16 July 2011

History of Bizarro Part 1: the Early Years

Bizarro. The word is most familiar to comic book fans, referring to the strange world of DC Comics' Superman where everyone and everything is flipped around and distorted including the eponymous Man of Steel's counterpart, who is of course named simply Bizarro.

The references in popular culture abound. Perhaps most famous of all, the episode of the 1990's situation comedy “Seinfeld” where the main characters found their Bizarro counterparts. Tens if not hundreds of mentions and nods to the illogical and mind-bending realm of Bizarro-world came before and after, but none sticks in the public consciousness quite as firmly due to “Seinfeld's” relative popularity.

So why then name a fledgling genre of fiction “Bizarro”? There are many reasons one could list “why not”, but what was the reason a group of small and independent presses decided to place this label on their work?

Publisher Rose O'Keefe (Eraserhead Press) said it best in a 2005 post to the Mondo Bizarro forum (http://mondobizarro.yuku.com/topic/362):

“It's all about the audience. A lot of people love this type of work but have difficulty finding it. They don't even know what to call it. Well, by creating the Bizarro genre this just makes it easier for readers to find Bizarro books and films. It also makes marketing to the Bizarro audience a bit easier.”

Weeks later on the same forum, author Kevin Dole 2 (Tangerinephant) posted an essay entitled “So What the Fuck is this All About?” Some fans and critics have said this piece is a “manifesto”(Dole firmly denies this before the essay begins), when in reality it is a history lesson on the early days before the term “Bizarro” was adopted.

As Dole classified it as “copyleft”, I present the whole of the essay here (http://mondobizarro.yuku.com/topic/968?l=1):

I realize that most of you have probably already read this, but I thought that I'd re-post my essay here for posterity seeing as it was in a way the impetus for this board. Consider it copylefted--- feel free to link to, replicate and distribute as necessary.


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 desperate.

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 moral decisions.

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 about it.

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


To be continued...

8 comments:

Bradley Sands said...
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Bradley Sands said...

Actually Kevin Dole posted his essay before the phrase was coined. The post that you linked to on the Mondo Bizarro forum is a repost of the essay that originally appeared on his livejournal. His essay was the reason why the phrase was coined. It made people start brainstorming about what to call the genre. I think Carlton Mellick came up with the phrase and it stuck.

Bradley Sands said...

This interview talks about the events: http://mondobizarro.yuku.com/topic/941/Living-the-Bizarro-Life

Bradley Sands said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bradley Sands said...

Oops.

http://rdsp.livejournal.com/42785.html

Bradley Sands said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bradley Sands said...

Actually it looks like I changed my username to bradleysands in the middle of that conversation since I posted under both usernames.

(Sorry for the multiple posts and the deleted comments)

The Pueschel said...

Yeah, I knew KD's essay was an earlier work, unfortunately short of querying the Wayback Machine this was the earliest available part I could find. Thanks for the additional details, though. Fascinating stuff.