The Romantic Underground

Once upon a time, by which I mean in 2005, Jeff VanderMeer wrote an essay called “The Romantic Underground.”

It’s about an imaginary literary movement, or rather non-movement, because the defining characteristic of the Romantic Underground is that all of its supposed members denied both the existence of the movement and their own membership. I’m going to give you a few excerpts from the essay, although you’ll certainly want to read it for yourself. Jeff writes, “The first text identified with the Romantic Underground was Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), since claimed by the Symbolists.” However,

“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.)”

Other supposed members of the Romantic Underground include “Remy de Gourmont, Oscar Wilde, August Strindberg, Emile Zola, Alfred Kubin, Andre Breton, and Ronald Firbank.”

“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.”

By this point in the essay, we’re getting a sense of what this movement might have looked like, if it had indeed existed. It would have included particular writers, ones I usually think of as turning away from nineteenth-century realism. It would have been “dedicated to the antithesis of anything popular, tidy, or, indeed, logical.” (I think I can detect, in Jeff’s essay, the influence of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” although the imaginary creation is a literary movement rather than a world.)  Jeff continues,

“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 guerrilla 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.”

I find this, “literary guerrilla cells of single individuals, with no communication between any two cells,” incredibly funny. But again we’re getting a sense of who this non-movement might have included: Borges, Neruda, Marquez.

“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.'”

Which does rather sound like something John Clute might have written. Jeff goes on to consider whether the Interstitial Arts Foundation might have anything to do with the Romantic Underground, or whether New Weird might have. He strongly refutes both possibilities and concludes,

“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.”

Which is funny, right? I think it’s incredibly funny. But.

The term Jeff uses to describe these writers is in fact a useful term. It does describe something, a tendency in literature. It’s useful and interesting, at least for me, to look at Oscar Wilde and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rikki Ducornet and see an underlying – certainly not similarity in terms of themes or styles, but similar resistance to a realistic mode of representation. I’ve argued before on panels that fantasy is not a genre, but a pull in a particular direction, toward representing the world in a particular way. Jeff is largely describing writers who feel and respond to that pull.

James Owen has taken the Romantic Underground seriously. He has subtitled his blog, The Wonder Cabinet, “Words from the Romantic Underground.” And you know, I think he has a point. I think there is a way in which the writers and artists I know who are currently working in fantasy, and who are working in what we often call the literary and artistic mainstream but who incorporate elements of the fantastic into their writing and art, form a romantic underground. As Jeff describes it, “literary guerrilla cells of single individuals, with no communication between any two cells,” but nevertheless with some commonalities that we can point to, and that may be important.

I would have to think about what I mean when I say romantic underground, because my academic training is not in that era. But I think part of what I mean is a valuing of imaginative and fantastic, rather than realistic, representation. I think what we’re seeing in some parts of the artistic and literary world (and have been seeing for some time) is a response to modernism that is not necessarily post-modern, but something else. The New Weird was part of it, but it’s a larger and more general phenomenon. It’s a new romanticism, a new kind of romanticism. At least, I connect it with the romanticism of Coleridge and Shelley and Keats. And with whatever was happening at the fin-de-siècle, with Stevenson and Wilde.

And I’ll leave it there, because I can’t go much beyond that, at least not at the moment. I’m too tired, because I spent the day teaching and commenting on papers. The latter of which looked like this (in my office, of course):

And I still have a lot to do tonight. Mostly writing, because as I mentioned, I have a deadline before I go to ICFA next week. I’m looking forward to ICFA, and of course I’ll keep you updated while I’m there. I’ll even post pictures. But there are people I wish were coming this year who can’t make it, which is sad. (Hopefully next year.)

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13 Responses to The Romantic Underground

  1. Grey Walker says:

    I love this! I don’t mean to sound like a fangirl, but I am truly agog. Why have I never heard of this before?

    I agree with you about the “pull” of fantasy. It’s, as Charles de Lint might say, an acceptance of the romantic call to live in the world in a certain way, believing in certain things because they ought to exist, not because they can be proven to exist.

    Or something like that. 🙂

  2. James says:

    Whether it is acknowledged or not, whether spoken aloud, or not, those in the RU can always identify others in the RU.

    It is not something to be admitted or confirmed – simply known.

  3. John Stevens says:

    I’m working on a review of Jeff’s Monstrous Creatures, which includes this essay. I think that resistance is what’s Jeff’s essay is all about, how artists exceed and refute the labels that are assigned to them, in this case one that is overlaid on them against their will. It is interesting to consider why people felt the need to overlay this designation upon them, and why it persists, almost like an argument over an author’s place in, or relationship to, a genre. I’m intrigued by the question of defining romantic because that seems to be a more pointed discussion about a kind of genrefication (if such a word makes sense) of many different authors. I think Jeff’s underlying question was: why do people feel the need to make up this non-movement to identify and define authors? Why is there a need for a Romantic Underground, or an Interstitial Arts movement, or any designation that tries to pigeonhole authors and make them somehow understandable, disconnected from their specific works? He doesn’t really answer that question, but I think that is part of his point as well.

  4. Charles Vess says:

    Dora,
    Bravo! Lovely essay.
    If you take the attitude that ones art (writing. painting, sculpting, etc.) is a reflection of what you want the world to be or think that it should be, then I’m definitely and solidly a part of the RU. I grow increasingly restless exhibiting in shows or being a part of illustration annuals that are for the most part image after image of complete darkness, with no dawn in sight. All blood with absolutely no honey. Listening to the news and/or paying attention to what the general media shoves down our collective throats it would be so easy to succumb to that darkness, but I don’t have any wish to live in that sort of world so I make images that reflect my hope and beauty. Not that I have much patience with anything twee or a Disney styled squishy too-cute-for-words ‘reality’. There do need to be a few thorns amongst the roses for any sort of aesthetic impact.

  5. Love this. :Smiling. Unfortunately we live in a world of labels. There seems to be some desperate need to label everything and everyone. Much like the need for concrete explanation and perfect endings–none exist. But I wouldn’t mind this label myself. Laughing. Great post. I may adjust my own blog header.

  6. Brett says:

    It’s not just a contemporary issue (Interstitial Arts, Cyberpunk, etc.). I’ve often grappled with this issue as a teacher of literature. How often are the “movements” we teach really movements? Think, for example, of the extremely broad scope of contemporary fiction, ranging from “genre” fiction (a category without clear borders) to fantasists who work outside the genre like Millhauser to realists like Updike. No single movement there. Yet someday literary critics will slap a name to a movement of clearly related writers (either personally or in terms of their style/subject matter) and discard all the rest. Two hundred years from now, no one will be read, except for dissertation fodder, aside from fifteen or twenty big names who’ve survived. Four hundred years from now, the range will have narrowed still further (assuming anybody reads at all). We teach what we are taught; therefore our students get a distorted picture of literary history, as we did in our time.

  7. “I think Jeff’s underlying question was: why do people feel the need to make up this non-movement to identify and define authors? Why is there a need for a Romantic Underground, or an Interstitial Arts movement, or any designation that tries to pigeonhole authors and make them somehow understandable, disconnected from their specific works?”

    Yes, I think that’s exactly what he’s asking. And I suspect that he would be amused at the fact that anyone is taking his imaginary non-movement seriously. So the question is, why create these sorts of labels? And here I have to admit that I have a different perspective from most authors, who (probably rightly) resist pigeonholing.

    I think the reason to create these sorts of labels is that they’re useful. They allow us to do various things. Charles provides an excellent example of one use for these labels: they allow artists and writers to go, yes, that’s what I’m doing. And it can be useful to be able to define your work that way, even if only for yourself, to get a sense of what your own values and direction are. And Charles, I totally see you as doing exactly what you describe, providing that hope and beauty. That’s what I see in your work. “There do need to be a few thorns amongst the roses for any sort of aesthetic impact”: I try to do that too! 🙂 I consciously think about it when I’m writing and try to make sure that the writing has something thorny in it, a troll to balance out the fairies.

    Marigold, that’s my response too: the term Romantic Underground was born as a joke, but if you’re going to be labeled, it’s a pretty good label. (What James wrote reminds me of an old saying: when two thieves meet they need no introduction, they recognize each other without question.)

    I do think Brett is right that these sorts of categories resemble that old standardized test question, which of these things are alike? If you’re smart, you can overthink and get the answer wrong, because you can define the similarities differently. (We used to have debates about those questions among the gifted students at my high school.) But I’m not sure I agree with this:

    “Two hundred years from now, no one will be read, except for dissertation fodder, aside from fifteen or twenty big names who’ve survived. Four hundred years from now, the range will have narrowed still further (assuming anybody reads at all).”

    I think the literature that survives is the literature that’s loved, which may eventually become dissertation fodder. Tolkien survived because he was loved, and he’s been redefined as appropriate (although still somewhat dubious) dissertation fodder. I do believe that the literature that moves us, the literature that is loved from generation to generation, is what survives (barring a burning of the library of Alexandria, and the like).

    (Although, looking back at Brett’s comment, I think I’ve probably misinterpreted part of it. Just depends on how you define “big names” I guess. Dissertation fodder + big names: what I’m saying is, I’m not sure that’s an accurate definition of who survives and why.)

    Yes, only a few writers from each generation survive to be read two hundred years in the future. The appropriate response to that, if you’re a writer, it to look around at all the other writers and say to yourself, “Poor saps. Too bad they’re writing the books that won’t be read two hundred years from now.” And to keep on writing.

  8. p.s. Lovecraft has survived. What do we do with that? (He consistently denied being a member of the Romantic Underground.)

  9. John Stevens says:

    Theodora:

    The issue of using genre and labelling writers came up in the interview. Jeff talked about the fact that there are uses for these designations, but they too often adhere to writers and works and end up defining them and obscuring complexity rather than enhancing our understanding or giving us a frame of reference to discuss literature.

    I agree in large measure with what you’re saying, and I look at the deployment and contestation of genre as an anthropologist. It’s a cultural practice with social, ideational, and other applications. Genre and other literary designations have many uses, good and bad, but they’re all about creating a relationship between cultural objects and social subjects. They can create resonance, or boundaries; they can inspire authors or constrain them. They’re a conceptual tool that can be turned to many purposes, such as pigeonholing or establishing discursive common ground. Jeff was mostly lamenting the impulse to apply them as limits, rather than a starting point or a challenge.

    Lovecraft is an enduring icon that I think exemplifies a lot of what we’re talking about here. It tickles me to think of him as part of the Underground :-). I’m hoping to write about that idea more sometime soon.

  10. “Lovecraft is an enduring icon that I think exemplifies a lot of what we’re talking about here. It tickles me to think of him as part of the Underground. I’m hoping to write about that idea more sometime soon.”

    Oh, that I want to read! 🙂

  11. James says:

    One of the works-in-progress on my wall includes a portrait of Lovecraft… but as he’s sharing the image space with John Dee, a large crow, Nikola Tesla, and three William Blakes, I’m not sure if he’ll really stand out.

  12. jeff vandermeer says:

    Hee. I wrote that after Jack Dann asked for an essay on the romantic underground for the nebula awards anthology, as he had heard it was the next cool thing. whereas I had never heard the term before and could find no real record of it per se. so I wrote what you’ve linked to instead and he was kind enough to still use it.

    Believe it or not more than one careless skimming reviewer has not gotten the joke, although as Theodora rightly points out by citing real writers usually in their correct context I’m both deepening the joke but also in some sense making it less of one. Probably because I have real affection and respect for every writer mentioned.

    Moorcock and Pollack btw contributed their own quotes.

    I can tell you when it came out initially a few lit critics were less than amused. Heh.

    But when James mentioned using with the term it actually made me happy. And for some reason the term itself doesn’t make me, now, as itchy-scratchy as some.

    Thanks for paying the piece some attention–I had so much fun writing it!

  13. Jeff, honestly, I think it makes more sense than a lot of terms that have come out recently. It’s a lot more useful than New Weird, for example. (Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? You start by making a joke, and then suddenly it isn’t a joke anymore but a genuinely useful concept. Kinda cool.) 🙂

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