Mythpunk

I’ve been wanting to write about Mythpunk since JoSelle Vanderhooft’s interview of Catherynne M. Valente came out.

But I didn’t have time. And then a week later there was a Mythpunk Roundtable with Amal El-Mohtar, Rose Lemberg, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Shweta Narayan, moderated by JoSelle.

And at some point I found Niall Harrison’s blog posts: Mythpunk and amimythpunkornot.com. All on Strange Horizons.

It was interesting to see that several of the above mentioned me. I also ended up in the Wikipedia definition of mythpunk:

“Described as a subgenre of mythic fiction, Catherynne M. Valente uses the term ‘mythpunk’ to define a brand of speculative fiction which starts in folklore and myth and adds elements of postmodern fantastic techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, worldbuilding, and academic fantasy. Writers whose works would fall under the mythpunk label are Catherynne M. Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, Theodora Goss, and Sonya Taaffe.”

And Niall Harrison quantified my mythpunkness in one of his blog posts:

In The Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

“Myth-y? We’re going to need a working definition of myth at some point, aren’t we? Dictionary.com is suitably vague: ‘a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.’ Plenty of that in Goss’s fiction, from — as Matt mentioned last week — ‘The Rose in Twelve Petals’ to more recent fiction (and more recent myths) in last year’s ‘The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.’ ****

“Punk-y? Back to the dictionary: ‘a style or movement characterized by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc., and the defiance of social norms of behavior.’ Transpose that to fiction, and in addition to the stylistic points listed in the TVTropes definition, I’d suggest there has to often be an element of the contemporary injected into a story for it to qualify as punk. ‘The Rose in Twelve Petals’ is perhaps Goss’s most obviously confronting story in this respect, although she’s written plenty of more conventional narratives; as Abigail notes in her review of the collection, however, there’s ‘a free-spirited disdain for social conventions” in a good number of Goss’s tales. ***’

And I’m going to be on a Mythpunk panel at Boskone. So I guess I’d better write about it, to figure out what I think about it, right?

Here are some basic thoughts.

What is Mythpunk anyway? Well, I think Cat defined it very clearly. It involves working with fairy tale, folklore, or myth. And then you punk it. About punk, Cat says,

“I’ve always considered the appending of -punk to whatever other word to indicate that X is not merely being explored or ruminated upon, but in some sense broken, harmed, and put back together again with safety pins and patches, a certain amount of anxiety, anger, and messy, difficult emotionality expressed in the direction of X. Additionally, I look for some of the aesthetic of punk – they may be three chords used by everyone, but if you shred them hard enough and scream loud enough they can become something new.”

I think Mythpunk is generally written by female writers who grew up on subversive fairy tale retellings. We may have seen the Disney versions of fairy tales, but remember that we did not have DVDs. We did not watch them repeatedly, obsessively. And there was no Disney Princess culture when we were growing up. We were told the fairy tales themselves, and then when we were – probably around twelve, but certainly in our teens, we started reading the retellings. I’m guessing they were as important in the lives of other writers who can be identified as writing Mythpunk as they were in mine. Do you remember Tales from the Sisters Grimmer? And the fairy tale series published by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow? And Robin McKinley’s Beauty? I think we were reading those, and they came as revelations. At least they did to me. And then we read Angela Carter, who blew our minds.

And so we took the traditional material – the fairy tales, folk tales, myths – and we started playing with them, because that’s what our foremothers had taught us to do. In other words, we were not the first wave of fairy tale retellers. We were the second wave, and learned from the first.  And we did it, perhaps, a little differently.  Because those first-wave fairy tale retellings generally did not involve stylistic innovations, and we do stylistic innovation like it’s the air we breathe. In a sense it is, because we grew up when postmodernism was being discussed and practiced. So we practice a sort of Mythpostmodernism. But that doesn’t sound as nice.

Would I actually consider my writing Mythpunk? Well, sometimes. I think there are stories of mine that do exactly what Cat described. “Rose in Twelve Petals” is one, “Sleeping with Bears” is a retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” although I’m not sure anyone is likely to catch that. And other stories of mine certainly create new fairy tales, new mythologies: “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” “Singing of Mount Abora.” “Child-Empress of Mars” is a sort of Mythpunked science fiction.

Is it a useful designation? I think it is, actually. It does seem to be describing what a particular group of writers is doing at the moment. There’s something to writing identified as Mythpunk that does make it distinctive. It’s fantasy – not dark fantasy, not urban fantasy, not whatever it is people are doing now that involves vampires. Fantasy proper, but with stylistic experimentation. It’s Virginia Woolf with fairies and gryphons and blemmyae. With all sorts of strange but wonderful monsters. It doesn’t have the darkness of New Weird and is not indebted to Lovecraft. It’s not really slipstream, because rather than making you uncomfortable it says, “Here are the monsters, get comfortable with them.” It is political because it presents a world where social conventions don’t apply, where to be different is to be normal, and to be ordinary is to be odd. It embraces beauty and strangeness as normal conditions. And it is definitely not interstitial, because as soon as you say something is Mythpunk it is no longer between things, it is a thing.

It started in the small presses because larger presses did not want to take a chance on something so different. Fairy tale retellings – those it could handle. But these were fairy tale retellings with a difference. However, the more Mythpunk is out there, the more not-different it becomes, so you can say, “This is like Orphan’s Tales.”

I also see in it a richness, an almost overflowing of inventiveness and language. In that way, it is like New Weird, which was also rich and overflowing.

Do we really need all these labels, all these punks? We probably don’t need them. But because of them, certain writers and works are talked about. So they enable us to have conversations we did not have before. They allow us to notice writers we might have overlooked. And they allow those writers to speak and say, “This is what I am. Or am not.”

And that’s generally good, I think. It’s part of the inventiveness of our genre, of fantasy writing in general. We are the inventors, the creators of worlds. It would be strange if we didn’t invent literary movements once in a while.

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6 Responses to Mythpunk

  1. I love this post. Thank you for it.

  2. Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I’ve been thinking of genre labels lately–since Cat Valente posted about the term “speculative fiction.”

  3. Matt says:

    I was surprised you hadn’t been included in that roundtable discussion, actually. I really like your point about the usefulness of these terms, that they “enable us to have conversations we did not have before.” Yes, that.

    I wonder if we’ll see any male mythpunk writers down the line. In her interview, Cat mentioned VanderMeer’s The Third Bear as mythpunk, but I doubt many would classify his overall aesthetic as mythpunk. I’d really like my work to get the designation, but…well, that’s probably up to the readers, isn’t it?

  4. Ohhh yes. THIS. Thank you 🙂

    And, on a tangent:
    “Sleeping with Bears” is a retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” although I’m not sure anyone is likely to catch that.
    I caught it!

  5. I’m sure there are male mythpunk writers out there. I think the reason so many women are writing what I might classify as mythpunk is that we’re the ones who grew up on fairy tales, and so many fairy tales center around female characters. But there’s no reason men wouldn’t write mythpunk as well. I haven’t read The Third Bear, but I wouldn’t put what I’ve read of Jeff VanderMeer’s writing in that category.

    Matt, it’s up to the readers, but I think you can also claim that designation for yourself, if that’s what you feel like you’re doing!

    • Kenneth Gambill says:

      This thread is probably closed but I felt it necessary to add there is a genre of Role-Playing Games that would fit “Mythpunk”. Started by FASA (of MechWarrior Fame) The game called “Shadow Run” is a wonderful blend of Cyberpunk, Magic, and Fae Elven Deckers, Troll Street Warriors and the like. As far as I know there were a series of Shadow Run Novels published under license through Del Ray book. Whether this remains true or not is up to individual research.

      As a side note I have been contemplating writing a novel that features Fae, Unexplored technologies with a Steampunk/dieselpunk twist… It’s a work in progress…

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