Genre Misbehaving: Review of Michael Cisco’s Weird Fiction: A Genre Study
Weird Fiction: A Genre Study. Michael Cisco. Palgrave MacMillan, February 2022.
Michael Cisco’s 336-page Weird Fiction: A Genre Study is not only an intensive look at the qualities of the weird, it exposes what weird fiction does to the concept of genre itself. In a field of what we might call “weird studies,” historically dominated by white men philosophers but increasingly populated by cultural producers of color, women, and nonbinary writers working in cultural studies and theoretical methodological approaches, Weird Fiction helps us to further understand important questions about weird fiction’s relation to repressed desire, identity, and difference. The book is not really about producing an exclusionary or bracketed genre that is “the weird,” though Cisco does detail formal qualities of the weird in an, at times, somewhat formulaic way. Instead, with a loose focus on modernist works (contemporary authors do appear, as do discussions of earlier writers like Poe, of course), Cisco persuasively argues that weird fiction deterritorializes genre itself.
Despite the fact that this book indeed makes important contributions to what some are calling Weird studies, this is squarely a philosophical study not particularly interested in contemporary cultural studies scholarship on the weird outside of Mark Fisher’s, and engages few nonwhite or non-global north critical perspectives that have becoming increasingly central (and urgent, to my mind) to the study of weirdness. Primarily through Deleuze and Guattari, but with the help of Spinoza, Ronell, Hume, Derrida, Colebrook, Bergson and others, Cisco shows how weird fiction is not constant over time, that it repeatedly breaks genre conventions by producing a line of flight, “a weird line” that extends into other genres and texts. This is in part what makes the weird interesting and (potentially) disruptive in a number of spheres and registers. The study therefore also extends the influence and importance of weird fiction in its relation to the so-called canon, and locates weirdness outside of genre, calling weird fiction more of an “orientation” or “direction” (towards the weird) that “makes genre itself behave bizarrely.”
The Introduction lays out the author’s groundwork and methodology for the book, which is structured as three or so chapters examining weird modes or genre adjacencies, followed by another half (actually almost 200 pages, more than half of the book) consisting of short case studies of weird fictions. Cisco writes in the Introduction that weird fiction shares the commitment to deterritorializing foundational experience, reality, and the ordinary. While weird fiction is set in the so-called “real” or bound up with the ordinary, the weird events contained therein do not belong to any existing category (e.g. horror or the supernatural).
Structuring Cisco’s study from the start is Deleuze and Guattari’s delineation of major and minor literature, of which weird fiction is sometimes one or the other, but is more often both at once. Major literature, as Cisco recounts from D & G’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, is always in the service of the status quo, is literature of the elite and is often in the service of oppressive norms and worldviews. Inside major literature there lies the possibility for minor literature, where there is a certain absence: “What disappears is the familiar, the known, but the familiar, which is major, must appear and then disappear.” This in part accounts for the ways that (older) weird fiction has often upheld what Cisco calls “pretty conservative, majoritarian positions” (which I would state more clearly as nativist, racist, or xenophobic positions).
And yet, as he argues, weird fiction is also operative in the minor, more radical mode, when it situates the individual with regard to the political by way of undermining the conditions of reality itself and asks the reader: “what is it [they] want to escape, if not a situation that does have definite political dimensions and causes?” He writes that the answer is in part that weird fiction “develops in response to a suffocating feeling that everything ‘inside’ has been explained and entertains a desire to crack open a closed world, wanting openness as such, perhaps as an extended field of possibilities for the realization of desire.”
Chapters Two, Three, and Four examine the primary elements of weird fiction: The Supernatural, The Bizarre, and Destiny. The weird tale must include, for example, supernatural tropes. It must prove that it is not controlled by logic, that the very basic assumptions of natural law are faulty generalizations. To concede that the supernatural might be possible is already a radical element present, and weird fiction uses the bizarre to destabilize presumed links between explicability and being, and to create a totalizing sense of defamiliarization that is a hallmark of the weird. I found the chapter on destiny a bit difficult to follow, but interesting in part because of its return to Shakepeare’s Weird Sisters in MacBeth, key figures of weirdness that root weird fiction to the question of fate or destiny. Though I think there is a lot more to say about gender, fatalism, desire, and difference that comes from these three figures in particular, the chapter engages the complex temporality of the weird by describing destiny as a key problem in weird fiction, an orientation towards a future “that has abandoned us, refuses to come.”
There are dangers in this characterization of weird fiction, I think, though I too have found in the weird’s relation to futurity an ever-receding horizon that never seems to arrive (the affect of dread, for example). It is also true that dread and therefore one’s relation to the Future is subjective, and that New Weird fictions arguably operate according to a shifted relation to temporality that results from the centering of so-called difference, rather than understanding difference as a radical outside.
I am drawn to Cisco’s claim that weird fiction is genre behaving badly (he says bizarrely, but I’m taking some liberties). What does it mean to think of the weird as a kind of misbehaving, of acting out, or of perversity in relation to certain norms that structure what characterizes “good behavior” in such a fucked-up world? He writes, “Weird fiction is not inherently feminist nor anti-racist and is often filled with prejudice, but it does also at times undermine the confining categories of sexism and bigotry.” This is helpful for untangling the complex markers of the weird, even in its modernist racist formulations – like in Lovecraft, for example, where the weird simultaneously imagines a cosmos “inherently inimical to any status quo.” Weird fiction might be understood then to behave badly in more ways than one – in its historically racist and nativist constructions of course, but also in the ways in which it subverts genre and somehow, perhaps, subverts itself.
Alison Sperling is an International Postdoctoral Initiative Fellow (IPODI) at the Center for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (ZIFG) at the Technische Universität Berlin. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in Literature and Cultural Theory and writes about weird and science fictions, queer and feminist theory, and the Anthropocene. Her work has or will soon appear in venues such as Lovecraft Annual, Studies in the Fantastic, Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres, Foundation, Girlhood Studies, Los Angeles Review of Books, Berlin Art Link and in numerous edited book collections. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an email pitch to the author; the author and editor are acquainted on social media. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Alex Skopic. A review copy was procured by the editor from Springer Nature.