10Jan

That Old New Weird

It’s surfaced again, an interesting debate of the New Weird. The article linked to is a little more spurious. I’ve said it before so I’ll say it again:

… the New Weird was a bit of a misnomer – a stillborn literary movement which these days just leads to rejection letters. In editorial offices, the NW died years ago…

If you’re a new writer, I think it’s probably best to remember that, and save yourself a world of pain – I speak with my own rejection letters in hand, and the guiding voice of my agent. (If the editors don’t like it, you can bet the bookchains don’t either – so forget any marketing value.)

Of course I loved whatever the hell it was – probably just books written by China and Jeff, ultimately, and which is not to deny their obvious successes. All the rest is just genre taxonomy, best left to those who care for such arcane arts.

I will of course admire any movement within the genre that attempts to do something different, and that isn’t merely reducible to aesthetic values.

Move along now. There’s nothing to see here.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

12 comments

  1. OK, I might be coming into this a little naive but I don’t write to match a label. Heck, I mash up genres like a kid at a drinks machine on free vend, but only because that’s what the story dictates. I love Clive Barker’s stuff and to some that’s Horror, to some it’s fantasy and to some it’s New Weird, and in truth it’s probably a little of all of them. Seriously, what writer sits down and says “I want to write a New Weird story” when planning their next short or novel?

    There has to be a form of commercialism to stories in order for it to sell, but you know what… if it doesn’t sell, it’s simply just not “good enough”. I’ve had short pieces that I’ve failed to sell that I thought were some of the best I’ve ever done and really represented me and what I want to achieve as a writer (and trust me – I’m my own worst critic). So you know what I have to do… go and write better stories, give myself a night to sit and mope over my rejections then pick myself up and write something better.

    I’m not saying that’s easy – at times it feels bloody impossible – but if I wanted easy, I’d never have wanted to be a writer.

  2. Oh Genre Taxonomy, how you ruffle my feathers so!

  3. I wouldn’t go so far as to say its dead. For me Steampunk was as stillborn as The New Weird. There was the original stuff and people were talking about it but it was more of a fashion style than a genre movement. There was some vague stuff that might be Steambunk but there wasn’t much and it wasn’t definite.

    Now though with Priest’s Boneshaker, Mann’s The Affinity Bridge and Stephen Hunts (just a few of the steampunk titles on my shelf in front of me) it’s clear that the steampunk subgenre has some lasting power.

    There are the authors that write the first stuff (in this case Jeff and China) but there is a growing process during which other authors figure out how to tell interesting stories within these new genres. One or two books can carry themselves purely on revolutionary ideas. After that the writing and the storytelling comes in.

    Was SF stillborn when only Verne and Wells were writing it?

    Don’t give it to Eric Idle quite yet.

  4. Adrian – well, when I first started out I was consciously wanting to be part of that movement. Which, incidentally, covered writers such as Al Reynolds, too, so it’s myth that it’s limited to just fantasy fiction. All I’m suggesting is for new writers to just forget about sticking that tag on their work.

    Aidan – You love it.

    Patrick – the NW isn’t a term you can use like Steampunk. It was the genre equivalent of saying “take my work more seriously because I’m doing something a little different”. An attempt to raise itself (respectfully) above any pulp origins. Steampunk you can put brass knobs on and walk into a bookstore and people know what you’re on about. It’s an aesthetic movement. It’s even got it’s own damn clothing line.

    It would be more productive if people just tried to pool together weird authors in a lineage from Lovecraft and Peake – and only then in a cladistical experiment.

  5. Couldn’t agree more Mark. (Yaaay! Finally!)

    Graham Joyce said it best at the time:

    ‘This New Weird looks an awful lot like the ‘old peculier’ to me’.

    There has always been (and always will be and should be) room for the genuinely strange and weird in fiction. And, almost by definition (though perhaps paradoxically), it will always be a subset of the fantastic that puts off more readers than it attracts. Hence the New Weird’s days as a new movement upon which its authors could ride into the sunlit uplands of bestsellerdon were always very much numbered.

    As with any other genre/marketing label good books that could be described as being part of it will survive the labelling.

  6. Mark – I guess that’s true. It’s more categorization by everything its not rather than what it is.

  7. I knew we would eventually, Simon!

    There’s something admirable about its efforts, though. Something in that spirit really appeals to me. What I find interesting is how few people have actually heard of it these days.

  8. Indeed. But that spirit (the urge for genuine weirdness) is best exercised independently of a movement, especially when that movement is actually little more than a notion that was then twisted into a marketing tool.

    It’s like having an Anarchist’s Society.

  9. Here’s to any future autonomous zones within the genre.

  10. Mark,

    Just finished Nights and really enjoyed it. Thank you for pushing the boundaries of both the conventions of the genre as well as its style. I got the odd feeling that you were somewhat restrained and am hoping that since you’ve popped the publishing cherry, so to speak, you’ll be less so in the future.

    I suppose I’m in the minority (or else the fantasy landscape would be much different), but I have a hard time finding genre novels fresh enough to satisfy me.

    It’s odd that plenty of fantasy is marketed as mainstream literary so long as it’s tied to the *real* world. Consider Mark Helprin, Michael Chabon, Susanna Clarke, just for example.

    Also, I wonder how many fantasy authors who have been been influenced by such “greats” as Saramago, Borges, Doris Lessing, Algernon Blackwood, Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon, H.P. Lovecraft, (and others who dabbled in fantasy or the weird) would or could publish a novel actually set in another world but not constrained by the aesthetic or plot structures of the genre.

    And how big of an audience would there be for such an endeavor? I’ve heard the SFF readership likened to children accustomed to one particular brand of baby food who can’t be weaned off it. Maybe this is a pitfall of escapist literature, in that the audience is only willing to be challenged to a certain point. And yet the genre isn’t “serious” enough for many mainstream readers. Rambling a bit, but would be very interested in thoughts on this.

  11. Hi Nate, Thanks very much! Yes, I was a little restrained – you’ll probably see as much in the next book, which is rather different :)

    I think sometimes it’s worth looking at the small presses for the more literary genre novels. PS Publishing, for example, have a history of interesting, more experimental tomes – and they can afford to, because they don’t have the sales expectations/requirements of major publishers. But you’re right to an extent about the constraints – however, I’d go so far as to say that’s the case for the bulk of commercial fiction.

    I wouldn’t like to second-guess the tastes of all readers (SF, Crime etc), but I think a good chunk of them like familiarity when they approach a book or series. They like to immerse themselves in a setting or a character, and if they like it, they want more of it.

    Tolkien is also responsible, I’d say, for a lot of this in fantasy – and not necessarily in a bad way. It sold millions of copies and had such an impact, so many readers kept on wanting that similar, secondary world, deep experience with a vast story. And it’s like a drug that people are looking for a similar hit. That explains the success of writers such as Brooks, Eddings, Jordan, Feist. Which is not to say those individual novels can’t be experimental or serious.

    But you know, I don’t always buy that the SFF readership (the large majority) don’t like to be challenged. Authors such as China Miéville are a success, and that implies there are a lot of readers who like something very weird and different.

    It’s also up to editors to make sure more of these authors come through – but then they have sales teams to answer to. If Simon is still around in the comments, I’m sure he’d explain. :)

  12. The short answer is we can (and do) publish authors who challenge their readers, we simply can’t pay them as much money as we do those who don’t.

    Perhaps surprisingly our sales force often relish selling something that their buyers can really get their teeth into, just so long as editorial haven’t asked them to sell as many copies of it as they did the last commercial ‘fat fantasy’ or the like.

    That may sound like preparing for failure but it really isn’t. You simply can’t base a publishing strategy on one-off lit-fantasy mega successes like Strange and Norrell.

    You want to challange readers don’t be surprised that some of them choose not to be challanged.

    Also it’s worth pointing out that China’s extraordinary and deserved status as a standard bearer of this sort of fiction perhaps outweighs his (still impressive) sales figures.

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