I like contemporary. I’m not denying that. I definitely lean that way, but I’ve also enjoyed quite a few fantasies. I’m able to enjoy fantasies.
But when the two collide, I find it revolting.
Magical realism is a genre of fiction where something extraordinary occurs in an otherwise perfectly normal or mundane setting. The scene opens with Joe brushing his teeth, spilling coffee, getting caught in traffic on his way to work, listening to sports, etc. He goes to a typical job with typical people. But then you find out that the receptionist is a talking bear, his pen can whisper advice, the bathroom doubles as a one-hour time machine, or a ghost lives in the supply closet. This is not the focus of Joe’s story; it’s just added detail, the same as the color of his tie. It might be used to drive the story, but it is not the story. It’s not really seen as a violation of natural law.
This genre of fiction is becoming more and more popular. And while I don’t claim to have read everything magical realism (to be honest, I have read very little of the genre), I know that I do not like it. That doesn’t mean that I hate every magical realism book that I’ve ever read. In fact, I have loved some of them. But the magical realism elements are always grating to me, and I tend to avoid this genre because of it.
Some Magical Realism Books I’ve Read:
Reasons Why Magical Realism is the Worst:
1. It breaks my suspension of disbelief.
So there’s this concept that I learned in drama but pretty much applies to all storytelling. It was coined by Coleridge and kind of centers around an author/audience agreement. The audience will agree to suspend their disbelief of any implausible occurrences in the story in order to enjoy it. If you’re watching a stage performance of Peter Pan, you know that the lights and jingles are definitely not a fairy, but you’re willing to overlook the logic in order to enjoy the story.
This concept kind of puts the burden on the audience rather than the writer, but I think that it actually works both ways. The audience can only be asked to suspend their disbelief so far; it’s the author’s job to not make it go too far (I’m looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy).
So what’s the big deal with magical realism? Why would one magic telephone make my brain go fuzzy?
If the author has gone out of their way to set up a real-world setting, then that’s what I’m expecting. Georgie McCool (weird name, but fine, I can roll with it) is a writer for a sitcom that’s going to be pretty popular (not quite a common job, but people do have that job so fine, I can believe it) and she’s having marriage problems (nothing out of the ordinary) and they call her daughter Noomi (strange but still within the realm of possibility) and then oh yeah magic! telephone!
It completely takes me out of the story. It does not fit the confines of the rules that have been established for this world, which up until this point has been pretty much exactly like our own. I was willing to accept the characters, the setting, the conflict. All seemed within the realm of possibility. But throwing in a magic telephone is so out of left field that I have to rewire my brain a little bit. And from that point on, I’m not following Georgie’s marriage problems anymore. I just want to know where this magic phone came from and how it works and if there are others like it, which of course is never answered because it’s magical realism and the origin of the magic is never the point.
(This is also why I don’t like musicals. One minute everything is normal and then out of nowhere people burst into song and are dancing in sync and?? what is happening??)
2. It’s often just a plot device.
Let’s continue on with our Landline discussion. So Georgie is able to talk to her husband in the past on this phone. Do we know why or how? Nope. It’s just something that magically happens, drives the entire story, leads to Georgie’s personal character growth, and…that’s it. Her story comes to an end, but it’s not about why this phone is so strange.
Okay, so maybe I’m being a little too hard on Landline (I hope Rainbow Rowell isn’t reading this) (Rainbow, if you are somehow reading this: I truly love your books, just…maybe not this one). Let’s talk about Tuck Everlasting, which I love. Probably some spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to see.
Tuck Everlasting is not about the magic spring that grants eternal life to those who drink from it. The story is about Winnie’s decision and the cost of immortality. The magic spring is just a plot device to open up that conversation. Never is it a point to discover where the spring came from, how long it’s been there, or if there are other people who have drunk from it. That’s not the point. The point is that it grants eternal life and that’s not quite as great as everyone makes it out to be.
So how is Tuck Everlasting different than, say, Twilight? I’m glad you asked.
A lot of people lump paranormal/supernatural in with magical realism, but they’re very different in my mind. I find that paranormal stories often include paranormal creatures, and these creatures are often talked about in great detail. In most cases, after the main character finds out about the paranormal creatures, it opens them up to a whole world of them, like in Twilight or most urban fantasies. It becomes much bigger than a magic telephone in the corner. There’s depth and detail involved, and the story tends to center on the magic aspects more than the mundane. It becomes more than a plot device; it’s part of the entire setting.
I’m not saying that using magical realism as a plot device is wrong. Like I said, I think Tuck Everlasting is great, and I think it’s a great way to open up a discussion that might not be otherwise talked about. But sometimes…sometimes, it can just be lazy writing.
3. It’s hard to categorize.
While we’re on the topic of magical realism vs. paranormal, let’s talk about how difficult it is to categorize these genres. It might sound trivial (and probably is), but this is what I was doing when I went into rage monster mode on Goodreads and completely reshelved everything.
I used to have a magical realism shelf on Goodreads, as well as a paranormal shelf, a contemporary shelf, and a fantasy shelf, among others. It was fine if a book crossed a few genres. But generally, they’ll fit into something pretty well.
But then I was trying to shelf something—I think it might have been The Scorpio Races or The Night Circus—and it all came crashing down. I was looking at how I shelved these books compared to how others have shelved them. The Night Circus is one of the most commonly shelved magical realism books, but it really never occurred to me to put it there. It definitely blends magic and the real world. There’s no denying that. But that is also the main focus of the story. I put it under fantasy, even though technically it is set in our world (in the past) and has a lot of ordinary-world qualities to it. There are magicians, but it’s not a common thing whatsoever, and it never really explains how some people are magicians and others are not.
And then I got to searching, and I realized that I disagreed a lot of the genres of books that others shelved as magical realism. I would put The Scorpio Races under paranormal, Life of Pi under survival or philosophical, The Time Traveler’s Wife under science fiction. But there was too much overlap and too much thinking going on, so I ended up completely deleting my magical realism shelf and resorting everything.
Basically, high fantasy takes place in a world different from our own, which can be the setting from the start or can be reached through some kind of portal or passageway. Low fantasy takes place in our world, but includes magical elements.
BOOM. Done. Easy.
(Except then you get books like Harry Potter, which some could argue is low fantasy because it’s set in our world, but I’d argue it’s high fantasy because the trip to Hogwarts is much like passing into a different world, and even though it’s set in our world, I feel like it portrays a vastly different version of our reality. But in general, this new system has helped me tremendously in efficiently organizing fantasy.)
currently listening to // Pluto by Sleeping at Last
Do you like magical realism?
Is there any genre of fiction that you don’t like?
Do you have trouble sorting books on Goodreads?