Friday, July 26, 2013

Urban Fantasy vs. Magical Realism

So , after some rumination (or perhaps stewing; I didn't really assign much conscious thought time to this. It bubbled to the surface the other day) I've realized that I might need to question the genre of my CampNaNoWriMo project, The Last Song. I've been calling it Urban Fantasy, which is probably appropriate. It takes place in Detroit (or a Detroit of my making, anyway) and fantastic things happen that the main character questions the reality of.

But does "Urban Fantasy" just mean vampires and werewolves (and, by the by, other than in the World of Darkness and D&D context, I still have not written vampires. I might keep it that way) and other shapeshifters and fairies and things? Does Urban Fantasy cover fantasy things that happen, just in a modern context (it is evidently also called "Modern Fantasy", so yes).

So what is Magical Realism, then? Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the example author I see bandied around in this realm (and if you haven't read "A Very Old Man With Gigantic Wings", you should). Also movies like Pan's Labyrinth (which, arguably, was horror as well).

TV Tropes is a great website to reference for this sort of question, and covers more than TV or else I wouldn't be talking about it here in this context. From the TV Tropes article:

Magical realism is often intentionally vague, and (as in Kafka's The Metamorphosis) it can be hard to determine if the protagonist actually is experiencing magical phenomena, or if he's just going insane.
 Which is actually a rather good description of The Last Song. Also of things like American Gods, Alice in Wonderland, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Are all of these books Magical Realism? Allegory? Are any of them Urban Fantasy?

Of course, Urban Fantasy also suggests, well, an urban environment. Like Detroit, so I'm cool with The Last Song (though I'm really thinking perhaps it's more Magical Realism as of this nanosecond). But what about Learn to Howl and its unfinished sequel which takes place largely on the road in the American South? And when it isn't on the road, it's at a deliberate remove from society, or grudgingly in suburbs? Is that no longer Urban Fantasy? It's certainly modern.

There's the broader umbrella of Speculative Fiction, which would cover Science Fiction, Fantasy (so all flavors thereof), etc. etc. but I noticed somebody on Absolute Write saying that was a derogatory term and that some people still take offense to it. Well. Apparently there's also Extruded Fantasy Product, which I literally never heard of until I Googled "speculative fantasy derogatory" or some such word salad. Now that, that sounds derogatory. Extruded. Really, a lot of people turn their noses up when they hear about "genre" of any stripe (meaning anything other than reality,  I guess, but Jesus Christ the things some of them read regularly instead. Seriously. I see it almost every day at the library and it's hard to keep my mouth shut sometimes), so calling something speculative, to me, isn't an insult. It just means....not real? Perhaps something between the cracks, a little harder to define?

It's interesting, trying to box oneself in. Necessary, if you're, say, pitching to an agent. It's nice to know what your market is supposed to be. Comparative titles. Things like that. At least I know that, while "paranormal" might be all right (and "supernatural"), romance is probably never going to be there. I had an idea for it, sure, and it never left its first page. So, is it better for me to "rebrand" as a Magical Realism writer? Does it matter to, well, anybody? I mean, it doesn't right this second. But which pair of words can make or break a career? Can they? I obviously don't want people to assume I've written anything like Twilight, or Harry Potter. I mean, sure, I'd like piles of money to roll in. But my books are not those books. A few steps removed, perhaps, elements thereof.

But to me, my comparative titles are far more things like American Gods (which, among all the other things it was, was also a Road Trip novel). Alice in Wonderland. Maybe a little bit of The Haunting of Hill House. It's a patchwork, it's a grab bag. I've got so many influences, so much literature that I draw upon and revere.


  1. I suggest you start with the books you feel it's like, find out what genre-box they've been classified as (especially as far as agents are concerned), pitch your book to agents who cover those genres with the "my book is like American Gods meets... etc" and let them tell you how they feel you should brand yourself. It will change according to what's selling and urban fantasy has a habit of being cross-genre in general so you can pitch the same book multiple ways and they'd all be true.
    Re magical realism, I'd look more at your writing style; is yours more literary or more contemporary/immediate and possibly action based? More literary will let you sell it as magical realism (maybe - people are weird about that genre, which is bizarre to me), but note American Gods doesn't sit well in the magic realism genre either (despite the fact that I agree with you - it definitely harks toward MR)
    I would worry about specific branding after you start working with an agent. While many people think UF is just vamps and weres it's not that at all, though it includes/makes room for them. Go look at where the novels you feel are like yours are shelved, take a look at how they're marketed and take your cue from there. it sounds like you'll definitely be in the SF section but you'd be surprised how many books there are double shelved in the literary section too (or maybe you wouldn't ;) ). Go with what feels true for you and your book/s for now, then when things get serious with an agent, talk with them about pinning down your niche and branding yourself more specifically then.
    Sounds pretty wonderful no matter which way you go so trust yourself, trust your book and trust the agent who loves it as it already is (although they will work with you on improving, they should love it's heart already). Good luck!

    1. Thanks very much for your thoughtful and involved reply!

      People certainly are weird about the "magical realism" genre; on one hand, I've seen it described as literary fiction's way of squeezing fantasy in. Other times, I've seen people seem very defensive and proprietary about things.

      I'm not sure that my writing is "literary" necessarily, though I'd sure like it to be sometimes. Practice, practice.

      Thank you again!

  2. I'm with you on this issue. All I want to do is crawl under a blanket and have some professional decide what my MS is for me. It's definitely speculative fiction. I say it's dystopian. Then there's parallel reality (it doesn't take place in our world, but one much like it to avoid pissing people off). What do you do? What does this say about us as writers? Crap. :/

    1. It is tough, and it is discouraging. Remember the days when you thought writing the book was the hard part? I do. (not that it's "easy" now, but then there's the query letter and and and)