In a recent discussion with my fellow Well-Read Collective, opens a new window team members, the topic of different fantasy genres came up in preparation for a genre study of fantasy fiction. I’ve been reading fantasy novels non-stop since I was 12 years old, and it was that genre that inspired my love of books and stories and, ultimately, a career in libraries. Since devouring my first fantasy novel, I have explored the genre as much as possible, reading everything from the epic Wheel of Time, opens a new window series to the ridiculously hilarious Discworld, opens a new window novels and the grimdark world of Ice and Fire, opens a new window. However, as I started to really explore the many different “flavors” of fantasy literature, there was one that never came up until that conversation: magical realism.
Magical realism, as defined by good ol’ Merriam Webster is “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Now, at first glance, that sounds an awful lot like fantasy to me. So, dipping once again into the well of Merriam Webster, the definition of fantasy fiction is “imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters.” Wait, what? Grotesque characters? Really? This is the base definition of fantasy fiction? Huh. Anyway, perhaps literarydevices.net has a better definition: “Fantasy is a form of literary genre in which a plot cannot occur in the real world.” Now that sounds more like the fantasy genre that I know and love.
So, keeping those two definitions in mind, it still sounds like magical realism is a fantasy genre. Personally, my definition of fantasy has always been any fiction that contains fantastical or mythical elements; which, if we are basing our definition purely on that concept, magical realism is definitely a sub-genre of the big fantasy umbrella. Yet, it is the second portion of the Merriam Webster definition of magical realism that has started to change my mind: namely, that these elements are brought into what is otherwise a realistic world. It is the fact that magical realism incorporates a fantastical element into our world, which has to live by our rules, rather than in other fantasy genres where the world exists outside of the real world and has its own rules and conventions. To me, the escape into another world has always been the appeal of the fantasy genre, rather than a story that is rooted in the realistic world, albeit with some fantastical element. Also, there are tons of articles and scholarly papers that have argued and continue to argue this concept, so feel free to explore this discussion.
What do you think? Is magical realism a fantasy genre, or is it something else entirely? If you haven’t read something that can be considered magical realism, might I suggest “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern, which is considered more of a near-magical realism/fantasy novel, and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, a pioneering novel in the genre and considered a literary classic.