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There's magic, then there's flat-out lying

April 28, 2008 | 11:28 am

HoffmanWhen the moderator of of the Festival of Books panel "Magic in Everyday Life" asked author Aimee Bender, "Why did you write a story about a woman who kept trying to destroy magic potatoes that eventually morphed into babies?" it was panelist and author Alice Hoffman (left) who piped up.

"If you had children, you would understand," Hoffman told Christine Smallwood, associate literary editor for the Nation.

The panelists -- including novelists Yxta Maya Murray (her newest, "The King's Gold," comes out this week) and Alex Espinoza ("Still Water Saints") -- all argued that reading about fantastical worlds teaches us about this one. Bender's story as well as fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood contain metaphors that apply to reality.

Not only is magic a useful literary tool, it also gives people and things a voice that otherwise might be silenced. Nonfiction literature, they said, is confined to that which is documented. But what about the voice not recorded? Because not all occurrences in history were  recorded, they noted, perhaps fiction is more accurate than nonfiction. 

Magic and literature, therefore, are inextricably intertwined because the mere act of creating a world out of words is magic in and of itself.

While panelists discussed the merits of fiction and magic, they also made a clear distinction between the unreal and flat-out lying. For example, all four unanimously denounced Margaret Seltzer's fake autobiography about growing up among gangsters in South Los Angeles. 

--Melissa Rohlin

(Photo: Alice Hoffman by Deborah Feingold/Random House)