For the longest time, I’ve hated the concept of “Camp”. I didn’t exactly know why, but it always struck me as dismissive and condescending. It’s the suggestion that something stinks, but I’ll like it because it stinks and this somehow insulates me from criticism. It’s the notion that I like something that others deem dumb, and I apologize for it in advance. This was the definition of Camp that most often came up, and it always annoyed the hell out of me.
It annoys me because it is so often misapplied. For example, the classic Batman TV show starring Adam West is often labeled as Campy. As far as I can tell, this is because it has a sense of humor, has a lot of goofiness, and isn’t the grimdark version of superheroics we’ve come to expect. But to suggest that it’s a bad show, that it was badly written or directed or acted, is nonsense to me. I would argue (and often have) that the Batman TV show was one of the sharpest shows ever to be on television. Yes, it’s crazy. It’s silly. It’s strange. But it is aware it is all these things, and it works within this framework to tell fun stories, create fun characters, and create compelling, if goofy, stories.
It’s often overlooked that the Riddler (one of my favorite Batman’s villain) was revitalized by Frank Gorshin’s brilliant performance. Or that so many classic Batman characters were given new life by Batman. In this way, it is just as important and influential as the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series. But that’s beside the point.
My old definition of Camp was this sort of dismissive apologetic tone, but my new definition of Camp is a little more meta. (Much as I hate to use the term.)
Campy is the term people use when they like something but can’t easily categorize it. It’s a superhero show that wants to write about law and order while starring a weirdo in a batsuit versus a guy dressed like King Tut. It’s a movie like Cabin in the Woods that is somehow a deconstruction and reconstruction of the horror genre while not really being a horror film in itself but more of a fantasy with horror elements. It’s Sin City, too absurd to be classic noir but certainly tangentially related.
Like all labels, Camp can often mean this, though not always. Definitions define, but they are also random and arbitrary. There is genuine Camp, weird things being weird for their own sake. Though usually I classify such things as Kitsch, not Camp. But that’s arguing over shadows. Kitsch and Camp are often related. Still, I think of Kitsch as goofy for its own sake. Parody is often Kitschy. Though even this isn’t always true.
I feel myself sinking in a linguistic quagmire here, so let’s get back on track.
Sometimes, my stories have been classified as Camp, and I usually found the term insulting. But now I see it as the inevitable result of genre confusion that can sometimes happen. I’m not saying I’m a groundbreaker, but I am saying when I write stories about a robotic detective in a retro sci fi setting or about a space squid supervillain who rules the world that it can be a bit difficult to pin down the genre. Are they deconstructions? Reconstructions? Silly little adventure stories? Philosophical explorations of what it’s like to be human? Am I just writing absurdist fiction with no other purpose or am I attempting to see life from different angles?
The answer, if I may be so bold, is all of these and more. I say this not in ode to my own brilliance. Brilliance is another silly little label. I know I’m a good novelologist. I leave the label, kudos, and insults to the rest of the world to figure out beyond that.
But I will say that I often straddle genre. I often break little unbroken rules. I’ll write a story about a robot who doesn’t have Pinocchio syndrome. I’ll have my vampire and werewolf be regular Joes. I’ll make gods that don’t explore complicated issues of faith and religion, but power and responsibility. And I’ll pick the housekeeper with common sense to save the day in one story, and the badass supergenius alien in the next. What I do, it isn’t the most amazing stuff you’re going to read. I’m certain there are thousands of other writers do a better job of pushing boundaries and challenging perceptions. But I’ve carved out my niche, and I think I’m pretty damn good at it.
So maybe it is Camp. If Camp is believing that genre is a suggestion, not a requirement. If Camp is about using the absurd to explore the absurdity of life. If Camp is acknowledging fiction as a reflection of life is just as a mess of contradictions. If that’s your definition of Camp, I embrace it gladly.
But, hey, if you like my books because you use the “Stupid stuff” definition of Camp, I’m not complaining. Just happy to have you aboard.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,