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The Romantic Underground:
an exploration of a non-existent and self-denying non-movement

by Jeff VanderMeer

With apologies to my friends and colleagues in the various real "movements," "umbrellas," and "committees" mentioned in this essay, all of whom I regard with affection and respect.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2005Although the phrase "the romantic underground" is often attributed to Shelley and his minor poem "The Assignation of Lapels" (1819), the Romantic Underground actually began as an offshoot of the Decadent Movement in France.[1] The first text identified with the Romantic Underground was Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), since claimed by the Symbolists.

Flaubert vehemently denied that his book was a Romantic Underground text; in fact, he denied the existence of the movement altogether. This has been a recurring refrain in the development of the Romantic Underground: every author identified as an adherent of the movement has denied this fact. No text has long remained part of the Romantic Underground because no living author has allowed it to for very long. (In some cases, another movement has made a better case in claiming a particular text, as well.)

Some of the authors "outed" as "Romantic Underground-nistas" in those early years included Remy de Gourmont, Oscar Wilde, August Strindberg, Emile Zola, Alfred Kubin, Andre Breton, and Ronald Firbank. Some have even claimed that Breton himself formed the surrealists as an offshoot of the Romantic Underground, not as a reaction to Dada, Futurism, and the proto-magic realists.

Regardless, the enduring properties of the Romantic Underground remain a lack of membership by those authors cited and a general lack of identifying characteristics. At first, reading between the lines of critical texts from the period -- some from the infamous Yellow Book -- the Romantic Underground apparently formed a "loose umbrella" around certain authors, attempting to provide a critical and imaginative landscape in which creativity could have free, albeit vague, reign. Authors being skittish at best, most apparently saw the umbrella as more of a trap and escaped without their names ever being connected to rumors of a vast but secret literary organization dedicated to the antithesis of anything popular, tidy, or, indeed, logical.

Chroniclers of the Romantic Underground lost track of it during the 1920s and most of the 1930s, when the group may have decided to form "literary guerilla cells of single individuals, with no communication between any two cells." It is supposed that Jorge Luis Borges joined the movement in the 1940s, but only a reference to "the underground romantic with his hopeless beret" in his short story "The Immortal" (1962) suggests any active participation. Fellow South Americans Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez may have joined the movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but, again, both deny the existence of the movement and any participation in it -- thus seeming to substantiate the rumors, since this behavior is all too indicative of Romantic Underground members.

During the science fiction New Wave movement of the 1960s, the Romantic Underground again came to the fore, with many literary critics, including Brian Stableford and Colin Wilson, claiming that the New Wave was nothing more or less than an especially visible cell of the Romantic Underground. New Worlds contributor Rachel Pollack, however, called this "Bullshit" at the time, while NW editor Michael Moorcock, later wrote in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance (1986) that "There was nothing romantic or underground about the New Wave. We had no time for sentimental tripe nor did we want to remain part of some invisible subculture. We were very much in the public eye."[2]

In the 1980s, writers such as Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, and Alasdair Gray all denied being part of the Romantic Underground movement. At this point, noted critic John Clute, in a footnote to a review of Iain M. Banks' Culture novel Consider Phlebas (Interzone, 1987), wrote "The sole criteria of the so-called Romantic Underground movement? The conscription of idiosyncratic writers dragged without their consent to the renunciation block, where they proceed to deny entrapment in anything as clandestine and formless."

In this respect, the Romantic Underground seems to mirror the Slipstream list put forth by Texas technophile Bruce Sterling.[3] Sterling published his list in a magazine called SF Eye (July 1989). For several years, publishers, some writers, and fewer readers mouthed the word "slipstream" whenever confronted by any text that did not fit a tidy definition of "genre fiction." It seems clear today that Sterling, depending on his mood, meant his term "slipstream" more as a joke or the approximation of a joke, given the Catholic qualities of the list. In many respects, Sterling may thus be considered an agent of chaos--or, perhaps, a Romantic Underground mole ordered by the RU elites to create misdirection and mischief, all with the purpose of directing attention away from the RU. Sterling's repeated denial of this accusation only makes his actions all the more suspicious.

Still, the ultimate effect of Sterling's coined term--competition from a movement just as ill-defined, composed of writers who refused to call their work "Slipstream" in the same way earlier generations refuted "Romantic Underground"--appears to have irritated the invisible elites of the RU's command and control. For many years, throughout the 1990s, in fact, no further word was heard from the Romantic Underground.

For example, the Splatterpunk movement raised not a single hackle in the form of an implied reference to the Romantic Underground or even a nonconsecutive footnote number in a New York Review of SF article (which might have suggested the suppression of a reference to the Romantic Underground). It is possible, of course, that the blood-and-alcohol-soaked Splatterpunks--with a "no limits" slogan that apparently meant "no limits to the badly-written material we'll champion"--were not seen as a threat by the "shadow cabinet" (as I have come to think of the Romantic Movement's hidden elites).

However, in this new century, hints of the Romantic Movement have again come into the light--a glimmer of an old coin at the bottom of a fountain pool; the suggestion of a shadow watching from a vine-entangled forest. More specifically, the Interstitial Movement, which has taken up the task of defining the indefinable, appears to have some of the characteristics of the Romantic Underground movement. Could the Interstitial Movement be a new and subversive way of leveraging the Romantic Underground into the public eye while leaving its shadow cabinet once again unknown?

At first glance, it would appear that this could be the case. Certainly the Interstitial Movement, much like the Romantic Underground movement in the 1890s, believes in forming an "umbrella" for a motley assortment of idiosyncratic writers, most of whom have nothing in common, some of whom are not in fact interstitial at all, and many of whom do not identify themselves as interstitial, even though "pegged" as such by the Interstitial Arts Foundation.[4] This would be a typical Romantic Underground tactic. Similarly, the Interstitial strategy of continuing to insist that "we are not a movement" would appear to mirror the Romantic Underground's propensity for general denial.

However, a closer examination of the Interstitial reveals too many clashes with the presumed agenda of the Romantic Underground. First of all, no Romantic Underground movement writer--or Surrealist movement writer, for that matter--would tolerate for one moment the presence of so many writers of an easily-definable nature; writers whose work is identifiable as belonging to one genre and, while often excellent, does not in fact "cross boundaries" (the clarion call of the Interstitial). Nor do the Interstitial writers graze far from the pastures of genre itself, whereas the Romantic Underground has always included members of the literary mainstream who could smugly and steadfastly deny their involvement in the movement.

Finally, it would take any Romantic Underground writer every bit of self-control he or she possessed to say, definitively, "I am an Interstitial writer," since the very essence/core of a Romantic Underground writer cries out for disassociation with any formal group of any kind. And yet, most "Interstitial" writers blithely bleat out their allegiance at the slightest provocation, or wear bright buttons proclaiming this fact. (Most damning, however, may be a certain lack of cohesion within the Interstitial Arts Foundation, completely at odds with the almost sinister, yet beautiful, organization and knack for secrecy the Romantic Underground movement has demonstrated for over one hundred years.)

Another movement put forward in recent years comes from the United Kingdom -- the New Weird, espoused by China Mieville and, to some extent, M. John Harrison. An oddity in the brave new world of computers and the Internet, the New Weird is unaffected by modern communication and modern "online communities," for, as has been repeatedly stated, this movement is a uniquely British phenomenon.[5] It cannot be found elsewhere; it's something in the soil, akin to the inability in Florida to grow any but grapes for the sweetest of wines.

The New Weird also preaches a return to the pre-postmodern world. This is an earnest world in which irony does not exist, a world in which John Barth and his ilk took up carpentry rather than writing, Barth's hugely idiosyncratic novels consigned to the trashcan of might have been. In this world -- ironically enough -- the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has often been heralded as the godfather, since his work predates the formal postmodern experimentation that was based in part on his stories.

Although the irony inherent in a movement that abhors irony indicates the presence of individual RU cells, the New Weird does not represent the new clandestine rise of the Romantic Underground. For one thing, the Romantic Underground would never insist on its members hailing from one particular country or group of countries. This would be too limiting to an international organization that relies on literally thousands of writer-members from over one hundred nations to maintain the strict secrecy that allows it to continue to deny that it has ever existed.

Further, no Romantic Underground writer would ever deny him or herself the right to employ postmodern technique where appropriate. Would an artist be taken seriously if he or she said that a particular type of brush, a particular color of paint, a particular thickness of canvas would never again be used in the service of art? As a very secret self-denying organization, the Romantic Underground does not have the luxury of denying itself every tool at its disposal.

Therefore, I reluctantly tip my hat to the cleverness of the Romantic Underground movement. It appears once again to have relegated itself to single-author cells, none of which are in communication with any other, similar cells. Although writers such as Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as such contemporary authors as Edward Carey, Peter Carey, A.S. Byatt, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Dann, M. John Harrison (a double-agent), Kelly Link (another double-agent, working for both the Interstitial and RU), Paul Di Filippo, Zoran Zivkovic, Gene Wolfe, Jeffrey Ford, K.J. Bishop, Liz Williams, Nalo Hopkinson, Michael Cisco, Stepan Chapman, Rhys Hughes, Ian R. MacLeod, and myself have at one time or another been associated with the Romantic Underground movement -- depending on the tone or theme or style of a particular book -- none of us has ever admitted belonging to such a movement (either while living or after death). The Romantic Underground, it would appear, retains its crafty self-denying ability even one hundred years after its non-formation and the non-creation of its non-rules. In short, dear reader, the Romantic Underground, like many so-called movements, does not exist.[6]

Footnotes

1. The author is unable to confirm or deny whether any actual "RU" research has been done for this essay. [...back to the main text]

2. However, Moorcock added almost a decade later, "I refer you to Capek's subtle RUR (Romantic Underground Revival) in which he introduced the word 'robot' to the world. Also the 'Apocalypse' movement of the 30s and 40s. The Welsh 'Coven of 12' which included Henry Treece, Ruthven Todd, Dylan Thomas, and was connected to the so-called Wenlock Coven of which Alan Garner was probably the most prominent member. All have equally denied the existence of the RU while exhibiting many familiar characteristics of membership. 'RU RU if so Y ?' as the familiar text message reads." [...back to the main text]

3. Sterling was also part of a cheerfully dysfunctional literary movement called "cyberpunk" that falls outside of the scope of this essay. All that survives of this movement today is the pairing of advanced technology and dark sunglasses with badly woven sweaters, as exemplified by the Matrix movies. [...back to the main text]

4. Certainly, the IAF's inclusion of a contingent of mythopoetic writers raises questions. Can a group with its own National Public Radio outlet, pop culture guru (Joseph Campbell), and a convention sponsored by Krispy Kreme Donuts really be considered to "cross borders" in an edgy way? [...back to the main text]

5. Except when it's not. [...back to the main text]

6. That said, it is worth noting the recent discovery of a new journal by Angela Carter. This journal may finally cut through the fog of denials to the core of the Romantic Underground movement. In the journal, Carter scrawled a list of points that seem uncannily like the recipe for the perfect literary movement. Could this be the manifesto of the Romantic Underground-nistas? It reads as follows:

  1. It should focus on individual works.
  2. It should include no works that do not fit its manifesto or mission statement.
  3. It should appeal to both the heart and the head, inciting passion and thought in equal measure.
  4. It should be blind to gender, race, and nationality.
  5. It should separate commerce from art and only operate at the level of art.
  6. It should encourage creativity and experimentation.
  7. It should partake equally of high and low culture.
  8. It should partake equally of high and low literature.
  9. It should do no harm to any writer.
  10. It should be both humble and arrogant, as appropriate.
  11. It should deny its own existence at all times.
  12. It should exist in the soul and spirit, heart and brain, of one individual writer at a time.
  13. It should express the bittersweet confluence of seriousness and humor, honesty and deception, that we all experience in life.

[...back to the main text]


© Jeff VanderMeer 2005.
This essay first appeared in Nebula Awards Showcase 2005: The Year's Best SF and Fantasy Selected by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America edited by Jack Dann (April 2005).
It didn't appear in Jeff's non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?: Excursions into the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, but then it wouldn't, would it? And that's still a fine collection nonetheless.
Jeff's novel, Veniss Underground, came out in US mass market paperback in September 2005.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2005Why Should I Cut Your Throat? by Jeff VanderMeerVeniss Undergournd by Jeff VanderMeer
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