Catching Up With:
Back in 2000 when DarkEcho interviewed Jeff VanderMeer he
was gaining a reputation in the independent press with his unique voice and
quirky, intelligent writing. The DarkEcho review of
Veniss Underground his first novel, in 2003, asked: "Will a major US
publisher buy [Veniss Underground]? If not, it's indicative of how the main
body of sf (and fantasy for that matter) has gone back to being just another
plastic-covered Sears sofa, much as it was in the seventies...Veniss Underground
is highly accessible entertaining, yet thoughtful, fiction that would appeal to
a broad array of readers."
VanderMeer remains active in the indie press -- his fiction collection, Secret Lives came out from Golden Gryphon last year as did a collection of nonfiction, Why Should I Cut Your Throat and Other Nonfiction from MonkeyBrain Books -- but a major US publisher, Bantam Spectra, did buy Veniss Underground and has just [re-]published it. Bantam also took City of Saints and Madmen, a collection of interwoven stories based in the fantastic city of Ambergris, and the "fake disease guide" anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases co-edited by VanderMeer (with Mark Roberts).
And that's not all. VanderMeer explains: "Tor Books took my new novel, Shriek. In the UK, Pan Macmillan has picked up all of my books, while major publishers in France and Germany have done the same."
How did this come about? "First of all," says VanderMeer, "the climate changed, in a figurative sense. There suddenly was a marketing category for certain kinds of cross-genre material. I don't believe in the 'New Weird', but as a way for readers to latch on to certain writers, it has certainly helped. Another factor was that my books did really well in the indie press, selling much better than most, sometimes pulling in monstrous numbers for that arena. This gave the majors a better sense of how my eccentricities could actually be a plus when marketing and promoting my work. And that's, in a sense, what my major publishers have done. I've also been lucky to work with really great editors, from Peter Lavery to Juliet Ulman and Liz Gorinsky and many others."
DarkEchowonders if this means a viable sidestream is being cut for non-mainstream cross-genre writing? There seems to be a literate group of non-traditional writers emerging like VanderMeer, China Miéville, KJ Bishop, Jeff Ford, and Kelly Link. This year's Michael Chabon-edited Best American Short Stories is almost a "genre" anthology and both Link and Mieville's recent collections were reviewed in Time Magazine, of all places.
VanderMeer thinks, "We're all finding our own path to more readers, some more easily than others, but we've all yet to find the limits to our readership, and that's a positive thing." He cautions,"I wouldn't call it a monolithic front, if you know what I mean. We each find a niche and then expand out from it. Link is, in my opinion, moving more and more into the mainstream, in terms of finding acceptance. This is easier for her because her stories generally have contemporary settings. Jeff Ford has the same "in". Then writers like Bishop, Miéville, and I have our own ways, writing in imaginary worlds. China has tapped into a populist vein, in part, while writing a mix of pulp and literary stuff. Kirsten Bishop is doing very much her own thing, influenced by the Decadents, Burroughs, and others. I'm probably experimenting more opening with structure and storytelling delivery systems, with a hint of pulp infusing the resulting work.
But VanderMeer never saw "mainstream" as monolithic to start with and feels "a lot of people in genre have limited themselves by having a warped perception of the literary world outside of genre. Many times, I've been told something was impossible by a 'veteran/expert in the field', and I've ignored the advice, done it anyway, and been successful. A lot of this has to do with being tenacious and not accepting no for an answer. But it's also not an 'us' versus 'them' situation. It's not about non-traditional fantasy, for example, trumping traditional fantasy, which I also enjoy. It's about non-trad fantasy getting a seat at the table, is all."
Which brings up the matter of "civilized public discourse" -- or, rather, the lack of it -- in the field. "We do have some civilized public discourse in the field," says VanderMeer. "I actually wish we had more public discourse in general, whether civilized or not. The problem is that the field is relatively small and our egos are more fragile due to the perceived 'we're an oppressed subgroup' mentality--which, if you talk to people in the literary mainstream, those writers publishing in literary magazines for example, they find hilarious. Because in terms of the money, a lot of genre writers make more money and get more attention than literary writers doing realistic fiction.
"What I would like are more mixed and negative reviews of books. If you look at the reviews right now, you see a vast sea of saccharine. I refuse to believe that this is such a golden age that 90 percent of the books being published are great. It's just not true. So, more truth in reviewing. More reviewers with backbone. More reviewers not impressed by 'names' would be nice. Not being cowed just because a book has already gotten up a head of steam with four or five prominent rave reviews. That kind of thing."