The cult section of the literary world

The State of Bizarro Report, vol. 1: What is Bizarro?

G. Arthur Brown is putting together a series that defines the history and purpose of Bizarro Fiction, which he will post periodically on his website. This is the first installment of The State of Bizarro Report, which should prove helpful to those looking for an analysis of the Bizarro genre from someone truly immersed in the scene.

A certain other blogger has been making a lot of claims about Bizarro recently, most of which are highly exaggerated or outright falsehoods. In the interest of giving some positive clarity to the matter, as well as some actual history, I’ve decided to put together just a couple of blog posts about it. If any of the information I give here is inaccurate, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me to correct the info.

That being said… where do we start?

A lot of people start with a seemingly simple question:

WHAT IS BIZARRO?

That’s a good question, but it’s not a simple question to answer, and that answer is inextricably tied to the origins and development of the Bizarro scene. The most basic attempt to give a guideline (and a guideline is far more important than a dictionary definition here) is this: Bizarro is the literary equivalent of the cult movie section of a local video store. This is a section full of lots of different, off-kilter, and genuinely strange movies by filmmakers like John Waters, David Lynch, Takashi Miike, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jan Svankmajer, David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin, Lloyd Kaufman, Terry Gilliam, and Yorgos Lanthimos.

That covers a lot of territory and some people find that confusing – everything from surreal art-house to low-budget shock films – but it’s hard to make it any clearer in less than a thousand words of explanation. Recently, when I used that rule of thumb, the person asking responded that this guideline was “uselessly broad.” And I responded, “Well if American Psycho, The Wolf Man, Dead Alive, Jacob’s Ladder, Scream, Shaun of the Dead, Jaws, Videodrome, and Critters are all the same genre, how usefully narrow is that?”

EVERY genre is extremely broad, and until you understand the associated elements and the aesthetic you won’t get it. All Bizarro could be classified in other genres, though not necessarily in a way that’s sensible. Just like one person might argue that American Werewolf in London is a Comedy movie first and a Horror movie second, or that Bone Tomahawk is a Western first and Horror second, Bizarro is one particular metric that overlaps with a lot of other genres. And that metric is WEIRDNESS. If the appeal of something is that it is entertainingly weird, then it is Bizarro. Period. Regardless of whatever other elements are in play from any other genre or style. A lot of Bizarro is trangressive, or surreal, or absurd, or grotesque, or perverse, or incorporates horrific elements, but none of these have ever been required for a book to be considered Bizarro, only weirdness.

Is a category of weird books useful? If you don’t think so, then Bizarro may not be for you. This is a category that didn’t necessarily happen by design – just like Lynch didn’t decide at the outset to be a cult filmmaker – but it is also not something that happened by accident. Bizarro coalesced when a tiny group of writers and small presses noticed there was a growing amount of hard-to-classify underground lit that shared some similarities. There were “Horror” authors whose work was far more weird than scary, and often darkly humorous. There were authors writing with elements of Sci-Fi that focused less on the science and more on the general weirdness of the world it allowed them to create. There were authors doing almost experimental literature that was too low-brow to be taken seriously in the academic scene and used genre elements that ghetto-ized it. And they looked around to more popular authors who were hard-to-classify like Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Roald Dahl, or Joe Lansdale, and they decided that not only was there already a genre of weird in existence, but it needed a label so that people who were into weird stuff could find it more easily.

So three presses got together and decided to brand their releases as Bizarro. It was extremely small at first, mainly limited to authors already involved with Eraserhead, Raw Dog Screaming, or the now defunct Afterbirth Books. This was 2005, when “Bizarro” was picked as the genre tag for all these previously misclassified books. Those first Bizarro authors had already been writing Bizarro since the early 2000s or even the 90s, but they’d never had a name for it. They’d never had a convenient way to communicate to readers what their stuff was all about. Bizarro, as a label, changed that.

Now, for a lot of authors whose work doesn’t fit into traditional genres, Bizarro provides a haven and an opportunity to reach an audience that they may not have known existed before there was a rallying point, a short hand, a brand name. I didn’t set out to write Bizarro. I know that I am not alone. I started out just writing stories that were too weird to get accepted by the Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Lit markets I’d been submitting them to. I was getting rejected because I was submitting to the wrong places, not realizing how bizarre my work was by core genre standards. When I found Bizarro, I found the appropriate market for my work. And I was way late in the game compared to progenitors like Carlton Mellick III, Kevin L. Donihe, John Edward Lawson, D. Harlan Wilson, or Gina Ranalli. But I came to Bizarro the same way they did: seeking an outlet for a voice too weird to make it in other markets. If I hadn’t found Bizarro, I might have eventually given up on ever getting published. You can only take so many rejections before you feel like your work must suck. And it’s very hard to tell, especially with form rejections, if the problem is the quality of your work or that you aren’t writing what the markets are looking for. If no other market is looking for your work, YOU are probably Bizarro.

Now, when I first heard of Bizarro and started to look into what it was about circa 2009, I was immediately skeptical. I looked around and got the impression that it was the paperback equivalent of Troma films and IN-YOU-FACE Gwar videos dripping with green hog semen. But this was not accurate. There were those books, don’t get me wrong, and I’m not shitting on authors who write those kinds of books, but at the time it seemed to me that my weird was different from their weird.

I started to explore some Bizarro books and I was pleasantly blown away. The genre was incredibly diverse, and even titles that screamed GONZO SLIME EXPLOITATION were actually books that defied my expectations. There was something going on in this scene much deeper than superficial shock humor. There was an undercurrent of weirdness that ran through this material, from one end of the spectrum to the other. There were weird children’s books and weird romances. There were incredibly well written books with cuss words in the title. It was hard for me to process. But once I got it, I had found my home.

From the time I got involved in Bizarro in 2012, the scene has only grown more diverse, more vibrant, and more creative. If anyone tells you anything else they are selling something. There are still plenty of shockingly extreme titles to choose from, as well as fabulously weird magical realism, weird noir, pop culture absurdity, high-brow strangeness, and even absurd Bizarro erotica that you can’t imagine anyone jilling off to. There are so many flavors of weird here, I can hardly believe it.

And in closing the section, I’d like to visually list just a few TOTALLY BODACIOUS AND RADICALLY IN YOUR FACE TITLES that came out in the last five years, showing definitively that the Bizarro scene is not dead, oh no it’s not.

2 responses

  1. Ed

    Well thought. Not aware of any inaccuracies. Not a “Bizarro” writer, but have conversed with some of the malcontents of the genre; one who used the terms “insular” and “clannish.” For me and I suspect most honestly speaking writers, I don’t really care about that; but I do care about the remuneration. There are loads of on-line “publishers” who’ll take your book for $50 or less. Then you’re published. Wowee. I have noted that the star, Mr. Mellick, is now going to traditional sources. Some discussion of economics would be useful.

    January 16, 2017 at 12:04 pm

  2. Ed

    BTW, I believe that “certain other blogger” to whom you probably referred, has said that Bizarro is controlled by 5 people in Portland; that since about 2009 it has become “politically correct,” and there is more money to be made self-publishing; the latter now also true of traditionally published middlers.

    I mean, so like what’s the big deal here? The weirdo market may be a miniscule niche which may have peaked a few years ago. Now, it’s just a place to cheaply dump what won’t fly elsewhere.

    January 16, 2017 at 2:17 pm

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