How Bizarro

Do your books arrive in the mail wrapped in plain-brown paper? Do you have a desk drawer dedicated to intellectually appropriate book covers to use when you take your favorite reading out in public? Are you convinced that everyone around you knows there are dirty words in the book you are reading? Do you tear off the covers of your paperbacks, especially if it is a picture of Fabio? Do any of these authors make you drool: Stephen King, Anne Rice, J. K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, Don DeLillo? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are probably embarrassed by what you like to read.

Unlike bad-breath-in-dogs, embarrassment-in-reading is not inevitable. In fact, a reader with a healthy attitude toward life and reading will probably never be embarrassed. Besides, half the people you feel are looking down at your reading selections haven’t read a book themselves since college, and the other half are actually envying your fearless reading style. Those naughty words?  In todays culture, three-quarters of the population has forgotten that they are dirty words and see them as argot-du-jour. Why, they even make jokes about rape on television sitcoms and receive high ratings.

I, arch-curmdgeon that I am, have never been embarrassed by what I read. There have been a few occasions where I do just the opposite:  flash that big thick book, make sure everyone can see the impressive title, make margin notes with my biggest Mont Blanc, things like that. But there is one branch of literature that I find myself justifying. No, I’m not embarrassed to read it, dirty words and bodily fluids and all, but I see that many other readers are aghast and I feel the need to speak up and encourage others to try it. I am speaking of the new genre called Bizarro.

I would suggest that Bizarro fiction, in general, is the most imaginative and thought-provoking writing of our present age. But here’s what Wikipedia says:

Bizarro fiction is a contemporary literary genre, which often utilizes elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive works that are as weird and entertaining as possible. The term was adopted in 2005 by the independent publishing companies Eraserhead Press, Raw Dog Screaming Press, and Afterbirth Books. Much of its community revolves around Eraserhead Press, which is based in Portland, Oregon, and has hosted the BizarroCon yearly since 2008. The introduction to the first Bizarro Starter Kit describes Bizarro as “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store” and a genre that “strives not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.” According to Rose O’Keefe of Eraserhead Press: “Basically, if an audience enjoys a book or film primarily because of its weirdness, then it is Bizarro. Weirdness might not be the work’s only appealing quality, but it is the major one.”

In general, Bizarro has more in common with speculative fiction genres (such as science-fiction, fantasy, and horror) than with avant-garde movements (such as Dadaism and surrealism), which readers and critics often associate it with. While the genre may place an emphasis on the cult and outre, it is not without critical praise. Books by authors who have identified or have been identified as Bizarro have been praised by Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Moorcock and guardian.co.uk. Bizarro novels have been finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Rhysling Award. A book of Bizarro criticism and theory was named Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2009 by 3:AM Magazine in Paris.

It’s fun; it’s interesting; it can warp your mind. In fact, Bizarro is so over-the-top that a subway ride with a Bizarro book open on your lap may cure your literary embarrassment for good.

To further your interest in this anti-embassassment genre, the best place to start is where it all started, at least officially: Bizarro Central. Here is another explanation of Bizarro fiction from Bizarro Central:

What Is Bizarro?

  1. Bizarro, simply put, is the genre of the weird.
  2. Bizarro is literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.
  3. Like cult movies, Bizarro is sometimes surreal, sometimes avant-garde, sometimes goofy, sometimes bloody, sometimes borderline pornographic, and almost always completely out there.
  4. Bizarro strives not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.
  5. Bizarro often contains a certain cartoon logic that, when applied to the real world, creates an unstable universe where the bizarre becomes the norm and absurdities are made flesh.
  6. Bizarro was created by a group of small press publishers in response to the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction and the increasing number of authors who specialize in it.
  7. Bizarro is like:
    • Franz Kafka meets John Waters
    • Dr. Suess of the post-apocalypse
    • Takashi Miike meets William S. Burroughs
    • Alice in Wonderland for adults
    • Japanese animation directed by David Lynch

Even though the Bizarros are underground cult outsiders they still have gained an incredible amount of respect in the publishing industry, having been praised by the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore, William Gibson, Jonathan Lethem, Piers Anthony, Cory Doctorow, Poppy Z. Brite, Michael Moorcock, and Charles de Lint, to name a few, as well as the publications Asimov’s Science-fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-fiction, Fangoria, Cemetery Dance, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Details Magazine, Gothic Magazine, and The Face, among many others. They have also been finalists for the Philip K Dick Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Rhysling Award, the Wonderland Book Award, and the Pushcart Prize.

Bizarro isn’t just weird fiction, it is DAMN GOOD weird fiction. And it grows exponentially every single day, so, love it or hate it, you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the years to come.

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