November 30th, 2011 / 12:54 pm

ToBS R1: ‘magic realism’ vs. living in brooklyn

[Matchup #1 in Tournament of Bookshit]

Wikipedia defines magical realism as “an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world.” A more specific definition favored by a former instructor was that magical realism tended to concern itself with a world that was like our own–i.e., real–with the exception of one fantastic element. Sometimes that one element has profound implications for the ostensibly real world of the story, and sometimes it doesn’t, as in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, whose flight-and-invisibility granting magical ring MacGuffin/conceit is mostly polite enough to stay out of the way of the realist novely bits.

There are two main things to know about magical realism.

First, it is probably the least honest genre since realism. In “Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard writes that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.” What he means–in part–is that we allow ourselves the childish fantasy of Disneyland precisely because it makes the rest of our lives seem real, adult, and reasonable, when they are really anything but. The one permissible fantastic element in magical realism is the Disneyland to that story’s America. By clearly defining the one fantastic element as unreal, by saying “the magical ring is the fantastic bit,” we implicitly argue that the rest of the story depicts reality. We exalt realism as a successful duplication of the real world. In its apparent play with the categories of real and unreal, magical realism as she is played actually asserts an uncommonly rigid division of the two. It is realism’s unwitting helpmate in manufacturing the smug confidence of the American middle and upper-middle classes in the justice, normalcy, and fundamental realness of their position in the social order. This is one of the two reasons I hate it.

The second reason is that “magical realism” is really just another word for fantasy. While there is of course tremendous variation among fantasy stories in terms of how aggressively they insist on their reality, it’s an exceedingly rare thing to find a fantasy that asserts no relation to reality at all–The Lord of the Rings is a religious and political allegory and perhaps a loose exposition of race science, for instance. Magical realism as a category exists first and foremost so that people who think themselves above reading fun, exciting stories about dragons and etc. can enjoy a fantasy while calling it something else. “You should really read Fortress of Solitude,” they say, “It’s about superheroes but not really, sort of a magical real take that transcends genre,” desperately hoping no one notices that Lethem was previously the author of several excellent and unapologetically genrefied novels (his first, Gun with Occasional Music, a brilliant fusion of Raymond Chandler and Phillip K. Dick). It’s a way of turning up one’s nose at things millions of other people enjoy, a way of saying “What I love is better than what you love.”

(That most things I write could be and have been categorized as magical realism is a sore subject for me, believe it.)

As for living in Brooklyn, we should begin with the fact that I’ve never been and I don’t expect to go there soon. It may be that my literary career is therefore doomed. It’s always seemed strange and cruel that actors are supposed to go to L.A. and writers to New York City if they want to make it big, the early periods of even eventually-successful careers in these arts being almost perfectly correlated with extreme poverty, and these locations being–precisely because of the densities of economic activity that serve as potential force multipliers to young artistic careers–notoriously expensive. The cost of these particular raffle tickets is incredible is what I’m saying.

Of course Brooklyn isn’t Manhattan. The mean and median household incomes in Brooklyn are both about $9,000 below those of the U.S. as a whole. Manhattan is the real outlier (mean: $121,549; median: $64,217 [David Koch and Michael Bloomberg are skewing the former, naturally]) and seems to be what most people mean by “New York City” when they are talking about success or fame or what-have-you. Brooklyn comes with indie cred. Brooklyn is not associated with Wall Street. Brooklyn is photogenic because it denies that it is photogenic; images of this borough are 43% more likely to be treated with a poignant, nostalgia-inducing Photoshop filter such as film grain or sepia tone. Noah Baumbach lived there and so did his father. If I knew anyone who lived in Brooklyn, I imagine they would remind me of it often, and that I would find this alternately irritating and charming. But I don’t know anyone who lives in Brooklyn, and many authors I admire do. Lethem has lived in both Brooklyn and magical realism, but he has always been far prouder of the former–I think because he resists the genre (I flatter myself to think this his reasons similar to mine).

This being Mean Weak, we’ll give the crown to the worst: five stars for magical realism. Two thumbs up. Ten points from the Russian judge; eleven from the rest. We all know I only want to see it move on to the next round of hatefucks.

– Mike Meginnis

* * *

WINNER: ‘magic realism’

Tags: ,


  1. drew kalbach

      ah fuck there goes my entire bracket

  2. Cwinnette

      Hell yeah! I’m in this thing. I’m sharking straight for Ken Bauman’s $5!

  3. Tron

      “The second reason is that “magical realism” is really just another word for fantasy. ”

      I kind of can’t believe people are silly enough to still say this in 2011. 

  4. Dole

      good work Mike Meginnis, I like this.  

  5. Mason Johnson

      Is that statement offensive to Fantasy, Magical Realism, or both?

  6. Mike Meginnis

      I’m curious: Why?

      One can make the distinction if one wants to but I rarely see good reasons offered for doing so.

  7. Anonymous

      It’s obviously not High Fantasy, but I think it definitely has a place within the larger fantasy genre.

  8. Tron

      Both. It is just a hackneyed (has been said a million times, so funny how people try to present it as an original thought) and ill-thought out statement in general. 

      First off, magical realism is certainly distinct from what we traditionally think of as fantasy. At least as distinct as the difference between fantasy and, say, sci-fi or among fantasy sub-genres. Meginnis’s comments about fantasy’s relation to “reality” make me think he isn’t very familiar with either fantasy or magical realism. But anyway, traditional fantasy genres operate in different ways than magical realism does (in the classic definition, the banal/everyday is given equal weight with the magical in magical realism which certainly is not the case in your classic fantasy texts. The magical and the dramatic is always given far more weight. MR also doesn’t try to build a coherent world with rules for the “magical” elements. Rather, the magical elements are used in specific situations or characters to emphasize certain things. Etc.) 

      One could go on, but the difference should be obvious. What is perhaps more important is that the works come from different traditions. Traditions are great things and the “conversation” among writers in a genre is what makes genre vital and interesting. To carelessly lump different traditions or genres together cheapens all of them. This is done just as often by the “literary” side of things as the “genre” side.

      Another reason this line of thinking is silly, is that it seems to want to imply that anything that isn’t realist is “fantasy.” There are a million variations of non-realism and they don’t need to all be called fantasy just so a critic can pat themselves on the back. Indeed, one might argue that realism doesn’t exist at all in any serious sense, so we can just call everything fantasy. 
      And you can. Whatever. Silly semantic debates make the world go round. 

  9. Tron

      I WOULD say that the term “magical realism” is indeed annoying these days because critics lazily lump a ton of non-magical realist stuff in with it. Now we are supposed to think that anything which is the least bit unreal and which is called “literary” is magical realism, no matter if it actually is operating in a different genre or tradition (post-modernism, surrealism, whatever.) 
      Of course, this is the same problem as the “magical realism is another word for fantasy!” line. Lazily lumping things together. 

  10. Tron

      One can make this argument, but it is more an argument of semantics than anything that tells you about the genres in question. Magical realism comes from a different tradition and a different conversation. 

      You can call it fantasy, but to me this seems like calling anything with a relationship in it “romance” or anything with a moment of scariness “horror.” What’s the point? 

  11. c2k

      ‘brooklyn’ = ‘magic realism’

      ‘magic realism’ = ‘brooklyn’

      rightly judged a toss-up by señor meginnis

  12. Mason Johnson

      It might be best to find a nice middle ground here. One runs into problems when trying to categorize anything too finitely, which is similar to the problems you run into when you do the opposite. So why worry about either?

  13. Tron

      Agree, it isn’t something to worry about. It just funny when people try to do it definitely. 

      Although I do, again, think artistic traditions and “conversations” are valuable and interesting. 

  14. deadgod

      A tree whose oranges once turned into monkeys grows in Brooklyn.

  15. Victor Schultz

      i think “magical realism” is pretty much a skunked term at this point, and i think that in itself is a pretty good argument for housing it under fantasy. that you’re already complaining about semantic nitpicking is further evidence that the term is skunked: there’s just not consensus on what exactly it means. placing MR under fantasy isn’t the same as saying anything with a relationship is romance because i think people are generally clearer on what the conventions of romance are than on what the conventions of MR are.

      i do like your point about fantasy and MR coming from different traditions. however, elements of those traditions (heroic fantasy and MR) blended (along with other traditions, in many cases) long ago, and often their elements are now inextricable from each other. so i’m not sure i see the usefulness–or even the possibility–of maintaining that wall between them.

      i mean, i guess i’ve just never heard a convincing argument for why some work by, eg, marquez, saramago, gene wolfe, victor pelevin, ma jian, terrence holt, charles johnson, and kelly link is considered to be MR instead of fantasy or vice versa. is it simply a matter of whether there are swords or magic systems or something? that’s gotta be an even sillier notion in 2011 than suggesting MR = fantasy.

  16. deadgod

      MR also doesn’t try to build a coherent world with rules for the “magical” elements.

      I agree that this incoherence between the ‘magical’ and the otherwise-‘real’ elements distinguishes “magical realism” from both the “literary realism” (? – “social realism”?) and “fantasy” genres.  Normalization of ‘magic’–a reality-wide normalization–is what distinguishes ‘fantasy’ from any ‘realism’.

      What Mike is saying is fine, though, isn’t it?  –namely, that “magical realism”, by maintaining the “rigid” distinction between magical and realistic elements, actually reinforces the reality of its ‘realism’ (contrary to the reality of its ‘magic’):

      By clearly defining [each] fantastic element as unreal, [that is, i]n its apparent play with the categories of real and unreal, magical realism as she is played actually asserts a[ …] rigid distinction between the two.

      I’d be interested in, say, Garcia Marqez’s response to this assertion of the fundamental phenomenological (and political-economic??) conservatism of “magical realism”.

  17. Tron

      The second part isn’t what I took issue with. 

      Not sure I agree with him there. Magical realism doesn’t “clearly define…fantastic elements as unreal.” In fact, MR strives to mix reality and unreality in a compete blend and rarely defines things as unreal or surprising. Fantasy, on the other hand, is more likely to clearly delineate what is magical if the world isn’t a purely magical one. So, Harry Potter makes an entire magical world hidden and seperate from our real world. Magical realism, OTOH, has the two blend rather seamlessly. 

      If you read something like 100 years of solitude, many elements are clearly unreal, in the literal sense of not being possible, but they are treated as real AND lots of other elements exist in some realm in which it isn’t clear if they could be real or not. 

  18. Tron

      Or as you yourself said, MR rests on an “incoherence” instead of rigid distinctions like most fantasy does. 

  19. Tron

      Placing MR under fantasy is the same as the romance argument, I think, because they both are based on a kind of weird overly literal reading of  the genre title. Trying to group anything with any element that is unreal, and thus “fantastic” seems to me the same as calling anything with romance in it “romance.” 

      As for your last paragraph it is something of a fair question, but the thing is you could pull this with a lot of things. For example, many of those people you listed might be called “sci fi” or “postmodern” or “horror” (indeed various authors you mentioned are called those things). So… what are we left with here? That we should throw out all genre names? 

      We could, but again genres do have certain traditions. 

      Personally, I think that most of what is called MR these days, even though it is a muddled term, comes mostly from a different tradition and exists in a different conversation than most of what is called fantasy today.

  20. Leapsloth14

      Murakami lives in Brooklyn with a talking cat.

  21. Leapsloth14

      M.R. is a blar blanket term. Conceptualism and the ilk make more sense to me. Or levels of ISMS, surreal to expression, whatever. But Magical Realism has been murked out.

  22. deadgod

      No, the incoherence – your “[not] a coherent world” – of magical realism is generated by the “rigid distinction” between magical and realistic elements.  –right? 

      I mean that in fantasy, the power of the ring that confers invisibility (say) isn’t a surprise to the (knowing) creatures of the world (though of course the ring’s existence might be); it’s normal for a ring, most of which are not magical, to be magical.  In magical realism, the magic of an object (say) is a one-off irruption into the reality of the world that clarifies and even confirms that magic-free reality. 

      That is, in fantasy, there’s nothing to blend, there’s no clash between the magic of one ring and the not-magic of another.  Magical power could be anywhere, in the way that the color blue or the hardness of a stone could–by virtue of those properties belonging ‘naturally’ to some object, disclosing the essence, by way of secondary substance, of that object.  In magical realism, the magic of some magical object doesn’t belong.


  23. deadgod

      It sounds like you’re describing A Hundred Years of Solitude as (at least partly) ‘fantasy that questions “reality”‘, which is what some–perhaps carelessly!–might (also?) call “magical realism”.

  24. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      i was watching MTV in the late 90’s and some rapper bruh bruh was at like the MTV beach house, on the roof, chilling with ashlee simpson’s boyfriend, and the bruh bruh was asked about the parties he was going to be attending while at the MTV beach house. and bruh bruh said something like, ‘yo, yo. they gonna be mad girls up in here – with they breast implants. but, yo. if i can touch ’em, they real.’
      brooklyn is disneyland, for real. 
      remember slipstream?

  25. Tron

      Ah yes, we were talking about two different things. 
      First is the “coherence” of the world’s rules, as you lay out. MR is incoherent there, there are not normally formal rules. You might have a talking frog who is just a talking frog. In fantasy, the talking frog was transformed by a wizard and can be switched back with a specific potion, etc. 

      I also meant that there is an “incoherence” about what is magical in MR. Both because people treat everything the same and because there is a wide range of “unreality” present. So, like in Hundred Years, you have some characters with very magical elements–a woman who ascends to heaven–odd magical elements–a woman followed by butterflies–and then stuff which just stretches the imagination–a guy who seems a bit larger and stronger than possible in reality. All this combines with the “normal”, like in a melting pot. It mixes together. 

      In fantasy… well it depends on if we are talking about a pure magical world (i.e. Lord of the Rings) or a world in which the magical and reality coexist (say Harry Potter or Chronicle of Narnia or whatever). 

      In the former, the real doesn’t exist so isn’t distinct. But in the latter, the “real” world has a very clear division from the magical world. The distinctions are rigid in this sense, and they aren’t in MR normally. 

  26. Tron

      In this sense, I think MR has its unreality more in common with Surrealism than the unreality of traditional Fantasy. 

  27. Madison Langston

      baudrillard references make me know that this tournament is going to be amazing

  28. Victor Schultz

      “Normalization of ‘magic’–a reality-wide normalization–is what distinguishes ‘fantasy’ from any ‘realism’.”

      macondo is pretty much the entire reality of OHYOS, and magic is pervasive in macondo. but mostly it’s not systemized, which I guess could be what you’re getting at when you say “normalized.” what then do we make of a work like saramago’s YEAR OF THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ, in which pessoa outlines in detail the strict rules that govern his appearance as a ghost for several months following his death? does that make saramago’s work a fantasy? those strict rules presumably apply across that entire reality. but saramago is much more frequently referred to as a magical realist than a fantasist.

  29. Victor Schultz

      “In fact, MR strives to mix reality and unreality in a compete blend and
      rarely defines things as unreal or surprising. Fantasy, on the other
      hand, is more likely to clearly delineate what is magical if the world
      isn’t a purely magical one. So, Harry Potter makes an entire magical
      world hidden and seperate from our real world. Magical realism, OTOH,
      has the two blend rather seamlessly.”

      according to your criteria (as i’m reading them), the sookie stackhouse books, in which fantastical creatures such as vampires live alongside humans in everyday life and are treated as normal and unsurprising, is MR.

      conversely, while I think your definition of MR fits well with OHYOS, marquez’s story “a very old man with enormous wings” is fantasy according to your criteria: the appearance of a man with wings (in what appears to be our otherwise realistic world) is greeted with amazement. people even pay to come see him. later people react to a woman who turns into a tarantula in the same way.

  30. Victor Schultz

      “I mean that in fantasy, the power of the ring that confers invisibility
      (say) isn’t a surprise to the (knowing) creatures of the world (though
      of course the ring’s existence might be); it’s normal for a ring, most
      of which are not magical, to be magical.  In magical realism, the magic
      of an object (say) is a one-off irruption into the reality of the world
      that clarifies and even confirms that magic-free reality.”

      i’m not sure i see a difference between the ring you describe re: fantasy and melquiades’s manuscripts from OHYOS. can you talk about this a little more?

  31. Victor Schultz

      honestly, i think when you say “traditional Fantasy,” all you’re really talking about is secondary-world heroic fantasy such as LOTR. yes, obviously MR, if such a thing is identifiable, wouldn’t apply to secondary-world fantasy. but the attempts in this thread to systemize MR vs fantasy or even describe real tendencies of one vs the other continue to strike me as pretty garbled. i don’t really mean to knock you or deadgod when i say that, i’m just trying to grasp what exactly MR is widely considered to be, and then i read your descriptions and numerous counterexamples immediately come to mind, and then i just dunno what to think .

      also, that talking-frog thing? total bullshit. basically saying there’s no such thing as a whimsical fantastical element in fantasy.

  32. alan

      “It is realism’s unwitting helpmate in manufacturing the smug confidence of the American middle and upper-middle classes in the justice, normalcy, and fundamental realness of their position in the social order.”

      Do you really want to argue that realism is conservative and anti-realism is revolutionary or whatever? Like intrinsically?

  33. Victor Schultz

      shit, meant ricardo reis, of course, not artemio cruz. dunno wtf that was about.

  34. Tron

      I’ll respond to a few things down here since the thread width is getting unreadable above. 

      “macondo is pretty much the entire reality of OHYOS, and magic is pervasive in macondo.”

      I feel like the use of “magic” is incorrect here, even though I realize the genre ended up being labeled “magical realism.” Rather, I think that UNreality is being represented. As you say, it isn’t systematized. It also isn’t prioritized. The characters with something unreal going on are, and the other elements on unreality, are not weighted more than the other elements. A block of ice is just as “magical” to these people as a girl followed by butterflies. 

      My main point is this though: There is no reason why all depictions of reality that aren’t “naturalist” should be lumped together. When I say “traditional fantasy” I mean works that have been traditionally called fantasy, shelved in fantasy sections, won fantasy awards (SF critics are far more rigid in their genre distinctions than “literary” critics), etc. 

      For decades, nay centuries, we have had works that display reality or unreality in different ways. Heroic epics, fairy tales, supernatural Gothic works, romantic literature, myths, Surrealism, post-modernism, Southern Gothic, and a million other styles and genres. It is only recently that some people have tried to lump (some) of these things together. 

      The reasons people attempt to lump them together has little to do with the literature itself. It has to do with things like resentment over the lack of Fantasy acclaim in literary circles, wanting to knock down “snobs” who think some literature is better than other, and so on. Whether or not Fantasy has been unfairly overlooked in certain circles or whether people are snobbish, this just seems like a silly game that doesn’t enhance our understanding of the literature. 

  35. Tron

      “and then i read your descriptions and numerous counterexamples immediately come to mind, and then i just dunno what to think .”

      This is a really bad way to go about things. Indeed, far too many people think this way. When we talk about things like genres, we are talking about traditions and forms that are flexible. The boundaries between these things are never fully fixed or “objective”, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are always going to be artists who work in the boundries of genres or styles, but that doesn’t mean those styles or boundaries don’t exist. Not everything has to fit neatly into boxes for those boxes to have use. 

      But again, I’ll say that I think MR comes from a different set of traditions and exists in a different conversation from what is housed in the Fantasy section. And again, I’d argue that its use of unreality is closer to Surrealism than to those traditional fantasy genres. 
      (you must be misreading me re: the frog. Fantasy is filled with whimsical stuff. Hell, some writers in that genre work almost entirely on such stuff. Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, etc. However, those writers still tend to world build and create something of a coherent set of rules. I’ve never seen a MR do that, although, as always, some exceptions might exist.)

  36. Tron

      That book was written by Fuentes, not Saramago. I havent’ read it, but the term “magical realist” does not appear anywhere on its Amazon page or Fuentes wikipedia page. 

      Again, though, i’d say that I see no reason to lump any story with supernatural or unreal elements into “Fantasy”. Ghosts have been used in many genres. 

  37. Michael

      People are fast-and-loose with literary categories and binaries. For example, the implication that realism is un-experimental and devoted to “reality” is incorrect–realism began as a material movement to imbue fiction with concrete, sensuous language and characters (and their psychologies) as a response to more didactic, sentimental, and romantic literature; it did not begin as a movement to merely plop “real life” into texts or sacrifice imagination, a lazy, ahistorical idea many posters here love to perpetuate because they need an aesthetic foil to oppose in their own work.

      And the paternalistic idea that realism is for and by middle and upper-class is is offensive and ignores a rich history of marginalized people writing subversive realism, particularly women writers and writers of color. 

  38. Michael

      *for and by middle and upper-class people is offensive. 

  39. Tron

      So I guess my question back would be: if you think MR fits neatly under Fantasy, then does the same apply to postmodernism, surrealism, dadaism, Southern Gothic with supernatural elements, Gothic with supernatural elements, greek myths, and everything else? 

      And if so… well, what point does the genre term really serve if it refers to so many disparate traditions and styles? 

  40. Tron

      Very true. Also worth pointing out that MR obviously rose to prominence amongst Latin American writers who were combining European traditions with indigenous traditions, often with the express purpose of subverting the dominant Eurocetnric idea of reality and fiction… which is why it is odd to see Meginnis claim that Magical Realism “is realism’s unwitting helpmate in manufacturing the smug confidence of the American middle and upper-middle classes in the justice, normalcy, and fundamental realness of their position in the social order.”

  41. Leapsloth14

      MR is NOT fantasy

  42. alan

      The post actually says “middle and upper-middle classes,” which leads one to wonder where the bourgeoisie gets its “smug confidence.”

  43. Mike Meginnis

      No, I wouldn’t say it’s an intrinsic quality, except in one limited sense. It’s more a tendency I have personally experienced; people who object to fantastic elements in fiction that do not carefully mark themselves as fantastic are generally also uncomfortable with stories that don’t reinforce their vision of the moral/political/economic order. Anecdotally speaking, that’s what I’ve seen.

      The limited sense in which I would say realism *is* intrinsically conservative is more epistemological than political, though there are overlaps. That is, to say that “this is the way things are” makes a lot of assumptions, and insofar as realism insists that it describes reality (something a lot of writing we would classify as “realist” doesn’t actually do) it implicitly buys into those assumptions. And a lot of political assumptions get snuck in as conventions of the genre: characters are expected to behave like members of the middle or upper classes, because their behavior has been accepted as the realistic norm. Saying “this is what is” also de-emphasizes the way things could be.

      “Anti-realism” isn’t intrinsically revolutionary, but by admitting at the outset that it’s not an accurate representation of the world, I think it certainly gains revolutionary potential.

      All of which is ultimately a little beside the point, of course: I prefer the fantastic because it’s usually more fun.

  44. Mike Meginnis

      This really covers anything I have to say in response to this line of discussion.

  45. Mike Meginnis

      Would also add that you can see some of what I’m talking about in the way even very mainstream fantasy/sci-fi can casually achieve a level of political engagement most realism can’t get away with, simply because depicting the way things aren’t inherently comments on what is. Star Trek depicts, beginning with The Next Generation, a successful socialist society. Just sayin’.

  46. Talking cat

      fuck all y’all

  47. alan

      Well, the thing is you can have an absurdist work whose point is how senseless modern life is in comparison to a supposedly more desirable pre-modern order. You can have a rigorously naturalistic representation of “the way things are” whose point is we need to change it through social struggle. If you walk into a corporate lobby in 2011 you’re not going to see realistic, representational art because it doesn’t seem contemporary enough or sufficiently transcendent of social reality. You’re going to see something by Frank Stella or whatever.

      So I would suggest that the same mode or genre can be used for very different purposes depending on the content of the individual work and the context in which it appears.

  48. Tron

      Then again, fantasy and sci-fi can’t comment on what IS by showing what IS. I don’t see any reason one would be more political than another.

  49. Mike Meginnis

      I don’t think anything I said contradicts anything you’re saying. Anything can do anything. I only think there are tendencies in different genres to do different things, not absolute laws that say they will always do those things. I feel like I’m making pretty measured claims here and being interpreted as making maximalist claims because those are easier to beat on.

  50. Tron

      I think if you think there is a “tendency” in Fantasy  to be radical and espouse revolutionary ideas you are totally bonkers.

      Sci-fi, yes. There is a long history of progressive or revolutionary values in sci-fi, but Fantasy has always been a pretty reactionary genre. Again, we are talking tendencies, and there are exceptions. But in general, Fantasy tends to put forward a feeling of nostalgia for the good old days. The evil tends to represent change and the good forces work to restore the status quo.

      And, of course, the Fantasy genre has a strong tendency to set stories in a romanticized past, often a medieval one with courageous knights and fair maidens, but sometimes a past of a different era. There is almost a bizarre obsession with bloodlines and races. Fantasy almost always enforces the idea of inherent racial traits (even if the races are different species here) and the “good” is almost always the elite: the rightful king, the knight from the good strong family, etc. and the evil is so often the person who rises through their own work instead of their bloodline.

      Then on another level, Fantasy works tend to emphasize elitism by having only certain people possess the magical powers and probably very specific people possess a prophecy. It is an escapism where we don’t feel we need to actually revolt or start revolutions, the changes are made by the powerful wizards and prophasized saviors, not the people as a whole.

      Here is a case where the lack of realism allows one to indulge in reactionary fantasies without being labeled a sexist, racist, right winger, etc.

      Of course, I’m stating nothing new. Plenty of critics have noticed this over the decades.

  51. Tron


  52. Mike Meginnis

      These are all good points. Of course there are many counter-examples. Again, though, you’re not actually disagreeing with me. If you look above, what I actually said is that fantasy has no intrinsic tendency one way or the other, but that it has (to my thinking) plenty of revolutionary potential.

      Other people complain about sexism and rudeness here but my primary frustration about commenters here is that they so rarely seem to actually read what they’re responding to.

  53. Tron

      My complaint is people who don’t seem to understand or care about what they say themselves. 

  54. Michael

      In one of your previous posts, you said that fantasy has more revolutionary potential because it self-identifies as unreal. 

      That’s a pretty flawed position. 

  55. bartleby_taco


      This made me think about Haruki Murakami sitting at his desk, typing something in the 13th hour, a quiet domestic scene about an out of work writer who is tired with the minutiae of every day Japanese life.

      “Tokugawa sat at his desk…but everything seemed like it was about to change. His cat bounced from the couch to his writing desk “Not everything is what it seems Tokugawa,” the cat said. Tokugawa made some spaghetti. The cat continued “Are we all just meant to be alone in this life?” Tokugawa listened to some classical music and thought about his wife/girlfriend who had just left him permanently, and also about Bob Dylan/jazz music, and also about the flying spiders that he had seen around the block for the last few weeks. And with nothing left to say the cat said nothing. The end.”

  56. Victor Schultz

      ricardo reis, as mentioned above.

      and i’m not lumping “any story with supernatural or unreal elements into ‘Fantasy.'” i’m responding to the generalized criteria you and deadgod are laying out that supposedly distinguish MR from fantasy. they are failing to distinguish MR from fantasy, when i apply those criteria to existing works off the top of my head. the only (mild) exception i see so far is their traditions, as we discussed earlier. that’s about the only point on which you’ve been at all persuasive. but that doesn’t do a ton to describe the differences in how they operate on the page.

  57. Victor Schultz

      in order: no, no, no, arguably yes, arguably yes, no, and no.

      the point it serves, at minimum, is to work as a shorthand to distinguish the fantastical from the mimetic and the science fictional. which i guess maybe seems a little small, but then that’s generally what these types of labels do–act as shorthand.

  58. Victor Schultz

      i can maybe feel this–worldbuilding as the mark of whether it’s fantasy or MR. again, exceptions come to mind immediately of works that are widely considered MR that could be said to have clear worldbuilding, but i guess maybe you could look at that in conjunction with the work’s tradition to get an idea where it belongs. but even if you and i can find some common ground there, i’m skeptical about how widely people understand the specific differences between the two kinds of fiction. makes it hard to discuss generally.

      i’m not sure about your surrealism bit. from what i’ve seen, works filed under MR tend to resemble surrelistic works more in tone than in the operation of the unreal/fantastical elements. OTOH a lotta fantasy takes on the tone of realism, often a pretty severe realism, despite the fantastical things it’s dealing in. maybe that frequent tonal difference is another way to distinguish between the two.

  59. Tron

      Oh, I would avoid going down that path. The “science fictional” is much easier lumped under fantasy, as the vast majority of science fiction contains elements that are more or less indistinguishable from “magic” in fantasy. Of course, this is a point that sci-fi authors have even made.

      You haven’t really given a lot of counter examples in this thread, but it is easy to name exceptions. They don’t disprove the rule. Anyway, I could find plenty of counters to your “no”s or “yes”s above, and certainly to the idea that fantasy is distinguishible from science fiction.

  60. Tron

      As I’ve stated, I really do think that it makes more sense to look at things in the sense of traditions and conversations or perhaps in terms of general tropes, styles, etc. (a related point.)

      The fact is, as I think you’d agree, we can find exceptions to any rule for any genre and we can find genre blurring works of all stripes.

      Let’s say we were talking about music. If I asked you to define “punk” you might give me a general idea. maybe you’d say loud and aggressive guitar driven rock music often with angsty lyrics and shouted vocals. That might work as well as any genre definition we would come up with. However, one would instantly be able to come up with tons of counter examples, of songs that aren’t aggressive, or aren’t guitar driven, or don’t have shouted vocals or any other quality you could name… and yet those songs are still thought of as punk songs.


      That’s how I feel, agree or disagree with me, about this kind of debate. MR comes from a certain tradition and conversation and has certain influences. These are different from your standard Fantasy. I can find MR stories that read like Fantasy stories or have fantasy traits, and vice verse. I can do the same thing for punk songs and, I dunno, metal songs or country songs or whatever. But that doesn’t make punk the same as metal or country.

      Perhaps another way to look at it is that there are a certain number of traits and tropes and so on that a genre has. If enough of those exist in a work, it reaches a critical mass to be called part of that genre. Not every single trait and trope has to be present though.

  61. Victor Schultz

      sure, i agree that SF elements, when looked at closely, are usually indistinguishable from fantasy elements. a lotta SF authors would too, as you say. they’d also say though that SF has other operational elements that serve to distinguish it from SF. so the different terms remain useful.

      as for counterexamples, they were readily available examples from some of the most visible names in the field that i pulled off the top of my not-especially-well-read head, and if we wanted to bore everyone and ourselves even more i could continue to pull out more, so i’m not convinced my examples are so exceptional. but really, it’s fine; you and deadgod started listing these things about how MR operates vs fantasy, and i kind of got caught up in those operational features as an unpersuasive attempt to distinguish the two, when the lineage/tradition thing (inasmuch as one can determine stuff like that) is probably the more effective way to separate them and talk about any differences between them. i can see MR’s existence as a separate entity if i think of it in that way, and from that perspective you’re right that quibbling over the details doesn’t mean much.

  62. Leapsloth14

      I disagree. I think SF is much more often to be about ideas. Almost satire, in its removal to see approach. Fantasy can do this, but I think it does it less often.

  63. Leapsloth14
  64. deadgod

      Ha ha – Larkin’s “filthy lingo”, and the pith of his objection, are good (if unfair–but who cares about that).

      What “kids have an inordinate appetite for”–this kid, anyway, and “inordinate” is tellingly inaccurate–is expertly pretty writing.  This appetite sometimes mutates in the direction of writing that challenges ‘prettiness’ or even is ugly, but a respect for ‘pretty’ can grow to be somewhat commensurate with the pleasure one takes in it.

      “very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist [and] fights that never happened”:  None of those first three descriptions is true of LOTR; there’s no county in Mississippi called Yoknapatawtha; there was never a battle between a Pequod and a White Whale called Moby-Dick.  The failed incontinence of this sentence fragment might tell one what one wants to know about Gopnik’ criticism, as might the sickly-sweetly elegaic last words of the article:  blech.

  65. deadgod

      [at bottom of thread]

  66. deadgod

      [reply to Victor]

      My understanding is – or was, ha ha – that, in fantasy, (what a contemporary scientist might call) magical aspects are elements of the story’s world, where, in magical realism, the magical aspects are contrary to the story’s world (such that their narration into the world unfit for them is fitted, at least, to be a criticism of it).

      Perhaps this is a reasonable way to put things:  in fantasy, there’s no “magic” in the story’s world.

      Of course, reality, and therefore any ‘realism’, is thoroughly problematic, so any ‘fantasism’, anything magical in relation to consensual-but-arguable reality, is problematic, too.  That – the tension and even argument between a realist and reality – is what OHYOS traffics in and thematizes.  That does seem to me more what a magical realist is trying to do than a fantasist–always admitting overlap and blurring of borders.

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