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WisCon Panel Report 2: Magical Realism: Threat or Menace? 
1st-Jun-2008 05:44 pm
talent, pencil
Magical Realism: Threat or Menace?

There are great stories being written under the heading of Magical Realism lately. Is it a legitimate subgenre of fantasy, or something else entirely? Does Magical Realism actually exist as a distinct entity, or is it simply a way for academics to study a few select authors that they view as worthy, while keeping the rest of the fantasy genre outside the ivory tower?

Panelists: Delia Sherman (M), Catherynne M. Valente, Theodora Goss, Jeremy Lassen

Delia Sherman began by observing that this panel's title and description pose a set of extremely loaded questions. I'm of mixed feelings about such obviously loaded panel questions - they can provoke discussion, but they often seem to provoke discussion in directions that aren't necessarily productive. It certainly seemed odd to have a panel description that betrayed so much anxiety about fantasy's place in the "ivory tower" at a convention like WisCon, which probably has more academics in attendance than any other science fiction gathering that isn't specifically academic in focus. But never mind.

I gathered from some of the discussion on the panel that there's been a recent surge in works labelled "magical realism", including many works that don't seem to fit the traditional definition of the term. If so, I've missed this.

The general consensus of the panel seemed to be that "magical realism" gets used in two distinct senses:

  • As an academic or critical term used to describe fiction in which fantastic events take place in real-world settings, written in the style associated with mimetic fiction, and often produced by writers in post-colonial or politically repressive settings.

  • As a "marketing" or casually descriptive term, used to describe works of non-secondary-world fantasy, and intended to indicate either high literary quality, or that the work is unlikely to offend the sensibility of people who don't usually read genre fantasy. In other words, fantasy that is free of elf-cooties.

Feelings on the panel regarding the second sense of the term seemed to range from, "Ugh, we have a perfectly good word for this stuff - it's fantasy," to "Hey, if we have to slap this label on it in order to sell books or get them into the hands of people who appreciate them, so be it."

At this point, my notes become somewhat fragmentary. I offfer some of the more interesting thoughts:

  • Catherynne Valente posed an interesting question: If we postulate that magical realism represents an attempt by writers to grapple with political or social events that seem to have become fantastical or divorced from reality, where is American magical realism? (At some point later, someone suggested Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe so.)

  • Theodora Goss observed that the panel title has it backwards - science fiction and fantasy are increasingly accepted in and part of mainstream literary circles. We, the fantasists, are the threat or menace.

  • Valente also made an interesting comparison between Tolkien and Borges: It has become quite fashionable to criticize Tolkien for being a bad writer, and particularly to criticize his characterization. And yet, no one calls Borges a bad writer for his characterization, although it's arguably as bad or worse than Tolkien's. (Quick - name a character from a Borges story!) This probably says something interesting about the kinds of qualities that are valued in genre fiction versus "literary" fiction.

  • Theodora Goss convinced me that I must read Fantasy and Mimesis by Kathryn Hume.

2nd-Jun-2008 02:55 am (UTC)
Just off the top of my head, it seems to me that character matters more in novels than in short stories, without genre necessarily being relevant.

Edited at 2008-06-02 02:55 am (UTC)
2nd-Jun-2008 02:10 pm (UTC)
You may be right. It's certainly easier to "get away with" lack of characterization in short stories.
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