What Is Magical Realism Fiction

Exactly what is Magical Realism fiction — what is it, and what differentiates it from fantasy? Since it’s the category I’ve chosen to read most and often write, I think a lot about this. The many good lists of magical realism fiction online point us toward some stories that seem to me to belong more in the category of fantasy. Ironically, the publishing industry does a lot to steer readers in wrong directions because of inaccurate terminology.

Publishing Terminology

The publishing industry defines magical realism fiction as realistic fiction with a magical element. Bookstores have no such aisle or shelf. They typically shelve magical realism among all realistic fiction, so you have to go to Goodreads or another list online to find out the titles that might interest you. Some will list the classical examples, such as Book Riot’s or Goodread’s lists. Other will list more contemporary MR novels.

Magical Realism Book Lists

Bookbub’s list of 2018’s new Magical Realism fiction has some exciting entries, one of which I’ve already read. Each overlaps with another category — mystery, romance, high fantasy, women’s fiction. I think I might buy all of them! Always room for one more on the Kindle app. Every one sounds like a great read.

Book Riot lists 10 Best Magical Realism Books. They’re arguably all masterpieces of MR. One thing I noticed on this list is the number of “post-Colonial” authors, people we’re now calling “marginalized voices” — not the mainstream white male authors that have dominated fiction ever since fiction was invented. The books are all literary, rather than commercial, fiction. The classics of Magical Realism.

The Renaissance Club — Magical Realism Fiction That’s Also Women’s Fiction, Time Travel, Romance, & a Love Story

But that’s not a real category. Magical Realism fiction isn’t a category much understood in the publishing or bookselling world. Few stores have a ‘magical realism’ shelf. You have to pick one out of that long list. When I began my novel, The Renaissance Club, I considered that I was writing fantasy. But an astute agent/editor I worked with set me straight. World-building, as in other worlds, is the way fantasy readers expect their fantasy these days. My book isn’t exactly time travel romance, either, though that’s where it found its niche on Amazon. It’s not straight romance structure, though a love story is central.

How to Categorize Your MR Book

So what category is my magical realism novel in terms of the publishing industry and in terms of what readers look for on Amazon and other online retailers? I’ve read a lot of today’s magical realism authors — Sarah Addison Allen, Alice Hofmann, Laura Esquivel, Susanna Kearseley, Diana Gabaldon, Joanne Harris. I finally let my Amazon category be Time Travel Romance. It put me in company with some of those authors, and that made the most sense to me.

But I’d like to see the shelving and categorization change. I’d like to see emphasis on  the new super category, Speculative Fiction. Sophie Playle’s blog, Liminal Pages has a nice set of definitions of the sub-genres under Spec Fiction.

So magical realism — what is it? In a way, it’s any fiction. All fiction is speculative. We can’t create real worlds with words, and literary devices such as metaphor and simile remove reality more and more from fiction. I found while writing that simply removing the word “like” changed the comparison to a magical realism event — giving the effect of magic invading our everyday reality. A setting sun like a warm, ripe peach became a a warm, ripe peach descending in the west. For me, that’s much more fun!