Joe Ponepinto: Some Notes on Magical Realism

I’ve been disappointed with the response to the portion of our guidelines that encourages submissions of magical realism to TLR. It seems that many submitters notice the word “magical,” and ignore the word “realism,” even though I’ve listed several MR masters as examples of that specific genre of literature. So what I’ve received, instead of magical realism, has been a lot of fantasy, some straight science fiction, and even some horror. These submissions, honestly, have no chance of publication in our journal, as we are literary in style, not escapist or speculative.

TLR is not looking for ways to take more money from writers. That’s why we try to be as transparent in our practices as possible. To that end, here is some information about what magical realism is and isn’t, to help writers decide what we’re truly interested in seeing, and what is just a waste of a submission fee.

Some of this info comes from an excellent essay on the definition of magical realism: What Is Magical Realism, Really? by Bruce Holland Rogers, who is a recognized master of the genre, and one of my mentors in grad school. I encourage you to read the full essay.

The main difference between MR and genre forms like science fiction, fantasy and horror, is that magical realism has no connection to escapist literature. It is written to explore a truth about the human condition (akin to literary writing), but does so with the inclusion of magical elements. The important aspect to keep in mind about MR, is that it portrays the “real” world, not a fantasy or alternative world. It may not be the real world you are familiar with, but it may be the world people from other cultures believe is real.

From Bruce Holland Rogers’s essay: Magical realism is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments. Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have “real” experiences of ghosts. Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is different from ours. It’s not a thought experiment. It’s not speculation. Magical realism endeavors to show us the world through other eyes.

Magical realism is a distinctive form of fiction that aims to produce the experience of a non-objective world view. Its techniques are particular to that world view, and while they may at first look something like the techniques of sophisticated fantasy, magical realism is trying to do more than play with reality’s rules. It is conveying realities that other people really do experience, or once experienced.