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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

January 2009

Get Unreal: Expressionism, Surrealism,
Magical Realism, and Fantasy

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Read Bruce’s previous column here, or visit his author page to see them all.

In this month’s column I provide some instructions for writing expressionistic short-short fiction. While I’m at it, I’m also going to say a few words about writing other kinds of unrealistic fiction: surrealism, magical realism, and fantasy.

Expressionism, in a nutshell, is art that emphasizes the artist’s emotion at some expense to reality. Of course, all art involves negotiation between reality and representation. No representation is the thing it represents, and any representation is bound to contain traces of the artist’s feelings. So how is this a useful definition?

It comes down to a matter of degree.

Expressionism: Nietzsche, Dionysus, and Kafka

In an early philosophical work, The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche pointed to certain Greek tragedies as the highest sort of art because they balanced two views of the world, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The sun god Apollo is self-controlled and perfect. Dionysus, the god of wine, is emotional and disorderly.

Gods are complex and full of contradiction, just like people. For the sake of this discussion, let’s over-simplify them a bit. Let’s say Apollo is light, certainty and reason while Dionysus is dark, doubt, and impulse. Apollo shines the sun on the world and says, “Here it is.” On a starless night, Dionysus whispers, “What’s out there?”

Realistic art reflects Apollo, whose sphere also includes reason. For example, hard science fiction, which is a mix of possibility, reason, and idealism, is Apollonian even though we don’t think of it as realism.

Surrealism is Dionysian, a form of art at odds with both reason and reality. But even in a surreal painting such as Salvador Dali’s crucifixion (“Hypercubic Body”), the geometric order and accurate rendering of the human forms owe something to Apollo.

All art is touched by both gods, but some art clearly owes more to one god or the other. So it is with expressionism. Expressionism leans on Dionysus.

I realize this is a bit vague. Fortunately, we can turn to a particular example. Unlike the field of painting, where a vast number of artists of widely different styles are identified as expressionists, in fiction only one author is consistently cited as an example of expressionism: Franz Kafka.

In Kafka’s best-known work, “The Metamorphosis,” his protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find that he has become an enormous cockroach. Samsa carries on with his life, trying to live in a world where he does not fit and is unloved, gradually shrinking to become a smaller and smaller roach until he is nothing but an empty shell that his sister sweeps up and dumps with the trash.

Aside from the detail of Samsa being a cockroach and all those around him accepting his state as if it were routine, “The Metamorphosis” is a realistic story.

I said earlier that expressionism leans on Dionysus, but in literary expressionism, leaning on Dionysus does not mean falling headlong into the dark waters of hallucination and chaos. In writing expressionism, we dip our toes into the emotional pool, and then we proceed with logic.

Gregor Samsa transforms into a cockroach for good reason. He has always felt like a roach. His emotional reality is that he is a disgusting thing that his family really doesn’t want to have around. Kafka creates a fictive premise from Samsa’s emotional reality. He feels like a roach, so in the story, he is one. The metaphor for his emotional situation is taken as physical reality, and the story moves rationally from that starting point.

A problem with using Kafka as our sole example is that Kafka explored only the dark emotions of anxiety and despair. Literary expressionism can be based on any emotional metaphor that the writer chooses to treat as if it were objectively true. Does being in love make you feel lighter than air? There’s your story premise. Perhaps a young man, negotiating the problems of floating near the ceiling all week, is disturbed by the way that his beloved keeps sinking to the floor throughout the day. Doesn’t she love him as much as he loves her?

In short, the elements of an expressionistic story are pretty simple: Start with an emotional truth that you can express with a metaphor. Make the metaphor objectively true. Let the characters act out this reality as if there were nothing unique in the situation, as if this were the very thing that happens. That is, don’t let your characters think it is any more strange to float on the ceiling than it is to fall in love.

How the metaphor develops, how the story ends, is simply a question of how such emotions work themselves out in the characters. The goal of an expressionistic story is to tell the story of the emotional reality and the reactions of other people to it. Our story about the man who is floating because he is in love will probably end somewhere near the point where he returns to earth, or possibly where the breakup makes him sink into the earth.

Expressionism lends itself to flash fiction because such stories usually have a pretty simple thought to express: this is what one character’s reality feels like. The writer gets the idea across in an entertaining way, and that’s enough, as I hope I have demonstrated in “Estranged.”

Surrealism: Underwater at Night

Surrealism, like expressionism, also lends itself to flash fiction. If expressionism dips its toes into the dark pools of Dionysus, surrealism dives in and tries to see how long it can hold its breath. Surrealism cares nothing for logic or reason. Anything can happen.

As a result, surrealism can’t create the kind of anticipation that gives most fiction a plot. In a story where anything might happen, the individual events may delight, amaze, or shock, but readers eventually get bored with surprises that don’t lead anywhere but to more surprises. (In that case, you aren’t holding your breath in the pool of Dionysus. You’re drowning)

Most readers won’t tolerate much surrealism. Surrealism in small doses, though, can be fun as open rebellion against the forces of order. If you write a surreal flash, it’s helpful to remember that if your intention is to show that anything could happen, then anything should happen. Surrealism fails when it tries to stick to its topic, make sense, be reasonable, or avoid embarrassment. A good surreal story kicks Apollo in the balls.

Magical Realism: Resistance by Literary Means

Magical realism is a much-abused term. I have heard some editors claim that it is just a hip name for contemporary fantasy. I have heard fantasy writers encourage this attitude by calling themselves magical realists because the label sounds sophisticated. But magical realism is (or should be) distinctive.

Magical realism depends, first of all, on a living belief system, and by that I mean the collective beliefs of some substantial group, not the delusions of one person or one family. This belief system is one that is at odds with what most of the world considers to be objective reality. Magical realism assumes an audience of readers who mostly believe in “objective reality,” and it sets out to undermine that belief. Two favorite techniques of magical realists are to describe objective reality in wondrous terms and the group’s “magical” reality in mundane terms. In One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, a block of ice is described as one of the most miraculous things anyone has ever seen. Meanwhile, the cloud of butterflies that follows one character everywhere are observed to have badly tattered wings.

Recently, I have understood that there is another key dimension to magical realism. At a panel discussion with Kathleen Alcala she observed that the “magical reality” of the group whose beliefs underlie the fiction is not just a different view from the “consensus reality.” Rather, these are the beliefs of a group that is under some cultural pressure to give up their way of seeing things. Thus, I’d like to propose an alternative name for magical realism that will perhaps clarify what makes such fiction distinct from fantasy. Magical realism is resistance realism. It is telling stories that assert the validity of a world view struggling to survive.

If you set out to write magical realism, you have to know and understand this minority world view. You may not be a member of the group whose reality you portray, but to produce the genuine article, you do need to have an insider’s understanding.

Fantasy: There Must Be Rules

Finally we come to fantasy. Fantasy is a broad category that I like to define as “the impossible made plausible.” The key to making the unreal plausible is to move it a few steps from the irrational and chaotic realm of Dionysus and make it reasonable. Good fantasy works by having rules, a limited set of “what if” premises. If you want to write very short fantasy fiction, it helps to focus on rules. A good vampire short-short will turn on some “rule” of vampires that “everyone knows.” Flash fiction that depends on your own invented rule had better make that rule quite clear from the very beginning and keep it simple.

Fantasy rules can be quite inventive, of course. In the Ray Vukcevich story, “Poop,” a mother and father must deal with a disturbing variety of objects that appear in their baby’s diaper. All kinds of unlikely objects appear, and eventually they even hear a voice coming from inside the diaper. Odd thought it may be, this “what if” story holds together because every strange thing that happens, happens through the medium of a diaper on the baby’s bottom. That’s the rule.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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