Weird Fiction in the 21st Century: A Conversation with S. T. Joshi
by Alex Houstoun
(Note: the following has been excerpted from Dead Reckonings no. 25. The full interview is only available in the printed issue. Sorry.)
Having established himself as one of the leading critics, if not the lead critic, of weird fiction in the 20th century, S. T. Joshi is now looking to document, and dissect, the genre and its writers of the 21st century. His recent book, 21st-Century Horror: Weird Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, is an exploration of the renaissance weird writing has undergone in recent decades along with sharp analysis the work of notable authors in the field. In true Joshi fashion, the book is divided into three categories of authors — the “Elite,” the “Worthies,” and the “Pretenders” — and as generous as he is in his praise for those deemed deserving, 21st-Century Horror similarly showcases his (in)famous “satirical criticism” in response to those authors and works that he finds to bloated, hackish, messes.
Not content to seemingly take a moment to breath — in the course of our correspondence, S. T. suggested he is currently juggling at least a half-dozen congruent projects by my count — S. T. was willing to take time over a series of weeks to speak with me via email about 21st-Century Horror, the simultaneous harsh and liberating financial realities of writing weird fiction, and the current state of criticism in the field.
AH: Here we are, nineteen years in to the 21st century and we have our first book studying weird fiction in this millennium. It is remarkable! You write in the introduction that there has been an “explosion of weird writing in this new century” which seems to be due in part to the “bewilderingly wide range of what today is regarded as weird fiction.” Do you have a theory as to what may have lead to this explosion or the broadening concept of what constitutes weird fiction? Are there other factors that have helped contribute to this proliferation in the genre?
STJ: I believe there are a multitude of factors involved in the proliferation of weird fiction over the past few decades. Paradoxically, the end of the horror “boom” of the 1970s and 1980s may have aided in this process, by weeding out many of the hacks and wannabes (who, now that weird writing was no longer commercially viable, went into other fields or drifted away from hack writing altogether and got honest jobs), leaving the field open for sincere strivers. I also think that the extensive reprinting of the classics of weird fiction (stretching back to Poe, and going on to Ambrose Bierce, Lovecraft, Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, and many others) allowed contemporary writers to return to the roots of weird writing and also to gain some idea of what kind of fiction had worked in the past. Some of the best weird writing today is an adaptation of classic motifs to present-day circumstances. The proliferation of good writing has led to the expansion of small-press outlets (mostly book publishers rather than magazines), many of whom are doing outstanding work. No one is making a lot of money at the game, but a substantial amount of highly meritorious work is being generated — along, of course, with a certain quantity of rubbish.
AH: I fear this is going to be somewhat obvious, but I am curious if you feel that the Internet has also played a significant role in the current state of weird fiction both as a resource that allows people to discover the classics and also as a way to establish communities in which writers and readers are able to find likeminded people as well as being exposed to new material. In particular, it seems to me that a lot of the success of small-press outlets has had to do with the Internet as it has made it easier for people to start their own small-press operations and readers to find that material. This book may be a good example of that! You are publishing this book through Sarnath Press which you describe on your website as a “micro-imprint” that you established to issue some of your writings that you “do not wish to burden other presses with, and also to issue some multi-volume projects . . . that would be impractical to publish by ordinary means.” Given the mission statement, it certainly seems that, if not for independent publishing, there may not be an outlet for some of your work.
STJ: Well, yes, the Internet — and computer technology in general — has been a great boon to small-press publishing. That has both its good and bad sides. I am old enough to remember when, in the 1960s and 1970s, small presses in our field were still trying to make do with such primitive reproductive methods as mimeograph or even ditto. The early publications by Necronomicon Press were incredibly crude affairs — the pages reproduced on a photocopy machine (one side of the page only) and stapled at the side. So a magazine or book publisher today can certainly make use of newer technology and produce a handsome-looking project at relatively minimal expense.
That said, the conundrum in the small press (whether in our field or elsewhere) is the simple but monumental issue of financial viability. In other words, how does one make any money by the process, whether it be online sites (which are generally free) or small-press publications on Kindle or other such venues where the price is expected to be extremely low? Even the very few small presses that appear to be financially profitable (e.g., Centipede Press) seem to manage only by producing extremely expensive limited editions. The upshot is that very few people — whether it be authors or editors or publishers — can actually make a living by writing or publishing in the small press. I do so only by sheer quantity production: I have published close to 280 books, very few of which have sold more than a few hundred copies. My Sarnath Press imprint allows me to issue work at literally no cost, since the books are published through Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle platforms. But, correspondingly, I make relatively little money from them (although I suppose I could make more if I took the trouble to do more advertising and publicity). But the field is not in good shape if many of its major practitioners only do their work as a hobby.
AH: This “simple” issue of financial viability appears to play a large role in 21st-Century Horror. As you previously noted, weird fiction is no longer the commercially viable genre it was during the horror “boom” and you write in the book’s introduction that weird short stories have “never been a marketable commodity.” This provides the format with a major benefit: “it allows authors to write pretty much what they wish, without thought of selling their work to a large and indiscriminate audience.”
In 21st-Century Horror you analyze the work of authors as organized in three categories: the “Elites,” the “Worthies,” and the “Pretenders.” Of the “elite” category you acknowledge that it is “no accident” that five of the six authors in the category are “almost entirely devoted to short fiction.” In contrast, five of the six authors in your “pretenders” categories are known for novels and the category is generally populated with the authors who are probably the most commercially and financially successful of those covered in the book.
Can you explain your process for arranging the book and how you decided upon these three categories? Do you think the difference between the “elites” and the “pretenders” is the preference of short fiction over novels or is it in the difference in writing what one wishes to write versus writing for a large audience?
STJ: My use of the three categories in my book was somewhat ex post facto. I started out by simply trying to figure out which authors I should treat in a book of this kind. First, I wished to avoid discussing those authors I had already talked about (even if briefly) in Unutterable Horror. (I did make an exception for Laird Barron and Jonathan Thomas, whom I had discussed in that earlier book; they had both done further work that I felt it worth analysing.) Second, I wished to focus on authors whose work appeared predominantly in the 21st century rather than earlier (this compelled me to leave out such a writer as Jack Ketchum, who started publishing in the 1980s). Finally, I felt the need to focus on authors who were either intrinsically meritorious (on purely aesthetic grounds) and/or on those who were prominent in the field for one reason or another.
It turned out that a fair number of authors who ended up being relegated to my “pretenders” category were predominantly novelists; but that may be happenstance. Adam Nevill made the “elite” list, although he is almost entirely known for his novels — and they are, on the whole, commercially successful in the UK. Jonathan Thomas, Gemma Files, and Michael Aronovitz have written at least one novel that is magnificent, although the bulk of their best work is in the short story or novelette. So it certainly can’t be said that the mere act of writing novels (even novels consciously written to appeal to a wide audience) necessarily consigns an author to the “pretenders” category. Indeed, several of the writers in that category (Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, Jeff VanderMeer) appear to have lofty reputations, and my less than flattering assessment of their work was meant to reflect a certain contrarian opinion as to their actual merits.
AH: Speaking of aesthetics, you write that you see “no other viable way to establish literary merit” than turning to “abstract aesthetic considerations” and that the only means of measurement you know of to “winnow out the meritorious from the mediocre” is “pure aesthetic achievement (as opposed to popular appeal or other adventurous traits).”
I recognize that this is a subject you have written about at length in prior works but, for the unfamiliar, can you expound a little on these “considerations” and the particular role they play in assessing a work of weird fiction?
STJ: By purely aesthetic considerations I am referring to basic questions about a text that need to be answered before we can gauge whether it is a meritorious piece of work or not. Does the prose idiom of the work effectively convey the author’s message (and I am well aware that there are many ways to write good prose, whether it be the austerity of Hemingway to the lushness of Poe and Lovecraft)? Are the characters vital and vividly portrayed? Is the work’s structure compact and efficient, free of extraneous elements (i.e., Poe’s “unity of effect”)? Most significantly, is the author actually attempting to say something meaningful about human life and its relations to the cosmos, rather than writing a tale merely designed to keep the average reader turning those pages? In the specifically weird realm, is the supernatural component of the work (if there is one) original and not hackneyed, and do all its manifestations in the tale harmonise into a unity rather than being random and incoherent? No doubt there are other such questions, but these will suffice to indicate the kind of questions I tend to ask of a text.
For decades there has been a growing tendency in academic criticism (and especially academic scholarship) to shy away from questions of this sort, lest the critic come off as “elitist” or judgmental. And more recently, both academic critics and others seem to value certain other traits in a literary work that strike me as largely adventitious or extraneous; specifically, whether the text conveys a certain sociopolitical orthodoxy. Indeed, much academic criticism now seems entirely focused on questions of race, class, and gender — issues that strike me as more the domain of sociology than of literary criticism.
In effect, this emphasis on aesthetic considerations gets to the very heart of my own critical enterprise. From the beginning of my career as a critic I have attempted to sort the good from the bad, the innovative from the trite, the substantial from the ephemeral. The Weird Tale (1990), The Modern Weird Tale (2001), and Unutterable Horror (2012) were largely written on this premise. I now recognise that this is a central function of criticism. The very word “criticism” is derived from the Greek verb kritein — which originally meant “to divide” (e.g., a piece of land), but later developed the meaning of “to distinguish, to discriminate” (e.g., between the meritorious and the mediocre). And I also recognise that this task requires both the vaunting of the meritorious and the exposure of the mediocre. I have stated until I am blue in the face that my judgments are largely suggestive rather than prescriptive; I am always open to contrary opinions, if they are cogently argued.
The full piece is available in Dead Reckonings no. 25.
Alex Houstoun is a co-editor of Dead Reckonings.
S. T. Joshi is the author of such critical studies as The Weird Tale (1990), H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990), and Un- utterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012). He has prepared corrected editions of H. P. Lovecraft’s work for Arkham House and annotated editions of the weird tales of Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, and Clark Ashton Smith for Penguin Classics, as well as the anthology American Supernatural Tales (2007).