Thursday, March 03, 2005


Last year, Jack Dann approached me about doing an essay on the Romantic Underground for Nebula Awards Showcase 2005, which just came out this month. Essays about other major movements (or non-movements, as some may protest) such as the New Weird and the Interstitial would round out that section of the anthology, Jack said.

Now, I did not know I was a member of the Romantic Underground; nor had I ever heard of such a movement before. However, Jack had seen my name bandied about in connection with "RU", and thus the invite. I did a little double-checking to make sure I hadn't missed something, and then let Jack know that I'd be happy to do an essay, but that it might not be what he was expecting, and I'd understand if he couldn't use it.

The first page of what I finally sent him read as follows:

THE ROMANTIC UNDERGROUND: An Exploration of a Non-Existent and Self-Denying Non-Movement

Jeff VanderMeer

With apologies to my friends and colleagues in the various real "movements," "umbrellas," and "committees" mentioned in this essay, all of whom I regard with affection and respect.

Although the phrase "the romantic underground" is often attributed to Shelley and his minor poem "The Assignation of Lapels" (1819), the Romantic Underground actually began as an offshoot of the Decadent Movement in France. The first text identified with the Romantic Underground was Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), since claimed by the Symbolists.

As you might expect, Jack was surprised by my approach, but to his credit took the essay anyway, as it did, in a sense, fit his brief--although, since the RU didn't exist, the essay served to examine other current movements in a humorous way.

Humor is a great way to get one's point across without seeming pompous; it can also allow the recipient of a critical comment to perhaps laugh at the same time he's digging an arrow out of his ass. (And, to my great delight, at least one target in my RU essay has written to me telling me how much he liked the piece.)

But what I'm getting at is this: a few people have insinuated that my RU essay is a form of minor blasphemy--that in poking fun I am somehow lowering the level of discussion. Nothing, dear reader, could be further from the truth, as I think you'll see if you read the essay. If we can't laugh at ourselves--and I've poked fun at myself many times--then we're really too self-important to be taken seriously anyway. And if humor can't be conduit for serious discussion, then I don't want to participate in serious discussion.

At the end of my essay, there's a footnote that reads:

That said, it is worth noting the recent discovery of a new journal by Angela Carter. This journal may finally cut through the fog of denials to the core of the Romantic Underground movement. In the journal, Carter scrawled a list of points that seem uncannily like the recipe for the perfect literary movement. Could this be the manifesto of the Romantic Underground-nistas? It reads as follows:

1 - It should focus on individual works.
2 - It should include no works that do not fit its manifesto or mission statement.
3 - It should appeal to both the heart and the head, inciting passion and thought in equal measure.
4 - It should be blind to gender, race, and nationality.
5 - It should separate commerce from art and only operate at the level of art.
6 - It should encourage creativity and experimentation.
7 - It should partake equally of high and low culture.
8 - It should partake equally of high and low literature.
9 - It should do no harm to any writer.
10 - It should be both humble and arrogant, as appropriate.
11 - It should deny its own existence at all times.
12 - It should exist in the soul and spirit, heart and brain, of one writer at a time.
13 - It should express the bittersweet confluence of seriousness and humor, honesty and deception, that we all experience in life.

Perhaps this is one way of saying I don't believe in Movements but only individual writers.

It is also a way of saying we can do better and try harder--and that we shouldn't "settle" for whatever hazy aesthetic happens to be wafting around.

In the end, the Romantic Underground is deadly serious. And, I think, one of the best essays I've ever written. Check it out--along with very interesting and honest essays by China Mieville and others.


At 8:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder -- how many authors have I been reading lately and never knew that they were apart of the Romantic Underground??


At 5:54 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Great, just when I wrap my brain around New Weird, along comes the RU to muddle things even further!

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous MIke O. said...

Isn't RU a descriptive phrase for prostitution used by men who wish to make their indiscretions seem more acceptable? Makes a person wonder just what it was Jack Dann had been hearing about you. ;)

Kidding, of course.

Keep up the good work with the blog. So far it's the only author blog I've found that doesn't bore the hell out of me.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Whole crowd: "Yes! We're all individuals!"

Small voice: "I'm not."

Seriously, though... that's the best manifesto I've ever seen for writers.

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