May 21, 2003

More from the New Weird

Mike Harrison on the genre of fantasy

“Before the word “fantasy” came to describe a monoculture, it was an umbrella term for work actually fantastic in nature. Nobody “wrote fantasy”. They wrote personal, strongly-flavoured, individual stuff, and the term was applied at a later stage in the proceedings. Unpredictability, inventiveness, oddness, estrangement, wit, could all be found there, along with machinery for defamliarising the world and making it seem new. What we have now—or what we had at least until very recently—is long, evenly-planted fields of potatoes, harvested by machines in such a way as to make them acceptable to the corporate buyers from Sainsbury’s, McDonalds, & HarperCollins.”

Posted by Henry at May 21, 2003 02:26 PM | TrackBack

Hi Henry,

Google up “Bruce Sterling” and “Cheap Truth” for electronic copies of the early c-word manifestoes. I’d be interested in parallels that you might see.

On a not very new weird at all, my nominations for the title of the definitive exegesis of Little, Big are Brother North-Wind’s Secret or The Art of Memory, but maybe that’s just too obvious, selecting my two favorite parts.

Best from Munich,

Posted by: Doug at May 21, 2003 03:58 PM

I think this is at least partly plausible-sounding baloney. Marketing categories are created at least as much by the desire of readers to find the kind of books they like in the bookstore as they are by the corporate needs of big-box retailers.

There’s a persistent belief that if we could just Knock Down The Walls, literature would Break Free. While I have a basic gut sympathy with this view, I’ve come to suspect that if we actually did jumble all the fiction together into one giant supercategory of Wonderful Stuff, the actual customers would demand we rebuild those category walls immediately, thankyouverymuch. They might demarcate slightly different borders than the ones we assume today, of course. And I certainly agree that lots of good art entails messing around with the categories and their expectations.

But I certainly don’t believe in the lost Eden of “personal, strongly-flavoured, individual stuff”, unsullied by category assumptions, genre expectations, and the desire to reach a large audience, that seems to lurk not very far behind Mike’s claims. Indeed, I suspect that category assumptions, genre expectations, and the desire to be popular can be traced back to the days before literature was even written down.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at May 21, 2003 04:04 PM


I’ve perhaps done Mike an injustice by snatching one post from a long dialogue, mostly because I loved the image of evenly-planted rows of corporate-fantasy potatoes. The debate that Mike, China, Al Reynolds and others are having covers a lot of the ground of your post. It’s all about trying to reconcile the desire to do something quirky and individual on the one hand, and the need to actually get it to market by creating a collective identity around the the “New Weird” on the other. Check out both the thread that I’ve linked to, and the “New Weird” thread where it all began. To my mind, they haven’t succeeded in squaring this particular circle (which is almost certainly unsquareable) - but they’re having a very interesting argument about it. And I reckon that the argument might come up with the goods - some new, and interesting work. Dunno what you think of China’s stuff - he’s maybe not the One - but IMO he is the most interesting genre writer to come along for some while.

Posted by: Henry at May 21, 2003 06:04 PM

I think China Mieville is the bee’s knees. I was part of the reason we published his first novel, the extremely wonderful KING RAT. Featuring, I daresay, the most emotionally moving garbage-eating scene in all of English literature.

I like M. John Harrison, too. I just don’t buy that it’s the existence of genres and categories that keeps us working for the Pharaoh and robs us of our due.

I’m also just a little jaded about stfnal literary movements, which always seem to lionize one group of (indeed) geniuses at the expense of a whole lot of equally quirky and worthwhile outliers. Just to grab a name at random, the Minnesota fantasy writer Pamela Dean is every bit as “New Weird” and worth your sustained attention as any of these hip guys in London, but they barely know she exists and nobody gets screaming-white-hot-cutting-edge-hipness points for following her work and talking about it.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at May 21, 2003 08:56 PM

Dean has passed completely beneath my radar screen - looks interesting from a quick snoop on Amazon - will have to try to find something by her.

Your more general point is accepted of course - but isn’t that the nature of the beast? Always seemed to me as an outsider to that who gets read and who doesn’t, who’s hip and who isn’t, is and always has been political. It involves what Kieran and other sociologists would describe as the creation of “social movements” (hmmm - might be a post in that, one of these days).

Anyway, I’d make a poorish enough rebel myself- I like both the New Weird, and the Old Not-Especially-Weird, provided that it’s done well. Am always happy to settle down with a good fantasy blockbuster. George RR Martin for example (and I prefer his shamelessly populist fantasies to his “serious” work - shame on me no doubt).

Posted by: Henry at May 21, 2003 10:24 PM
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