Friday, December 14, 2007

Magical Realism

What I am most proud of about my book, aside from the fact that I actually, you know, wrote a book, is that it doesn't easily fit into any one genre. Heck it isn't even necessarily Middle Grade, my American publishers say it's Young Adult.

It's adventure. It's comedy. It's pathetic (in the true sense of the word in that it contains pathos). It's a pirate adventure. It's also a modern day Alice in Wonderland story. It's about about teachers. And a big plot point hinges on correct grammar usage.

And no one seems to mind any of this, which is just lovely.

But there is one thing that can sometimes confuse, one thing that I get called upon to clarify most often, and that is . . .

Is it fantasy?

It's a good question.

On the one hand no. It takes place in our world where movies are made, people drive cars, and use laptops. Where kids go to school and face the same grade system as any kid today. Everyone talks with a modern vernacular and syntax. And existing countries are referenced, such as France and Spain (in the next book they go to China).

And on the other hand, yes. We have a talking octopus, tall ships, art deco party trains stuck in time loops, and pirates that are most definitely from a time gone by.

So what the heck is up with that? Alex doesn't go through any portal. Her world is unusual from the start. Even her local police station has a two way mirror put in the wrong way. Yet her world is also our world and our world simply does not obey the same rules as hers. And yet, wait a minute, it does.

This is where your head explodes and I make a tick in my notebook, "Sigh I lose more good readers that way . . . "

Well friends ponder no longer! There is a genre for our confusing tome. And it is . . .

Magical Realism! (echo echo echo . . . - I once had a lovely calculus teacher who when he'd introduce a new concept he'd say, "And now for some Trigonometry, echo echo echo . . ." I really liked that. So now I do it too. Though not in reference to math.)

What is magical realism you ask?

Okay that's a way too long answer really to make. Needless to say it is a very complicated genre and is usually associated with much more literary works (and usually, for some reason, Latin Americans - ie Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez). But I shall endeavor to explain it to you all using the tried and tested technique of cutting and pasting other people's explanations. So get ready for some fun intellectual stuff folks!

First we start with a very nice article written by a one Lindsay Moore (which is you are interested in learning more about this genre please click on the link, it's very well written and clear to follow) which states:

A literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre, magical realism aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites. . . Magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society. According to Angel Flores, magical realism involves the fusion of the real and the fantastic, or as he claims, "an amalgamation of realism and fantasy".

Moore then offers a list of some of the elements found in magical realism, most of which seem to perfectly describe Alex - the one listed that I think is not quite right is Hybridity, though even there I do think Alex may even have something in common with it still, but the rest are perfect:

Irony Regarding Author’s Perspective—The writer must have ironic distance from the magical world view for the realism not to be compromised.

Authorial Reticence—Authorial reticence refers to the lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events and the credibility of the world views expressed by the characters in the text. This technique promotes acceptance in magical realism. In magical realism, the simple act of explaining the supernatural would eradicate its position of equality regarding a person’s conventional view of reality. Because it would then be less valid, the supernatural world would be discarded as false testimony.

The Supernatural and Natural—In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable. While the reader realizes that the rational and irrational are opposite and conflicting polarities, they are not disconcerted because the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world.

Then we move onto Wikipedia for a slightly more straightforward explanation:

The characters' reactions to the 'inexplicable' is key to the definition of Magic-Realism: inexplicable phenomena occur in extremely mundane circumstances and the character(s) tend to not respond adequately (or at all) to the supernatural or magic nature of the event. On the contrary, they often treat the magical event as an annoyance, a setback, or an unwanted obligation. . . Indeed, this blase response to the supernatural is what distinguishes Magic Realism from other more traditional representations of magical phenomena in narrative fiction. It is also what gives Magic-Realism its characteristically ironic and humorous quality.

Now the thing is, I have done that thing with the cutting and the pasting to show how magical realism totally works for my book. This means I have left out the bits from another article where the author, Bruce Holland Rogers, explains that magical realism is very literary serious fiction and never escapist. My book is clearly escapist. And I do see where he is coming from, the roots of magical realism are to show something quite profound. As Rogers puts it in his definition of "serious fiction":

Serious fiction helps us to name our world and see our place in it. It conveys or explores truth. . . magical realism is always serious, never escapist, because it is trying to convey the reality of one or several worldviews that actually exist, or have existed. Magical realism is a kind of realism, but one different from the realism that most of our culture now experiences.

There is therefore a lot more to the genre than what my children's novel is doing. But I nonetheless strongly believe that Alex belongs in the category. Aside from being able to check off almost all the qualities listed to distinguish a magical realist novel, I do think the book is trying to convey a worldview that actually exists, to explore and comment on this worldview. Before I did any extensive research on this subject, I had always called my book a satire for children. I always saw it as a social commentary on the way our world functions. Alex is basically the only child in the novel and it is her experience of the adult world that I was keen to explore.

At any rate, I do define Alex as magical realism for all the obvious reasons (and by "obvious" I mean for those who have read the book, I apologise to those of you who have not for not giving clear examples, but I didn't want to give too much away and thus ruin the story for anyone just in case). And I find it very exciting that I can fit my book so well into such a distinguished genre. I would never attempt to hold myself up to some of the greats who are mentioned, but every genre has a great in it, and we can't allow that to mean we can't join the club just because we aren't as fabulous (or as Franck in the remake of Father of the Bride would say, "Faboolos!").

So there you go. Thus ends today's lecture. I do hope you found it interesting, learned a little something new perhaps? Personally I think the genre is completely fascinating (obviously)!

On a different note, I am very excited to announce that Alex is going to be featured with a dozen other titles this Saturday morning (ie tomorrow) on the CBS Early Show!

The president of The Book Report network ( is going on the show to talk about books that you *should* know about this holiday season if you don’t already. The segment is airing at 7:40am.

So if you aren't partying till the wee hours tonight, and can get up early enough, why not check it out! (here's hoping that they don't cut to commercial just as they get to my book: "And now, for the pirate in all of us, Alex and the . . . " "I'm afraid I have to cut you off there as we need to go to break! Thank you so much for coming on, I'm sure we'll all want these books under our trees come Christmas!" lol!)

Sources for post on Magical Realism:

Moore, Lesley. Magical Realism
Rogers, Bruce Holland. What is Magical Realism Really?
Wikipedia. Magical Realism


Jen (niennac) said...

It's funny, because I was just wondering whether or not your book was a fantasy. I don't know why, I think when I was browsing through books, and yours popped into my head and I thought, "What would it be classified as?" And now I know. Thanks.

I'm off to go TiVO that Early Show now.

LindaBudz said...

I learned a lot, thanks!! And, yes, your book seems to fit the bill quite perfectly.

... and, checking out Moore's definition of "hybridity" and its purpose in magical realism, maybe your version is the juxtaposition of kid world vs. adult world?

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary said...

Great post!

I think Magical Realism classifies your novel very well. Outside the Latin American mode Big Fish by Daniel Wallace is a good example of the genre, and I thought of it when reading Alex, especially the Lord Popinjay (sp?) and Octopus chapters. I’m interested that you didn’t initially realise you were writing MR. I’ve struggled to categorise the novel I’m currently submitting to agents. While I consider it comic, adventurous, set in a world that’s a bit out of whack with our own, it took a friend to identify what he described as “elements of magical realism”. I’m not sure it’s fully MR, but perhaps it’s time to re-think my pitch. We’ll see…!

(Hope this comment works. Blogger's playing games!)

J M McDermott said...

I've always considered Magical Realism a "technique" not a genre, or a category of novel. The juxtaposition of magic with realistic fiction is all one does. And, frankly, many of the authors who are categorized inside this genre have little to nothing else in common with each other. Garcia-Marquez' rural Macondo is more closely related to William Faulkner than Borges. Borges has more in common with Kafka than Garcia-Marquez. And the Surrealists? Lord knows they have almost nothing in common with either Borges or Marquez!

Who knows where Chabon, Nabokov, Calvino, and Grass fit in the big tent? I don't even think there's a tent, just a technique.

In fact, I would categorize your work as a YA Fabulist Fiction. I suspect your wit and logical-ish worldview has more in common with Italo Calvino than you do with Borges, madame.

Thus, you are a New Wave Fabulist.

Chumplet said...

In any case, that must be a load off your mind to have a pigeonhole for your book.

I was puzzling over the age group, too. I wondered if it would be suitable for an eight year old, but if her mother reads it to my niece, she could easily get her over the more mature theme bumps. She's a mature kid for her age, but we all say that about our little ones, don't we?

Needless to say, I finished it at 3 o'clock this morning. Funny bits, sad bits and bits that made me go, "Hmmmm."

I totally visualize the octopus as Peter O'Toole. Make sure you get him hired to voice the movie version. He soooo reminds me of Alan Swan in My Favorite Year.

Adrienne, you have a fantastic imagination. I'm flabbergasted at how you managed to come up with that stuff. It was fabulous!

Adrienne said...

jen - well I am glad I could help! lol!

linda - you are possibly right about the hybridity thing, though I think it is meant to have something more to do with primitive vs technological, urban vs rural . . . I guess you could say Alex moves from a rural environment (her small town) to the big city (Port Cullis), but it may be stretching it a bit . . . worth a think though . . .

mary - yes I would agree with the Big Fish thing, except that we do return to the real world in the film, and the fantastical elements are explained away at the end (don't want to give anything away, so I'll leave it at that), but definitely has parts to it for sure. And yes, at the time I was writing it, I wasn't writing magical realism but just a story. But I was influenced by things I was reading and certain films as well (and though I know Douglas Adams is SciFi technically I think there is a lot of elements of magical realism in it, a lot of accepting what is if you know what I mean), so it wasn't like I was writing in a vacuum. It so happened the things I was inspired by fell into a genre I didn't know existed, until I knew it existed.

If that makes sense.

JMM - I see your point, but I will have to respectfully disagree, I still very much consider Magical Realism its own genre, and think it is very much appropriate for Alex. However, I have no problem also working within the New Wave Fabulist genre as well! Like I said, Alex defies categorisation, she's a bit tricky that way. ;)

chumplet - yes interesting you should mention age. I have always considered my book good reading really for everyone, including adults (as I was writing it for people like me, who like kids books). Though I do know of a few 8 year olds who did enjoy it, so I think it's okay. I imagine, as you yourself describe your niece, they were rather precocious 8 yearolds though.

And I so would totally cast Peter O'Toole as the Octopus! That was so my first choice!

Thank you so much also for the lovely compliment! Really lovely of you to say so! You must tell me what your niece thinks of the book once she's read it!

Mary said...

I made the comparison to Big Fish not only for the fantastical elements; your writing style too reminds me of its brilliant author, Daniel Wallace. But maybe that's just me!

The Douglas Adams influence makes sense. I really loved the MakeCold 6000. (Please excuse any inaccurate spelling; I don't have my copy of Alex to hand.)

All influences aside, you wrote an original book. And as Chumplet said, you have a fantastic imagination!

Completely agree with the casting: Peter O’Toole IS the octopus!

J M McDermott said...

I always thought Alan Rickman was the Sir Ginormous Octopus...

Trish Ryan said...

The whole book genre thing is such a toss up sometimes. When you add it that different bookstores shelve things in their own ways (I found Alice Sebold's memoir in the fiction section the other day) and it makes it a bit of an adventure to find what you're looking for.

I love magical realism :)

ORION said...

Congratulations!!! very cool. I have always been into YA and children's literature- especially now...

kveenly said...

This was a very interesting post! I remember Philip Pullman on his web-site also sharing that he had believed his books were Magical Realism also (though I didn't completely understand at the time what that meant), but since it was about children, it became children's/young adult fantasy...

Congratulations on the CBS nod!

Adrienne said...

mary - well then I am very flattered, thank you so much for the comparison!

JMM - Alan Rickman works too!

trish - yeah I agree. To be honest I think bookstores should simply shelve things alphabetically, but I understand why there are genres etc. Still makes it tricky when a book belongs to more than just one.

orion - why thank you!! Me too, always been a big YA/MG fan!

kveenly - that's interesting about Pullman. See I wouldn't see his books as magical realism as he explains away the magic and supernatural by using the construct of parallel worlds. You have given me something to ponder now . . .

LindaBudz said...

Hi, Adrienne! Just wanted to let you know I named you for a Roar for Powerful Words award. Stop on by for details.

Heidi the Hick said...

Oh man, I left a comment here and it got eaten!

Let me just try to remember...I thought there were some Snicket -like touches, just the way the reader can never pinpoint exactly when this story is happening. That kind of thing.

And um.. much I wish I could construct a magical realism story but it's just not in me, apparently. I'll have to read yours instead.

I think that's what I wanted to say.

Janna said...

Oh, you are SO living my dream. Well... I'm neither a temp nor an actress; it's that writer thing I refer to. Ok, and I don't write MG or YA OR magical realism either... ;) But I do write.

Congrats on both publications! I wish you much success.

jannawrites from AW