105. Magic realism vs fantasy vs surrealism

I am writing a magic realist novel. So I thought I’d better clarify for myself what the genre is. How does it differ from fantasy and surrealism, for example? Is it another name for fabulism? Where does science fiction fit?

MC Escher stairs
M.C. Escher

Magic Realist writing emerged in Latin America. An example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The genre integrates, into the everyday world, elements whose logic and rules of causality are different. In magic realism, the fantastic has to be plausible, the impossible is reframed as real. Characters do extraordinary things without realising it or knowing why. Its magic is ordinary and very firmly located in reality.

In this sense it is different from fantasy, whose purpose is to create magical alternate worlds. An example is Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps more importantly, the purpose of the two groups of writers is different. Whereas fantasy authors are generally offering escapism, magic realist authors are often advancing a critique of the real world. In Latin America it has roots in the critique of neo-colonialism.

Marquez, one of the originators of the genre, expressed this in his speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982: “our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

In this, magic realism also differs from surrealism. Both genres explore illogical or non-realist aspects of existence, but surrealism invites us to look inwards to the subconscious machinery of imagination, while magic realism’s focus tends to be on society.

I have written several stories that I describe as fabulism. Some people see fabulism as a branch of magic realism. And that makes sense, if you consider the purpose. Like magic realism, fabulist writing tends to offer social commentary. But the technique is different, Fabulism need not be realist. It draws on tropes of myth and fable, often combining them in unusual ways to create a new, hybrid story.

Finally, all of these genres are different from science fiction, which requires a plausible extrapolation of existing scientific knowledge to explain the extraordinary. A goose that lays golden eggs is fairy tale. A goose, genetically engineered so that it metabolises gold and deposits the metal in its shell, is science fiction.

Do you think genre descriptions matter? Do you have different definitions? Leave a comment and join the debate.

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9 thoughts on “105. Magic realism vs fantasy vs surrealism

  1. I think genre descriptions are good so we all have common points of reference when talking about works, but I think, unless an author purposefully sites down to write genre x, most stories don’t neatly fit into a single genre. Reality is always messier than theory 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Very few writers sit down to write in a genre. We write stories. But booksellers need to know where to shelve it. And that’s why every writer needs to understand what genre they’re writing in

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, as explanations and definitions are always good to learn. I struggle with genres. The examples you give have clear, if subtle in some cases, boundaries. But what is women’s fiction apart from everything written for, about, and possibly by women?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “women’s fiction” isn’t a very useful category, is it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as a shelving category in a bookshop. But I found doing the analyis of magic realism interesting, because I hate fantasy, and don’t think my novel is at all like my fabulist writing, so it helped explain the differences

      Liked by 1 person

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