The Moment of License
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
Magic realism is not weird or even that interesting
I am especially susceptible to the evil poison of the mechanical university system that is making bank on creative suckers like me. Why? Because of all genres I took to as an early writer, it had to be magic realism. How did I manage to choose the most trendy genre to be interested in, barring some blend of absurdism and meta-fiction and blasé storytelling that focuses on the African American lesbian protagonist’s rough interaction in the grocery story with an old white man who said the wrong but funny thing? Oh we really can all get along in this mean world that hates being nice, can’t we?
I managed to choose it, because for the longest time my greatest point of pride in writing was my ability to ignore how everyone else thinks about writing and does writing and seeks to gain from writing. There’s the Scylla of the Myth of the Christian Writer and the Charybdis of Playing the Culture Fiddle. The first is a ghetto which requires you to be a brand of shiny and the other is a babylonian beast looking for the next experiment or technique or voice or style.
How did my willingness to ignore both camps lead me to inspect the catchiest, jangliest jewel of all currently being devoured by the American champions of the weird and novel? Because I had my own idea about magic realism. I used and abused the term, defined it in my own way, to break new ground for myself. I used the term to provide myself with license to write in traditional forms of fable.
And maybe this sounds wrong in your ear holes, but the only being that can give you license to write is yourself and the only being worth guiding the morality of your writing is God. But as it stands, the various camps of elite—however much I might be setting up strawmen here to lob darts at—believe they hold the keys to license. Christian elite say you cannot be too weird and the Creative Factory Elite say that you need to be original. The problem is that no one knows what they mean by weird or what they mean by original.
The aesthetic compass for so many people is guided by reactionary impulses and all this does is make the literary moment the rediscovery of license to write in traditional forms. This is all very abstract, so let me give you an example. The example I am about to give does not entirely map onto this dichotomy between Christian Cultural Camps and Creative Factory Programs.
Kafka isn’t that weird or interesting, either
Take Franz Kafka who is so often praised by intellectuals and original thinkers and the mainstream counterculture. Why is he so liked so much? Why is he lumped in the same group as writers who were talented? James Joyce knew how to write good short stories. One of the reasons Dubliners is so good is because James Joyce observed people and recorded his observations honestly.
One of the reasons why Kafka is so ungood is because he does not maintain the images in his stories with fitting descriptions. In Description of a Struggle, which is one of the worst short stories I have ever read, you find that his inability to describe action is one of the factors that motivates his move to the weird. Weird things happen in Description of a Struggle, because Kafka doesn’t know how to render normal actions. The reason he has the protagonist swim through the pavement, and this is an assertion, is not because he thought, “Oh I know how to make this story seem dreamlike.” He thought, “That would be funny.” And it is Kafka, it is. But had your protagonist not swoommed through the pavement, would you have been able to make him act like a real person?
Further evidence for the fact that Kafka didn’t really know how to write is the dialog in his short stories, which can go on and on. Not in a Dostoevsky-bountifully-voiced way (which has its limits). His dialog goes on and on, because he gets into that natural flow of writing dialog which is the result of license. There is a license that comes naturally to writing dialog, because the excess of words does not come from the author himself. That would seem like a vice, no, the excess of words is coming from the character. This one step of removal provides the author with an excuse to not trim the fat. And this is fine; literature is full of rambling characters and so are essays like this one.
The problem is when the dialog becomes nothing but pure exposition devoid of any voiced character. You can see this in The Village Schoolmaster. The dialog between the village schoolmaster and the main character is not alive with distinct voice. It’s only alive with Kafka’s desire to talk about a story instead of actually writing a story.
Now of course this might be the result of translation errors and I’ve read somewhere that Kafka is hard to translate. I’m fine with saying that. I also have to say that I have read both his unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle. There is one scene in The Trial that made me laugh out loud. I would like to go back and read it in order to verify my opinion that it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
The problem is that I read these two novels and The Metamorphoses years ago when I was trying very hard to like Kafka and be cool. So I don’t know how good those novels are. I do remember that, barring a few very funny scenes in both, they were slogs that literally did not go anywhere. Kafka should have been a standup comedian. He would have been better suited to it than long form prose. He has these one-off mental images that are hilarious. Even Description of a Struggle has a moment like this. The way he describes a naked fat man who scrunches his face in concentration is great. Yet amusing descriptions here and there don’t make a story.
I am also fine with saying that these stories are immature and that his best stories, like In the Penal Colony, are the ones to be scrutinized. Very well. But since I have rambled for a long time about it, I’ll just take one shot at In the Penal Colony, which only seems to be liked because it’s enigmatic enough to be interpreted broadly and has obvious anti-Jesus undertones. That is not what makes it bad, though. What makes it bad is that it could have, strengthening its parabolic quality, been much shorter.
In my opinion, Kafka does not do a great job of describing the actual torture device. Maybe it’s because I’m bad at reading and maybe it’s the translation, but the placement of the glass in relation to the needles is especially open to interpretation. And since the story all hinges on being able to visualize this machine, that is hardly a virtue.
I walked through just a few things here to point out that at the very least, Kafka was not a master of storytelling and he never became a master of storytelling. His best stuff succeeds only when he has a powerful enough mental image of humorous interactions and his worst stuff shows you the immature impulses that he never really overcame.
Kafka himself did not think his stuff was worth saving or keeping. He told his best friend, Max Brod, to burn it all and if he were to save any stories, he should only save about five. I think Kafka was right. He only wrote about five short stories that are okay enough to read. But why do we disagree with Kafka’s own assessment of himself and against his wishes read and love his writing? Because he gives us license.
The literary moment is often the rediscovery of something old
The mascot of magic realism, Gabriel Marquez, famously said that The Metamorphoses showed him that you could write in a different way. Kafka gave Marquez license to write fables at a time when the best and most famous writers did not write fables. The best and most famous writers wrote experiments in technique rooted in “realistic” metaphysics. Consider and ponder these names: James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust.
I bet you anything that Marquez had authors like these in mind when he said that about Kafka. Why? Because if Kafka wrote in a different way, that meant that he had to be writing in a way no one else wrote. Of that list above, there is historical proof for Marquez interacting with William Faulkner’s writing. Undoubtedly he was aware that modern novelists were tinkerers of form and that Kafka was not.
My point in all this is to show that Kafka is famous, because he gave license to write in a way that was decidedly not in vogue for modern literature. He did not tinker with form. He struggled to achieve stories that had very much form at all. But Kafka’s goal, his target, was to write fables. Each and every story he wrote could be categorized as a fable. In fables, it is okay for a person to turn into an ungeziefer and for there to be giant moles and for all the characters to be titled instead of having proper names.
Kafka is considered a literary moment. He is considered a literary moment, because he gave license to write in a reaction against the trends at the time. While he cannot be credited with the invention of magic realism, he can be considered an inspiration to Marquez who helped define South American magic realism. The genre Marquez wrote in, however, was not new. The only reason his stories are tagged magic realism is because at the time the only literature getting written was wooden-worded realism.
The only reason wooden-worded realism was getting written, too, was because philosophy and the entire world was deeply skeptical of language and its apparent artifice. So in an attempt to be honest and real, authors tried peeling back the artifice of language and to mistrust their own tool. Literary juggernauts were juggernauts because they played with their food. At least Kafka had the innocence and sincerity to tell the stories that compelled him, instead of constantly trying to rip the rug from under his own feet.
But I hope you see that the Kafka was not doing anything new. He was just telling stories with traditional premises and seeking to find the significance in the conclusions he came to about them.
Why do we tell stories in different genres?
We should make an important distinction for posterity: Kafka is not a surrealist. Surreal things happen in his stories, but the end goal of his stories is not to replicate the quality of dreams. For a further discussion of the distinction of fantasy and surrealism, you can read about why I (used to) dislike writing fantasy. I’d like to say more on the subject of surrealism and its distinction between fantasy (or the telling of fables) in the future. All I’ll say for now is that I am under the firm belief that surrealism is primarily a genre for the amusement of the senses, while fantasy (and the telling of fables) is a genre for the consideration of the reason.
The goal for all stories, whether surreal or fantastical, is to provide answers where questions were previously. We read stories and we read fiction to better interface with reality. Storytelling is merely a mental process we boot up like we might boot up an argumentative essay. Hopefully the story spits us out at the end more willing and able to love the world for how it is. The difference between the process of fiction and the process of setting up arguments is that one is generated by the faculty of the imagination while the other is generated by the faculty of reason. Endurance in imagination looks different than endurance in making arguments.
For example, I am making arguments in this essay I have been writing and that takes a kind of flight—but the flight I take in my imagination when I write fiction is a very different kind of flight. It is the same for you as the reader. While this essay might tire out one part of your brain and the spiritual thoughts which are correspondent to certain synapses firing, it will not tire out your use of imagination. In fact, going and reading a story after this essay (or in my case, writing one because I have to) will be a relief.
That does not mean that there is any inconsistency when I say that some genres of fiction are more for reason than others. That relates to the end goal of story. The end goal of a fable or a fantasy is to give us something to think about. The end goal of a surreal story is to give us something to see and carry with us regardless of meaning or moral.
As it is now, I will leave aside any discussion of the French surrealists, even though I am about to mention four French writers before the era of tinkerers I partially blame for the burial of fable. Mentioning the surrealism that rose at the same time as the tinkering would be a different inspection. My hunch is that surrealism is also a kind of tinkering that is not wholly sold on the sincerity required to tell a plot that is downright Aristotelian. Side-note: the license for making these grand sweeping claims, even if I am wrong, is because every generation reads and interacts with the generation before it. I hope you don’t need evidence for that.
Why do we doubt certain genres?
All that cynicism about language and snobbery in the early twentieth century, I’d wager, is partially because of the generations of literarists before it like Flaubert, Maupassant, Balzac, Zola, and Chekhov. Emile Zola is the worst offender who dubbed his own genre “naturalism.” This naturalism shares a lot of the DNA of much of the other genre authors that were writing at the time: the deliberate attempt to avoid dishonest language. This was good and bad. I guess we can call that realism—or what I like to call, boring and silly.
Zola, who I will take to be the mascot of this bunch, wanted to render reality as closely as possible in fiction, because he recognized that so many stories twist reality to their own end. So many stories show unbelievable things happening in order to make moral points. Maybe Zola did not have these in mind, but for our purposes you can think of children’s bedtime stories. In a children’s bedtime story, when a butterfly dies the whole world really can go to pieces.
But is this rEaLiStIc? NO! Shame! Shame-shame-bad! No! We must depict reality as it is in full detail and color, we must tell stories that really happen to people! We must be as distant as possible and keep our grubby fingers off the fictional process. We must be like a camera on the back of our characters and follow them around to see what they do! Because so often, we turn real people into mere caricatures and into what we want (psst, this means that the fictional process ends up sucking).
As a result, we shall tell stories that go nowhere—but at least they’re realistic! And we shall describe the opera house and how the people enter into it for an entire chapter—but at least it’s vivid! And we shall watch as our characters poop on the toilets—at least they’re human!
This obsession with showing reality as much as possible, like the world’s worst photographer, began that whole concern with language and whether or not the artist is a liar. They did not yet believe that the artist was a liar like the modern novelists did, but they did believe that he could easily become one, so they strived hard not to lie. Zola did not realize that by his own definitions, he was lying.
Zola’s terrible novel, Nana, is deliberately a fictional process Zola was running to see what kind of human nature this character and the nation at the time had. But in order to do that, Zola had to invent the character of Nana. You cannot write fiction and try as hard as you can to be as realistic as reality itself, because fiction is not realistic.
I forgot where I was going with all this
The success of fiction hinges on how much an author trusts the imagination to be a given thing for producing illusions in the mind. Zola could not have chosen a worse artistic form to show reality, because the imagination does not work how he’d like it to. It’s much more powerful. You don’t need an entire chapter to describe an opera house. The imagination is so powerful that all you need is one or two fitting descriptions. And although the first reason for these descriptions is to tease the imagination, we actually choose what descriptions based on how these descriptions interweave the fabric of subconscious connections being made by the reader. We choose to make the opera house look one way or another, depending on the needs of the story. What artifice.
I’m not describing this as lucidly as I had wished so I should probably stop, but I hope you see my point. There is nothing realistic, in the way that paintings are either realistic or unrealistic, about the imagination. Verisimilitude is better achieved by physical media.
I just got an email in my inbox from Submittable that demonstrates my earlier point about the world’s desire for the novel. Submittable is a very popular platform for submitting works of fiction and poetry and other schlock to literary magazines no one reads around the country. The title of this email was “Eccentric: And Why Not?”
And this is the main point I have been driving at. The whole world tells us what fiction is and is not, but this is the jostle of generations. Right now, there is the desire for the eccentric and weird and novel and voice of diversity. Meanwhile, Christians desire a culture warrior who will hold the sword of only certain kinds of fantasy approved by local church governments.
Avoid the jostle
See that there is nothing new under the sun, that what is uncool now will be cool tomorrow, and that the only reason to write fiction is to get answers you can’t get any other way but by making those imaginative connections between two unlike things being likened. Ultimately, the greatest unlikes are likened through fiction: our picture of the world and the world itself. This is a unifying relationship that brings us closer to the world and this is why the imagination and its use is very much a moral exercise.
We use our imagination in order to get a better picture of the world. This is not accomplished, like Zola thought, through words themselves. It is accomplished by the imagination as-teased-by words. It is through the imagination that we see the world better, but only the person who believes there is a world to see can use it like this.
Some people believe that we make our own worlds through language and fiction, that we tell ourselves stories. And in part, this is true. But we do not tell ourselves stories in order to escape from reality. We tell ourselves stories so we can break out of our false expectations of what the world is and to see what necessarily rises out of tragedy.