So What the Fuck Is This All About?
NOT A GENRE MANIFESTO!
but rather, an attempt to shallowly explicate this new genre, whatever it's called, thus far . . .
In October 2001 I sold my first short story to an interesting little
journal out of New York named Happy. It was a formally experimental
piece with a faux-recursive structure titled "We're Counting On You,"in
which a science fiction-ish device is used under the guise of the
supernatural to an end so bleakly horrific that it could only be
satirical. It featured artificial intelligence, a Pentecostal preacher,
S&M, a fraternity party, gay sex, and gerbil sacrifice all in less
than 1400 words.
While trolling the dark dungeons of the internet for other places to
publish my writing I ran across some zine-ish thing called The Earwig
Flesh Factory. It turned out to be published by an outfit called
Eraserhead Press, named for a David Lynch pic I still haven't seen. The
EHP site listed some more chapbooks but also some novels (with ISBNs
and everything!), mostly by some guy named Carlton Mellick III.(I
didn't know it then, and if you're still reading this chances are that
you don't know, that Carl Mellick is both the Johnny Appleseed and the
Johnny Rotten of this thing I am trying to explain. He's also our
Nyarlathothep and thankfully, NOT our Neal Cassady. I could also
rightfully compare Carl to both R. Crumb and Beavis, but Carl is
uniquely Carl, and despite that fact manages to make a living.) The
books had weird cover art and ridiculously provocative titles like
Satan Burger. What the fuck was this all about? I email the guy and he
told me that EFF was kaput, but that I should check out their webzine
The Dream People, which the website said was about perverted sex
fantasies. Ummm . . . no thanks.
Instead, I sent my writing to every listing in Writer's Market that
claimed to be interested in "adventurous" and "experimental" fiction.
With the notable exception of Happy, I received nothing but rejection
upon rejection. The few non-form rejections indirectly asked, What the
fuck is this all about?
By Summer of 2002 when "We're Counting On You" finally saw print, I was
putting the finishing touches on my first novel, Tangerinephant. It's
about an advertising executive in a make-believe future where the
relentless pursuit of money is the only force keeping society together
and people cybernetically modify themselves to have really weird sex.
From this my Tangerinephant is abducted by deranged aliens who force
him to reenact bad daytime TV from the 20th century. You could call
Tangerinephant sci-fi, except there's no science in it. The action was
kind of surrealist, but things followed logic, mostly. The language was
aggressively experimental, still intelligible. The plot seemed
absurdist, but it had a happy ending and was concerned with character
development. It was a book that I was proud of but could not imagine
the publisher who would risk printing it. Ace Science Fiction? My main
character came equipped with what can only be described an "anal
blade." Grove Press? They seem rather content to keep republishing the
formerly radical books they bought in the 60s whose authors are now
dead and can no longer collect royalties. McSweeneys? They're actually
pretty cool, but like to publish books that stand a chance of getting
reviewed in the New York Times. Xlibris? Please-- I wasn't that
The following November an editor friend of mine told me about a contest
being run by some web publication called Bold Type, the only criteria
be that the story needed to be under the word limit and prominently
feature a fish. BT turned out to be owned by Random House, but hey,
they were "bold" right? So I went for it. My entry was a funny little
story called "The Sainted Lady of the Sea" which featured not only a
fish, but a really big fish with a vagina! Also therein were global
warming, mermaid mythology, and randy pirates who make surprisingly
I never heard back from BT. A later reader would call my story "just
plain nasty and vile," which made my think again of The Dream People.
By then it had apparently been taken in a whole new direction. So I
submitted, and they liked it, as they would later like a story of mine,
conceived as the script of a comic book, about Ernest Hemingway
breeding giant killer housecats as he descends into alcoholic oblivion.
This kind of acceptance prompted me to take another look at EHP, which
had spun off TDP to another press entirely. Apparently Carl had gotten
tired of every weirdo with a manuscript knocking on his door and told
them to start their own damn companies if they wanted to see their work
printed so badly, so that's exactly what John Edward Lawson and
Jennifer Barnes did, setting up an outfit called RawDog Screaming
Press. Also, it turned out that EHP was running a first book contest.
So I entered. And waited.
In the meantime it started to dawn on me that something was brewing.
New venues for what had been previously unpublishable started to pop
up all around me. There was Bastard Fiction (R.I.P.); The New Absurdist
and bizarrEbooks (R.I.P.? Resurrected? Who knows?); a goth-ish affair
called The Dodsley Pages. Kevin Donihe was asking people for weird
story about walruses--excuse me, walri--- and The Dream People had
become a rather fertile spawning ground. Soon, I was guest-editing an
issue. I was in the middle of a new literary scene, witnessing the
emergence of a new genre of fiction that some call "bizarre," others
"irreal," or "new absurdism."
So, you ask, What the Fuck Is This All About?
Allow me to explain by way of example. Harlan Ellison was never a fan
of the phrase "science fiction," at least not when applied to his own
work. A more appropriate term, he felt, would be "surreal fantasy."
After all, even though the bad guy in "I Have No Mouth and I Must
Scream" was supercomputer, it might as well have been the devil. Nor
did H.P. Lovecraft like it when people called his stories
"supernatural"--he preferred "weird fiction"--because what did his
hateful cosmic nightmares have to do with Victorian ghosts and goblins?
And William S. Burroughs was not, despite what any prosecutor said, no
matter how explicit Naked Lunch got, a pornographer.
Those writers to not belong to us, but in some ways we clearly belong
to them, to the extent that we belong at all. On the Venn diagramof
literature I place us at the point where all the disreputable (and some
reputable) genres overlap. We're kind of sci-fi, but more concerned
with the aesthetics of technology than material prediction; magical
realism with a little too much of the former and not enough of the
latter; horror more interested in the grotesque than the macabre; stuff
that would be pornographic if it were in any way an attempt to be
sexually titillating. Very dark, but often funny, and while not always
in consensus with objective reality, making sense when taken on its own
terms. This stuff embraces the elbow room won by post-modernism while
tending to be entirely unacademic. We mix our metaphors when we feel
like it. D. Harlan Wilson may have a PhD in literary theory and most of
us have a decent grasp of it, but we try not to be snobs or assholes
On New Year's Eve 2003 I learned that I did not win the EHP 1st novel
contest, but I came close. Rose O'Keefe (by now EHP's "dominatrix in
chief") told me that they'd like to publish Tangerinephant anyway. That
never happened, because, as Nick Mamatas likes to put it "writers make
lousy accountants," but Carl & Rose were kind enough to put me in
touch with Karen Townsend, who was starting up her own press called
Afterbirth Books. Another runner-up in the 2003 contest, Alyssa
Sturgill's Spider Pie got picked up by RDSP.
As I write this my book is in print and many more like it are in
production, from myself, from writers I've mentioned in this essay, and
from people I haven't even heard of. This little rant may be over, but
this new type of literature, whatever you call it, is just beginning.
-Kevin Dole 2
June 19th, 2005