3 Steps to Tell Surrealism from Fantasy Fiction

Surrealism vs. FantasyWhen I was a grad student getting my MFA, I took a verbal beating in workshop from a faculty member who was adamant that I was not only writing surrealism, but that I was writing bad surrealism. I brought up that surrealism hadn’t been my goal. He told me that didn’t matter. It was frustrating.

Further frustrating was that I didn’t know what the difference was between surrealism and fantasy at the time. Heck, I was fuzzy on the very definition of surrealist fiction!

So like any good grad student, I went home and googled it.

The search results brought back a list of authors (most of whom I didn’t know and hadn’t heard of) and novel and story titles (I wasn’t a fan of the few I had read).

I was not enamored.

And I still didn’t have a good working definition of why contemporary literary fantasy was different from surrealist fiction.

A few years later I would stumble across a great essay on fantasy writing by one of the masters of speculative fiction Ursula K. Le Guin. Her essay is titled “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” and it can be found in the back of Peter S. Beagle’s anthology The Secret History of Fantasy. In it she gives the clearest explanation of the differences between fantasy and surrealism that I’ve yet to see.

To paraphrase:

STEP ONE: Start with Realism

Realism (or realistic fiction) operates in the known world using the rules of the known world. Rules such as physics.

Gravity is a constant, uniform force on the surface of the earth, and when it rains the precipitation is predominantly water.

STEP TWO: Alterations to Reality Cause Surrealism

Take the rules of reality and subvert some of them. Or many of them. The result is surrealist fiction.

Now we have a world where it occasionally rains goldfish for no identifiable reason. And occasionally those goldfish rain back up into the sky instead of falling down under the normal rules of gravity.

STEP THREE: Re-impose New Rules to Achieve Fantasy

If realism is the rules of reality, and surrealism is inverting or subverting rules of reality, then fantasy fiction is subverting certain rules of reality and replacing them with a new set of rules created by the fantasy writer.

Now we have a world where a wizard with a wand to channel magic can cause Cloud-Fish (a known species of goldfish that live inside rainclouds) to precipitate out. She can also remove her spell from the Cloud-Fish and they’ll “swim” back up through the air to their preferred environment. But if the wizard loses her wand she can’t do any magic (another rule).

I often think of the difference between realism, surrealism, and fantasy as if I were holding the story right side up in my hands—one hand beneath, one hand above, like you have your hands under the stomach and on top the back of a pet rabbit. Then I flip the rabbit over—when a rabbit is upside-down like this, you can cut its claws because the pressure in its skull has changed so the rabbit won’t move. When a story is upside-down like this, it’s surrealism. Then I flip the rabbit/story back over. Righted again but shaken, it’s fantasy.

And if you ever catch me in person or when I’m giving a writing lecture, ask me to tell this story. It comes with extravagant hand gestures and a further explanation of bunny physiology.

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