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New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene
Literary history is heavily invested in scenes and schools, portable assemblies (Surrealists, Romantics, Beats) put together by critics. Hindsight naturally makes this assembling work easier, at least in part because the mill of arguments will have ground to a halt (it’s easier to snapshot a stationary object), and the vast profusion of determinative details that are so easily missed and which no one point of view, I think, can encompass, have been forgotten. Arguments about the meaning of a movement are any movement’s primary content, regarded as something bigger than the sum of its parts; the questions and answers, the political map of positions, usually turn out to be more important than any resolution posited at the time, or, to put it better, those resolutions in the moment, rather than eliminating questions or arguments, join them in a general manifold. Trying to name and adequately describe the scene as it unfolds in the present is like cutting cookies out of the fog, but perhaps that irreducible vagueness should encourage people to try.
Now there is the sense of a trend, loosely identified with a heterogenous company of writers as varied in their works as China Miéville and Jeffrey VanderMeer. For the sake of keeping ourselves in circulation, we might provisionally describe this as a tendency toward more literarily sophisticated fantasy. In bookstores, Fantasy means the Piers Anthony/J.R.R. Tolkein section; the word is an abbreviation for a standard content, like a brand. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Alice in Wonderland, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels or Naked Lunch are not shelved there, although they are all fantasies. This has everything to do with selling books, making sure the buyer finds what he or she is looking for, and reflects no judgement with regard to the literary status of this or that work of fantasy. A certain amount of work is produced specifically for the purpose of stocking shelves in the Fantasy section, where the index of novelty is best kept low. The serendipitous constellation of contemporary fantasy writers that belong to or generate the “new weird” seem generally and in varying proportions to blend the influences of genre writing and literary fantasy, and to weave in non-fantastic signals as well.
Poetry restores language by breaking it, and I think that much contemporary writing restores fantasy, as a genre of writing in contrast to a genre of commodity or section in a bookstore, by breaking it. Michael Moorcock revived fantasy by prying it loose from morality; writers like Jeffrey VanderMeer, Stepan Chapman, Lucius Shepard, Jeffrey Ford, Nathan Ballingrud, are doing the same by prying fantasy away from pedestrian writing, with more vibrant and daring styles, more reflective thinking, and a more widely broadcast spectrum of themes.
Every year The New Yorker releases its new fiction issue, profiling the important new writers, and every year they get it mostly wrong. An inessential, NPR tepidness prevails, and this is plainly not where it’s at. Lucius Shepard’s Handbook of American Prayer is where it’s at. Handbook, Veniss Underground, The Troika, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Etched City, My Work Is Not Yet Done, are not examples of good fantasy writing or good genre writing, but they are examples of good writing. Fantasy writing is no more inherently inessential than any other variety, and no more inherently escapist, either. What makes writing escapist is not a matter of whether or not it involves magic but whether or not it involves something meaningful. Fantasy writing is if anything increasingly relevant because it involves building and representing the whole world, fantasy worlds, sci-fi worlds, hidden gnostic horror worlds. This proliferation of worlds seems to me to be bound up with the extent to which the world has become immersed in trademarked representation.
The “New Weird,” as I’ve said, is a topic for critics and not so much for writers. Nothing could be more unenlightening or useless than a New Weird manifesto. What strikes the observer is precisely the spontenaiety with which so many different writers, pursuing such obviously disparate literary styles, should vaguely intersect in this way. Instead of a set of general aims, we have a great proliferation of correspondences on a more intimate level, like a sprawling coincidence of idiosyncratic choices. Mapping out a scheme won’t yield us much insight into what’s going on, although it might add something interesting of its own. The richness of this new writing recommends a depth-diving model rather than a breadth-sweeping one, such that none of its variety or perversion is planed out. The writing in question is more extensively and usefully defined by the unconscious or spontaneous choices the authors are making than by the directed ones; maybe this is most often the case. Certainly, none of the writers thus far invoked have, to my knowledge, set out to be “New Weird” writers, in the way that Andre Breton et al set out to be Surrealists.
Why pronunciations and definitions, if not to elicit counter claims? Sometimes it seems as though the winners in these matters prevail more as consequence of sheer exhaustion, which can mean a depletion of the store of endurance but just as readily of the store of interest, so that the received definition of any given wave is the final score in a game called on account of rain and indefinitely, maybe permanently, postponed thereafter. The New Weird has come into being, such as it is and whatever it should be, on its own and not by dint of any decision or program, so the attribution of decisions and schemes to it ought to be seen as prescriptions rather than as descriptions. This is only a problem if the prescription is mistaken for a description, that is to say, X, precisely because he believes the New Weird is such and such, doesn’t say this is what it “should be,” he says rather “this is what it is.”
It’s not as though literature preserves a province unto itself, and that genre stands in compartments below the level of general literature. All works of literature will express characteristics of genre. In his prologue to The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges touches on the tendency to disparage the adventure story, the mystery story, and contrasts them to the “formless” modern psychological novel. The formless psychological novel is a genre which, moreso at the time in which Borges was writing and somewhat less so now, ascended to pre-eminence on the smouldering remains of other genres. It may be that, in order to exist, genres may engage in a weird disembodied war that cannot be entirely explained in market or in aesthetic terms. More likely, this war is a blind for something more frankly political.
The distinction between genre literature and general literature is bogus, at least in any non-colloquial sense of these terms. What is “general literature”? If we begin to define it, even assuming this definition can be uncontroversial, we are already outlining tendencies or rules which are indistinguishable in kind from those that are used to define genre literature. The distinction between genre and general is an evaluation from the outset, and not an innocent differentiation. The “New Weird” might be better defined as a refusal to accept this evaluation of imaginative literature, whatever form it may take. So it is not for reasons of influence alone that such authors as Borges, Calvino, Angela Carter, are invoked by many of those in the imaginative camp, but also because these authors are obviously both fantastic and literary. Each after their own fashion, as you would expect.

Michael Cisco
4 May 2004


Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels. He’s just finished his PhD at New York University, and considers himself “The Melville Guy.” His column “Jungle Mind” appears monthly on The Modern Word.

For Michael Cisco’s previous columns, visit the “Jungle Mind” Archive.

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