Friday, 8 August 2014

Labelling Magic Realism - The Discussion Continues

This discussion started with Leigh Podgorski's post and contribution to the bloghop and was followed up by a response from Cadell Blackstock.

Cadell picked up on the following comment in Leigh's post:
In today’s literary marketplace it seems at times that it is all about the label—though in truth, Magic Realism does not seem to entice anyone to pounce upon the BUY NOW button.”

This is something that, as a writer of magic realism and owner of a blog about it, I think about a lot. I think about as I read a book of magic realism each week. I have said before that I don't think magic realism is category or a genre or even a label. That is why we writers have so much trouble when we try to choose a category, subcategory or genre for our books in Amazon Store or wherever. I would argue that magic realism is an approach to the portrayal of a fictional world and even to looking at the real world. It is not a genre governed by rules.

Inspired by the two blogposts I decided I would examine whether Leigh is right in her assertion. To get a feel for how readers looked at magic realist books, I looked up the books I have reviewed over the last year on Goodreads and in particular looked at how people tagged the books.  

I looked at what tag got the most votes and where magic realism stood in the tags if at all. The reason for this is that 
a) Goodreads tags are chosen by the readers and are not restricted by arbitrary categories,
b)  the tags are how people shelve their books on Goodreads, which suggests that if they use the magic realism tag it probably means something to them,
c) now that Goodreads is owned by Amazon it is likely that it will start impacting on how books are found on Amazon.

I only feature here those books which had over a thousand star ratings, as this ensured that the number of tags were sufficient to get a meaningful result. I excluded a few books which I had reviewed but had doubts about whether they were magic realist. 

I intend, when I have time, to examine all the books on the blog that meet the criteria, which will give a more accurate picture. But here are the results with top tags in order of popularity for those I have examined so far:

The Master and Margarita - Classics (1581) Culture Russia (847) Fantasy (589) Literature Russian (423) Literature (342) Magic Realism (295)
Grass Dancer - Historical Fiction (15 ), Magic Realism (10) Fantasy (8) Literature (7) Literature American (4)
Magic for Beginners - Short Stories (358) Fantasy (347) Magic Realism (48) Urban Fantasy (26) Anthologies (23)
So Far From God - Magic Realism (23) Feminist (7) Contemporary (7) Literature (7) Novels (4)
St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves - Short Stories (537) Fantasy (114), Magic Realism (81) Book Club (32) Adult (22)
Skellig - Fantasy (325) Young Adult (324) Children's (102) Children's Middle Grade (47 Magic Realism (38)
Museum of Extraordinary Things - Historical Fiction (301) Book Club (73), Fantasy (62) Magic Realism (35) Adult (34)
The House at the End of Hope Street - Fantasy (40) Magic Realism (40) Book Club (11) Adult (11) Adult Fiction (11)
Big Fish - Fantasy (148) Magic Realism (46) Contemporary (29) Adult (22) Humour (21)
Burning Angel - Mystery (75) Mystery Crime (25), Thriller (14) Mystery Thriller (12) Suspense (4)
The Taste of Apple Seeds - Contempory (21 ) German Literature (20 ) Roman (5), Romance (5) Women's Fiction (4) 
The Kingdom of This World - Historical Fiction (33) Magic Realism (30) Spanish Literature (14) Literature (14) Latin American Literature (13)
I Heard an Owl Call My Name - Young Adult (35) Classics (31) Historic (25) Religion (13) Canada (12)
The Woman in the Dunes - Cultural Japan (185) Japanese Literature (149) Literature (60) Classic (57) Novel (38) Magic Realism (32)
The People of Paper - Magic Realism (26) Novel (19) Fantasy (16) Book Club (15) Contemporary (11)
Death at Intervals - Fantasy (80) Literature (55) Magic Realism (46) Novel (40) Cultural Portugal (36)

I was surprised by the results - magic realism features prominently as a tag. Some of the books had dozens of different tags and yet magic realism is often in the top 5 tags. The exceptions are three books where the magic realism is peripheral.

Now this result might be partly because I use the Goodreads Magic Realism lists to identify books, but the lists are generated by Goodreads members voting for their favourites, not by the tagging system. Nevertheless there are lots of Goodreads members with a magic realism bookshelf. I have not had time to look deeper into this or to consider the results fully, but it does appear that Leigh was perhaps too pessimistic about magic realism as a label.

Looking at the other tags most used for the 16 books on my list, 10 were also tagged fantasy, 7 were tagged literature, 4 historic fiction. 4 were tagged contemporary. Of the 13 books which were tagged magic realism, 10 were tagged fantasy, 6 literature, and 3 historic fiction.

So how does this information impact on how an author of magic realism might approach categorizing his/her work? I was surprised that the tag "literary fiction" didn't feature in the top tags even though it is relevant to many of the books listed and there are 184,515 books with that tag on Goodreads and only 2322 with "magic realism".  It would seem that the best choice of category for magic realism as fantasy, indeed even where the highest number of tags were for historical,  the readers were still tagging the books as fantasy.

But how should writers of magic realism use the labels?  Amazon and other online vendors don't offer magic realism as a category, so you must choose an appropriate Amazon category. On Amazon self-published authors can choose two categories for their kindle books. Even if your first choice is historic fiction or literary fiction, it would seem you should probably choose fantasy as your second. But it is probably worth using the label "magic realism" somewhere. You could the words "magic realism" or "magic realist" in your description, which a) means Amazon picks up that the book is magic realism and should list it when someone searches for the term and b) it explains your approach to fantasy or historic fiction etc thus ensuring that those readers who don't want magic realism don't buy the book.  



Jenny Woolf said...

This is very interesting, and thanks for doing all this research. I was looking for a search box on your blog - I was wondering if you'd said anything about Audrey Niffinegger

Zoe Brooks said...

I have yet to review a Niffinegger book. So many yet to read - my tbr list will last several years and it is being added to all the time.