Michael Cisco on Weird Fiction, Cheerful Nihilism and Sex in Literature
Michael Cisco has been hailed by China Miéville as being ‘of a different kind and league from almost anyone writing today’. He is best known for his first novel The Divinity Student, winner of the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel of 1999. His novel The Great Lover was nominated for the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel of the Year, and declared the Best Weird Novel of 2011 by the Weird Fiction Review. His work has attracted attention in literary circles outside the genre of fantasy and horror for its challenging of literary norms and its ability to deepen the genre of high fantasy with philosophical concepts.Your magnum opus Animal Money was recently published in French by a mainstream publisher. This is a real triumph, especially if you consider that the French literary market is particularly closed to non-realist fiction. Have you found a similar, initial reluctance in other European countries?
Just the reverse. My first publication in Europe was a German selection from one of my novels, and I’ve had another story likewise published and translated into German. A Spanish edition of one of my novels is coming out this year from Dilatando Mentes Press, and I’ve just been sent a contract for a Russian translation of my first novel.
I’ve noticed you don’t stay long with any one publisher. Is this because you like to change with each new fictional adventure?
Not at all. I would love to find a single publisher to work with consistently, but it hasn’t worked out that way for a variety of reasons.
You’ve described your fiction as de-genred: Does this make it harder for you to publish with major American publishers, despite the fact that you are internationally acclaimed?
I always write in grey areas, and this makes it more or less impossible for major publishers to do anything with me.
Your writing is interested in the interstices between genres. Do you sometimes find yourself recoiling from an idea because it fits too comfortably into a specific genre? What influence does the notion of genre have on you while you write?
To me, genre is something I reproduce as I write, rather than a guideline telling me how to write something. All artists are engaged in a ceaseless struggle against clichés, whether they are considered clichés of a genre or of some other kind. On the other hand, disencliché-ing something is thrilling. Most of the clichés we think of readily in a given genre are plot points or perhaps settings. If your voice is distinctive, you can bring a pat scenario to life again by relating it in that voice. Avant-gardism, text-scrambling, aleatory plotting, and so on have no special immunity to becoming clichés either.
Yes, I sometimes find keeping clichés at bay a real struggle. Martin Amis has called this ‘the war against cliché’. They creep in and assail the writer from everywhere, no matter where you turn. The struggle against clichés is certainly a spur to creativity. Do you ever find it anxiety-inducing?
Not really. If I find I can’t do without a cliché, I’ll just use it anyway and trust to the voice and the other ideas in the same piece to carry it. You can use clichés artfully, too.
You started publishing with Eraserhead Press. How close do you now feel to authors of New Weird fiction?
I’ve been identified with the term since it was coined, I think. New Weird is a very big tent. What we have in common in it (if there is a ‘we’ and there is an ‘it’), for the most part, is an interest in bringing literary effects into the genre from elsewhere, a kind of ‘modernism’.
Do you feel closer to modernism or to postmodernism?
I might feel closer to modernism simply because I have a better sense of what it is, but much of my academic work has centered around postmodern philosophy, and that has certainly inflected my writing too. I don’t see myself as a postmodern writer only because to me that label indicates a kind of radical experimentation in form that I think is pretty well played out by now. A new kind of experimentation is needed and unfolding now, one that has more to do with the way postmodernism tends to lead us into nihilism.
The American postmodernists who started writing after the Second World War tended to be described as ‘cheerful nihilists’, which is John Barth’s phrase from The End of the Road. Is cheerful nihilism a good description of your philosophical outlook? Or do you feel closer to something like cosmic nihilism?
I think nihilism is always cosmic, and people are either liberated by that idea or depressed by it, or perhaps both by turns. My philosophical outlook is that we produce our own meaning for our own purposes, which is a grim truth when we’re oppressing monsters and good news when we’re oppressed weirdos. On the one hand, the powerful are able to define reality. But on the other hand, this is only possible because there is a position from which reality may be defined, and this position is one that could conceivably be seized or undermined.
The absurdist strand in your work (in The Divinity Student and Member most strikingly) also seems to go hand in hand with a pronounced numinous yearning. Is your work a fictional record of your oscillation between nihilism and absolute meaning?
Nihilism is absolutist; it entails making a decision about all meaning. This is already absurd. We can’t think without generalising, and we always go wrong whenever we generalise. So a nihilist is someone who is trying to think of absolute meaning as a field of infinite play, so that every positive statement will have a lingering ‘but’ or ‘although’ floating around it. This can only be pranky prickishness or contrariness, but if it’s wholesome, then the point of it is really to keep thought from dying, to keep wonder from dying.
Would you say that your general theological outlook is ultimately agnostic?
I like the open atmosphere around questions best. The answers are like points on a readout. There will be different answers later.
In a landmark essay on your work, Jeff VanderMeer called you ‘the American Kafka’. How accurate is that comparison in your view?
In my dreams! Kafka was a miraculous genius; he was as original as you could possibly be. I only wish I could be that original. I think he and I are totally different artists in almost all respects, but there is something about his work that I just know. I just understand it, the way you know your old neighbourhood. Every time I go back to his work, I’m inspired, I’m laid low, I’m temporarily a little less stupid.
You have said that what you admire most about Kafka is his ability ‘to write lucidly about confusion’. Would you say that the wellspring of your work is confusion too?
Oh yes. They say you should write what you know, and I know being confused. Being lucid about it is another matter. But then again, once we start trying to reason things out, the more lucid we are, the more clearly we see the confusion that seems inevitably to arise whenever we try to reason. The point of the reasoning might be this delirious interplay between confusion and consistent reasoning, instead of a final, decisive conclusion about something.
You describe yourself as a Deleuzian academic. What draws you most to Deleuze?
I think I’m drawn to Deleuze by a sense of personal affinity in outlook. Much as I’m drawn to most of the other writers I admire. I don’t feel much affinity for Lovecraft’s outlook in general, but I do recognise his palpable need to dream. Deleuze, especially after meeting Guattari, becomes this wonderfully quiet, mad scientist-philosopher. At the same time, it wasn’t as if I was looking to see my own perspective vindicated by someone with more authority. Many of the ideas in his books shocked and unsettled me at first. In general, I found Deleuze’s work was full of ideas I could understand and use to figure things out, where thinkers like Derrida left me feeling as though everything had been said and there was no point going on any further.
Bizarro and New Weird fiction tends to explore sexuality, sometimes in explicit detail. What role does sexuality play in your work?
My late friend Stepan Chapman, a great writer, once asked me ‘Doesn’t anybody ever get laid in your books?’ The answer is no. Any written treatment of sex has to be approached with the utmost skill, because clichés swarm over sex in particular. It’s fiercely demoralising to see something so personal become generic, but how do you develop your own distinctive approach to writing about something as pervasive as sex? My method for writing about sex is something that took me a very long time to find.
What are the salient features of your method for treating sex in literature?
That would be telling.
Would you say that your 2011 novel The Great Lover was partly written to address this perceived lack of attention to sexuality in your work?
I’m not writing to address perceptions, but only about what preoccupies me. Why something preoccupies me is never especially clear.
Is writing sublimated sex or is that perception of literature too Freudian in your view?
I agree with Deleuze that desire is prior to sex. When analysis does nothing but reduce everything to sex, it turns sex into something that we reduce things to. So in giving it priority we are also making something complex into something basic. Desire is there first, and takes a variety of forms, including whatever we decide to call sex. The problem with the idea that writing is sublimated sex is that it makes writing into something that you don’t want to do, not really — what you really want to do, in this perspective, is fuck, but is that the case? And is art just a way to cover up the shame of having sexual desire? This means rooting art in shame, and making art into a poor, but respectable, substitute for sex. It’s an underhanded calumny of both art and sex, then. I think sex is involved in art to varying degrees, but do we see art dwindle when a given society becomes more sexually permissive?
You are a prolific writer and have been writing fiction for over twenty years now. Do you feel the nature of your writing has changed fundamentally since you started?
I write ways through my life. So it changes as I go on living, encountering people, encountering books, and struggling to think. Despite myself, I think I’ve become more interested in a style that tries to be as lavish but simpler. You said ‘fundamentally’, though, and I guess I have to say that the nature of my writing has not changed fundamentally. The fundament would be something so formative and early in my life that I can’t be me or think as me without it, so I guess I take it for granted.
To round off our talk, can you tell us what Michael Cisco enthusiasts (and newcomers to your work) have to look forward to in coming months and years?
The Spanish translation of The Narrator should appear soon from Dilatando Mentes, and there’s a French translation of The Tyrant in the works from Au Diable Vauvert. ANTISOCIETIES, a collection of ten new stories, is coming out this year from Grimscribe Press. Another collection of stories is due next year from Centipede Press. There are some new novels I’m trying to place and an academic book about weird fiction that I’m finally getting finished. I’m also working on a translation project I have to turn in by the end of 2020.
Interview Erik Martiny.
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