Monday 19 September 2011

S is for Surrealism

After the recent death of my favourite visual artist of all time, Mexican painter Leonora Carrington, at the age of 94, “Surrealism” has usurped the many other candidates for speculative fiction sub-genres beginning with the letter “S” that could have made it into this blog marathon. In many ways this art form needs no one to defend its inclusion in a magazine focusing on social-political and weird writing: it shares with magic realism a respectable history of worldwide, cosmopolitan, intellectual and fiercely political practitioners. The earliest surrealists were protesting against the reactionary, against bourgeois materialism and fascist imperialism, which are high among the enemies we array ourselves against. And surrealist works are by definition “weird”, in every sense, containing as they do unrealistic details, counter-intuitive settings and events, and stories that tell a story with tone and imagery more than with linear plot and rational representations of the human condition. (It’s for this reason that I’ve never seen the point of recent pseudo-genres like “bizarro”, whose claim to create outside of the restrictions of genre or good taste do nothing that surrealism has not done before, and usually do it not as interestingly. Sub-genres like absurdism, magical realism and the dreamlike weird tale do a better job of taking the struggle forward.)

Contrary to André Breton, most good surrealist work is not “automatisme psychique pur”, or automatic writing. Paintings like Dali’s or Carrington’s are superbly crafted by well-trained draftsmen; perhaps the origin of a surreal story may be a dreamlike or unconscious mental state, but the execution is usually very well planned and polished. Most truly automatic writing is pretty unreadable; even if from the pen of a great stylist or poet, the lack of structure and story divorces it from most interest. Writing is after all an act of communication, which usually requires at least two actors; if the reader is not a party to this act of communication, the writing is likely to fail. Surreal or semi-surreal stories that we have published (e.g. ‘Wingspan’, ‘Omega, maybe’, ‘Wings so Foreign’) have had a very clear plot as well as riotous and mold-breaking imagery.

This is not to say that writing should be easy to interpret and without challenge for the reader; on the contrary, we have always argued that good writing should shock the reader out of their lazy expectations and comfortable world-view. Surrealism does this par excellence, with unexpected juxtapositions and alarming non sequiturs to disturb the reader’s peace of mind, and with the freedom to imagine worlds different from our own, better or worse in some details, radically experimenting in response to the conservatism of the establishment. It will of course be a matter of taste whether a given piece is too unstructured to be readable or not, and while our tastes may not be as avant garde as some radical Dada surrealists might like, we’re very keen on the kind of freedom that comes from being taken out of your comfort zone.

And just as I could stare for hours at the beauty of Leonora Carrington’s mind-blowing paintings, so I want to read stories that are beautiful and mind-blowing as well as useful and politically informed.

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