How is surrealism different from magic realism? Fantasy? Speculative Fiction?
How does the prose poem fit in?
Except for prose poems, all other fiction, from romance novels and science fiction to highly literary fiction, must audition and cast characters from the land in which they live. Reluctantly--or perhaps eagerly--they always show up. And often they do very good work, including resisting the temptation to be the author’s mouthpiece, to indulge in flashbacks and to tell other characters who have known what the are doing for years--what they are doing.
In surrealism, unlike speculative fiction, one strange event is thrust into an ordinary world and the reader suspends disbelief as a character copes with the event in an ordinary way. Kafka* and sometimes Googol (The Nose) are great examples. Notably, in both surrealism and magic realism extraordinary events are never given causal explanations. This differentiates them from futuristic movies.
In magic realism, the writer is part of a community--visible or invisible—who accepts the supernatural as perfectly ordinary. Voltaire's shorter stories (I discovered them when I wrote an Afterward for Viking/Penguin) create such worlds. So do Calvino, Borges, and Marquez*. There are numerous others. Angels and dead intermingle with ordinary people and aren’t considered extraordinary. Magic realism has a blase, reportorial attitude, associated with surrealism. Except it is dealing with the supernatural--albeit in an ordinary world. (A few explanations of Marquez and Kafka in a later blog.)
Things that happen in these worlds are indeed extraordinary. But books about Vampires or islands without gravity don't qualify, because the ordinary world is altered in such a way that the characters no longer react in a casual way. (To get a visual sense of this kind of matter-of-fact acceptance, consider the room on the half-floor in Being John Malkovich, where all the actors had to crouch because the space between the floor and the ceiling was so small. No one commented on this or got upset. It was just the way it was. Which is what made it so funny.)
Flash fiction lends itself to both these forms. You can write about imaginary countries or one thing that could never possibly happen, and do it quickly to get a feel for the genre. Flash fiction, with its short time frame and aura of an urgent letter, often introduces extraordinary situations into an ordinary world. So does the prose poem-a from that often appeals to poets and to writers venturing into fiction because prose poetry doesn't involve characters -only a transformation of images. (But even for inveterate fiction writers, the prose poem is an interesting excursion into brevity and into discovering the power of a transforming image when there aren't characters to rely upon.)
Coleridge (perhaps on opium) distinguished between fancy and the imagination. In fancy, one never forgets that what one is reading is made up, even if the world one immerses oneself in is delicious. In a work of the imagination, the reader suspends disbelief completely.
Coleridge was biased. I find both forms extraordinary when they’re done well. (And, like all fiction, dreary when they’re not.)
But the forms I mentioned tend to rely on imagination rather than fancy. When they work, readers don’t think they’re in a particularly special world. They’re in the kind of tilted world we all experience when accepted premises and practices suddenly seem unfamiliar, odd even alien, as though we are temporarily cut off from meaning, but must function in a world that still holds the meaning.
What are your experiences with these worlds? What new writers have you read or met that travel here? And what are you distinctions?
Do you think, for example, that even though Kelly Link has been labeled a speculative diction writer, she also belongs in surrealism?
What about Angela Carter?
And Tom McCarthy in Remainder?
Has anyone read Rachel Ingalls? I just discovered her—an American writer who moved to Britain. Mrs. Caliban was perhaps her most famous book and got the Booker Prize. She also wrote novellas that lead you into the improbable, so you accept them like a frog accepts boiling water.
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