The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

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.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | Musings | 1 Comment

Dispelling a Few Myths (or Slaying a Few Old Dragons)

Sci-Fi and Fantasy is the domain of geeks and no-lifes right?  The type of people who wish they were Conan the Barbarian: wielding bloody great swords with their beef-cake bodies, while women and monsters drop at their feet; when in fact they’re really spotty, uncoordinated nerds with no social skills, an evident lack of shaving equipment and one too many iron maiden t-shirts?  Right?

Well, yes.  Right.  I’m sure there are some people who fit nicely into the stereotype.  But if we’re into stereotyping, then we should also record that Football fans are the type of people who wish they were David Beckham: wielding deadly right boots on the ends of their perfectly toned legs, while women and defenders drop at their feet; when really they’re overweight, uncoordinated beer-monsters with no conversational alternatives, an evident lack of non-club related clothing and one too many match-day programs.  And Radiohead fans are the type of people who want to be Thom Yorke: wielding rapier-like wit, detached irony and urban guerrilla tactics in the fight against faceless corporations, while spotty uncoordinated nerds drop at their feet; when really they’re well-adjusted 30-somethings with young families, a guardian subscription and no immediate plans to smash the system.  Ok so I got a bit carried away with that last one but you get the general idea.  Stereotypes exist but they are as one-dimensional as the loin-clothed characters in those pulp fantasy epics read by spotty, bearded sci-fi geeks (ooh – what a give away!). Anyway, you know what I’m saying.

And for another thing, Fantasy is a very broad term.  We’ve come to think of it as Dungeons and Dragons, or the publishing-company-bookselling-industrial-complex has encouraged us to think of it this way, so they can pigeon-hole and market it to spotty, bearded, sci-fi… ok, I’ve done that gag to death now.  But I prefer to include the whole gamut of speculative fiction, from generic men-in-tights cheese to booker-nominated magic realism classics, from epic space opera to myth-based historic fiction, under the banner of Fantasy.  I suppose Speculative Fiction is intended to cover all these bases but that term sounds a bit too much like an apology in advance to me.  Like we’re a touch sensitive about our interest in all things escapist and attempting a pre-emptive strike against those who may sneer from the side. Escapism is the operative word here, whether we wish we were Conan the Barbarian, David Beckham, or Thom Yorke.  Even if we don’t wish we were anyone else but simply enjoy exploring the endless possibilities of life in different worlds, with different rules, through other people’s imaginations.  The wide-scale success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, shows there’s mass-appeal out there for ‘magical’ escapism beyond the fan-boy ghetto.  Let’s just call it Fantasy, I say.  But let’s be aware of the lazy stereotypes and the dreadful pulp nonsense, which comes with the territory.  And let’s try and improve the image of that catch-all term, in our favour.  Let’s praise those writers who blur the lines between Fantasy and Literature in interesting and thought-provoking ways and let’s be critical of those writers who churn out cliched pot-boilers.  Perhaps we’ll play some small part in bringing about a wider acceptance of the term, in the popular imagination and ultimately mainstream publishing.   That’s the aim of this blog anyway: tough on generic fantasy cheese, tough on the causes of generic fantasy cheese.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Musings | 1 Comment