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August 20, 2005

Introduction to New Magics
Posted by Teresa at 11:32 AM *

In the discussion following Story for Beginners, I’ve been finding myself wanting to repeat things I said in the introduction to Patrick’s New Magics: An Anthology of Today’s Fantasy (Tor, 2004, ISBN 0-765-30015-X).

Since New Magics was being sold into the upper-YA market as well as to the general audience, its introduction struck me as a good opportunity to push various agendas concerning the ways fantasy is taught and read. I’m rather fond of it as an essay in its own right. Here goes:

It’s hard to come up with a good definition of fantasy literature. It’s easy to come up with a definition that includes fantasy, but most such definitions also take in a lot of other kinds of storytelling. For instance, it has been observed that, in a sense, all fiction is fantasy. This is true, but it isn’t useful.

Here’s another: fantasy is tales of things that never were and never could be. That hardly narrows things down at all. Along with fantasy, it scoops up folktales, fairy tales, allegories, utopias, and loosely imagined historical novels. Admittedly, many of those do have a strong family resemblance to fantasy literature. Unfortunately, the definition also takes in 95% of the dramas ever written, 96% of the political memoirs, 97% of the spy novels, 98% of the real-estate brochures, 99% of the comics, 99.5% of the operas, and a great many bad novels that were supposed to be realistic, only their authors got things wrong.

Another definition says that fantasy is tales of marvels and wonders. This, too, has some truth in it. But the unintended fish caught in that particular net include some religious literature, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”, articles in Popular Mechanics magazines, and travel writers from Marco Polo to Richard Halliburton.

Et cetera and so forth. We could go on this way for a long time, trying one definition after another; and at the end, all we’d know is that no definition of fantasy is perfect. We can skip that. If you already know that a road is a dead end, you don’t have to drive all the way to the end of it. Instead, we can turn around and look at how fantasy works.

There’s a rule for what makes good fantasy work, and it’s as strange as any riddle ever posed in a fairy tale: In fantasy, you can do anything; and therefore, the one thing you must not do is “just anything.” Why? Because in a story where anything can happen and anything can be true, nothing matters. You have no reason to care what happens. It’s all arbitrary, and arbitrary isn’t interesting.

Say there’s a path through a forest, and a knight comes riding along. You, being the reader, are standing by the side of that path, maybe floating a few feet in the air so you can see better. You’re invisible, as readers always are. And you can hear the hoofbeats of the horse on the path as the knight approaches.

He comes into view. The horse is tall. The knight is also tall, and wears armor. He carries a shield, painted red, that has a shining gold star on it. This is good. You watch the knight to see what will happen next.

But wait! Did I mention that he wears a heavily embroidered surcote over his armor? He does. It’s embroidered all around with a dozen different knightly and heraldic emblems, one for each month in the year; and each symbolizes a different virtue. His horse isn’t just any horse; it’s a noble and fiery steed, with a curving neck, a flowing mane and tail, and an expressive eye that shows an almost human intelligence. The horse’s trappings—that’s the harness, the saddle, and all the bits of draped cloth—are made of fairest samite, richly ornamented, with deeply cut and scalloped edges; and from each pointy bit on the scalloping there hangs a tiny silver bell. Furthermore, it’s a magic horse. And there’s a noble hawk perched on the knight’s shoulder, and it’s a magic hawk. And the knight is magic too; in fact, he’s an elf from the planet Vulcan. And of course the knight’s sword is magic, and has twelve remarkable jewels set in its handle, each with a different magical power—

I’ll bet you’re starting to roll your eyes. Somewhere in there it will have occurred to you that it’s just as easy to type “magic horse” as “horse,” and no more expensive to write “fairest samite” than “rough woolen fabric.” It stopped being a story, and turned into nothing but words. Once you notice that the words are arbitrary, you stop believing and cease to care. This is the curse of the arbitrary, the unconsidered, the too-easily-had: it means nothing.

But say the man who comes riding down the path is just a tall knight on a tall horse. Winter has set in. The afternoon’s already growing dark, and the forest is deep and wild. The knight should be at home, far from here, at the court of Camelot. There it’s warm by the fire, and everyone he loves in this world will be bustling about, laughing and making old jokes, as they get ready for Christmas.

He should be there, but he isn’t, because a year ago an extraordinary thing happened. On Christmas Day, a strange knight—a huge man, green from head to toe, holding a green axe, wearing green armor—rode a green horse straight in through the door of King Arthur’s court at Camelot, and issued a challenge. (A challenge is a fancy way of saying “I dare you.”) The Green Knight dared the knights of the Round Table to come forward and strike him one blow with his own axe. Twelve months and a day later, he’ll return the blow.

Nobody wanted to do it. It was all too weird. But dares mean a lot to knights—it’s one of their rules—so finally King Arthur said he’d accept the challenge. At that point our knight—his name is Gawain, by the way—jumped up and said no, he’d do it. Gawain is one of the greatest knights of the Round Table, not that he’d mention it himself, and it’s only proper that he should be the one to take up the challenge.

The Green Knight gave him the axe and knelt down, baring his neck. Gawain took a deep breath, hefted the axe (it’s heavy), took one huge swing, and wham! He cut the Green Knight’s head clean off. The head went rolling and skittering across the floor like a bowling ball, bumping into the guests’ feet, getting blood all over everything. Then the Green Knight’s body stood up from where it was kneeling, walked over to the head, picked it up by the hair, and got back on the horse, holding his head up like a lantern. The head’s eyes opened. “See you in a year, Gawain,” he said, and rode away.

It’s been almost a year since then, getting close to Christmas. That’s why Gawain is off in the wilderness, looking for the Green Knight’s castle. He knows it wasn’t a fair challenge. He figures he’s going to die. But he’s Sir Gawain, most honorable of knights, and he said he’d do it; so here he is.

This is not a story in which “just anything” can happen. It’s a story in which a very few things can happen, and so far only one of them has been magical. By the time Gawain comes riding down that forest path, the story’s down to a handful of possible outcomes. Gawain may or may not find the castle. The Green Knight may or may not cut off his head. And Gawain may or may not continue to be the most honorable knight in the world, which for him is the really important part.

And how about us, the invisible readers, standing there watching him ride through the forest? It’s time for a test. If I’m right about how fantasy works, you’re going to feel a little bit ticked at me for not telling you how the story comes out. There are a lot of different ways a story can mean something to us. Caring how it comes out is one of them.

(I’m not going to tell you. Sorry about that. It’s a good story. You’ll have to read it for yourself someday.)

And a word here about what we mean when we talk about fantasy meaning something to the reader. What we don’t mean is one of those dumb worksheet study-question systems where the knight symbolizes courage, and the Green Knight’s challenge symbolizes the fine print at the bottom of contracts which you should always remember to read before signing, and the road symbolizes the writer’s subconscious, and the wilderness symbolizes the wilderness only not the one you’re thinking of, and the knight’s horse symbolizes the oppression of the working class. No. When everything in a story means a specific something else, and it means that something-else more than it means itself, what you have is allegory: a kind of writing almost no one does well. Allegory is frequently irritating, and seldom successful.

Fantasy can mean things in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t always have to be black and white, good vs. evil, fate of the world hangs in the balance, et cetera. Sometimes it’s just telling you something about how the world works, or making room in the understood universe for something that wasn’t there before.

And it doesn’t always take place in Europe during the Middle Ages. Check out the stories in this collection. Some of them take place in Appalachia during the Depression, or on the American frontier during the nineteenth century, or in New York City right now. Some are sad, some are funny. You’ll see.

We won’t tell you what to make of them. We know you can do that for yourself. Have a good time doing it.

—P&TNH, 2004
If you’re interested in New Magics itself, here’s the lineup: Neil Gaiman, Chivalry. Ellen Kushner, Charis. Susan Palwick, Jo’s Hair. Harry Turtledove, Not All Wolves. Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, Stealing God. Jane Yolen, Mama Gone. Charles de Lint, The Bone Woman. Andy Duncan, Liza and the Crazy Water Man. Sherwood Smith, Mom and Dad at the Home Front. Emma Bull, A Bird That Whistles. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Bones of the Earth. Orson Scott Card, Hatrack River.

It’s a good collection. I’d say the same no matter who edited it.

Comments on Introduction to New Magics:
#1 ::: Rob T. ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 04:55 PM:

One could define fantasy as "tales that incorporate deliberate violations of natural law--magic, for instance--which the teller expects his or her audience to interpret as such." (That would exclude non-deliberate violations such as found in badly executed "realistic" fiction, as well as the deliberate violations in real estate brochures et. al. that the writers hope will not be taken as such.)

This definition presupposes a common conception of "natural law" that excludes certain things as outright impossible; if one is telling a tale of magic to an audience that believes in magic, then for that audience the tale is realistic rather than fantastic.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go finish reading that story about the knights....

#2 ::: Peter Hentges ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 04:59 PM:

You are right, it's a good essay on its own. And even if I wasn't a slavish Le Guin fan, I'd be looking for it.

Speaking of which, your essay reminds me of one she did: A Message About Messages

#3 ::: Didi ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 05:03 PM:

I love that introduction. It actually played a part in my decision to buy the book for publication in Hebrew.

And yes, it is a very good collection.

#4 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 06:11 PM:

Did you see my post on allegory on that thread this morning?

#5 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 06:29 PM:

But would it have been as good a collection if someone else had edited it?

#6 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 07:47 PM:

I always wondered what would have happened to Gawain if he hadn't dallied with Mrs Green Knight.

The Green Knight punishes him for dallying, but if he hadn't, would he have got the green scarf that seems to save his life?

A little tarnish perhaps necessary to that the message? It's a good story I guess that leaves you wondering years after reading.

#7 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:01 PM:

There's a little tag on the green scarf that reads:


#8 ::: Jeff Youngstrom ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:15 PM:

It is a most excellent introduction. Thanks for the link too!

#9 ::: Ann ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:50 PM:

The Green Knight punishes him for dallying, but if he hadn't, would he have got the green scarf that seems to save his life?

Gawain isn't punished for dallying--he's punished for not keeping his promise, that is, to turn over whatever he got that day, which would have included the scarf.

The essay is very nice, though I read through the first description of the knight thinking "It seems like Gawain, but Gawain's shield was red with a gold star, not green..."

#10 ::: Ann ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:53 PM:

Oh, and I meant to also say, it's not the scarf that saves his life, and if he'd turned it over he'd not even have gotten the nick he did get.

#11 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:59 PM:

Debbie wrote:

The Green Knight punishes him for dallying, but if he hadn't, would he have got the green scarf that seems to save his life?

Gawain is not punished for dallying, he's punished for lacking in lewte, for lacking "Uprightness, honorableness, honesty; truth; justice, fairness" (MED s. v. lewte). He's punished both for cheating in the game, and for withholding the girdle when he exchanges his wages for the day.

And yes, it's a fabrulous introduction--I'm going to cite it, and another bit of Teresa's brilliance in the "Story" thread.

But still feel like I'm failing in lewte writing about this stuff.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 09:06 PM:

Thank you, Didi. That pleases me no end. I don't think I've ever seen something of mine in print in Hebrew, so I'm looking forward to seeing that edition.

Jo, yes, I saw that. It was a lot of what prompted the post.

Ann, does one have to be a geek to turn pale at the realization that one has mistaken the color of Gawain's shield? I knew there was something about the shield that kept tapping at the basement door of my brain ...

#13 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 09:35 PM:

Teresa --

Made the same mistake in class, many a year ago, immediately after reading the passage that introduces the virtues of the pentangle. It just ought to be vert, not gules, if the guy is the Green Knight.

#14 ::: Ann ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 09:53 PM:

Ann, does one have to be a geek to turn pale at the realization that one has mistaken the color of Gawain's shield?

I certainly hope not! Though I fear it's likely the case. :)

I do really like the essay. I have an almost-nine-year-old who's been through The Hobbit, several of the Oz books, and as much as currently exists of the Lemony Snicket Books. And other assorted. I've been contemplating (read "waffling over") buying New Magics for the house in the hopes she might enjoy some of it, and this essay is definitely an inducement.

#15 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 12:23 AM:

Ann, does one have to be a geek to turn pale at the realization that one has mistaken the color of Gawain's shield?

Well, if we're going to be geekish, one might also note that the Green Knight hasn't any armor on; he makes a big song and dance about how his weeds are soft, but he's got a lovely hauberk at home, and a helm, and shiny spear and shield, if he'd come looking for a fight--instead, he comes carrying a holly bob in search of gomen.

Heck, he's even shoeless.

#16 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 06:19 AM:

Okay, so I read this and discovered that I didn't know how the Green Knight story came out. And I wanted to. (You may chortle happily, Teresa.)

So I looked around on the web and discovered this lovely translation of the poem into modern English.

Except it's unfinished. Argh.

So I had to finish reading the story here, which was much less satisfactory but at least had the ending.

The editor of the site also has the good taste to link to some of Jo's poetry.

#17 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 06:36 AM:

One tumble only...rofl.

Hmm, sounds like I misremembered the story a little :).

#18 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 08:41 AM:

A few years ago, being a computer programmer, I tried to come up with definitions of SF and Fantasy, but definitions that would encompass all I've read.

SF: What if THIS were possible?

Fantasy: I know THIS is not possible, but I wish it could be.

Fantasy:THIS would never work in the real world, but I'll pretend it could without following things to all their logical conclusions.

#19 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:54 AM:

Ann, does one have to be a geek to turn pale at the realization that one has mistaken the color of Gawain's shield? I knew there was something about the shield that kept tapping at the basement door of my brain ...

Well, heck, if we're going to nitpick, the essay switches between first person singular and plural. (I wouldn't have noticed except for the switch right above the dual signature.)

#20 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 11:22 AM:

This sounds like a generalization of H.G. Wells's "only one impossible thing" rule for science fiction. Which rather makes sense, since SF can be construed as a particularly obsessive-compulsive subgenre of fantasy. (And of course most other fiction ditto, only lazier.)

#21 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 11:23 AM:

At either worldcon or Tolkien 2005 I heard someone define fantasy as "departure from consensus reality." I can't imagine why no one challenged it. Me, my brain was going 6 different ways just thinking about consensus reality and so I was too busy. Maybe everyone else was too gobsmacked.

MKK-- I have a copy of that book; I really must get round to reading it

#22 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 12:02 PM:

Well, if we're going to be geekish, one might also note that the Green Knight hasn't any armor on; he makes a big song and dance about how his weeds are soft, but he's got a lovely hauberk at home, and a helm, and shiny spear and shield, if he'd come looking for a fight--instead, he comes carrying a holly bob in search of gomen.

Heck, he's even shoeless.

This is because he's the Green Man, who is not just a wizard, but an actual god. Note that while Christian trappings coat the book, the GK is the final arbiter of Gawain's (dubious) honor. And he's kind and jolly...good thing for Gawain he didn't run into the Horned God instead; the outcome might not have been so easy on him!

#23 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 02:10 PM:

Xopher . . . you, poor soul, have just managed to push several of my buttons at once.

The Green Knight is not the Green Man. The poet tells us, specifically that the court recognizes him as "fantoum and fayryȝe" (l. 240), and later, that he is "an aluisch mon" (l. 681).

Had the poet wanted to identify the Green Knight as a god, he could have and would have; note that he refers to Morgan le Fay as "Morgne þe goddes" (l. 2452), so he certainly was capable of identifying charactars as divine. But he doesn't refer to the Green Knight as a god. Moreover, the Green Knight isn't a wizard; the Green Knight himself expliticly points to Morgan as his power source; "Þurȝ myȝt of Morgne la Faye" (l. 2446).

The "Green Man" isn't even a medieval concept or phrase; it's a modern one first used by Lady Raglan in 1939 to identify a large collection of interrelated folklore and iconographic motifs. I'm not even so convinced that the Green Knight is "kind and jolly," though I do think he acts about as one should expect from Otherworld types.

And Teresa . . . I am writing about contracts, but only in terms of contracts /bargains/oaths/covenants with Otherworld folk. Just as, you know, contracts.

#24 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 04:10 PM:

First, detour to Amazon, then back here to read the comments.... a common occurence here.

One thing I think I see that is common to fantasy is what I think of as the 'fantastic premise' : the concept that makes the natural laws of the fictitious universe different from our own [so that magic works]. And a fantasy writer has to know what that is, unlike poor quality writing of all sorts, where the writer doesn't know his own assumptions.

This idea follows your rule of not doing just anything.

So the fantastic premise is the key difference in natural laws between the writers' imagined universe and the one the reader lives in. This would at least separate out magical realism, where the magic is supposed to really exist here. We had to read an Isabelle Allende book in my book club, and I said [plaintively] "I don't know what part of this I'm supposed to believe". The answer was "Everything".

Is there a real, well-known name for what I call fantastic premise?

#25 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 09:22 PM:

I had an idea that "magic realism" described that part of fantasy where the estrangement from "consensus reality" (whatever that term means) was arguable, or perhaps backgrounded. That is, that the fantastical might be operating, but nothing in the text unequivocably requires it. The estrangement seems to operate almost between the lines, which of course requires immensely subtle writing.

Is there any merit in that idea?

#26 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:53 PM:

The story is fascinating in that it has a fairly sophisticated take on the rules of chivalry. Gawain fails at remaining 100% honorable, and he's mortified about it, but he's his own harshest critic; having set up this weird, bloody test of knightly honor, in the end the Green Knight lets him off pretty easy, giving him a small punishment for a small lapse in place of the almost certain death that Gawain was expecting. Of course that's not good enough for Gawain himself, but nobody else seems to mind much.

(The way I read the story, the girdle is not actually magic at all. But this may just be my modern mindset talking.)

#27 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 12:39 AM:

Dave Luckett: I had an idea that "magic realism" described that part of fantasy where the estrangement from "consensus reality" (whatever that term means) was arguable, or perhaps backgrounded. That is, that the fantastical might be operating, but nothing in the text unequivocably requires it. The estrangement seems to operate almost between the lines, which of course requires immensely subtle writing.

Well, no. Magic realism has real magic, which is essential to the story, which is an integral part of the world of the story. It just happens to be the exact real world that we live in, and not a fantasy world. Only there's magic in it.

The only differences between magic realism and fantasy are point of view, context, and antecedents -- all things that have to do with the flavor of the story. Oh, and the magic in magic realism is ecstatic, wild, and spiritual, and (I think never ever but I'm afraid to say that so I'll say practically never) systematic, controlled, scientific, amenable to manipulation.

It's like the difference between shamans and wizards.

#28 ::: tom p ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 11:04 AM:

I remember I once toyed with the idea that the existence of magic is to magic realism what the existence of the modern world is to historical fiction.

I quite quickly dismissed the idea as being, essentially, complete balls - but there was something about it that appealed to me. I think it was the sense that the magic was implicit, but removed; the notion that the author and the reader understand more about the magical elements in the world than the protagonists do. Once you get to the point where magic in a world is so overt that the characters comprehend it, analytically, as being a part of their everyday lives (of which the reader can only see selected scenes) you're dealing in fantasy, not magical realism.

Or something.

#29 ::: LizardBreath ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 12:21 PM:

I'm not sure whether this is a conventional interpretation, but I always understood the Green Knight as a Christ figure -- appears at Christmas, dies and is resurrected, and forgives Gawain's sins. You can can tack on additional elements of allegory -- Gawain, previously sinless, sins by taking a gift from a woman that will protect him from death, making the girdle a stand-in for the apple given by Eve to Adam.

Of course, this coexists with the pagan structure in which Bertilak is an otherworldly nature figure, rather than replacing it.

#30 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 01:06 PM:

My working definitions of fantasy and science fiction are:

Fantasy assumes that the world works, on some basic level, according to magical laws--the laws of sympathy and contagion, for instance, are likely to be lurking in the background, if not the foreground.

Science fiction, OTOH, works assumes that the world works according to the laws of science. The physical world is orderly and predictable on a fundamental level, even if that order and predictability aren't apparent to the characters, and even if the writer is a bit confused about some of the details.

That's why Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint is fantasy, even though no actual magic makes its appearance in that particular story. That's why Anne McCaffrey's Pern books are science fiction, even though they have dragons, and even though McCaffrey gets some of the science badly and obviously wrong. And it's why Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman and its sequels are science fiction, even though the characters believe they're living in a fantasy series.

I'm sure there's problems with this, too, but so far it's worked pretty well for me.

#31 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 01:32 PM:

tom p --Once you get to the point where magic in a world is so overt that the characters comprehend it, analytically, as being a part of their everyday lives (of which the reader can only see selected scenes) you're dealing in fantasy, not magical realism.

No, that doesn't fit any of the magic realism I've read. Magic realism isn't heavy on analysis, especially by the characters, but the magic is part of their lives, not removed. Magic stuff just happens in their lives. Visions and miracles are everywhere. At least potentially.

I'm repeating myself, aren't I? But there isn't very much to say about it. It's not like there aren't a lot of examples out there to read, and it's not like there's a tremendous inconsistency in the way the writing in these books treat the two halves of their category label. Sorry. Can't figure out how to say that so it doesn't sound grumpy. I think I am becoming grumpy about it.

So I better stop.

#32 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 01:37 PM:

I just use a simple distinction. Both fantasy and science fiction are speculative, "what if?" genres. Fantasy results from the question "What if the world were different in a fundamental way?" Science fiction results from the question "What if such-and-such happens?" - a new discovery or technology etc.

Not perfect (if you write a story set in a world where the speed of light is dramatically slower, for example, that's fantasy according to the above), but as Lis says above, it works for me. Mostly. And who wants to get into edge cases anyway, as Patrick is always saying?

#33 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 01:57 PM:

Xopher, all fiction is speculative.


#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 02:14 PM:

Actually, Xopher, fantasy isn't really "What if the world were different in a fundamental way?"

That definition falls within the domain of SF. Fantasy says: "We KNOW that this is not the way the universe works, but we're going to contradict the rules anyway because it'd be neat if the contradictory rules were possible."

I know, someone is going to ask: what about FTL? To that I'd respond that it's SF, not fantasy. It postulates, as Poul Anderson once wrote, that there is some fine print in the laws of the Universe that says that FTL is possible under certain circumstances.

#35 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 03:02 PM:

Serge, that's a distinction without a difference. "Magic works"* is a fundamental difference, just like "the speed of light is 10,000 miles per hour." I've chosen my examples to illustrate a point: I once gamed in a universe that was different in the latter way, as a way of making the former true.

Making the contradictory rules possible is just another way of making the world fundamentally different. You're not going to escape that underlying sameness by wrapping it in different words!

*in the silly "fireballs and rains-of-arrows" way; of course true magic really DOES work, but I'm not opening that can of worms today.

#36 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 03:05 PM:

Consider the vampire: In a horror story, a vampire is an uncanny, nihilistic force that spreads sickness, decay, death, and corruption in an ever-widening circle until or unless you stop it -- temporarily, at best. (Dracula, Murnau/Herzog's Nosferatu, Carmilla, 1970s Eurotrash lesbian vampires, etc.)

In a fantasy story, OTOH, vampires are a society of immortal beings who live by their own rules and feed on human beings. They might have some magic properties -- sensitivity to sunlight, ability to shapeshift -- but those properties are constrained, rules-based, and predictable. (Buffy, Blade, Lost Boys, etc. etc.)

I think recognizing the difference between Horror vampires and Fantasy vampires is illuminating, because most people -- even non-genre fans -- are aware of the differences between Lugosi/Lee vampires and Spike/Angel vampires.

#37 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 03:19 PM:

Well, Xopher, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

#38 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 04:02 PM:

You've got to be able to handle edge cases if to make these distinctions. Is The Complete Enchanter fantasy or science fiction? (To say nothing of Waldo & Magic, Inc.)

#39 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 04:10 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer: Magic realism isn't heavy on analysis, especially by the characters, but the magic is part of their lives, not removed. Magic stuff just happens in their lives. Visions and miracles are everywhere. At least potentially.

Lucy, is it accurate to say that in magical realism, magic isn't done, it happens?

#40 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 04:13 PM:

This conversation just baffles me. The whole point of Teresa's introduction is that you can't come up with a workable definition of fantasy.

It's like watching biologists try to define the difference between apes and monkeys without any reference to evolution. Fantasy and science fiction are products of decades- (and centuries)-old processes of co-evolution. They represent entirely different sets of assumptions about what kind of stories are interesting/good/plausible. They encode a highly non-overlapping set of symbols and motifs.

Any attempt to define them as sharp sets with very simple (one sentence, eg) membership rules flies in the face of everything we know as a) readers b) linguists c) neurologists.

#41 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 04:35 PM:

Thanks, Alex. Sometimes the whole geekosity of something just becomes so engrossing that we need a splash of cold water.

We WERE (upthread a ways) trying to figure out how we know the difference, if there is one. "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" just didn't seem like enough.

#42 ::: tom p ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 04:45 PM:

Any attempt to define them as sharp sets with very simple (one sentence, eg) membership rules flies in the face of everything we know as a) readers b) linguists c) neurologists.

True. Very true. But... but... it is quite fun...


You are reading about an event that exists outside of our consensus reality. Are the characters:

a) reacting to or utilising it as a fully integrated part of their normal existence? You are reading Fantasy.

b) trying to work out a rational explanation of why it's happening? Possibly with computers implanted in their wrists? You are reading Science Fiction.

c) either unaware of it, or accepting of it in a slightly dreamlike fashion, as though compelled by the unspoken force of mytho-literary convention? You are reading Magical Realism.

d) so affected by its unspeakable, eldritch nature that they are driven mad and gouge their eyes out with a twig? You are reading Horror.

e) distracted from it, because their arms are on fire? You are reading Infernokrusher.

f) having sex while it happens? Your bookshop has mislabelled the 'Fantasy' section.

g) listed alphabetically, followed by their contact details? You are reading a Telephone Directory.

That sort of thing.

#43 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 05:17 PM:

h) extremely limited in number, and appearing over and over in complex patterns? You are reading one of your own chromosomes.

i) very active, but hard to pin down? You are examining subatomic particles.

j) just descriptions of themselves, with what kind of genre you're likely reading? You're reading this list.

#44 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 05:22 PM:

Alex: personally, I'm not trying to define anything. I'm trying to describe it, which is really quite different.

Aconite: yes, I think you're on to something. I think you're on to something that might make the difference. I'm thinking that there are fantasies in which magic happens and is not done by anyone, too, but they're fantasies anyway because they come out of the fantasy tradition, and early fantasies like Dunsany's and de la Mare's often had the kind of magic that just happens too.

Free associating: looking to see if The Three Mulla-Mulgars had gotten on to the web, I did find this wiki article about Walter de la Mare which is sort of tangentially related to this conversation.

#45 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 05:36 PM:

Alex: personally, I'm not trying to define anything. I'm trying to describe it, which is really quite different.

Sorry, I didn't mean to veer into "you guys." Description is precisely what we should be doing, I agree. And I didn't mean to tar the entire thread, just the implicit assumption that there's a one-sentence definition for any sufficiently interesting genre.

#46 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 07:18 PM:

Lucy, despite your possible grumpiness, I appreciate your taking the time to explain it, because clearly I learned it wrong back in college (where we pretty much did a drive-by of some short stories, not a real study of the stuff). (And where they also failed to teach me to rein in my sentences before they run away with me, in case you hadn't noticed).

So anyway, what I'm getting from this discussion is that magic realism has things in common with religious stories (such as the bible or my old copy of "sixty saints for girls"), in that miraculous things happen in our actual world. We're supposed to believe the magic stuff in magic realism in the same way that we believe that if you throw a tomahawk at Natty Bumppo he'll catch it in midair, throw it back, and hit you right between the eyes. That's not called "magic" or "a fantasy world" in the Leatherstocking tales but he frequently does things that aren't exactly possible.

Am I on the right track? (note: not saying Leatherstocking tales are magic realism; just that a similar suspension of disbelief is called for)

Hm, would you say Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is magic realism? Or is the fantastic element too extreme in that one?

#47 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 08:37 PM:

Hi... I had the pleasure of hearing Patrick in a panel over the weekend in Austin (and some guy sitting next to me wouldn't shut up.)

And I had a question for Patrick that I didn't get to ask.

How detrimental is it for an author to NOT give their publisher the right of first look/first refusal on a book when they have signed a contract for them? (ie... Author signs contract with Pub A for three SF books and then goes off and sells a SF book to Pub B that Pub A has never seen.)

#48 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 10:01 PM:

k) Belonging to the Emperor

l) Dogs

m) Appearing as flies from a great distance

n) Painted with a fine camel's-hair brush

#49 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 11:30 PM:

o) without feathers

p) having the manner or appearance of a chimney sweep

q) without sufficient quarks to sustain a presence in ordinary reality

r) used to treat infections with gram-negative bacteria

#50 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 12:51 AM:

I wouldn't call anything magic realism that was written before Garcua Marquez, which allows a pretty early date, but also, written outside Latin America much before the Pinochet coup. From what I know now, anyway: I might be wrong in placing those parameters.

The reason I wouldn't is that magic realism isn't so much a category as a literary movement or maybe a school -- like "nueva cancion" is a musical movement. Writing from outside Latin America that is influenced by the Latin American writers might belong (like Barbara Kingsolver's books) -- I think they do, and I think it's probably interesting to contemplate the differences and similarities among authors who come from different place.

I think, Mary, you're really on to something with the religious influence. I was thinking of saint stories too. Now that I think of it, the Latin American authors are pretty upfront about the influence of Catholic and indigenous-syncretic stories.

Oh, and:

s. self-referential in an infinite regression? -- they are in a newspaper comic strip celebrating its anniversary.

#51 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 11:18 AM:

Cool, thanks for the answer. It seems like there's a tendency to label a lot of stuff "magic realism" that's maybe just influenced-by. I notice whenever I'm reading writers' guidelines for sf/f magazines that "magic realism" appears in many "what we don't want" sections. Very occasionally a semiprozine will say "we look at everything, including magic realism..."

Since hardly anyone wants to publish whatever this F/MR hybrid thing is, I haven't read any of it, but I'm curious to know if it's really awful or just out-of-genre.

#52 ::: Marina Muilwijk ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 12:03 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer: I wouldn't call anything magic realism that was written before Garcua Marquez, which allows a pretty early date, but also, written outside Latin America much before the Pinochet coup.

I'd start a bit earlier than that. Magic realism can be found in Dutch and Flemish literature of the 1920s (and, as I understand, in North and South American literature of that time as well).

According to this website on Dutch literature
(the first site to show up in Google) the term "magic realism" was first used in 1923.

#53 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 12:52 PM:

Oy, Marina, I don't read Dutch. I did puzzle out a few cognates and near-cognates, and I bablefished it, and I gathered that Franz Roh, a German artist and critic (primarily a photographer?), coined the term in 1925.

Searching more on his name, I get to a page which seems clearly to have been inexpertly translated (by the author?)from Spanish and which corrects a few of my assertions.

And seems to imply that the term was applied to visual arts only for a long time and only applied to written language later (in the 50s? 60s?), but it doesn't say so explicitly, so that may be a mistake on my part. It does jive with some mostly-forgotten something I heard at the time that I first noticed people talking about it.

Sample quotes:
"The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality or to wound it but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things."
"Magical realism offers a multifaceted fiction that incorporates metropolis thinking, rejects some components of it, and also incorporates and shapes the traditions of indigenous cultures."

There you have it. Since the topic of magic realism comes up a lot for some reason I can't put my finger on, I've bookmarkjed the page.

#54 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 02:02 PM:

"We were trying to figure out how we know the difference, if there is one>"

I read in, well, threads; for 1 or 2 weeks I'm reading-rereading all of an author or series, then I want similarly flavored things to read. This month fantasy, next might be SF or mystery or historical fiction. [Sidenote - do other people do this too?] I'm bringing this up because when I read urban fantasy, which I love, it is with science fiction, not fantasy. I don't think of it as SF, but it feels more like it than like fantasy of other sorts.

[And consequently farther from magical realism than other fantasy, which is strange, since they're both nominally contemporary. I like the "wild shamastic magic" and " religious-spiritual magic" descriptions, they help me sort out my reactions to it, which are baffled but fascinated.]

"I'm not trying to define anything, I'm trying to describe it"

I think I wasn't clear when I brought up the fantastic premise idea. That came from trying to describe to my book club some of the things a fantasy reader might notice about a story that would be different from what they were used to looking for.

#55 ::: Leigh Butler ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 02:24 PM:

I say of fantasy what was once famously said about porn: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

Also, semi-aproposishly, G.K. Chesterton's quote on the matter:

Fairy tales are more than true. Not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

#56 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 02:38 PM:

It's like watching biologists try to define the difference between apes and monkeys without any reference to evolution

Taxonomy started with description, you know. Without close observation of differences, the theory of evolution wouldn't have evolved.

Well, and with Linnean names not fit for family publications, and puns: Arctostaphylos uva ursi, commonly known as bearberry, is one of my favorite names.

Fairy tales we grew up with: George Gamow's Mr Tompkins stories. [What there was to read at Dads' lab when we went by] In which in one story, one can get to red shift speed by pedalling hard on a bicycle. Definitely postulating a single difference in physical laws in each story. Felt like science fiction.

#57 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 02:50 PM:

Vicki: Is that sublist of yours a reference to some specific fiction? It's been tickling my brain since you posted it, but I can't quite place it - something about special word forms? The only hint of a mental tickle I get for it is that it might be something by Borges, but I'm not sure that's right.

#58 ::: Zvi ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 03:04 PM:

Clifton: yes, Borges.

#59 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 03:34 PM:

"The reason I wouldn't is that magic realism isn't so much a category as a literary movement or maybe a school -- like "nueva cancion" is a musical movement."

But this prompts a question: do you go by when the movement began, or when it was recognized? Does recognition change the nature of the movement? And does the movement really only exist after you've recognized it?

It's like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Literature. Do stories have genre innately, or do we observe genre in them?

I sometimes think that the difference between novels that get sold in the literary/fiction section at Barnes & Noble and novels that are sold in the fantasy/science fiction is not necessarily what is contained therein but rather how writers tell their stories and whether those stories follow the limitations set forth by genre's conventions. Jonathan Carroll's books are not on the shelves in the fantasy section because he doesn't follow conventions; readers really don't know what to expect when they turn his next page. He does not follow "rules," and, while some of the elements of his stories do seem to have symbolic meaning, the symbolic meanings are generally subtle, ambiguous, and perhaps most importantly in distinctions, secondary. Does the videotape in "Child Across the Sky" stand for something? Probably, yeah, and if you think it stands for that, chances are it probably could. But don't forget it's a videotape. Just push play.

No magical realism before Garcia Marquez? Poe wasn't telling magically realistic stories? What about "Young Goodman Brown"? "By the Waters of Babylon"? Why wouldn't "A Midsummer Night's Dream" be considered magical realism?

#60 ::: Zvi ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 03:40 PM:

And of course our generous hostess already blogged about it. :)

#61 ::: Tiger Spot ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 04:54 PM:

I just finished The River King, by Alice Hoffman, and it's what I would call magic realism. Some unnatural things happen (spoilers to illustrate: the scent of roses appears without roses, roses bloom at strange times, a dead boy's coat manifests river water, stones, and small fish, etc.), but they don't actually affect the major events of the story at all. People notice them, and occasionally think it's odd that they're happening, but the actions the characters take aren't really affected by them.

So it hits a couple possible definitions/descriptions of magic realism:
* The plot does not focus on the strange events.
* The characters don't much care about the strange events, but don't expect them either.
* It's meant to be in the real world.
* The magic just happens and isn't done by anyone (unless you count the dead boy).

The copy from the library wasn't labeled with a genre of any sort.

#62 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 05:05 PM:

Why wouldn't "A Midsummer Night's Dream" be considered magical realism?

Because it's about the faerie court?

#63 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 05:18 PM:

I think an essential component of most fantasy is some degree of inherent personal control over the forces of nature.

I don't have the exact quote to hand, but in Black Easter James Blish's black magician argues (to a stereotypical Dr. Strangelove) that what he does is science, but "I recognize that some of the forces of nature are persons."

#64 ::: Metal Fatigue ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 05:31 PM:

* The plot does not focus on the strange events.
* The characters don't much care about the strange events, but don't expect them either.

That would exclude "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," previously cited as an exemplar of magic realism.

#65 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 05:48 PM:

"Why wouldn't "A Midsummer Night's Dream" be considered magical realism?

Because it's about the faerie court?"

Oh. Sorry. I thought it was about mismatched lovers and mistaken identity.

#66 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 07:55 PM:

Will -- please follow the links in my last post. Edgar Allan Poe didn't write very much like a magic realist: his stories were more like tall tales and the Decameron.

If you throw anything that has any kind of supernatural element into the box called "magic realism" you will break the box and make it useless. THe only reason to have names for things is to make them easier to talk about, and for that, the names should mean something. Since the term was not coined for historical purposes, but to describe an approach to art in the twentieth century, dependent on twentieth century experience (as well as what came before), it makes sense to confine the term to stuff that comes from about that period (early 20th) and after.

Now, for some purposes of some kinds of discussion, I guess it would be okay to say "Poe and Shakespeare wrote magic realism" -- but then, you're indulging in metaphor, which is just fine for some purposes but not helpful most of the time.

And what MAry Dell was pointing to is that A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place in a magical world beside our usual one as well as in our usual one, and one of the very core concepts of magic realism is that the events all take place in the world we all live in. I would say, too, that the fairy court, having its rules and systems, don't partake of the wild, mystical, uncontrolled and uncontrollable magic that pervades magic realism.

#67 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 09:45 PM:

Lucy, I had followed the links, and I wasn't trying to break your box or render it useless; I was trying, as I thought along with the discussion, to define the borders of the box.

The Arizona State University page to which you linked lists, by my count, 26 different definitions/suppositions for "magical realism". There are similarities between them, of course, but there are also contradictions. Only a few link it explicitly to literature of the 20th century. The one mentions it was "coined around 1924 or 1925 by a German art critic named Franz Roh: what he called magical realism was simply painting where real forms are combined in a way that does not conform to daily reality. In fact, what Franz Roh calls magical realism is simply Expressionist painting."

Which is interesting, because to me it says that not even the man who coined the phrase in the first place knew how to properly apply it, or even what it was.

"Magical realism's most basic concern [is]--the nature and limits of the knowable. Magical realist texts ask us to look beyond the limits of the knowable. Magical realism is truly postmodern in its rejection of the binarisms, rationalisms, and reductive materialisms of Western modernity." This can't describe Poe?

What about this? "First it is the combination of reality and fantasy and second, it is the transformation of the real into the awesome and unreal, thirdly an art of surprises, one which creates a distorted concept of time and space, fourth a literature directed to an intellectual minority; characterized by a cold cerebral aloofness it does not cater to popular tastes, but rather to that of those sophisticated individuals instructed in aesthetic subtleties."

How about this? "Magical realism refers to the occurrence of supernatural, or anything that is contrary to our conventional view of reality [it is] not divorced from reality either, [and] the presence of the supernatural is often attributed to the primitive or 'magical' Indian mentality, which coexists with European rationality."

Maybe this? "Magic realism--[is characterized by] the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic, bizarre and skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic description, arcane erudition, the elements of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable."

I should point out, I don't mean to concentrate solely on Poe. But "A Midsummer Night's Dream" mingled the realistic and fantastic, had convoluted narrative, and used fairy stories. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that the description, as it stands, applies to a lot more than what people seem to want to apply it to, and issue takebacks when it's pointed out. "Oh, no, well, that's not twentieth century." So?

But, then, maybe it's useless to try to help define the box, because I mainly think outside of it. The box doesn't interest me at all; it's the story that's being placed in it that I care about. Is that why I don't care about the knight's adornment and the jewels in the sword and just want to know where he's going and why? Dunno.

#68 ::: Stephanie Zvan ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 10:23 PM:

Mina, I suspect that the reason you tend to class urban fantasy with science fiction in reading preferences has something to do with the mindset and behavior of the characters. The characters in urban fantasy (the non-magical ones) often take a fairly rationalist approach to magic--not surprising, since they start in a modern rationalist world. They deny its existence until they have proof, and in order to make their lives make sense again after the introduction of magic, they engage in experimentation and classification. They poke at the stuff until they know what it does.

Sound like any sf characters you know?

#69 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 10:44 PM:

Can it be called "Magic Realism" without the realism? Nothing in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is realist or truly plausible. The mistaken identies and love affairs and so forth are the stuff of roman, not of everyday life.

Personally, I've always thought of Poe's genre as "Bloodcurdling Tales of the Macabre." Events in his stories tend to defy reason, phisiology, architectural best practices, etc. He doesn't explicitly say that he's not writing about our world, but his is not a version of reality that I've experienced (yet...)

I'll give you "Young Goodman Brown," but maybe it's more appropriate to characterize Magic Realism as coming from the tradition of {whatever genre Hawthorne's tales traditionally fit into}, rather than extending the new term back to meet the older works.

#70 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 10:44 PM:

Some (not all) "urban fantasy", I think, is fantasy written using SFnal literary style and tropes. (So, unintentionally, is some really bad fantasy.)

IMHO, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is the reverse - science fiction written using primarily the literary style and tropes of fantasy.

#71 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 11:55 PM:

Now I'm grumpy again. Everything I can think of to say is grumpy. I'm done, Will: you win: the term means everything and nothing, there is no there there, and you can call anything you want to magic realism and I won't argue with you anymore.

But when I go to the library or the bookstore in a magic realism frame of mind, that will not be the time I bring back Shaklespeare or Poe. But you don't have to worry about that, because I won't be talking about it to you.

#72 ::: Aaron ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 04:09 AM:

I'm curious as to how some of you on here would classify, say Terri Windling's The Wood Wife: fantasy or magic realism. I'm leaning towards MR, though it does work, to an extent, with a system of "supernatural" beings. Similarly, how about various of Charles de Lint's stuff? I'd say he ranges from clear urban fantasy--Jack the Giant Killer--to almost clear MR--Trader and many of the shorts whose names I can't think of at the moment. I ask this because I think a disussion of such "edge cases" might reveal how we're making these distinctions.

#73 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 08:50 AM:

I wasn't trying to "win," Lucy; I was trying to understand what you meant. Sorry to have made you grumpy because of my ignorance.

#74 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 10:39 AM:

If you want to categorize it, Windling's The Wood Wife is rural fantasy, a subset of urban fantasy. See also Holdstock's Mythago Wood, Jennifer Stevenson's Trash Sex Magic and some of Sean Stewart.

In fantasy, as in SF, it makes sense in the end in a way that's real in the story. Fantasy is a word that covers a whole lot of very different things, from feigned history to philosophical speculation, but it all has that in common.

In magic realism it's the universe producing magically what ought to happen. In the film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid a secret murderer realises he's gnawing on a battered finger in his Kentucky Fried Chicken. There's no reason for it, no explanation, it's the universe doing this to him because it's what ought to happen. It's never explained. Seeing it as what ought to happen, the magic as a naked metaphors lap-dancing, makes magic realism possible for me to appreciate.

I will go to great lengths to make up narratives to make things make sense. If I see a bespectacled Asian guy in shorts and t-shirt carrying a CPU tied up with string in one hand and a dustpan and brush in the other, I'll keep looking at him sideways until I come up with a plausible explanation of why he's on the metro at eleven o'clock at night. (Time traveller, most likely.) There's a whole class of things I used to angrily define as "existential" (Christopher Priest's The Affirmation, the movie version of Pink Floyd's The Wall, magic realism) by which I meant they don't make sense in the end. What made me cross with them was that (sorry Chad) they betrayed my reading protocol.

Fantasy and SF have in common that they encourage the reader to create a narrative of what's going on in parallel with the text, dropping clues, in the trust that it will all make sense, it may not all be explained, but it will all eventually fit together in a satisfying way. You may not, at any moment along the way, know where you are, but you feel confident and trust the writer that in the end you will look back and see it as a coherent whole. Magic realism only does this outside the story.

#75 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 12:29 PM:

So is Allende's Zorro magic realism? I'd say yes under some of the definitions at Lucy's link, maybe not under others.

To me, it reads more like a variety of urban/rural fantasy where the main characters, having one foot in each world (Spanish and Shoshone), take the mystical elements for granted as much as the realistic ones. There's none of the awe or sense of mystery the quotations keep referring to, even among the secondary, purely European-culture characters.

Is that awe and mystery supposed to be a meta-experience, a challenge to the reader's grounding in reality but not to the character's?

#76 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 12:38 PM:

OG: don't take those as definitions but as statements of intent.

Isabel Allende is a writer of the magic realism school -- even when she apparently doesn't intend to write it, that's what happens. (but I haven't read Zorro, in fact nothing after , which I didn't like much -- it seemed kind of bland and like there was no story there, unlike the other things of hers I read. I would have gone to see her talk any of the times she came to town but you couldn't get within blocks of the bookstore for the crowds)

#77 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 12:41 PM:

Jo: you're describing modern fantasy such as you write. There was a time when fantasy often (usually?) meant to give a glimpse into the inexplicable and wondrous -- Dunsany, sometimes Saki (when he wasn't writing other things).

#78 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 01:55 PM:

Greg Bear of all people gave the best definition of magic realism I ever heard, on a panel once -- that it has the logic of poetry, not of the real world. Of course you can't go any further with this definition, because how do you define the logic of poetry? (The man gnawing on a finger in Jo Walton's example would fit very well here, though.)

And just to confuse everyone completely -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez said a few times that he was writing journalism, not fiction.

#79 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 01:57 PM:

Jo -- "rural fantasy, a subset of urban fantasy"? How does that work? I thought urban fantasy was created in reaction against the rural setting of then-default fantasy. OTOH, maybe this would make instant sense to me if I'd read The Wood Wife.

re Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, are you aware of the widespread urban legends about people finding various non-chicken things battered in buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken?

#80 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 02:18 PM:

Avram: yes, it's using the urban legend, but that it happens to the murderer is the universe acting as is appropriate.

OK, forget Mythago Wood and let's redefine rural fantasy as "modern American working-class rural fantasy".

Lisa: poetic logic, or dream logic? (And we were using Tourists as an interesting edge case earlier.)

Lucy: I was in fact using "fantasy" there as a synonym for "post Tolkien genre fantasy", but actually I think in Dunsany and Mirlees (I haven't read Saki) it is all real in its own terms. It might be a dream in Dunsany, as in the Yann stories, but it's still real.

OK, how's this?

I think modern genre fantasy, as started by Dunsany and continued by Tolkien and Anderson et al, is actually about ways of getting glimpses of the numinous onto the page. In magic realism, the numinous is there to illuminate the other things. In fantasy, the other things are there to illuminate the numinous.

#81 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 02:25 PM:

Has anybody here read The Border by Marina Fitch? It's an edge example if there ever was one. It has some of the ecstasy and dream logic of magic realism, and it has some of the intent and organization of "modern American working-class rural fantasy."

And it's set in Watsonville, and I may be the only other writer around to have set a fantasy in Watsonville.

#82 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 02:52 PM:

For me, magic realism is about the power of words as words. It's akin to Magritte's pipe, which is not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe.

An angel trapped in the shed is not an angel trapped in the shed, it's the words "an angel trapped in the shed," and the power that those words have.

I associate magic realism with Latin American writers because the power of words has been a major part of Spanish literary tradition long before the emergence of the magic realism school. If you, like me, are horrible with languages, but have slogged your way, line by line, through a work of fiction or poetry in the original Spanish, then perhaps you had the sense of the weight of words in Spanish literature.

Didn't our hostess, in the early days of Making Light, write a post about a short poem by Lorca, and how the whole poem pivoted around the word mira, which could mean a thousand different things, and seemed to mean all of them at the same time?

In the same way that Magritte's paintings can lift you out of the world of images and into the world of paint and brushstrokes, I find that the best magic realism lifts me out of the story and into the world of words.

#83 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 05:20 PM:

An angel trapped in the shed is not an angel trapped in the shed, it's the words "an angel trapped in the shed," and the power that those words have.

Hm, I can't agree with this, at least not when considering A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. That story explores, in minute and depressing detail, a realistic human response to a frequently romanticized magical event. It's about how people react to the winged old man's physical presence, not his essence or symbolism or what have you.

Based on that story, though, I haven't read much other MR, because the world is bleak enough already without fiction rubbing my nose in it. Presumably not all MR is like that, though, because I know many, many people who adore it.

#84 ::: Jeremy Lassen ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 05:37 PM:

Re: Magic Realism.

Lucy, you define Magic Realism as geographically bounded. My question is, Can’t Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie by described Magic Realism?

I've heard some critics who suggest that Magic Realism is a literary tradition that arises from the colonized experience... That the western European/American traditions of literature combined/overlayed the indigenous traditions of storytelling, resulting in a literature that reflects the social/political/racial/etc tensions that exist between the colonizer's world view, and the colonized world view. For a critical examination of what I mean by “these tensions", see Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

Under this paradigm, Magic Realism speaks to (but doesn’t wholly encompass) works like some of Toni Morrison’s. And if you really look at its edges, you can see how the outsider culture of science fiction result in literature that has elements of magic realism (Bradbury, Ellison, etc.), that sprang up independent of (?! can someone verify this?) the influence of more traditionally defined magic realists.

Thoughts on this social/geopolitical definition of Magic Realism?

#85 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 07:59 PM:

No, magic realism isn't geographically bounded. It's not bounded at all, any more than any other artistic movement is. It has a geographical history: a term coined in Europe to apply to visual arts is claimed by Latin American writers a generation later, and then is used to describe fiction with similar world view, techniques, and esthetics -- not necessarily in Latin America.

I feel that when writers write things that are kind of like the things that writers of magic realism write, but they have never read those writers, and are not influenced by the same history and culture and worldview, it's not reasonable to use the term except with the word "like" in front of it, because the thing you'll express if you do is not helpful to understanding the writing.

That being said, I think Salman Rushdie has read all those guys and is part of that continuum. But not Ray Bradbury. Because he just has his own history and worldview that's interesting all by itself.

#86 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2005, 12:15 AM:

Jo -- Poetic logic seems better to me. Dream logic seems too formless, and there is a narrative to magic realism, the good stories, anyway. But your definition about the numinous is terrific, one for me to put beside Greg Bear's.

I wanted Tourists to be magic realism, but I think it got away from me in the end.

#87 ::: Jeremy Lassen ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2005, 12:53 AM:

I wouldn't call anything magic realism that was.... written outside Latin America much before the Pinochet coup. From what I know now, anyway: I might be wrong in placing those parameters.

Sorry, I guess I misinterpreted your statement here. I thought you were excluding non-latin-American works from you definition of Magic Realism.

I'm interested in what you feel is the relationship between the Pinochet coup and magic realism.

My geo-political "definition" of magic realism was an attempt to encompass a swath of literature (The Blind Owl, by Sadat, for an example outside of Rushdie) that is outside of Latin America, but still emblematic of fiction commonly identified as magic realism.

My point about Morrison and Bradbury is that in the "outsider in your own land/colonization" model, you can see formulative similarities in traditional Magic Realists, and other literature that commonly falls outside the Magic Realism rubric.

"Like" definitely precedes any description of said authors, vis-a-vi the label Magic Realism, because as you point out, there are a significantly different set of formative expierences. I was just interested in experiences that were similar, and that Colonization/outsider model seemed to be one of them.


#88 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2005, 01:14 AM:

The sigifigance of the Pinochet coup in how I'm thinking about the spread of magic realism is that that was about the time that both magic realism and nueva cancion were riding a wave of popularity globally. LIke I said, I'm not really strong on that timing, because I became aware of these things a year or two after that and I may have missed out.

Yes, I can understand the comparison when you put it that way. Well, I'm having a harder time with Bradbury. Come to think of it, I'm having a really hard time with Bradbury.

I'm having a hard time with Bradbury on any level, come to think of it. Does it make sense to clump Bradbury with Dunsany? Or am I getting giddy?

#89 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2005, 03:49 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer:

Unless Bradbury were of Irish aristocracy, a chess champion, a pistol champion, and... oh, I see. Well, they HAVE both had theatrical success, many publications, fame and fortune (albeit Dunsany was born into Nivenesque wealth), and have several books of poetry published as loss-leaders because their prose sells so well. And, yes, they both are very enthusuastic (enough so that one tends to forgive self-indulgences), widely self-educated, and are delighted to break any rules as their muse demands. I'm giddy myself, but where's your problem with Ray?

#90 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2005, 01:31 AM:

Jonathan -- my problem with Ray Bradbury was tracing his antecedents and describing his habitat.

The fact that I don't like a lot of his stories is something else. Everybody doesn't like something. (some even don't like Sara Lee, notwithstanding the TV commercials of thirty-forty years ago)

#91 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2005, 01:48 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer:

Ray Bradbury CLAIMS that his antecedents are the Bible, Shakespeare, Melville, Poe, and others that he often cites. What he does is subtly different from what he thinks that he does. You're right. Can we claim that he is quintessentially American, a la Robert Heinlein? Quintessentially smalltownian? Hollywood is a small town.

Not nobody, not nohow, doesn't fail to dislike Sara Lee.

Lisa Goldstein:

Some SF authors recommend specific techniques of dream logic. Van Vogt promulgating a trick that L. Ron Hubbard taught him about waking up by middle of the night alarm clock and writing down actual dreams as story fragments; Ray Bradbury recommending staying in bed for at least a half hour after awakening in order to recall dreams and mentally polish them into stories.

#92 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2005, 12:17 PM:

Lisa: On reflection, if you mean "poetic logic" like "poetic justice" I think that works, it's just that it isn't the kind of logic I use when writing poetry. In fact it might be possible to say that the magic in Magic Realism works by the laws of poetic justice and that would cover it.

But I think Tourists, which I love, is fantasy, because it makes sense.

Lucy: How about Angela Carter?

And how about Jan Morris's Last Letters From Hav, a book I love almost despite myself.

#93 ::: Jeremy Lassen ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2005, 10:46 PM:

I've heard people passionately argue that Angela Carter belongs to the surrealist camp, and specifically NOT the Magic realist camp.

Not sure how I feel about it, but I don't think I can shoe-horn her into my geo/social/politcal net, so I'll go with Surrealist.

I am curious to here Lucy's thoughts.

#94 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 12:39 AM:

Lucy now has the assignment to go read Angela Carter so she'll have thoughts.

#95 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 11:26 AM:

I read somewhere--and if I could remember where I'd be much happier--a definition by John W. Campbell of the differences between SF and Fantasy. (As the editor of Astounding and Unknown he had a pretty good track record.) Paraphrasing, he said that a SF story had to have three elements in it to be a SF story. A Fantasy had to have two of the three. Sadly, I can't remember what those three elements were...

#96 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 11:37 AM:

Mercury, Hydrogen, Selenium.

#97 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2005, 03:52 AM:

I think it was along the lines of "An SF story should be logical and possible and good, a fantasy story should be logical and good."

#98 ::: PixelFish ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2007, 02:32 PM:

I checked New Magics out of the library this week (a year and a half after this discussion, mind you--man, I'm late to the party). I read the first four stories last night, and enjoyed 'em, every one. Particularly taken with Jo's Hair. :) Will read the rest this weekend.

#101 ::: Debbie sees what appears to be a travelling salesman ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2008, 07:17 AM:

First on 'More Fun in Boston', now appearing in New Magics -- discerning spambot?

#102 ::: Adina sees comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2008, 08:36 PM:

More spam.

#103 ::: Tom Womack is sure this one's spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2008, 10:28 AM:

#112 ... but what's the spam *doing* given that the given URL is 'link'?

#104 ::: Jon Meltzer says Avada Kedavra to all these Death Spammers ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2008, 06:30 PM:

I'd say Stupefy too, but they're already stupid.

#105 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2008, 02:33 AM:

[posted from]

#106 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2008, 06:40 AM:

[posted from]

#107 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2008, 03:41 PM:

[posted from]

#108 ::: P J Evans sees more spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2008, 03:46 PM:

another 'bot, looks like.

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