28Aug

Has Anyone Seen The New Weird?

I’ve said before that the New Weird was a stillborn movement, but it was still the only conscious literary movement in fantasy for considerable time.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a belle lettristic rant, and I want to keep away from its taxonomy.

When I first started out writing fantasy, six or so years ago, it was an exciting period. Riding on the back of the New Wave, a whole host of names were writing challenging fantasy fiction – China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Steph Swainston, K.J. Bishop. Fantasy suddenly started doing other things, started veering away from the traditional secondary worlds. Entertainment was still part of it, of course, but here were writers who also tried to do more with the genre, to use fantasy for various literary themes, to give extra credibility to people looking in on the genre. As a newbie to the world of writing, it helped me think of the layers and themes within my own work. Suddenly fantasy could do a lot more: it had political or post-modern or cultural influences. Fantasy fiction went out looking for some respect.

And then… the movement as a conscious collective (was it even that?) fizzled out. No sooner had it come then people were announcing it was over. For my part, you submitted a manuscript consciously saying those two words – New and Weird – and you were writing your own rejection slip. Of course, many of those writing such fiction are still writing fantasy fiction.

So what happened to the New Weird – or at the very least a conscious literary movement within the fantasy genre? Did readers not embrace it? Was it sucked into other sub-genres such as urban fantasy? I don’t buy the latter argument, because to me it was not merely a cheap aesthetic.

The last I heard of it was in Jeff’s anthology. I even feel vaguely nostalgic reading the product description: “a clear portrait of a multi-faceted and undefinable sub-genre and a statement that good literature has no boundaries.”

Perhaps I’m just a sucker for literary movements, because these things certainly keeps readers and writers on their toes. But anyway, if you see the New Weird, tell it I said hello.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.
  • http://thewertzone.blogspot.com/ Adam Whitehead

    I’m not sure if the New Weird was ever really a ‘movement’ at all. To some extent the New Weird tropes had been in use for decades earlier, by the likes of Moorcock, Harrison and arguably Vance (meaning if you accept that, that it predates Lord of the Rings ;-) ). It just seems that, for whatever reason, a bunch of books all seemed to come out at the same time around the turn of the millennium employing some of those same ideas and now the release of new books centred around those ideas seems to have dropped back to a lower level, especially since those authors you cite have not been as prolific as was really needed to keep the steamroller going. Mieville and his world of Bas-Lag was the standard-bearer for the New Weird, but it’s been half a decade since we last visited Bas-Lag and his subsequent books have been lower in profile.

    There is also an argument, I think, that some of the New Weird tropes have been absorbed by the mainstream of Urban and Epic/secondary world fantasy. Your own book seems to have been firmly categorised as a secondary world fantasy with some New Weird ideas, whilst Erikson could be argued to have some very New Weird-esque ideas in his MALAZAN novels, but they have always been categorised as epic fantasy. Scott Lynch also seems to have flirted with some New Weird imagery in his books, even if the plots and characters are firmly epic fantasy in nature.

    However, I suspect that what really happened is that the New Weird was never really that marketable or profitable compared to epic and urban fantasy, and publishers pursued the subsequent rise of the ‘New’ Fantasy (sometimes incorporating a small number of New Weird ideas) and the new, post-Twilight, post-Night Watch urban fantasy more vigorously as it is more profitable.

  • http://blog.markcnewton.com Mark C Newton

    Hi Adam,

    Interesting you mention the ‘New’ Fantasy, because for me I’m hearing it mostly from the publishers, and not the writers. For the New Weird, it was clearly about the literature and the writers, and not necessarily a sales tool.

    I think focussing on the aesthetics does the NW a disservice though (it always seemed much more than that). Not so much a movement, more a collective – perhaps as you say, just published at around the same time – but there was at least some energy to get excited about the literary content.

    I suspect my second book will have me very firmly back in NW territory, incidentally. :)

  • http://alexcarnegie.blogspot.com/ Alex Carnegie

    Perhaps I’m oversentimentalising it all and this will no doubt come across as quaintly idealistic but I see New Weird not so much as a “dead” movement or a category (marketing or otherwise) but more a moment, a turning point. I think that’s where its true worth lies, as an idea (or set of ideas well but perhaps not definitively stated by Jeff in the anthology) that continue to subtly infect much of the best Fantasy writing to this day. New Weird will never be dead as long as there are writers, like you and Felix Gilman for instance, questioning convention and pushing things forward, influenced by the values and spirit of the New Weird. It was an important event and I think that the ripples that it cast are more important than whether it might still strictly be said to alive as a movement or a genre. It has already served and continues to serve as much of a purpose as anyone might wish.

  • Jeff VanderMeer

    Mark: I found NW–it’s eating its way out of your book!

  • http://blog.markcnewton.com Mark C Newton

    It was there all along?

    It’s a sneaky beastie… Keep it to one side, I want to have a word or two with it.

  • http://thewertzone.blogspot.com/ Adam Whitehead

    Incidentally, we’ve just had Nick Harkaway’s GONE-AWAY WORLD come out and be a big success, and I’ve encountered a lot of talk about it being ‘New Weird’ in nature, if not in marketing speak (the publishers smartly got it on the mainstream shelves). Swainston and Mieville both had new books out in the last year, it’s not too long since we had Hal Duncan’s INK and of course we had NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR just a few months ago, as well as new writers like Felix Gilman emerging. Plus it might be a tribute to a book published sixty years ago, but SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH (including Mr. VanderMeer’s contribution) is New Weird to its core :)

    So it could be argued that the New Weird is very much still around at the moment, it’s just a bit quieter than it has been in the past.

  • http://blog.markcnewton.com Mark C Newton

    I think it’s good to talk about books that may or may not be part of the NW, but there’s little conscious effort to be part of any movement, nor is there much drive to experiment with the genre. Or to even get people talking about genre in terms other than aesthetics…

  • Shaun

    It might grow again at some point when all those young epic fantasy-, Potter-, and Twilight-lovers develop an interest for more complex stuff. I think Weird is not exactly a favorable term these days. The internet seems to work towards a homogenisation of the masses. Everything has to be smooth, shiny and harmless.

    But generally I think that there is something “weird” in any good book. From the movie-trailer I’d say that there is some truly weird stuff in Harry Potter (Voldemort’s transmutations). It seems to be quintessential to art, even. Weird Fiction is just putting a special emphasis on it, embraces the darker parts of it and makes some formal adjustments.

    But these are just random ramblings.

  • http://blog.markcnewton.com Mark C Newton

    Hi Shaun,

    Interesting points. And I suppose that’s one silver-lining to the Twilight phenomenon…

    Do you think that fantasies today need to be harmless and palatable enough to succeed, because of such a culture?

  • Shaun

    I thought there was some mitigation in the “agenda” of more obscure genres in literature and music since the spreading of the internet. In some ways, this is very positive (like in some genres of heavy metal music, which had starkly dogmatic and antisocial leanings in the 80’s and 90’s, which is mostly ridiculed these days). But on the other hand, there seems to be a greater demand for decidedly unserious literature that doesn’t even try to be original, but just a pleasant mass product, that is a linear continuation of where the last trend set off (a book about orcs, about elves, magicians, black magicians, thieves, vampires …). Originality or artistry are no longer real criteria, but they get indiscriminately subordinated to how “pleasant” a book is to read.

    But I think the influence of the internet was just a subjective idea I had, that can more easily and sufficiently be summarised with mainstream and all that falls outside of it. At least I’m not capable to make prolific use of it at the moment.