On the differences and similarities between surrealism, fabulism, contemporary fantasy, and etc.
This is an excellent article, and I really appreciate your deep dive onto the subject. I learned a lot about the histories of different genres, and I agree with your origins of urban fantasy.
One small note, and it's mostly a nitpick -- Alan Moore never wrote Hellblazer, he just created the character John Constantine. The most famous writers of Hellblazer (and there were a lot, the thing ran for 300 issues) are John Delano and Garth Ennis (who also wrote the comics The Boys and Preacher). Moore's John Constantine would be more accurate, he is a prototypical urban fantasy wizard, but when Moore wrote Constantine, he actually appeared in Swamp Thing (which is very much in the mix of horror / southern gothic / urban fantasy you're talking about).
I appreciate the delineation. One thing to add is that, for the writer, the choice of genre and adherence to the tropes and rules thereof is in large part a marketing decision, as that’s what the genres do in book selling sites -- give readers a way to find the kind of stories they want. You can always write what you want, of course, but if you can’t state what the genre is, and make the readers who love that genre happy, it’s a lot tougher to sell a book.
Great analysis. In my opinion, there is also a difference in the treatment of Sex and Love by these two narrative modes. In traditional Magical Realism, love and sex are often natural to characters. In Urban Fantasy, romantic questions feel subservient to the plot and stereotyped. Maybe this is my Latin American bias talking and stereotyping Anglo-Saxons as Puritans.
Blimey. This essay is awesome. I’m so glad my specialty genre is non-fiction in form, and place in subject!
This almost helped me figure out what genre my book is (not a slight on the post, just a fact that my work is somewhere on a spectrum). I know it's not urban fantasy at least
alternatively—"magical realism" includes stories written by authors who think that magic is some kind of real, and not just "fantasy."
Love this. I feel like Japan has their own entire thing going on with what I call in my head “Soft Fantasy” Spirited Away being a quintessential example for me. Where nothing is explained and there are no rules.
So the book I always ask about in these discussions is about John Crowley’s “Little, Big.” Where does it fall in this taxonomy?
Urban Fantasy and Magic Realism are not the same thing. For something to be considered Magic Realism, there has to be a Hegelian dialectic (yes I said it) - the colonizer to the colonized, occupier to the occupied, living to the departed. There is often trauma associated with this and a crisis of identity. The magic has to be rooted in the real in order to be more true. This is why magic realism often has a third-person omniscient narrator. A reliable narrator is key to creating a believable reality for the magic to work against. The fiction has to be rooted in the real in order for the magic to amplify the existential crisis being addressed. The magic makes it more real. That is what often gives magic realism a sense of poetry.
Magic when faced with this sense of trauma connects a culture with its mystic true identity or acts as a warning or symbol of the growing distance from that identity. Aside from the familiar Latin American authors like Borges, Cortazar, and Marquez, you also see this in Central European literature where the loss of country and national identity continues to this day. You see this with people like Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek, Hungarian Geza Csath, and of course Kafka. I would argue American Washington Irving and Thorton Wilder fall into magic realism. Just like 100 Years of Solitude, Rip Van Winkle's magic slumber is told by an omniscient and reliable narrator reporting from a "true" manuscript. Is Marquez's fictional Macondo really any different than Wilder's Grover's Corner? A very good recent example of magic realism is the "Deer Lady" episode of Reservation Dogs.
cheers for such a comprehensive piece. did you ever read Michael Wood's book on One Hundred Years of Solitude? If not, a strong recommend, not least coz it makes you wanna read OHYOS again. Oh yos!
I don’t think of myself as a fantasy writer but it occurs to me I’ve read most of the writers you reference and magical realism and urban fantasy (so that’s what it’s called) makes my heart sing most as a reader.
Thank you for such a clear articulation of the genres - and also for the observation they don’t, in the end, matter so much when writing.
Off the back of this I’m going to refocus where my ‘market’ is - I’m happiest in the literary fiction end of (non Latin American) magical realism. Whatever that’s called.
Very well put, I think. I recall reading Gene Wolfe's comment that "Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish" with great disappointment -- Wolfe is a writer I adore but that was a dismissive and silly comment. I had then just read ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and adored it -- and saw it as quite different from even Wolfe at his weirdest (say, "The Eyeflash Miracles"?)
A couple of caveats -- admitting Kafka as a foundational sort of text of MR, then suggesting that it be restricted to Latin American writers seems -- odd? I think it's a tool or mode that -- with individual variations to be sure -- can be employed by any writer. Certainly the political implications of ONE YEARS, for example, will be absent in a writer from Europe -- but that's our job as readers, to read the text, not force it to an expectation based on a label.
I have to admit that Borges -- and writers like Calvino -- do not strike me as Magical Realists. Neither does THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD -- Whitehead, it seems, is essentially writing Science Fiction starting with an admittedly weird and implausible premise.
As for genre Urban Fantasy, I like to trace it back to Fritz Leiber, to stories from about 1950 like "Smoke Ghost", "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes", and "You're All Alone" aka THE SINFUL ONES.