Saturday, June 21, 2003

NEW WEIRDISH

There are several issues regarding fantastical fiction that have been eating at me for the last couple of weeks. One concerns the "New Weird" label being bandied about by China Mieville and by several other British writers and critics. I had just gotten to the point where I was comfortable and satisfied with the literal Rennaissance of wonderful non-realist fiction being written today--a kind of simultaneous explosion/implosion that has incorporated possibly every relevant mainstream/genre influence into this amazing melange of surrealism, magic realism, decadent work, etc.--when along comes New Weird. (See: The Third Alternative Harrison message boards, also the Night Shade boards.)

While I think that the perpetrators of this term are sincere in not wanting to use it to describe a movement, I believe the effect will be to create a movement--and to create a movement that is both limiting and somewhat drab. New Weird, in rejecting postmodern approaches and in believing specifically in the "surrender" of the reader to the text--i.e., no sense of play in which the writer reveals to the reader that both reader and writer know this is only a story being read--is perfectly legitimate. But it's also reactionary. This approach simply ignores the cross-pollination going on across the world at this moment. As such, New Weird will, if it becomes a movement, wind up boxing itself off from the rest of the world. It will define itself only in relation to the New Weird protocols and it will attempt to reject that which exists outside of itself. This may not be the intent of its founders, but it will be the result. That's simply how these things work. Now, granted, there will be plenty of authors who are defined as having produced New Weird work but who are not themselves New Weird--i.e., they also produce work that is not New Weird. But the problem is--they'll be stuck with it by that point. There may even be a kind of stultifying effect on the imaginations of those who profess to be New Weird--in a sense, the label becomes a straitjacket.

So, one asks, why don't surrealism or decadent or magic realism labels become a straitjacket in a similar way? I think in the case of surrealism and decadence the terms described a way of life as well as a type of literature--and it described not only literature, but all of the arts. In the case of magic realism, I'm not sure why it doesn't seem like a straitjacket. It might be because magic realism has come to mean any story in which an element of the fantastic enters into an otherwise realistic setting. Further, because these are established terms, a writer can use them to describe him or herself without fear of becoming tagged by a present-day, as-yet-untested terminology that might in future limit that writer's work. The terms are benign enough, in other words, to allow a certain amount of flexibility--and they aren't what you might call "hot button" terms.

Can New Weird be thought of as a good way to describe a "moment" as some have suggested, as a way to get our minds around what is happening right now in fantastical fiction? I would argue that it has limitations there as well. For the very reasons stated above--it in no way defines the entirety of what is going on in the field.

A good example would be The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod. A wonderful novel in a kind of Dickensian tradition mixed with many other influences. It's an amazingly well-written work, and it has many virtues. That it may not fit a certain political mindset or a particular definition of New Weird would seem to me to be beside the point--and yet one of the first things that occurred on the New Weird message board was an attempt to define the novel as New Weird or not New Weird. In fact, the debate about this issue is irrelevant. It in no way addresses the strengths of the book, and it simplifies the discussion about the book to a kind of for/against New Weird discussion. I would argue that this is the kind of discussion that will occur in genre if New Weird becomes an accepted "movement".

In any event, here's to a happy lack of labeling. Here's to diversity without name or number. Here's to the truly amazing things happening in fantastical literature today.

Jeff

4 Comments:

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