So, my first issue: How does one distinguish between low fantasy and magic realism?
Both are about the intrusion of magical elements into the real world. I believe that Guillermo is certainly right that many books use a "pinch" a magical elements to deepen or broaden the narrative. But how about the most iconic magic realist novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude? The magical elements are so pervasive and intrinsic that they literally are the story. Why is it not low fantasy?
Well, broadly speaking, I think it is, and I think all magic realism that features fantastic elements as intrinsic to the story must be considered low fantasy. Steven gave the example of Harry Potter for low fantasy, and of course that series, like many children's stories, qualifies. However, the example is likely to cause one to dismiss the genre (not to mention the negative associations with the word "low.")
It has been suggested, for example, that the whole French tradition of fantasy, le fantastique, is low fantasy. From the Les Chansons de Geste to Michel Houellebecq, fantastic elements in French fiction occur in the context of our world as we know it. There is no significant equivalent of the English tradition of "high" fantasy.
The taxonomy becomes quite cluttered when one tries to cope with surrealism, satire with fantastic elements, etc. However, surely The Master and Margarita and much of the work of Kafka is "low" fantasy.
Magic realism may not be confined to Latin America, but I think that most novels that earn the designation come from outside the mainstream literary tradition. Non-Spanish example might include Toni Morrison (African-American), Louise Erdrich (Native American), and Salman Rushdie (India). This may partly be because these traditions, cultures, and sub-cultures are closer to their mythic roots than mainstream European and American literature. Most literature that is designated magic realism is, in some sense, post-colonial, with at least some political intent or subtext (which may be why Angela Carter, a feminist English writer, often makes the cut.)
I've also been contemplating the "realism" in magic realism. Why is it "realism"? Well, first because it is "low" fantasy, with the magical elements talking place in the real world. Also, I think, most magic realist literature concerns the lives of people "living on the margins" of mainstream society, and therefore has some of the "gritty" quality of literature that is designated "realistic" or, more specifically, "naturalistic." (Arguably, George Eliot is a realist; Zola is a naturalist.)
Before closing this post, I'd also like to comment on Gene Wolfe. The quote I cited sounds somewhat churlish. I know Mr. Wolfe to be a gracious and kindly individual. (He's one of the few well-known writers of whom I have more or less direct knowledge. My stepson has met and talked with him on more than one occasion.) The Pulitzer-prize winning critic Michael Dirda has called Wolfe "our greatest living writer of science fiction, and one of our greatest living writers period." It must be frustrating to sit by and watch the magic realist writers be lionized, win the major literary prizes, and win the respect of academia and the literati, while your own work is hopelessly ghetto-ized and dismissed. Since his most famous (and possibly most successful) work, The Book of the New Sun, is "high" fantasy, this is not likely to change. The Odyssey, the Book of Genesis, Journey to the West, the Divine Comedy, and Gulliver's Travels are all arguably high fantasy, but the days when this could be considered mainstream literature are long gone. Perhaps this is because of the 19th century triumph of realism/naturalism. Perhaps it's because the flood of junk that was produced following the phenomenal success of Lord of the Rings poisoned the well. I don't know. But at present, high fantasy may be the only genre that has no hope of generally being taken seriously.
I've had more thoughts, but I'll close today with another Gene Wolfe quote: "All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it."
PS: Steven, I found your analogy to a "magic realist" intrusion in Farewell, My Lovely hilarious. Point well taken.
: I agree with Steven that Magical Realism isn't really in
: any of the 3 categories described by Sterling and that
: its "magical" elements can be taken directly
: at face value, or metaphorically and as
: legend-sources. Their intensity and importance to the
: plot vary: "One Hundred Years of Solitude"
: is the epitome of the Magical-Realistic narrative,
: where the magical elements are essential to the story
: and give it their literary character. In contrast,
: "Recollections of Things to Come" includes
: magical-realistic elements basically, in my view, to
: highlight the bizarre nature of realistic situations
: and, since it is narrated decades later by the town
: itself, to give it a patina of legend and epic.
: "Pedro Paramo" is another case in which the
: magical elements may simply be taken as imaginary or
: stemming from legend, and not necessarily as literal.
: In a different literary tradition, you may remember
: "Street of Crocodiles" by Bruno Schultz,
: written in Poland decades before the Latin American
: Boom: there, magical realism works both ways, for me:
: it IS essential to the stories, which would be
: deformed beyond recognition without it, but it is
: also, curiously, the stuff that childhood recollection
: are made of...
: Interesting discussion!
: --Previous Message--
: Interesting kickoff to a discussion.
: I've also heard the distinction made between
: "high fantasy" and "low fantasy."
: High fantasy is Sterling's #3 category in that it
: takes place entirely in an imaginary world like Lord
: of the Rings . Low fantasy takes place in, or uses
: elements from, our own world. Harry Potter would be
: another example of low fantasy.
: Another category is "science fantasy." This
: is literature that takes the typical story elements of
: fantasy but presents it as hypothetically possible.
: Most of Edgar Rice Burroughs's fiction would fall in
: this category, as would Gene Wolfe's Book of the New
: Sun (which is high on my to-read list).
: My own definition of magical realism would differ
: considerably from Gene Wolfe's. I would say that it is
: set entirely in our own world but that elements of
: magic or fantasy are used in a metaphorical sense for
: purposes of poetic expression. Or, to put it another
: way, events immediately acquire a mythic status with
: the fanciful and imaginative embellishments that would
: normally accrue over generations of telling and
: Since magical realism isn't really creating a
: different world (like Middle Earth), there are no
: rules for it to follow or break. What I didn't like
: about The Bone People --and this may have been what
: you were getting to when your patient arrived,
: Sterling--was that the whole atmosphere of the novel
: is such that the sudden introduction of magical
: elements seems completely out of place, and
: invalidates much of what might have been drawn from
: the story. Imagine that in the last 50 pages of
: Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely a mysterious
: cloud appears over Los Angeles, the murder victims all
: come back to life, everybody forgives everybody else,
: and they all have a big party. That's how I felt about
: the ending of The Bone People . But obviously others
: saw it differently, since it won a Booker Prize and
: other recognition.
: --Previous Message--
: Gene Wolfe has been quoted as saying. "Magic
: realism is fantasy written by Latin Americans."
: Steven's objection to the intrusion of fantasy into
: the gritty realism of The Bone People has me
: Fantasy, real fantasy, can be broken into three
: categories: (1) A story in which a person from our
: world enters a magic realm; (2) A story in which a
: person, being, or powers from a magic realm enters our
: world; (3) A story that takes place entirely in a
: magical world.
: A good example of the first is Alice in Wonderland .
: Almost any ghost story is an example of the second.
: The Lord of the Rings is a celebrated example of the
: Magic realism, in my opinion, straddles a delicate
: boundary between the second and third. Macondo is
: obviously in Colombia, but it is also somehow a
: magical place. On the other hand, Winter's Tale by
: Mark Helprin stumbles, in my opinion, by being too
: specifically set in New York City around the turn of
: the century.
: Ordinarily fantasy must follow the rules that are set
: by the author. We know what hobbits are like.
: Tolkien does not betray our trust. We know we're not
: in the real world from the opening sentences. Steven
: felt that the author had broken faith with him in The
: Bone People because magic was introduced late without
: (My patient has arrived. Perhaps I'll write more
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