What is Magical Realism?

Today I'm joining in with an immersive and enthralling experience in magical realism and mythic fiction in celebration of the release of Trajan's Arch, by Michael Williams! And the author is here, on my blog, to let us know his take on magical realism. So grab a coffee, tea, beer... whatever suits... and over to you Michael.

Magical Realism

The term “magical realism” is a kind of fuzzy set, so it’s no accident that a good definition has always been the subject of dispute.  A lot of people I know in the speculative fiction communities are upset by the term, and for understandable reasons: they believe it’s a kind of leftover snobbery, a way for established mainstream writers to work in the fantastic mode without being associated with speculative fiction. 

But literary condescension aside, I do see magical realism as something a little different from fantasy or horror—different, in fact, from more critically established modes such as expressionism or surrealism, when you come right down to it.  “Magical realism” is a term coined because a term was needed.

As I understand it—my contribution to the fuzzy set—magical realism is a kind of storytelling that mingles the fantastic and the realistic without giving priority to either mode.  Good magical realist art presupposes our shared consensus reality, then destabilizes or undermines or questions that by the allowing the fantastic to exist side-by-side with the everyday in the world of the story or painting or film.  The trick is that the fantastic is regarded with equal power and acceptance to the nearby world, setting, and situations we would generally call that of realism.  No flight to Narnia, no Lovecraftian settings, and certainly no alternate worlds like Middle Earth or Westros—these abide in the realm of the marvelous, and they are professedly not our world, or they are a part of our world that we travel to in part by leaving behind our consensus reality.

Some maintain that this is essentially urban fantasy.  I would suggest, however, that some urban fantasy (a category established later than that of magical realism, and itself a fuzzy set), derives from magical realism.  In fact, urban fantasy is as difficult (if not more difficult) to describe than its magical realist predecessor: the clear vision of Emma Bull, John Crowley, and Charles de Lint has been replaced on the shelves by urban fantasy almost indistinguishable from paranormal romance.

In turn, Surrealism and Expressionism are artistic modes that, in my understanding, arise from the mind’s interaction with the big world out there.  In the dream of Surrealism and the profound emotion and psychology of Expressionism, wonder is projected onto the things around us.  Magical realism assumes that the wonder is already in those things—that the specific, concrete outer world contains its own magic, waiting for us to discover.

So instead of defining magical realism, we might do better to define its elements.  Wendy Faris, one of the preeminent scholars in the field, describes the mode as follows:

As a basis for investigating the nature and cultural work of magical realism, I suggest five primary characteristics of the mode. First, the text contains an "irreducible element" of magic; second, the descriptions in magical realism detail a strong presence of the phenomenal world; third, the reader may experience some unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events; fourth, the narrative merges different realms; and, finally, magical realism disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity.

And yes, you can find some of these elements in other forms of storytelling.  At  risk of repeating myself, though, I would add to Dr. Faris’s list by emphasizing what I said above: the key to what makes the story magical realist is that it values its magic and its realism equally, that it expects its audience (because it’s not only reading but visual art and film) to value the two qualities equally.

Trajan’s Arch was the first of my magical realist books.  The central story of a boy’s coming-of-age exists beside the haunting—both supernatural and natural—he carries into adulthood.  Spread out over the novel is the magic of ghosts and of memory, of fiction intruding on the real world and of the real world intruding on the contained, hermetic worlds of fiction.  If you’re looking for an example of what I mean by magical realism—how I do it as a writer—I refer you to the first story-within-a-story of the novel: “Giuoco Piano,” written by Trajan Bell, who in turn was written by me.

Thank you, Michael. That "equal priority" concept will stick with me, and help me decide where the book I'm working on fits. And I'm very much looking forward to reading Trajan's Arch.

About the author:  

Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early Weasel’s Luck and Galen Beknighted in the best-selling DRAGONLANCE series to the more recent lyrical and experimental Arcady, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines. In Trajan’s Arch, his eleventh novel, stories fold into stories and a boy grows up with ghostly mentors, and the recently published Vine mingles Greek tragedy and urban legend, as a local dramatic production in a small city goes humorously, then horrifically, awry.

Trajan’s Arch and Vine are two of the books in Williams’s highly anticipated City Quartet, to be joined in 2018 by Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men.

Williams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey he made his way through through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and has ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in Humanities, and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the he Modern Fantastic in fiction and film. He is married, and has two grown sons.

Where to Find Him:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Mythical-Realism-The-Michael-Williams-Page-128713900543978/

About Trajan’s Arch:  

Part of Michael's visionary City Quartet, this stand-alone novel flows with literary grace telling the story of Gabriel Rackett and his possession of a manuscript that will take him on a journey both profound and deeply personal as he confronts old ghosts and his own coming of age.

A great story that is part of a broader, visionary literary project from Michael Williams, Trajan's Arch will bring you a unique and enjoyable reading experience!

Gabriel Rackett stands at the threshold of middle age. He lives north of Chicago and teaches at a small community college. He has written one novel and has no prospects of writing another, his powers stagnated by drink and loss. Into his possession comes a manuscript, written by a childhood friend and neighbor, which ignites his memory and takes him back to his mysterious mentor and the ghosts that haunted his own coming of age. Now, at the ebb of his resources, Gabriel returns to his old haunts through a series of fantastic stories spilling dangerously off the page--tales that will preoccupy and pursue him back to their dark and secret sources.

Where to Find Trajan’s Arch

Kindle Version: https://www.amazon.com/Trajans-Arch-Michael-Williams-ebook-dp-B07RD1RF9T/dp/B07RD1RF9T/

Amazon Print Version:  https://www.amazon.com/Trajans-Arch-Michael-Williams/dp/1948042754/

Barnes and Noble Link:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/trajans-arch-michael-williams/1100075829?ean=9781948042758

Find out more: Follow the tour!

8/14     Armed with a Book     http://www.armedwithabook.com     Review

8/14     I Smell Sheep   http://www.ismellsheep.com/            Guest Post

8/15     Horror Tree     https://www.horrortree.com             Guest Post

8/16     The Seventh Star Blog             http://www.theseventhstarblog.com             Top 10

8/17     The Literary Underworld        http://www.literaryunderworld.com             Guest post

8/18     Jazzy Book Reviews     http://bookreviewsbyjasmine.blogspot.com    Author Interview

8/19     Sheila's guests and reviews    http://sheiladeeth.blogspot.com        Guest Post

8/19     Armed with a Book     http://www.armedwithabook.com     Interview

8/20 Stuart Conover's Homepage https://www.stuartconover.com Guest Post

8/21 The Sinister Scribblings of Sarah E. Glenn https://saraheglenn.blogspot.com/ Author Interview and possible review


Thanks for the chance to post at your site. You are a most generous host, and I appreciated the opportunity.
Jean Harkin said…
I appreciated Michael Williams's definition of magic realism, that it gives equal weight to the real and the magical. I must say, however, that the cover of his book shouts "fantasy."

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