Mass Entertainment and Weird Fiction
A couple of discussions have been doing the rounds of late: the importance of looking beyond the demands of the mass market (raised by Damien Walter here and responded to by Paul Smith here); and the current state of New Weird and likely directions for Next Weird (discussed everywhere but most recently on Paul Jessup’s blog here). The conversations have been running in parallel but there is clear overlap, and not just because Damien Walter is knee deep in both streams. Perhaps all I’m doing here is summarising the bleeding obvious but I’ll write it down in an attempt to organize my thoughts.
I instinctively share Damien and Paul’s desire to look beyond the mainstream. Scratch below the surface of any area of popular culture and there’s a hidden world of more obscure because more demanding, but potentially more rewarding work. Almost by definition, popular culture has to represent a more sanitised version of the influential but perennially overlooked margins. I’d pick up on Paul’s point about music in particular, as I’ve spent twenty odd years listening to brilliant but largely ignored alternative bands; some eventually make the cross-over to mass appeal others are forever fated to fly below the popular radar. A couple of general rules apply though: 1) The underground is in the vanguard: where it goes, the mainstream eventually follows; and 2) When the mainstream catches up it is usually because the media and the marketing men are able to corral a number of disparate but loosely related artists into a recognizable movement or scene, which it can sell on to a wider audience.
Which brings us to the New Weird. I’m relatively new here but it seems to be broadly accepted that New Weird is a loose collection of writers, and what they have in common has more to do with what they are not, than what they are. Dialectically, they are not fat fantasy (fatasy – to use Adam Roberts’ term), with all its clichéd tropes and derivative associations. New Weird writers fuse together elements from a wide range of genres, only one of which is fantasy, but the distinction is as much about style as subject matter.
To re-phrase Paul’s argument as it applies to New Weird…. Fatasy is inherently conservative stylistically: multi-volumed epics which emphasise world building, epic story-lines and the battle of good against evil, do not lend themselves to progressive evolution of technique, or to more nuanced studies of theme, characterization and society. But real life isn’t an epic, it is contingent, compromised and rough around the edges. No doubt this is why escapist epic fantasy is so popular (it’s a circular arrangement, which the publishing houses perpetuate) but it leaves acres of room for those who wish to explore other aspects of life and meaning in a fantasy setting. So New Weird is a broad church, but on the whole it tends to be more tight (exception being the extended jazz-odyssey which is Perdido Street Station – though even that is a stand-alone novel) and jarring but also more equivocal and contradictory. There are no easy answers and no comfort zones of style or plot, for readers to fall back on. Mainstream territory this is not, the terrain here is far more treacherous; the sharp edges and vertiginous dead-ends have been deliberately kept in place, readers have to find their own way to the summit. The view from the top might not be as easy on the eye, but to those of us willing to make the effort, it is more life-affirming than the smooth certainties, the bracing-but-never-too-demanding walk, up the rolling hills of fatasy.
This is probably as good a definition of literary fantasy as I’m likely to articulate, so I should just knock it on the head now (I should certainly quit while I’m ahead with the mountain-climbing metaphor). In terms of the Jub Jub’s stated aims though, I feel myself drawn increasingly towards the exponents of New Weird and Now Weird, because that’s where the ground-breaking and thought-provoking work is going on; weird is the vanguard. The recent commodification of the movement means that more and more authors who are pushing the boundaries are being brought to our attention, which is great. I believe it will also mean more and more of the weird imagery seeping in to popular culture, inevitably at the expense of the style, which will mean it ceases to be New Weird by (my, embryonic) definition. But the underground will continue to push the envelope and set the agenda; and the rules of the game are changing in its favour, with blogs and on-line publishing making it ever-easier for niche interest groups to come together, on sites like those highlighted by Damien. Marginal literature of all forms, and weird writing in particular, will continue to find audiences regardless of mainstream prejudices, which may themselves become less important as the means of distribution becomes more accessible.
So where next for the New Weird? Well, the mainstream. Continuing the musical theme, I’ve made the analogy with prog-rock / punk-rock before, and it still holds for me (China Miéville is the new Johnny Rotten!). If the aftermath of post-punk is anything to go by, after a massive jolt from fatasy to weird, and the subsequent death of New Weird itself, I suspect we’ll see a gradual expansion of weird themes into other genres and more traditional fantasy areas. We’re already seeing some noir-weird, myth-weird, space-opera weird and horror-weird is well established; some of the more outlandish imagery will be toned down, to suit tastes, or as authors pursue different ends, but the weird influence will percolate further into popular consciousness and become increasingly established as part of the language of speculative fiction. Pop will eat itself of course, so it’s only a matter of time before we have multi-volumed, epic weird fiction; in the meantime I hope we see a host of new, experimental writers, pushing the form in innovative and interesting directions, paving the way for the mainstream of tomorrow.