The funny thing is, there is no way I could really define literary magical realism, at least not in any way that could give it justice. So I’ll let someone else do it better, contrasting magical realism with fantasy.
Lyra Selene, Spellbound Scribes:
“In traditional fantasy, the author presents a whole new universe to the reader, complete with a system of logic, physical laws and metaphysical laws that must be followed. … In magical realism, however, magical elements blend with reality to create an atmosphere that is at once familiar and nonsensical, in an effort to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are presented in a straightforward manner with no effort made to explain how they could be occurring in the “real” world.”
It’s hard to say who really started the trend for magical realism in literature. Names stand out: Gabriel García Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Alice Hoffman, Rudolfo Anaya, among others.
What’s interesting about this genre is that at times it can be so vaguely defined that it’s pretty much a blank check to write whatever you want. I mean, take a story like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. While Kafka wasn’t a magical realism author per se, it’s hard to consider that story “I woke up, now I’m a cockroach instead of a man” as anything that would land outside that weird zone between the fantastical and the real. In a similar case, in Sandra Cisneros’ Zapata’s Eyes, the main character turns into a guardian owl.
I think there is a certain liberating quality to writing magic realism. As writers, it’s basically, carte blanche, go nuts, kid. As a writer who hovers between Raymond Carveresque realism and Sandra Cisneros’ style magical realism, I never know where a story can take me when I start writing. One of my forthcoming pieces started out as autobiographical fiction, turned into literary fiction, and when I was done, I realized it had morphed secretly into magical realism. No idea how. But it worked!
If you’re going to look into getting into magical realism, one contemporary writer I would recommend is Neil Gaiman. Some people consider him more genre than anything, but I completely disagree, there’s plenty of material in his work to consider him as much of a magical realism author as Marquez. His short stories are amazing and American Gods is a must-read.
For more “classical” writers, you can’t go wrong with García Marquez. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, like Selene writes in her piece cited above, there’s “ghosts, heavenly ascensions, insomnia plagues, telekinesis, prophecies and family members returning from the dead”
Magical realism is weird, but it’s awesome!