07 October 2004

Magic Realism, Science Fiction, Futuristic Fantasy, and the American Short Story

Rake's Progress points toward an interview with Lydia Davis (writer of odd and often interesting shortshortshort stories) in which Davis and interviewer Mark Budman say the following:
Budman: But if you survey American literary magazines, with the notable exception of Zoetrope All Story (i.e. The Cavemen in the Hedges), you will rarely see magic realism published. Could it be that some editors are afraid that magic realism will be mistaken for, gasp, science fiction?

Davis: One name comes to my mind in this discussion, and that is George Saunders. I wonder just how you would categorize his fiction.

Budman: Well, he is an engineer like me. Which means he is a literary, goofy, surreal science fiction writer--it all comes with a little known clause in the engineering diploma (should you decide to accept it). What is your take on him?

Davis: I like his work very much. I was bowled over when I first read it--so horrifying and yet familiar and funny at the same time. It does (magically) manage to sit squarely in the tradition of the American short story and yet just as squarely occupy the niche of futuristic fantasy (I guess we can’t call it science fiction because there’s no science in it, but exaggerations of the horrors we already live with).
First off: yes, indeed, George Saunders is an excellent writer -- a year or two ago I even had a review of his two collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia published in English Journal. I was very happy that the SF world discovered him this year, with his story "Jon" in Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan's best SF of the year anthology and "The Red Bow" in the Datlow/Link&Grant Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

And yes, he exaggerates the horrors of contemporary life and turns them into futuristic fantasies, a technique used by science fiction writers for quite a few decades now.

What can we make of that problematic term "magic realism"? Outside a specific Latin American literary tendency, I'm not sure how "magic realism" is any different from "fantasy", unless "fantasy" is what people write to make money and "magic realism" is what people write to make tenure.

Okay, yes, I'm being unfair. There are plenty of definitions of magic(al) realism, some of which distinguish it quite specifically from any other mode of writing. There's even an excellent page where various scholars and writers connected to the SF world have a go at delineating the distinctions between magic realism and other types of imaginative writing.

I wonder if the general term "fantasy" is dead? Does it only refer to faux-medieval tales with dragons and dark lords? Must there be distinctions between magic realists, surrealists, fabulators, and fantasists?

A few years ago a friend of mine was at the MacDowell Colony with Paul LaFarge (who also appears in the Datlow/Link&Grant anthology). "You'll love him," she said to me. "He calls himself a fabulist." She thought this was fabulous. It meant he was serious and wrote complex stories for adults.

I liked LaFarge's book The Artist of the Missing -- in fact, when I first read it I fell head-over-heels in love with it. My passion for the book has dwindled with time, but we're still friends. (I was less thrilled by LaFarge's second novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction -- mostly because I went into it with an overwhelming idea of what it should be, and it wasn't. My fault, not the book's.)

"The tradition of the American short story" and "the niche of futuristic fantasy" are not mutually exclusive gated communities, as George Saunders's work certainly demonstrates. It is a shame to neglect a lot of writers who came before him, however, and who wrote stories at least the equal of his, just because he's safe to discuss at cocktail parties of the literati. Saunders is, in many ways, a great 1950s science fiction writer who happens to be publishing in the New Yorker fifty years after he could have appeared in Galaxy alongside his contemporaries: Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, and (well, a little later) R.A. Lafferty.