone agrees with me on that. In an essay for Tor, Jon Evans argues that fantasy and magical realism are completely distinct because one is rational and bound by the laws of its own universe, while the other is chaotic, wild, and unpredictable. In Evans’ definition, the quality that generally unites these two genres — magic — is irrelevant.

However, he also points out, and rightly, I think, that magical realism and fantasy are a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. There are plenty of works, such as The Dragon Waiting by Patricia McKillip that are neither as bizarre as One Hundred Years of Solitude nor as regimented as a high fantasy novel. Another important distinction, he notes, is that while fantasy is more about the world in which the story takes place, magical realism is used primarily as a tool to explore the story’s characters and their very real-world challenges and traumas.

This, however, is where our opinions diverge. Evans goes on to explain that systemic fantasy (what I call conventional fantasy) comes primarily from Western writers, “who live in nations where ‘peace, order, and good government’…more or less rule’”. Magical realism, on the other hand, is mostly written by people of colour who come from troubled (i.e. colonized) lands. He then goes on to argue that magical realism is random, surreal, and arbitrary because the worlds of the authors are such as well:

“When you live amid papered-over blood-soaked horror, like Nigeria’s Biafran civil war and corrupt dictatorships, India’s partition and Emergency, and Colombia’s La Violencia, then the surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational. That’s the well that magic realism draws from. What the surreal fantasists have to say about desperation and tragedy and violence is more powerful because, alas, the desperation and tragedy and violence they’re writing about isn’t fantastic at all.”

I would like to take some time here to expose the danger in this kind of thinking. Whether he realizes it or not, Mr. Evans has trapped himself in the very kind of false dichotomy he was trying to avoid: that of a peaceful, orderly democratic Western world, and a violent, chaotic, authoritarian non-Western world. Jon Evans may not know it, but his essay about literature is not just about literature; it’s about politics and epistemology as well. In his statement, we see the purported truths of Western hegemony at play, and this has ramifications in the publishing world as well.

For years marginalized authors have fought to have a place in mainstream publishing, and while things have improved, there is quite a way to go. One of the barriers people of colour face is rooted in Mr. Evans’ view that the non-Western world is somehow so barbaric and nonsensical that the kind of literature people from that world write must also be nonsensical. This pigeonholes writers from nations with a colonial legacy into a genre deemed inaccessible to the public: magical realism. Yet upon closer inspection, there is little that distinguishes the alleged chaos of magical realism from other forms of contemporary fantasy.

Let’s take Neil Gaiman, for example. Neil Gaiman has enjoyed immense success and good standing within mainstream culture for his literature. Though popularly thought of as a fantasy novelist, much of Neil Gaiman’s work is almost indistinguishable from magical realism.

Take Anansi Boys, for instance, which uses godhood as a tool to explore family legacy in an otherwise mundane world. Or American Gods, where the divine and the profane co-exist with little hullabaloo. Although the novel is perhaps eye-brow raising at points, no one has thrown American Gods at the wall and protested its lack of a logical magic system. Yet few would call Gaiman a magical realist; he is neither Indian, Nigerian, nor South American. He is, as far as anyone can tell, a white man born and raised in the Western world. So why, then, do we ascribe the alleged chaos and violence of the non-West to people of colour who write surrealist fantasy?

Magical Realism or Surrealist Fantasy?

Merriam-Webster’s definition is correct in saying that magical realism is associated with Latin America; but is it really a genre that should be confined to those whose countries have been devastated by Western colonial expansion and imperial pursuits?

And by the way, this is another reason I dislike Jon Evans’ description; if the non-West must be seen as violent and chaotic, it is only so because of the exploitation of the so-called peaceful West. The violence and chaos the Western world has inflicted externally is somehow not accounted for in Evans’ evaluation, and I say that ignoring the alarming degree of police brutality, incarceration, and discrimination seen throughout the United States.

However, my qualms are not just political. Although I love the genre we call magical realism, one of the reasons I oppose genrefication is because it has a very real impact on how works are received by the public. Magical realism, at least in the adult genre, is largely underrepresented and seen as niche, snooty, and inaccessibly literary. Yet curiously, it is accepted in middle grade fiction. This is reflective of the simultaneous infantilization and alienation of a genre most commonly associated with writers of colour.

When writers like Neil Gaiman (who I also love!) are assigned broad and accessible genres like fantasy, while the likes of Salman Rushdie and Garcia-Marquez are confined to literary genres like magical realism, we perpetuate the marginalization of writers of colour. We compromise the careers of those ‘magical realists’ who have not yet broken onto the scene and made a reputation for themselves the way Murakami Haruki and those of older generations have.

I agree with Jon Evans that magical realism and systemic/conventional fantasy are a spectrum; but rather than understanding magical realism as a genre born of a chaotic and violent non-Western world, we should perhaps strive to see it as surrealist fantasy — a sub-genre of fantasy that can be written and enjoyed by just about anyone who has a taste for the uncanny and the weird.

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