Taxonomies of Fantasy

I promised mention of the other new book that has something from me in it. The book in question is Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthology, The New Weird. I’m in it because the VanderMeers include some material from the Night Shade message boards where, back in 2003, M. John Harrison started a debate about what “New Weird” meant. I was a little nervous about this because I’d forgotten what I said and some of that debate was quite acrimonious. However, all I’m quoted on is a couple of paragraphs about labels such as “New Weird” being useful as marketing tools. Much relief there.

As well as the usual collection of stories, the VanderMeers include a fair amount of background material on the history and philosophy of the New Weird. Obviously in order to do so they have to define what “New Weird” means. They also have to make a case for it being a useful categorization. In his introduction, Jeff makes the claim that while terms such as “Slipstream” and “Interstitial” are inventions with no particular meaning, “New Weird” has some sort of genetic history derived from its parents: Weird Fiction and New Wave SF. It wasn’t at all clear to me whether this was brilliant insight or a very clever ex-post rationalization based on a fortuitous pairing of words, but it did give Jeff something to talk around.

In a paper presented today, Gary Wolfe and Amelia Beamer take a rather different approach. They avoid coining any term at all for a movement or a sub-genre. Instead they examine a range of works by modern writers such as Kelly Link, Jeff Ford, Theodora Goss and M. Rickert, and try to find common features in their work. One such feature appears to be a use of genre tropes and plot elements without actually writing a genre story. Again it all sounded very clever.

And maybe it is also all navel gazing. But hey, if it encourages people to go out any buy good books, then it is worth doing.

2 thoughts on “Taxonomies of Fantasy

  1. Oh, it’s a brilliant insight, Cheryl. At the very least it is an honest, uncynical attempt to provide context for that particular moment in time. The problem with “clever ex-post rationalization” is that it infers a somewhat devious or dishonest intent on my part that is not part of my nature when it comes to either anthology projects or my own fiction. Which is to say, you could as easily argue that those in the tornado at the time, without the benefit of standing back and studying what happened, don’t have the perspective to really “get” it. Ann and I did step back, without any bias one way or the other, and examined the actual work, and the proliferation of it at a particular moment of time, and then documented that.

    The second thing you mention is not actually in opposition to or necessarily a different approach. But I would say that without a thorough reading of modern non-genre literary fiction, it would be impossible for Wolfe or anyone else to determine that any “non-genre” stories that just happen to be written by so-called “genre writers” actually contain genre themes and tropes…because you’d have no idea if those themes and tropes exist outside of “genre” or not.


  2. Hi Jeff – thanks for the clarification.

    As for the latter point, when people at ICFA talk about a “genre” story they are talking about something that conforms to one of the standard plot formulas of that particular genre. A story that contains a vampire isn’t necessarily a horror story – it has to set out to scare as well. So it is perfectly possible to argue that stories by the writers listed above, and others like them, are not “genre” stories even though they may contain a bunch of tropes that people would recognize as associated with genre fiction. You don’t need to read outside of the SF&F community to recognize that (though it is entirely possible that such stories are being written).

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