Jennifer Mattson on Magic Realism

Jennifer Mattson, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, agreed to answer our burning questions about the elusive genre known as magic realism. Prior to becoming a literary agent, Jennifer worked as an editor for Booklist and as an associate editor at Dutton Children’s Books. Here’s what she had to say about magic realism.books

What exactly is magic realism?

I think magic realism is still a gray area, especially in children’s literature where it is a newer trend – many people would categorize novels with magical realistic elements as fantasy, plain and simple, and vice versa.  For my part, I think of magic realism as a subset of fantasy, and a magical realistic novel as one in which magical elements intrude, almost matter-of-factly, into a basically realistic setup, informing the novel’s various elements in a natural way rather than totally redirecting them.  I also think of the magic as being very gentle and often surreal – nothing “high fantasy” (wizardly bolts, vampires, et cetera) about it.

Can you give some examples from books or movies?

Of course, the typical examples hail from the adult literary marketplace, and especially from the Latin American authors who are thought to have coined the genre:  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Laura Esquivel (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE).  A terrific kids’-book example is Kate diCamillo’s BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, in which the very down-to-earth setting and situations are magically affected by the librarian’s gently magical Litmus Lozenges. Another typical example would be Louis Sachar’s HOLES:  the kids’ detention camp is very realistic, and the kids’ problems and personalities equally so, but the novel’s emphasis on near-surreal serendipity and coincidence lifts this into magic realism.  On the YA side, Francesca Lia Block’s novels are good examples.

What age group do see magic realism working best for? MG, YA, tween?

Hm. That’s a tough question.  This is just a total off-the-top-of-the-head theory, but perhaps younger (tween/mg) novel readers are more flexible in their literary tastes and categorizations and therefore more open to things (like magic realism) that are a bit ambiguous.  YAs tend to be more literalist:  if they want realistic, they want realistic; and if they’re fantasy buffs, they want fantasy.  That’s not to say that someone couldn’t write a spectacular magical realistic YA (see Francesca Lia Block, above), just that the bar might be set a little higher.

Why do you think magic realism would do well in today’s market?

There is a glut of fantasy (especially, of course, urban/dark romantic fantasy – !) right now, and editors, while they can ride the wave to a certain extent, are having to be extremely picky about it. And, since they are always looking for something a little different, something that might be the next big thing, a genre like magic realism could potentially catch editors’ eyes, since it offers a frisson of fantasy without risking groans of “Oh, not another fairy/vampire/wizard book.”

Here’s Jennifer’s own question for you:  Before I worked at BOOKLIST, my job previous to agenting, I always called this literary style “magical realism.”  But everyone at BOOKLIST called it “magic realism.”  Which term do you use?

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse is still not sure whether to say “magic” or “magical.”

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25 responses to “Jennifer Mattson on Magic Realism

  1. It does seem like a hard genre to get my mind around. I googled some more on it, and one book it listed as an example was James and the Giant Peach.

    I found this website which has a list of kidlit Magic Realism books:

    For whatever reason, I’ve read very few on the list. How about you guys?

    As for Magic vs. Magical, Magical Realism seems to be the term I’ve heard more.

  2. Oh, yes . . . that totally threw me off. I am currently working on a YA “magic realism” manuscript but have always called it “magical realism.” I love Francesca Lia Block (as well as all the adult literary authors you mentioned). Great post!

  3. Parker Peevyhouse

    PJ: Thanks for the link. I noticed that a lot of the books listed seem to be “tween” books.

    Elise: I will now refer to it as “magical realism” whenever I’m talking to you :)

  4. Magical realism is what I’ve always used. I sort of backed into writing it, but I’ve always loved stories that seem to take place in our “normal” world, then surprise us with that touch of magic.

  5. Salman Rushdie on Charlie Rose said that magic realism was arriving at truth by other means … people define it in so many ways.

  6. Parker Peevyhouse

    CLM: isn’t the surprise always the best part? Surprises are what I love about speculative fiction.

    Nandini: Thanks for that fascinating quote.

  7. I call it Magic Realism. Sometimes I say Urban Fantasy since that fits Charles DeLints’s BLUE GIRL. I find I prefer the books that are set in the real world but have some element of magic or supernatural. Like I recently read THE DUST OF 100 DOGS and the reincarnation from a pirate to dogs to a teen was really enjoyable and I wouldn’t fall it fantasy. So Magic Realism fits better.

    I’m not sure what to call my own DEAD GIRL series with a contemporary setting with some characters from the “other side.” Sometimes I just say it’s “Paranormal YA.”

    Glad to hear a discussion on this. Hope you figure it out.

  8. Megan

    Thanks for posing the link, P.J. I found some very well known titles on that magical realism list. I do love that genre, subtle as it is, so I’m going to be checking out less familiar titles that were listed.

    # Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. [9-12]
    # Banks, Lynn Reid. The Indian in the Cupboard. [9-12]
    #Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. [9-12]
    # Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach. [9-12]
    # Dicamillo, Kate. Because of Winn Dixie. [9-12]
    #Fry, Rosalie. The Secret of Roan Inish. [9-12]
    # Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill. [9-12]
    # Spinelli, Jerry. The Library Card [9-12]; Maniac Magee. [YA]

  9. Megan

    Oops, I just noticed that there is a copyright on that list. Maybe the selected titles I pulled out of it need to be removed? I can’t edit my post just above this one. Sorry, to the moderator if I violated a copyright. I was a little too eager to give more illustrations of magical realism in children’s books.

  10. Megan: I think you’re okay with copyright and fair use.

    I’ve always thought of magical realism as a reaction to more escapist types of fantasy–bring the story back to the real world and just sprinkle in a little bit of magic as a spice.

    I call Penguins of Doom a “magical surrealism” story because the magic can be random and unexpected at times.

  11. dott pascoe

    Interesting to read the posts on magic realism – here’s my contribution.

    Magic realism was the term coined by Franz Roh in the 1920s, to describe a new style of painting. The term crossed into literature. However, magical realism is used interchangeably.

    After reading and studying MR for some time, I’ve found that the definition (cloudy as it is) varies from country to country. The USA tends to call any writing that deviates from realism, ‘magic realism’. But, in the world literature mode, MR is not a subset of fantasy, but literature that exposes the underlying reality that makes various cultures what they are.

    For example, if you look at the writing of Salman Rushdie, particularly Midnight’s Children, you’ll see that the ‘magic’ bits are already part of the culture of the sub-continent. They’re not bits of fantasy that are not related to that culture, tacked on for effect.

    And for the book I’ve just read, by the Australian writer Glenda Guest, the same thing is seen. The ‘magic’ is not tricks and add-ons, but exposures of the Australian culture, as seen through the eyes of European-Australians.

    Hope this helps a bit.

  12. Parker Peevyhouse

    Dott, that’s very interesting. Thanks for sharing all of that!

  13. bilks

    I’d like to echo Dott’s comments and add a little to them. True magic realism for me is not only true to the cultural traditions of the novels setting, it also reveals the beliefs and worldview of the characters themselves.

    For example, many people in the world believe in ghosts in some form or another and this belief is so powerful that the believer will actually interpret many real events in their lives as being supernatural in origin. Magic Realism strives to represent that world view – a view that is unreal to a sceptic like me but which is indisputably true for the character themselves. These beliefs are a product of ones culture and therefore, by faithfully representing a characters beliefs and word view, an author will simultaneously be true to the cutlural background of that character.

    This is where I feel Magic Realism differs from fantasy or science fiction because the authors intends to create entirely new worlds, either fantastic or futuristic, which nevertheless would not be considered to be ‘real’ by anyone.

  14. dott pascoe

    Yes, just so Bilks.

    And, I must also comment on the list from the magic realism page – most of these aren’t magic realism, but fantasy. Not the world-changed into another world type fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless. The ‘magical’ things that happen don’t stem from a reality, but are fun things to amuse children – and that’s a really really good thing, but not MR.

    The magic realism page is a really good resource, and anyone can add to the lists of books. But again, much is subjective about this.

    MR is a fascinating and engrossing world literature mode – it’s generally associated in some way with post-colonialism.

    cheers – Dott

  15. Appreciate the well-informed and clear explanation of MR. It helped clarify that genre for me.

    Thanks, C. Lee

  16. Jennifer Mattson

    So thrilled to see such an interesting discussion stemming from the magical realism post (“magical realism” being my preferred term as well). I agree that many of the lists one can find on-line (like the one including JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) are not what I would consider magical realism.

    The clarifications the broader genre, especially its origins in cultural traditions that have a more permeable membrane between real and spirit worlds, were a help to me as well: thanks, bilks and dott!

  17. dott pascoe

    glad the discussion has been useful – MR is such a nebulous mode (note, not genre) that it generates sometimes very passionate responses in discussion.

    cheers – DP

  18. Sarah Justesen

    100 Years of Solitude… / Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    quintessentially MR…

  19. jeffrey

    magic realism is the term coined by franz roh in 1925 to describe the new style of painting in the weimar republic. roh closely relates it to post-expressionism.

    magical realism describes fiction in which extraordinary events are treated as commonplace. in other words, a priest levitating after drinking hot chocolate is totally believable in magical realist fiction. witnesses react to these occurrences in a matter-of-fact sort of way, which contributes to their believability, hence the realism side of it.

    i hope this helps. jeffrey

  20. Pingback: Reading YA: Magic Realism–What It Is & Why It Matters | *Insert Literary Blog Name Here*

  21. Very lovely. Thanks for the good information!

  22. Well, I’ve been searching for an agent with terms like: adventure, mystery, twist of supernatural… turns out my story is Magic Realism. New query time.

  23. ab

    Do the books by Paulo Coelho fall into this category?

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