Ask the Editors | Mo Yan, 2012 Nobel Prize Winner & the Magic Realism Debate

Dear Editors,

I workshopped my story yesterday. It didn’t exactly fit into the mold. Other students were not so nice, which I could have handled, except that they didn’t seem to know anything about magical realism or surrealism and then tried to tell me how to “fix” it, as if my story had a disease. The professor didn’t do anything.  I feel like a martian living in Salem 1600s. I’m ready to drop the program. Have you experienced any of this? I need help figuring out what to do but no one in my program, professors and such, seems to understand.


Dear Alien Writer,

This is what I would do and what you should do, too. First, say: Mo Yan, magic realist, takes the 2012 Nobel for Literature. Then write it at the top of each ms. Tattoo it on your forehead. Give out little Krishna pamphlets in the hallways of your dorm and classroom buildings. Begin naming writers like autism: Kafka, Borges, Woolf… Repeat the names in slow monotone. When people ask you why you keep spouting off these famous and revered writers’ names, you say, because they were magical realists motherfuckers!

I love that a magical realist writer has taken the prize. This is a literary confirmation many should heed, I think. Too many staunch traditionalists stuck on strict realism, snubbing anything else. MFA programs still doing the same. Too many fantasy/SF-ers who snub the magical realists, as if it’s too stick up the ass, not enough world building for them. Tsk tsk. Magical realists are often caught in the middle of this shitty sandwich and editors and publishing houses don’t know what to do with them.

First, encourage people to read more magic realism. Get on the boat, because it’s a really fun and deep ride. AND, please say this with me, magic realism isn’t just for South Americans. Yes, SA has a fantastic and reigning presence, but it’s all over the world. America, too. Spread the word, get stoked. Yes, I’m all hyped up on this. It’s true. This Nobel is very, very cool for two personal reasons:

  1. I had the honor of presenting this year for Iowa’s International Writing Program, a program I think is amazing, students and staff delightful and talented, and a program of which Yan is an alum;
  2. In face of traditionalism and even sometimes snubbing, I continue to write and edit magic realism. Why? Because magic realism can bring to light humanistic and socio-political necessities in creative ways that allow readers to really and fully engage more independently than realist fiction. MR is an abstract painting. The rules can be set more by the reader than the writer.

Mo Yan. You are a hero, sir, and you give us faith.

A note to readers: For anyone looking to read more magic realism/surrealism, here is a random list of authors to seek, off the top of my head. Truly, no order and there are many I’m leaving off this list, simply because I’m all excited about Mo Yan and his win and want to spread the word now rather than research my stacks for days and make a “numbered list.” Consider this just a smattering of good stuff, and it doesn’t include a number of fantastic authors, who veer into the magic, but are mostly realism. I’m trying to identify some of my favorite magic realism authors who fully embraced the form. I am leaving off a few iconic ones, because I simply don’t care for them as much:

  • Virginia Woolf
  • Gabriel García Márquez
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Italo Calvino
  • Nikolai Gogol
  • Franz Kafka
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Donald Barthelme
  • Toni Morrison
  • Virginia Woolf

A note on Woolf. She presents an interesting conundrum. A number of traditionalist literatis and MFA programs teach Woolf, most often To the Lighthouse.  Any respectable program does and should, in my opinion, but then I’m a Woolf fan. Any respectable experimental course should as well, but then again, I’m a Woolf fan. As a literature student, and then as editor and writer and creative writing teacher, I found and still find it interesting that Woolf, when referred to by traditionalist minimalists, generally receives attention for her stream-of-consciousness form, experimental for her time, but rarely for the magic realism in Orlando, which discussed gender in depth as a woven aspect of the magic realism — protagonist gender bending and all that. Also a worthy discussion, especially for, oh I don’t know, writers? What is this prejudice against magic realism in fiction and why exactly do traditionalists look down their noses at it, when in fact, they have celebrated authors who have embraced it? It is a complicated style, magic realism. It is not a form based on make it up as you go along flimsiness any more than realism is. It requires a great deal of thought and forethought, intricate weaving in order to make it work. I say, look to the Nobel as a guide. A program without magic realism is not a full writing program, in my opinion, and avoiding it is a disservice to students who may very well have genius in this style, but may never know it because they were told by their professors not to mess with that “magical stuff.”

I have more than once been emailed by students of other programs, asking for advice about writing magic realism and how to handle workshops where teachers and/or peers denigrated the form. I’ve been waiting and biding my time before bringing this poor dear and his question to readers. Most disconcerting is that this realism versus magic realism prejudice still continues in programs and workshops. Why? Perhaps it’s because too many programs do not tend to the style and too many teachers and students have no experience with the form. For staunch realism and prose traditionalists, magic realism might as well be poetry. And for idiots who don’t know any better, it is easier to make fun of and try to change than to learn and embrace such things as abstraction, surrealism, blurring of lines.

I send this out to “Alien Writer” and those students who feel misunderstood in writing workshops: you have officially, again, been vindicated. Now spread the word of our new Nobel winner, Mo Yan, and hold your heads high. Then write, write, write your voice, your style, and know you are among friends.


Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories have appeared or are soon forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, BLIP Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, and Pushcart awards.  She writes essays and reviews for such places as New York Journal of Books, Puerto del Sol, The Nervous Breakdown, Portland Book Review and She is the 2012 Patasola New York City Summer Writing Resident and has received fellowships from the VCCA and The Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a Masters in Writing, teaches multimedia and creative writing, and is editor in chief of the literary and arts journal, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught for Iowa’s International Writing Program.

The Editors

2 Replies to “Ask the Editors | Mo Yan, 2012 Nobel Prize Winner & the Magic Realism Debate”

  1. I love this, because it is so true that workshops often do not know how to handle something that does not fit their style and because we need to appreciate a piece of art for what it is. If someone has a story to tell and it burns inside them, do not bury it because it veers towards magical realism (or whatever other odd-ball style – fantasy, sci-fi, whatever). If the story is great, tell it!

    However, I feel some writers are too focused on throwing in the ideas of zombies or magic or whatever for the purpose of following popular trends or to write a story they think others will like. This often shows in the writing, and must, in my opinion, be avoided. Tell the story for what it is, let the characters drive it – and hey, if there happens to be a zombie, then let her run wild.

    Often magical realism is not quite as eccentric as zombies or magical balls of flame, at least the magical realism that I appreciate. But everyone has their tastes. My advice would be to find a writing group that focuses on the type of story you write, and maybe that means taking one of your stories to a literary group and another to a sci-fi group, because unfortunately the reality is that often workshop classes in literary programs will only see the man turning into the cockroach and automatically dismiss the story (but maybe that will change?).

    I am so glad to see Mo Yan being appreciated, thank you for sharing Rae!

  2. “Because magic realism can bring to light humanistic and socio-political necessities in creative ways that allow readers to really and fully engage more independently than realist fiction. MR is an abstract painting. The rules can be set more by the reader than the writer.” – Rae Bryant

    Well said, encouraging, and inspiring. This quote brings it home. My take-home: don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Cut edges into the round hole and then insert said square peg.
    Hats off to Mo Yan! For every addlepat out there who says, “What the hell is going on” when they read your story, I say, “Oh well.” Never mind that eliciting a slightly confused reaction might be the point. Guess that particular ‘fixer’ should stick to reading pedantic, overwrought, tired, and worn-out crap from yesteryear that’s been done to death. As opposed to opening his or her mind. I’m not saying that a writer shouldn’t reach for the pinnacle of whatever genre he or she chooses. But this article definitely points out what matters most – whatever we choose as our medium, we are not alone. Finding readers who know the form and either understand or appreciate it, that’s the real challenge. And the real success.

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