Sunday, May 5, 2013

Wherein we discuss magic realism, or: busted.

Here Comes the Flood - Rob Gonsalves
This is what happens when I shoot off my mouth.  I should know better by now.

On Friday, I wrote a little post for Indies Unlimited that was based a creative writing professor's takedown of another creative writing professor's comments about the current crop of creative writing students.

You with me so far?  Okay. To proceed, then:  The author of the original article was dismayed that his students don't read much in the way of contemporary literary fiction.  (Contemporary as in "written and published today," not necessarily as in "the setting of the story is the present day.")  The author of the article I mentioned in my IU post said that was a rotten idea.  He said basically that writers are a dime a dozen these days (and that is different from any other time in history how, exactly? But I digress...), and that creative writing programs are so successful in bringing lousy writers up to competency that it's natural for some of these barely competent writers to get published.  (My response to that is that if the gatekeepers are doing their jobs, then shouldn't the barely competent be rejected in favor of the extremely competent with some regularity?  But I digress again....)

Anyway, his point is that current literary fiction is banal at best, and not very good at worst -- and that writing students would be better off reading the best of any genre, not just the allegedly hoity-toity stuff.

Now that was a statement I could wrap a blog post around.  And so I did.  But then in that post, I made the mistake of referencing my famous rant about how magic realism is nothing but fantasy with an accent.

Karen Wyld, who is Aborigine and who writes magic realism, quite rightly took me to task for it.  Her post on her own blog in defense of magic realism is here.  It's terrific.  You should click through and read it.  But basically, she says (and I hope I don't get myself in trouble again for paraphrasing...) that magic realism grew out of the storytelling tradition, and that the genre was created by the dispossessed, or their descendants, as a way of explaining to others what they could not explain in any other way.  The magic in magic realism is intended to bring the reader into the writer's world, to let the reader feel what the writer feels about his or her lost land and way of life.

She's right, of course.  One need only think about books like Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate or Toni Morrison's Beloved, or anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and see how the magical events in these stories are there to evoke an emotional response in the reader.

But my original point was that the best fantasy writers do the same thing.  It's certainly true that a lot of them use magic simply as gee-whiz window dressing.  But the really good ones use it as a device to develop the characters' personalities and to underline their flaws -- and to evoke thereby a specific emotional response in the reader.  I keep going back to Stephen R. Donaldson because he's one of my favorite authors -- but he's one of my favorites because he's so damn good at this kind of thing.  Terisa Morgan surrounds herself with mirrors in order to convince herself that she's real; then a magic mirror becomes her portal to adventure and allows her to conquer her fear.  Thomas Covenant, stripped of everything that means anything to him, is brought to the Land, where he has unimaginable power that he never asked for and cannot bring himself to trust; he struggles to find a way to use this newfound power without betraying himself.

When I was in grad school, this frustrated me.  Any fantasy novel was dismissed as crap because, you know, it had magic in it.  But if a foreign author wrote a book that had magic in it, well, then, we can call it magic realism and it's okay to read -- the magic is there to explain why us white folks should feel bad about conquering these other cultures.  So it's not really magic -- it's a literary device.  It's allegory.  Or something.

It's insulting, is what it is: insulting to writers of both magic realism and serious fantasy.  Good writing is good writing, period.  Why we have to shove it into little labeled boxes and turn our noses up at one while lauding another escapes me.

Anyway, to be clear: magic realism isn't just fantasy with an accent.  But fantasy isn't dreck by definition, either.

In other news, and speaking of fantasy and Stephen R. Donaldson, I hope you saw my interview at John Pythyon's blog earlier this week.  It was a ton of fun to do, and I think it turned out really well.

And you may have already heard that I sent off Annealed to my editor last night.  Yay for progress!

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