Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Genre labels aren’t always useful, but properly utilized, they can help budding authors determine the type of writing they want to bring into the world. In few places is that more necessary than with bizarro fiction, a subgenre of weird writing so unusual that ‘bizarre’ is in the name.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be taking a look at how to identify bizarro fiction and how to use that knowledge to improve your own bizarro writing. We’ll end with a useful exercise you can try at your desk (it involves cowboys,) but for now, our first question is obvious…
What is bizarro fiction?
The best way to understand bizarro fiction is to understand its twin goals. Above all, bizarro fiction strives to be weird and entertaining.
Of course, almost all art strives to be ‘entertaining’ in some way. Even art meant to horrify or repulse is still a form of ‘entertainment,’ if not ‘enjoyment.’ Bizarro fiction, however, wants to entertain you like a circus entertains you. It wants to wow you, make you gasp, and show you things you just can’t see elsewhere.
In ‘Bizarro Fiction 101: Not Just Weird for Weird’s Sake,’ Rose O’keefe (head of bizarro-fiction publisher Eraserhead Press) outlines this by comparing bizarro fiction to the similar genre of ‘new weird’ fiction and pointing out that while both subgenres are weird, bizarro fiction embraces a particularly pop-cultural, pulpy weirdness as part of its brand.
People who buy bizarro are buying it for the sole reason that they want to read something weird. The kind of fiction that is too weird to be categorized anywhere else. These aren’t the same people who are buying New Weird. People buy New Weird because they want cutting edge speculative fiction with a literary slant… But bizarro readers want weirdness with a side of more weirdness.
Another thing that separates Bizarro and New Weird is that Bizarro leans toward the humorous, low-brow side. New Weird leans toward the literary, high-brow side. There is Bizarro that is smart and there is New Weird that is fun, but for the most part they are separated because bizarro is mostly for entertainment and New Weird shoots to be high art. At least higher art than bizarro.
This differentiation is useful because it brings wider signifiers of bizarro fiction into focus. Look up how to define bizarro fiction and you’ll often see lists of genre staples like gross-out humor, body horror, violated taboos, surrealism, and comically bombastic titles (see I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter, Slub Glub in the Weird World of the Weeping Willows, and HELP! A Bear is Eating Me!)
These common features of bizarro fiction are useful for
identifying it when you see it, but they only become tools for authors who want
to write bizarro fiction once you
understand the goal that’s being pursued.
That’s not to suggest that bizarro fiction doesn’t have anything to say – it’s art, so it’s saying something – but that larger than any single work’s ideological intent is a broader focus on pulpy sensibilities. To say that bizarro fiction is inherently ‘fun’ would be reductive, but if your writing is somber and reserved, it’s unlikely you’re writing bizarro.
Getting bizarro right
Perhaps the most vital part of writing great bizarro fiction is that the text should be unfamiliar to the reader. When you pick up a piece of bizarro writing, it’s part of the purpose of the subgenre that you don’t know the rules (or that, if you do, those rules are quickly broken.) In fact, a lot of bizarro fiction deliberately features cliché genre staples like dragons (fantasy) and aliens (sci-fi,) only to portray them in ways that completely deviate from what the reader may be expecting (or which use those expectations as the basement level of a huge, weird skyscraper.) In ‘Common Bizarro Components,’ Edmund Colell describes this relationship.
It’s expected that dragons belong to fantasy, futuristic robots belong to sci-fi, and axe murderers belong to horror. In bizarro, the axe murderer has progressed to robot victims and is consuming their components so that he can become Giga-Gein, the cyborg poacher of dragons. Also, they are teenaged dragons at summer camp who seal their fate by telling ghost stories about Giga-Gein.
This veneration of the unexpected also applies to plot progression. In a normal story, a woman might catch a baby dropped from a window and then be embroiled in a dispute when the parents, wishing to cover up their crime, accuse her of kidnapping the child. Here, one event causes the next, and while the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s coming, they understand the framework in which it will occur. In bizarro fiction, a woman might catch a baby dropped from a window, making a small sound in the process that offends the subatomic race of turtles who live in her eyelashes and spurs them into a centuries-spanning conflict. One event still usually causes the next, but generally in a surreal sense the reader can’t anticipate.
The idea is to keep the reader on their toes – bizarro fiction is an ongoing experience of weirdness and enjoyment, so a flashy start that guides the reader into a consistent story is unlikely to qualify as bizarro. Things have to remain unfamiliar. Often, that means bizarro stories contain a lot of change – new characters, new situations, new rules – but it can also mean that the various elements of a story remain so unusual that the reader can never find their feet.
Putting a hat on a hat
In ‘Bizarro Fiction 101: Not Just Weird for Weird’s Sake,’ Rose O’keefe describes how the oddness of bizarro fiction doesn’t depend on a single weird element.
Many people say that science-fiction is weird fiction. But the thing is, most science-fiction has only a single weird element to the story. With bizarro, there are three or more. So to make a science-fiction story bizarro, two or more weird elements should be added.
This may sound formulaic, but the magic is in how these elements interact. Carlton Mellick III’s Satan Burger, a major bizarro fiction success, is based on a simple premise: God finds humanity boring and begins replacing them with a new race of psychotic, magical, nymphomaniac creations. Alone, that premise is enough to carry a traditional story, but it’s also a premise that suggests rules will develop and a traditional narrative might even be told. To avoid this, the book’s blurb is sure to note that it also includes, ‘a narrator who sees his body from a third-person perspective, a man whose flesh is dead but his body parts are alive and running amok, an overweight messiah… and a motley group of squatter punks that team up with the devil to find their place in a world that doesn’t want them anymore.’
It’s not enough for a bizarro story to simply present the
protagonist with a weird situation – the protagonist must also be weird, they
must approach the situation in a weird way, and the whole weird conundrum must
be subject to weird developments whenever things get too comfortable.
If you’re going to write bizarro fiction, you’ll need to be the type of author who has a lot of ideas and who doesn’t mind tossing them out, enjoying them, and then moving on before the reader has time to get comfortable. Again, this is part of the pulp philosophy of bizarro writing: to be so consistently weird and so breathlessly enjoyable that it also has to be (at least moment to moment) disposable in its attitude to the constituent parts of a story. Bizarro writing suits an outlook that prizes the whole experience over the parts that make it up.
Bizarro fiction is a cult subgenre – its readership is comparatively small but ferociously invested. It’s worth noting that this is a workable model for self-publishing authors who want to write professionally: a smaller audience that reads everything you write can, in many cases, compete with a larger audience less invested in your work.
It also means that community is important. Bizarro fiction is, to a large extent, bound up in the independent publishing companies that handle most of it (most prominently Raw Dog Screaming Press, Afterbirth books, and Eraserhead Press, who host the BizarroCon celebration.) That’s not to say that you have to publish through these venues – in fact, you definitely don’t – but it’s worth keeping in mind that bizarro readers are more centralized than some other subgenres.
If you’re interested in writing bizarro fiction, it’s therefore worth keeping up with the historic and contemporary output of major bizarro authors. Compared to other subgenres, they’re not that numerous, and since your intended readership will have read all these books, it’s a good way of gauging what they expect, even if you intend to subvert those expectations.
It’s always a good idea to ‘read what you write,’ but bizarro fiction’s cult status makes this as feasible as it’s ever going to be. Rose O’keefe recommends readers begin with a set of books called The Bizarro Starter Kit (the individual volumes are differentiated by color, including blue, red, orange, and purple,) although it’s worth remembering she’s the one publishing them, and while it’s a weird subgenre, it’s still designed for people to read and enjoy with ease.
Bizarro fiction isn’t for everybody – in fact, it’s not for most people – but if your style meshes with its sensibilities, you may find that it’s a subgenre that supercharges your creative potential and puts you in contact with an audience eager for everything you produce.
In his interview with O’keefe, Randy Henderson sets her the challenge of bizarro-fying a traditional sci-fi story. O’keefe chooses Jurassic Park, but this seems like an exercise ideal for trying out bizarro-style writing: pick a sci-fi story premise and keep adding weirdness. In fact, try iterating an idea as follows:
- Pick a pre-existing sci-fi premise. E.g. A theme park opens where robots pretend to be cowboys for visitor amusement.
- Add an independently weird protagonist. E.g. A man whose rare disease means that he’s constantly melting and reforming gets on the wrong airplane and arrives at the park, thinking the specialist treatment unit must be around here somewhere.
- Add an independently weird development. E.g. A fault in the robots’ programming forces them to react to the apparently disdainful protagonist as a messiah, embarking on a campaign of extreme body modification to win his favor.
- Play out the result and see what unexpected twists and conclusions present themselves. E.g. In order to better imitate the protagonist, the robots fuse into a single AI which then dispatches melting, cowboy-themed envoys to other, less-advanced star systems to walk around looking confused and unimpressed. Displays of enjoyment are naturally rendered taboo throughout the galaxy, and the protagonist wakes from the cryogenic pod in which he was stored for safety to discover a disaffected universe of melty people who have surgically altered their heads to be as wide as Stetsons… or something.
Share your resulting bizarro story plots in the comments, and let me know your thoughts on this strangest of subgenres. I’m not done with the nest of weird subgenres from which bizarro fiction emerged – we still need to talk about new weird, after all – but for now, check out Writing Transgressive Fiction? Here’s What You Need To Know for more insight into this area.