Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Fantasy Genre: Magic Realism and the Trick of Taxonomy

I absolutely should NOT be writing a blog post, especially one this long. Lucky you?

Defining what is or is not fantasy is a bit of a puzzle. I long ago learned that there was trouble with the taxonomies of English literary analysis. The taxonomic word, genre, is overburdened to the point of disintegration. Northrop Frye said that English literature has a poverty of terminology. That's not quite true; there would not be a Bedford's Glossary if it were. But it is true that we could perhaps use some more words to add to our taxonomic system, because genre is trying to hold down six jobs or more at the moment, and it's not working. Frye in his Polemical Introduction puts it well:
The very word "genre" sticks out in an English sentence as the unpronounceable and alien thing it is. Most critical efforts to handle such generic terms as "epic" and "novel" are chiefly interesting as examples of the psychology of rumor. Thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama, and so we still tend to assume that each is the half of drama that is not the other half. When we come to deal with such forms as the masque, opera, movie, ballet, puppet-play, mystery-play, morality, commedia dell' arte, and Zauberspiel, we find ourselves in the position of the Renaissance doctors who refused to treat syphilis because Galen said nothing about it.
Does "genre" refer to the poetry, prose, stage distinction? It is commonly used in this way. "Medium" may be better, but then what word but "medium" can distinguish between literature and painting? Or does "genre" refer to the comedy-tragedy-history cluster? Comedy-romance-tragedy-irony? This is a question that the Renaissance poets were struggling with (for instance, a pastoral is poetry sung by fictional shepherds, while a tragedy is a play about the fall of nobles) and things have not seemed to improved much. And your average movie-goer has a different idea of genre entirely: comedy, romance, action, drama, family, horror, documentary, classic, fantasy/sci-fi. And then you can have subgenres: teen comedy, romantic comedy, western, war movie, Disney Princess movie, creature feature, National Geographic, musical, superhero movie. For the movie-goer, genres are less about formal features or general plot arcs as about whole clusters of expectations (generic conventions) about setting, tone, ending, realism, and so forth.

Think about the fantasy genre. You're likely imagining of a novel which includes magic and (probably) dragons. If you've read much fantasy, though, you'll realize how poor a description that is. Sure, it covers your Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts fare, but that's about all. First, a more rigourous definition of fantasy would probably remove magic (and dragons, of course) and replace it with "supernatural." That, for instance, is what Wikipedia does. (Wikipedia is terrible at literary analysis, of course, but since literary analytical circles have stopped worrying about the fine distinction between science fiction and fantasy, fandom is about the only place where this sort of thinking is still active.) There's a problem with that. Lots of genres use the supernatural: horror, supernatural romance, and science fiction are perhaps the most obvious, but virtually every genre has examples which employ it in one way or another. Another problem with this is that the science fiction-fantasy distinction often rides on the idea that science fiction can explain all or most of its unusual phenomenon with scientifically explained rules, at least within the universe of the novel. Of course, what we call a fantasy novel could do precisely that; the universe's well-defined physics just happen to be magic, including gods and spells and numinosity. (Of course, there's the attached debate as to whether science can fully explain any world at all, including the one we inhabit.)

(There's also the problem with "novel" in that definition. You can have fantasy short stories and movies, of course, and fantasy poetry [and verse novels], theatre, songs, paintings, computer games, and dance. But that's a whole new batch of trouble.)

And then there's trouble with placing magic realism, surrealism, and their friends. I will focus on magic realism for the purposes of this post because as much as I had been troubled by the science fiction-fantasy distinction, my encounters with magic realism were the last straw. Magic realism in fiction is described (Penguin's Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory) as having certain characteristics including "the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic and bizarre, skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic descriptions, arcane erudition, the element of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable." The Penguin also makes a point of saying it is hard to define and that one could argue that there are instances of magic realism in non-magic realist works. A good rule of thumb is that in magic realism the supernatural occurs within the everyday, as though it were everyday; fantasy draws attention to itself as fantasy. But even this isn't clear-cut, though, since magic realism is also about the juxtaposition of magic and realism. For some time I thought the only difference between the two was the literary pretentions of the author and the reader. Green Grass Running Water is magic realism, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is surrealism, because they are "literary"; Harry Potter and Neverwhere are fantasy because they are "popular." (I looked at the Wikipedia page; it's discussion is in this case an OK place to start. I disagree with some of it, but it might help you begin to think about the genre. These definitions all appear on the page.)

So then we have this clumsy thing called speculative fiction, which contains anything that isn't realism. It could be an umbrella taxonomy containing distinct sub-groups, as genera are umbrellas for distinct species (except that species aren't distinct, but whatever, right?). However, many of us (English majors interested in this sort of thing) are rather fed up with attempts to sort out these genres. The differences between science fiction and fantasy aren't worth staking out because the formal features which identify them cannot be reasonably pinned down. We'll settle for calling it all speculative fiction.

But just as magic realism made me realize that there were no reliable formal features to distinguish forms of speculative fiction, so magic realism also made me realize that these genres nonetheless needed to be distinguished.

I was part of a symposium on Asian Canadian Studies; my paper was on a film called Eve and the Fire Horse, a wonderful piece of magic realism. As it turned out, lots of Asian Canadians wrote in magic realism, so other panelists discussed the term. Hiromi Goto's Hopeful Monsters came up multiple times. One of the other panelists brought up the term "postcolonial gothic"; theorists have used this term to notice the gothic themes--grotesqueries, oppressive authority figures, dangerous passions, disordered bodies, darkness--that occur in postcolonial works, such as Hopeful Monsters. He also observed that this term itself is a colonial act: to call these works "postcolonial" is itself problematic, but in particular "gothic" is worrisome because it is a European artistic description imposed on non-European work. "Magic realism" might be better; according to Penguin, it came from a description of Germanic painting, but in recent history it has been used almost exclusively in postcolonial contexts: Latin American, Native American, Asian Canadian, India... It seems like magic realism is a liberational medium for artists in marginalized ethnic populations. I realized then that there might be a problem in saying that magic realism was not sufficiently distinguishable from fantasy to count as a separate genre, but I hadn't quite put my finger on what distinguished it.

I then received a letter from a friend (Julia) with whom I had been corresponding about magic realism. She said that from a historical point of view, there was a distinction: in Latin America, magic realism had developed as a way for Latin Americans to insist on their own vision of the world outside of that of oppressive authoritative forces. Perhaps in literary analysis there isn't much difference, she said, but in cultural critique there is. It's similar to how science fiction came out of a particular historical moment (Enlightenment Europe as a backdrop, the industrialized European wars as the immediate cause) and is thus shaped by it.

Of course she was right. What I had been failing to see is that the distinction between genres had never, ever been about formal features. They had always been socially and culturally determined. I was thrown off the track by hundreds of years of analysis, but if you go back to those Renaissance poets you'll see that sitting in there among the formal requirements for each genre were also class requirements: pastorals and comedies were about the lower classes, tragedies and epics about the higher classes. I had always dismissed those as part of the classist assumptions of the time period, and of course they are, but I know realize that from the start social markers had played as much of a role in generic convention, and generic formation, as had formal features.

This changes the taxonomy. I am not obliged to adhere to strict generic categories, but rather I acknowledge historical, shifting categories. I have to re-think what taxonomy even means in this case, but suddenly the possibilities are open. But more importantly, this change emphasizes what fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, utopian fiction, and alternate history, and all other speculative fictions had been about from the start, what I (and many others) had lost in the silly, subtle, formal distinctions:

Speculation. Imagining new possibilities. Resisting set ideas. Bursting preconceptions. Re-articulating what reality is. This is where the genre's vitality rests. Let's not forget it.


Connie said...

Great post! Magic realism is a favorite genre (or subgenre or... it could go on for months) of mine. I found the historical/cultural connection between terms interesting, particularly the discussion of how magic realism as a term has been applied to marginalized groups. I've lately been reading some books written in the American South that have been called magic realism. They were all written by Caucasian men--hardly a marginalized group. However the region itself is in many ways looked down upon by the rest of the US. The South has lower high school graduation rates and more poverty.

Christian H said...

See, each time you try to get a grip on genre it squirms out of your hands again. Slippery things.
These Caucasian men weren't marginalized in any other way, were they? Gender and race aren't the only markers of discrimination, after all.

Also, what are the titles? I'll look them up if I ever have time.

Connie said...

I'm sorry I shouldn't have said "men"--now that I look back at what I've been reading, there's only one Caucasian male author of magic realism there. I've been reading a series of books by this guy, though, and I guess I transferred the plural over to the author as well. The author is Fred Chappell and the series begins with I Am One of You Forever. The second book is called Brighten the Corner Where You Are, the third, Farewell I'm Bound to Leave You, and the last, Look Back All the Green Valley.

Actually, now you mention it, you could argue that there is more marginalization. I'm only nearly finished with the second book, but the series so far makes a definite statement by portraying educated country-dwelling Southerners who don't try to hide any of these parts of their identity for fear of being ridiculed by one group or another.

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