Stories, it has been said, are both true and untrue. This is the case with realistic fiction as well as with genres like sci-fi, fantasy or magical realism. Yet the latter’s speculative or fabulous elements are often singled out as making them distinct from naturalistic fiction.
In an era of concerns about untruths in society, including the proliferation of fake news and public figures like Donald Trump who tell compulsive lies, is there any reason to be more wary of fiction with speculative or ‘untrue’ elements? Or does this still have an important role in storytelling?
Fiction with fabulous elements has an infinitely longer history than realistic fiction, from the monsters of ancient myth, to the magic lamps of fairy tales, to the Lilliputians of Johnathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, to the daemons of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Clearly, literature with fabulous aspects appeals to something deep within human beings, but what?
Firstly, it gives pleasure. ‘There is more bliss in describing the origin of the giants than in describing court etiquette,’said the ancient philosopher Paracelsus. Much more recently, in an interview with me in Serendipity, the Canadian novelist Gail Anderson Dagartz observed: ‘what drew me to magic realism is the fun. Who doesn’t like the chill of seeing a ghost… The wonder of flowers falling from the sky?’
Fabulous stories meet human needs beyond pleasure, though. For one thing, they draw on, or speak to, depth psychology – the research and study of the unconscious. Fairy tales, for instance, have a dream-like logic – with their dark forests and gleaming palaces, crystal slippers and wish-granting fairies, they almost seem cast in the language of the unconscious. In his influential book The Uses of Enchantment (1979), Bruno Bettleheim drew on psychoanalytic ideas to argue that fairy tales provide an outlet for feelings of anxiety, anger and guilt in children; these tales literally depict scenarios of abandonment, powerlessness and sibling rivalry. Such stories, he argued, enable children to work through their tricky emotions about the adult world.
The magical realist writer Angela Carter enjoyed retelling fairy tales precisely because they don’t document the ordinary world in a simple way but trade in the language of the unconscious. In The Bloody Chamber (1979), she rewrote fairy tales such as Bluebeard and Snow White in stylish prose, bringing out their latent erotic content and giving them a sharp feminist slant. Her heroines are cunning and clever and act to fulfil their desires. In the ‘Appendix’ to Burning Your Boats, Carter insisted she herself wrote ‘tales’: ‘Formally, the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretences at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience’ (1996, p.459). Symbols recur in her works – mirrors, doubles, beasts – which address a realm beyond appearance.
In the 20th century, psychoanalytic ideas also informed untruths in the political sphere, but in a very different way. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, saw the power of propaganda during World War I and set about using it in the US to sell products and manage the images of politicians during peacetime. He drew on Freudian ideas and renamed propaganda as ‘public relations’. His influential ideas about this subject, later to inspire the Nazis, involved deliberately manipulating the public without them being aware of it, for political or commercial ends. The simple narratives or associations used were intended to appeal not to the rational part of the mind, but to unconscious desires – so US women were persuaded to take up smoking through having female fashion icons flaunt their ‘torches of freedom’. This manipulative appeal to desires for money or power is very different from offering an imaginative storytelling space in which unconscious emotions can be explored or life illuminated through symbolic or metaphoric structures. It couldn’t be further from Angela Carter who used ‘the fabulous’ to shed lacerating light on questions of sexuality and gender. Carter put women at the centre of her stories and gave them agency over their fate.
Documents of our time
Carter is far from alone in using fabulous elements to examine contemporary concerns. Writer Colleen Gillard (2016) argues here that many YA fantasy worlds allow children and young adults to think through the problems of their day. At a time when fears about terrorism, economic hardship, inequality and environmental disaster are ever-present, fantastic stories about dystopias have become popular (The Hunger Games, The Giver, Divergent): ‘Like the collapse of the Twin Towers, these are sad and disturbing stories of post-apocalyptic worlds falling apart… This is a future where hope is qualified, and whose deserted worlds are flat and impoverished.’ Francesa Haig, YA author of The Fire Sermons series, observes in this 2017 BBC Open Book podcast that the appeal of these dystopian stories to young people isn’t about them processing teen angst in a narcissistic way. To her, young people feel disenfranchised and aren’t looking inwards but outwards, keen to ask big questions about, for instance, democratic freedoms, women’s rights, and climate change.
Adult fiction also addresses reality through speculative lenses. William Gibson, author of the Neuromancer trilogy (1984-8), says that his ‘science fiction’ examines and develops tendencies within the present more than projecting into the future. His Neuromancer books, set in a near-future world dominated by corporations and high tech and exploring a world of human-machine links, revealed a mind paying keen attention to the present, prescient about the age of the internet. Fiction with speculative or ‘untrue’ elements may actually be better at revealing truths about our own times. Mary Robinette Kowal, author of the Lady Astronaut series (2014-20), said in a 2021 podcast: ‘one of the great advantages of science fiction and fantasy is that we are writing with metaphors baked into the bones of our artform… [genre fiction] takes the building blocks of the normal world and shifts them to the side enough so you can see backstage, see the connective tissue… [it] makes you understand better how things in our world interconnect than you would in… straight up mimetic fiction.’
The US writer George Saunders has suggested that ‘an aesthetic uncoupling from the actual’ may be necessary to ‘express our most profound experiences‘ (cited in Joel Lovell’s ‘Foreword’ to The Tenth of December, 2013). Saunders uses absurdist elements to explore contemporary American life; his stories are set in a slightly futuristic America where things have gotten strange. As writer Junot Diaz says of Saunders: ‘There is no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanising parameters of our current culture of capitalism’ (cited in Lovell’s ‘Foreword’, 2013). ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ in The Tenth of December, for instance, is about third world women who come to America to decorate the lawns of the wealthy; they are hung up, in flowing dresses, on a microline that runs through their brains. The short story explores injustice and the ripple effects of global capitalism, though above all, it is a compelling tale of domestic yearning and class anxieties. Written as a series of journal entries, it tells of a man struggling on low pay who just wants to make his three kids feel better about themselves in relation to their wealthy classmates.
Magical realism is a genre known for its fabulous elements and for its political engagement and historically informed stories – it comes from the periphery and the colonies, from women and migrants. The term ‘magical realism’ was put on the literary map by post-World War II authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Asturias, whose work combined the history of Latin America with the fabulous. While acknowledging the influence of European modernism, these writers set out to create a literature that was distinctly Latin American in style and content. So, they drew on non-western narrative styles, as well as on popular folklore and superstitions, on the myths of indigenous Americans and popular Catholicism.
Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) tells a story of a family over a century, offering a sketch of Colombian history and, more broadly, of Latin America, with its civil wars and emergence into modernity. The book features ghosts, a girl who ascends to heaven while hanging out the washing, an insomnia plague, and a child with a pig’s tail born out of incest. The folk wisdom and magic of the non-west is sometimes used in a knowing manner, sometimes more sincerely. Despite the sense that ‘tall stories’ are being told, by presenting the extraordinary events in a matter of fact tone, as real as events like civil wars or marriages, non-western cultural systems are effectively validated.
Márquez’s use of fabulous elements is thus nothing like political falsehoods, though he himself wouldn’t have been fazed by fake news or by politicians like Donald Trump assaulting truths in the west – Latin America has had its fill of lying leaders. Indeed, when Trump announced he would buy Greenland, ‘one could hear the ghost of Gabriel García Márquez chuckle’, as the writer Nina Martyris said in 2019. In Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), a magical realist novel about a 200 year old tinpot dictator in some unnamed Latin American country, the United States actually buys the Caribbean Sea from the broke tyrant and ships it off to Arizona, leaving behind a vast crater of dust. The monstrous dictator at the centre of the story is an amalgam of all those who have ruled parts of Latin America, and the novel ‘stands out as a scathing critique both of the ravages of power and the ruthlessness of capitalism’ (Nina Martyris, 2019).
Magical realism, begun in Latin America, quickly travelled round the globe to countries like the US, Canada, India, Japan, and the UK. In Magical Realism and the Post Colonial Novel, Christopher Warnes (2009) distinguishes two broad types – faith-based and irreverent – although these can coexist in any text. The faith-based version, practiced by Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias, for instance, incorporates mythic elements in order to enrich the category of the ‘real’, often to reclaim indigenous cultural knowledge. The irreverent version tends to be more knowing and deconstructivist; it playfully critiques claims to truth and coherence in western worldviews (colonial, racist, patriarchal), assuming they are historically contingent rather than inevitable. For example, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) is about migrant communities in late 20th century London. When he comes to Britain from India, the Indian Muslim character of Saladin Chamcha is turned into a devil/goat. Lying in a guarded hospital, sprouting horns and a tail, he is asked how this metamorphosis is possible, and replies, ‘They describe us… That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct’ (p.168). In painting people of colour as ‘animals’ and ‘devils’, they – that is, the police and related institutions here – hold power over these minorities and withhold humanity from them. The fabulous elements in Rushdie are used as literal metaphors to explore the destructive effects of racism.
Magical realist narratives have been rife recently in the revival of the UK short story form, as I explore in my essay here (Wimhurst 2019); their appeal lies partly in their subversiveness. Talking about her inventive collection Fen (2016), Daisy Johnson told me (in a 2017 interview): ‘In a lot of stories the magical realism often begins as strength for the female characters (they can breathe underwater, they eat men) and gradually seems to turn against them. Magical realism is used as a way to undermine old orders, to create new realities and new possibilities. It is the fiction of attack…. It also creates a space where these women characters can speak out loud, can become more than their relationship to men.’ The stories of Kirsty Logan also have a fabulous feminist impulse. Logan sits within the contrary tradition of the feminist fairy story that started with Angela Carter’s (1979) Burning Your Boats. In a 2018 interview, Logan told me: ‘Carter’s books work hard to upend the [fairy] stories rather than just update a few flimsy details. As Carter put it: “I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode.” That’s what I want to do with my stories, too.’ Logan’s excellent The Rental Heart and Other Stories (2016) includes fairy tale retellings that put female experience and lesbian sexuality at their core.
A writer’s take on ‘the fabulous’
Many of the authors referred to above have inspired my own writing. Though I’m hesitant to include myself in such illustrious company, my stories also use speculative elements – especially magical realist and dystopian – to address uncomfortable truths about today. In Snapshots of the Apocalypse, my first book of short fiction, I invent dark, off-kilter worlds which hopefully illuminate, and unsettle the complacencies of, our own world. The title story, ‘Snapshots of the Apocalypse’, portrays a 2060s England on the verge of collapse due to aggressive climate change, a place where the many types of rain are named after former Prime Ministers and Tate artworks are used as frisbees. ‘The Job Lottery’ portrays a surreal dystopia in which the plebs are allocated jobs randomly each year by them fishing numbered rubber ducks from a pool. ‘The Wings of Digging’, featuring a winged being/refugee who works on a building site but yearns to be an archaeologist, explores racial prejudice. My stories tend to be dark because, without the political will for dramatic change, we are heading to a bleak future – of growing xenophobia and inequality and devastating climate change. As a writer, I can’t look away, even if I can soften the stories’ impact by introducing hope, imagination and quirky humour – odd towns called Nowhere, knitting as an antidote to Armageddon.
Conclusion: Truth versus Untruth
Samuel Butler (1612-80), the British satirist and poet, once said, ‘Men take so much delight in lying, that truth is sometimes forced to disguise herself in the habit of falsehood to get entertainment, as in fables and apologues frequently used by the ancients’ (Butler 1759). Indeed, fabulous fiction has a long history of using fantastical elements to offer metaphors for human behaviour and to interrogate power or satirise topical issues. As Salman Rushdie recently said in a BBC Arts and Ideas podcast (‘Alice and Dreaming’), ‘Literature in the end is about the truth, about finding a way to say something truthful about human beings, what we’re like, what we do to each other, whereas [political] lies are a way of obscuring the truth. Fiction, no matter how fabulous it is, and lies, no matter how convincing, are actually enemies.’
About the author
Katy Wimhurst’s first collection of short stories, Snapshots of the Apocalypse, is published by Fly on the Wall Press. Her fiction has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including The Guardian, Ouen Press, Fabula Press, Cafe Irreal, and ShooterLit. She also sometimes writes essays like this. She is housebound with the illness M.E.