Tag Archives: Magical Realism

Thoughts on Genre

Fantasy Genre

What did you call me? A little while ago, I was explaining the sort of writing I do to a friend of mine. We barely got into it when he interrupted me, saying, “So, you write fantasy.” I said, “No. It’s Magical Realism. It’s different. It uses magical or fantastic elements to mirror, echo, or emphasize the very real human conflict in the story.” He said, “But your stories have ghosts and talking animals and stuff like that, right?” “Yeah.” “Sounds like fantasy.”

I wouldn’t say I was offended by this, but I was defensive about it. Another friend of mine accused me of being an elitist, that I shouldn’t fight it. Thing is, I’m not wholly opposed to Fantasy as a genre. For me, it’s just that I don’t feel like I write in that genre, though my writing potentially shares some features.

So, what’s Fantasy? Fantasy, as a literary genre, was unfortunately named. I mean, the word fantasy can be used to mean anything that is not real, if we use the definition of the word as the boundaries of the genre. In a sense, all of fiction could fall under Fantasy. I feel like, in reality, genres are defined by the sort of conventions and elements that we talk about with each other when we assume the other person knows what we’re talking about.

So, for example, when I talk about reading a Romance novel, most people aren’t going to think about Orwell’s 1984, despite the fact that the story has a powerful love story. No, the Romance genre is much more specific than this. Romance, as a genre, conjures imagines of paperback covers with a shirtless Fabio for people.

With Fantasy, I mainly picture Quest or Hero fantasy (medieval settings, characters with magical powers, world-building, etc.). And when I polled my friends for their favorite Fantasy novels, a huge majority immediately mentioned Quest fantasy novels. Fantasy feels much closer to Romance, as a genre, than as some sort of meta-genre, encapsulating anything that isn’t strict Realism.

Are genres useful then? I do not subscribe to the postmodernist thinkers who would say that genres are worthless. Deconstruction can go too far, people. The thing about it is, I like the idea of genres being somewhat rigid and defined. In fact, I would like to have very specific systems for genres and subgenres. I know what you’re thinking: stories do not fit so neatly into genres. Exactly.

Stories are like colors. We can know our primary colors by their RGB codes and so forth, yet the variations in shades and colors via blends and dilutions are near limitless. Similarly, most stories would fall across a spectrum of genres, and recognizing the conventions it borrows gives interesting insight into the story.

When we are willing to define a genre as literally anything that is not strictly Realism, I feel like it does not match the shared understandings we have of the genre, it does not help to understand the real conventions of Fantasy, and it becomes so all-encompassing to become nearly meaningless.

I’ll give you an example: In a poetry class I had, the teacher was talking about prose poetry. I know what it is, but I was curious how she would define the genre, so I asked her exactly what prose poetry was. She hesitated, then asked the class what they thought. They all shrugged and turned the question back on her. She struggled, hesitated, and stammered, so I changed the question. I asked her if there was any piece of prose in the world, be it a story, an essay, or a tax form, that could not also be considered prose poetry. She said no.

Net effect = Prose Poetry is pretty much everything … and therefore has nothing that defines it. Essentially, by being everything, it is nothing.

What does it mean? Definition, and the more specific, the better, is not a bad thing. It doesn’t limit stories. Instead, it gives a framework to talk about the work. We should figure out what are the elements of the shared definitions we have when we talk about genres, and though the definition will keep shifting with time, it’ll make for a more thorough and comparative discussion on literature.

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“Artificial Roses” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Cool little story. If you follow my blog at all, you’ll know that I’ve been talking about Garcia Marquez a lot lately. He’s been very influential to my writing these last couple of years, in more ways than just “magic.” Although, this gets me to thinking … maybe he’s not so much influential on my writing as he is validating of my writing choices. It’s like I’ve found a kindred writing spirit who feels the same limitations, and feels the need to make some of the same choices I do … like this one for example:

Hints. One of the things I love about Garcia Marquez is that he sets up the reader to be ready for something supernatural to jump into the realistic story, but sometimes, he leaves us wondering. A great example of this is the story “Artificial Roses” from his collection, Big Mama’s Funeral. In “Artificial Roses,” Marquez hints that a character has a supernatural skill, yet, he leaves open the possibility that it could simply be a coincidence or maybe the character is just extremely shrewd. Nevertheless, he has the ability to leave us wondering because of the context of his catalog.

I love how he takes Realism and bends it and twists it until we can’t be entirely sure what we’re seeing, as readers. He does successfully what so many genre writers seek to do, in my opinion. He reinforces his conflicts by pressing against the limits of Realism, yet, his characters and the problems they face are as real as a gravelly road.

How I use it. Right now, I am getting my MFA applications ready to send out, and I have two stories. One of them has a supernatural element, and the other does not. Still, the reading of one will affect the reading of the other. Obviously, this bears out better in a collection or in a catalog of work, but it’s wonderful to make the reader question. Isn’t that the goal in the end? Make the reader question something? Orwell challenges us directly, Vonnegut forces us to face harsh truths, making us question what we believe, but Garcia Marquez makes us question what is laid out directly in front of us in clear, plain text.

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Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A strange little detective story. So, in a day or so, I polished off Garcia Marquez’s 120 page novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It’s a strange little novel, in that it’s a sort of detective story, yet without all of the Noir elements. The story seems to be centered around a main character’s reconstruction of an event: an honor killing.

We don’t really get to know the main character. He was around at the time, but he seems to be the only player in the town that did not have some impact on the final outcome. Garcia Marquez does an excellent job making the entire town into a character. Everyone takes part, and in the end, a man is dead, but fault is hard to pinpoint.

I’ve read detective stories before. I know you have, but what makes this one pretty cool is that from the beginning, the reader know who dies, how he gets it, who does the killing, and why. You might ask, “So, why would I need to read the book?” Well, I’ll tell you.

Garcia Marquez constructs a town and a culture that is both fiery in its righteousness (willing to defend it to the point of violence) and frozen by inhibition and fear. By going on through the story, he troubles the easy fault-finding of the murderers, and he challenges the reader on notions of loveless marriage, abuse, sexism, and virginity.

This book is violent and it does not leave the reader feeling like the bad guys lose in the end. As with real life, the result of violence is pain for all involved. Garcia Marquez does a masterful job creating a real-as-the-gravel-beneath-my-feet town with human characters.

Give this book a read. It’s quick, but it’ll stay with you.

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Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “There are no thieves in this town”

I have a great book of collected works by the author Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. He has become one of my favorite authors. It is his work that inspired me to work on my current NH Stories project.

I just read this great story called “There are no thieves in this town.” The title says it all. It talks about mistrust of strangers, of others. In the story, a black man gets blamed and punished (much harder than a native would be punished) for a crime that was committed by a townsperson.

It’s easy to point the finger at others. I see this as a religious person who hears way too often that it’s the fault of some person or group that the world is as it is. I see this as someone who (an independent) pays attention to politics, and I see how much people find identity in party, and these parties spend their days faulting the other side.

The main character in Marquez’s story is a handsome man who is short on brains and mercy. He’s violent and drunk all of the time, yet it’s hard to blame him. He lives in poverty, as does most of the town, and covets things for himself (and for his pregnant wife as an afterthought).

Marquez creates a story where the main character is also the villain that the reader hates. This story (outside of the strange cat character that only shows up when the main character is breaking and entering … guilt?) is not Magical Realism. An interesting break from most of his works.

Though the cat … I need to think about the cat. What’s up with the cat?

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AWP 2012: Chicago

So, this year, I went to AWP. It was in my favorite Midwestern city, Chicago, and was a fantastic experience. The talks were not always productive, as a number of presenters gave advice like “Trust your instincts” or “follow your intuition,” which are about the most useless bits of writing advice one could give.

Still, there were many fantastic presenters. One I liked talked about the difference between his approach to writing a novel and a short story. He said a short story is like stealing a car and crashing into a tree. He said the novel is working to avoid crashing into the tree, to resist that urge. He said he hadn’t realized why he struggled to switch from short stories to novels until he noticed that novels were driven by a character and not by a conceit.

While there, I familiarized myself with a number of great authors. I am not one who is that familiar with contemporary writers, so this exposure made modern writers very approachable. Ha Jin was fantastic. Brilliant. I need to buy Nanjing Requiem. Also was exposed to the idea of Midwest Gothic, which, when hearing the description, is essentially what I write. I usually refer to my genre as NH Gothic or Magical Realism.

I got to meet a number of faculty from MFA where I applied. Houston and Georgia College jumped much higher on my list, and as of this post, I have yet to hear from them. Thus far, I’ve heard from six programs (rejections: Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Alabama, Virginia Tech, and Eastern Michigan {got accepted, but didn’t get funding}), and I’m waiting on six more (Houston, Georgia College, NC State, South Carolina, UNC Greensboro, and Bowling Green State).

Next year, AWP is in Boston. You know I’ll be there.

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