Curio Fiction: Less Magic, More Realism
I read an article by Diane Callahan over at Tor.com that I found thought provoking about an emerging subgenre featuring “a world very much like our own, except one thing is slightly…off.” Callahan suggests this subgenre could be termed Curio Fiction. My first thought was isn’t that just Magical Realism? While the two sound highly similar when their features are listed, I’m beginning to think that the works produced in or categorized under these labels may be significantly different. I’m sort of writing this as I think about it.
Callahan offers plenty of examples to investigate if this trend intrigues you (even citing works as old as Kafka’s Metamorphosis). It’s always nice to be given a place to start exploring in such a flooded creative marketplace as we have now.
She also summarizes five defining features of Curio Fiction, which I will super-summarize for you here:
· Setting should be recognizable as our world regardless of specificity, location, or time period.
· Focuses on speculative element that’s “one notch off” from reality (the Curio).
· The magical element is not part of a larger, explained magic system. Can be left unexplained.
· Humans are the primary focus.
· The story is less interested in the Curio and more interested in its interpersonal or social effects.
Curio Fictions shares its first four defining features with Magical Realism, but the last one sets it apart. It’s a small distinction, but an important one. When I think of Magical Realism, I think of Jorges Luis Borges in particular (and the larger south American Magical Realist movement in general), especially his story “The Book of Sand.” I think this story illustrates the difference between Magical Realism and Curio Fiction quite well.
In the story, a man finds a book with infinite pages. Every time he opens the tome, he always finds a page he has not seen before. The page numbers correlate to the book’s infinite nature with some being unrealistically high. The man grows obsessed with cataloging this book as it may contain all knowledge available in the universe, but he eventually admits defeat after he realizes his obsession is threatening his sanity. The man hides the book deep in the stacks of a massive library in the hopes that no one else finds it and becomes dangerously obsessed as he was. Pretty cool.
However, this story is not primarily focused on human relationships or social effects of the magical thing. Rather it is more focused on the magic itself and its local effects on one man’s psyche. There are other stories that have a more societal scope, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Death Constant Beyond Love” comes to mind, but the story does not examine how the magic affects that society. The magic is simply there, in the background, mostly just affecting the tone and feel of the story without interacting with it directly.
The more I think about it as I write this little article, the clearer the difference between these two genres becomes. While their similarities are many, shifting a story’s focus or changing which aspects of its themes it emphasizes creates space for new stories to be told. Stories that can celebrate and explore ideas and themes that perhaps other genres are not as well-equipped to effectively tackle.
Curio Fiction as a subgenre may become both a useful label within speculative fiction as well as one of a growing set of tools that chip away at obsolete distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction. I’m not a huge fan of gatekeeping or elitism in scholarship or the arts, so typically anything that blurs the line between literary and genre fiction delights me.
Lastly, I also noticed that several of my stories could be categorized as Curio Fiction. In my upcoming short story collection, The Things That Love Us Back, most stories are firmly couched in a contemporary or near-future real-world. Each story also contains one magical change (malicious medical A.I., an online wish machine, people randomly shifting into devouring monsters, an instantaneous purchase delivery service, among others) and attempts to examine how these speculative changes might affect people’s interpersonal relationships, especially romantic ones. Less focus on the magic, more focus on the magic’s effects on people and society.
Turns out I’ve been writing Curio Fiction this whole time! Who knew?
-W. L. Prowell
The Things That Love Us Back will be released on Oct. 31st, 2022 in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats.