Bizarro vs. Surrealism

Rich Ristow asked me this question last week:

What separates Bizarro from run-of-the-mill new surrealism? Or, the difference between bizarro and the older, more “classical” sense of surrealism?

I’ll start with classical surrealism. While classical surrealism seems weird, it is not bizarro at all. Classical surrealism was all about examining the subconscious human mind. Through the process of automatic writing, the early surrealists would just let language flow out of them at random. Andre Breton, who started the surrealist movement, was a Freudian psychiatrist who studied the subconsciousness of his patients during WWI. He believed that automatic writing was the purest way to study the subconscious. He turned this into an artform. A lot of early surrealism read like dreams.

While bizarro can be considered dream-like at times, it is not like surrealism. Bizarro is the genre of the weird. Dreams and the subconscious are not weird. They are incredibly common. Weirdness caused through dreams, insanity, or drug trips cannot be bizarro because those things are far too normal. Other differences between bizarro and classical surrealism is that the surrealists were politically motivated and took themselves far too seriously. If a writer didn’t share the same political views as Breton he wouldn’t let that writer get involved with the movement. In other words, he was a complete douchebag.

New surrealism is harder to define. There’s no new surrealist manifesto, there’s no new surrealist movement, and most people who are considered new surrealists never use the term “surrealism” to describe their work. There is actually a lot of confusion over what surrealism is these days. Some people think that all surrealism is just the old style of surrealism, some people think that anything that takes place outside of reality is surrealism (including sci-fi/fantasy), some people think that surrealism is just weird fiction. Personally, I think if anybody is writing surrealism these days they need to get rid of the “ism” part unless they are doing automatic writing or a Breton tribute. Just call it surreal fiction. Or better yet, call it irreal fiction. Very few people know about the term irrealism, but what most people are calling surrealism these days is actually irrealism…which can be defined as “a style that features an estrangement from our generally accepted sense of reality.” I would put Russell Edson in the category of irrealism.

Irrealism is definitely weird. Bizarro is the genre of the weird. So bizarro does include the irreal, (a lot of bizarro is irreal). But bizarro cannot include surrealism… because dreams/subconscious are not weird. Also, bizarro is mostly about weird plots and weird characters, and the automatic writing of surrealism has no plots or characters (unless by accident) so it cannot be bizarro.

13 Responses to “Bizarro vs. Surrealism”

  1. Agreed. I think there’s a huge difference between surrealist fiction and surreal fiction. Surrealist fiction is related to the original movement to some degree. Surreal fiction is anything that falls under that term but is not associated with it,

    I don’t think most surrealist writing is fiction anyway. It’s usually experiments with language and doesn’t have anything to do with plot/character.

  2. And I think dreams ARE weird. Common can also be weird. Although it’s usually incredibly boring to listen to someone tell you about their dream.

    I like stories that use dream logic when it relates to the real world/plot/characters.

    • carltonmellick Says:

      Dreams are weird in a mundane kind of way. They’re not weird enough to be interesting. Anything weird but common is not interesting enough to be bizarro…because people read bizarro to experience something completely new and unusual. Commonplace weirdness isn’t worth reading about.

      • I kind of see what you’re saying. For instance, then, people commonly have “weird” dreams of being naked in a crowd, or losing their hair and teeth all at once. Strange to experience in a dream? Yes. But common place because many people have dreams that share certain types of images, like nakedness — making them common place. And then, in lit, there are certain tropes that developed — Borges and certain South Americans took the whole dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream concept far, but now, since it’s been done so much, it’s not necessarily strange anymore.

        Again, carlton, thanks for these blog posts. It certainly helps somebody new to the genre, like myself.

  3. Thanks for the answer. That pretty much clears it up for me!

  4. Interesting. Here lately, I’ve been asked, ‘what is this film you did, EGG. …just don’t get it’. Lots of things along those lines. It was written by Jeremy Shipp, who titles himself a Bizarro/Dark Fiction author. Bizarro was described to me as the abandonment of conventional logic. To myself, the film (and the script) is weird, illogical, surreal, dark, suspicious and yes…bizarro. So now when people get befuddled or confused, I just tell’em it’s a puzzle. You figure it out.

    J. Densman
    EGG director/producer

  5. i don’t know… i’ve dreamed about magical portal pies, purple alien birds hatching in FBI interrogation rooms, freakshow menageries, and having a painful black insect-like snake grafted to the inside of my arm in an old barn… this is “mundane weird?”

  6. […] of it does make sense to me. For example, Carlton Mellick III posts that with classical surrealism, using the practice of automatic writing, we’re left with a […]

  7. Cool stuff, keep up the good writing. Visit my site and check out my surrealist style. http://www.jaimeseibert.com

  8. Your name was popping up at the world fantasy convention a few weeks ago, so I started checking out your blog and articles. You nailed Breton’s influence on the Paris surrealists. “He was a complete douchebag” should be in textbooks right after “When not starting limp-wristed slap fights and obsessively brushing his hair, Breton spent lazy evenings brooding over the inevitable fall of the Parisienne group into the hands of anyone not named Andre Breton.”

    Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

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