On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture
Interview with István “Steve” Szabó
Translated by Beata Gubacsi
István Zoltán “Steve” Szabó is the founding editor-in-chief of Próza Nostra, a literary journal dedicated to fantastic literature. He received his doctorate in comparative literature at the University of Szeged for his work on the role of technology in William Gibson’s novels. His research interests are technology, deconstruction and postmodern American prose. He is a lecturer at the University of Szeged, and “off duty” a technical writer at an American IT company.
The interview was conducted in writing in the summer of 2021, and translated by Beata Gubacsi.
Guest Editors Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi: How do you see the development of Hungarian fantastic since the 1980s? What aspects do you consider the strengths of the fantastic in Hungarian literature and culture? How can you see these changes through Próza Nostra?
Steve Szabó: This can be approached from different directions. The first thing that comes to my mind is the sheer number of new authors who have appeared on the scene of the Hungarian fantastic since the 2010s. I would highlight two of them, Anita Moskát and Attila Veres, who could be considered the most important debut authors. A number of new publishers specialising in fantastic literature have entered the market, and the field has expanded. There are also more thematic calls for manuscripts year after year. The increasing numbers, however, do not necessarily mean an improvement in quality. I do think that as time goes by, publishers and authors are giving us so much that it is becoming more difficult to survey the field, and see the big picture without getting lost among all the texts.
Próza Nostra has never claimed to serve as a catalogue and report on everything. In this way, it does not reflect all the changes in the scene, and I think this is fine. Our team is seeking to filter and introduce books we deem worthy of the readers’ attention via reviews and review essays, through the lens of literary criticism. We want them to be noticed.
Guest Editors: How does the Hungarian fantastic incorporate and/or subvert the themes and tropes of Anglo-American fantastic tradition?
Steve Szabó: This is really hard to answer because when you say “Hungarian fantastic,” it sounds like some kind of a homogenous entity, but this is not the case. Hence there is no straightforward answer. The readers’ expectations for the fantastic for quite some time have been no more than getting pretty much the same thing as well-known Anglophone texts. I’m mostly thinking about fantasy here. The situation of science fiction is a lot more complicated since it follows a completely different tradition, and the weird and horror are, again, another beast.
If we stay with fantasy for now, Anglophone themes and stylistic features have dominated the field for a long time. There was a huge demand for fantasy but at the same time a kind of resistance toward Hungarian authors of fantasy. In the 1990s it was common practice to publish Hungarian fantasy authors’ work under Anglo-American pen names because that is what readers would pick up from the shelves. Nowadays, this is not the case, but the writers still active today have kept their nom de plume. Good examples would be Botond Markovics (Brandon Hackett) or István Nemere (John Caldwell), among others. It’s interesting to note that Botond Markovics’s—one of the most important contemporary authors—writing career is as a science fiction writer, but at the beginning of his career similar SF authors faced similar expectations, meaning that they could not use a Hungarian name. The reason for this being that Soviet and Eastern European SF became less relevant after 1989 for a while.
The themes and motives of the Anglophone fantastic have appeared obligatorily in these books—but with modifications—because the author’s cultural background would inevitably seep into the texts. As fantasy started to gain momentum in Hungary this process became more conscious, and there was a greater demand and appreciation for it. At the same time the elements or even clichés of Anglophone fantasy are sometimes still noticeable in the contemporary fantastic. And that’s fine. A literary tradition has been adopted, then adapted, shaped by our own cultural traditions.
Guest Editors: How does the uniquely Hungarian storytelling appear in the Hungarian fantastic, and how does the fantastic as a mode itself aid and amplify the Hungarian perspective?
Steve Szabó: This question logically follows from the previous one but it is more exciting. The main strands of the fantastic—I’m primarily talking about fantasy, science fiction, horror/weird, and their various subgenres—are naturally encouraging writers to integrate their own cultural and historical backgrounds, folklore, mythology, and archetypal stories into their fiction. There are plenty of examples for this in recent years in the field of the Hungarian fantastic. Just to mention a few, Csilla Kleinheincz’s Ólomerdő [Leaden Forest, own translation] trilogy or Mónika Rusvai’s debut novel Tündöklő [Shimmer, own translation] come to mind. These novels rely heavily on traditional Hungarian folk tales. They amalgamate the rich tradition with fantasy, a genre with Anglo-American roots. Yet, they don’t feel like experimental “crossovers,” but rather like genuine Hungarian fantasy.
However, at the same time, not every aspect of fantastic poetics and rhetoric support the integration and representation of the Hungarian folk tradition, or at least not without difficulties. There seems to be a trend in contemporary fantasy that worldbuilding allows the use of fantastic elements, but it also requires a certain level of realism. This approach couldn’t be further from the traditions of Hungarian folk and fairy tales and generally genres originating from oral storytelling, so merging these thematic and aesthetic trends is no easy feat.
This issue is apparent in other genres, as well, not just the fantastic ones, where a given genre predominantly draws on Anglo-American culture, and so Hungarian authors find it difficult to come up with a believable story within the Hungarian cultural context. I would refer to an example here that Attila Veres brought up at a literary event in Szeged. Crime fiction is a difficult genre in Hungarian literature because—despite the end of the Soviet regime—people still distrust the police as they used to be seen as part of an oppressive force. Consequently, in Hungarian crime fiction, if someone approaches the police with trust, Hungarian readers will be thrown off, feeling that something is not quite right.
Horror has also been looking for its typically Hungarian form before it flourished. To do so, initiatives like The Black Aether fanzine and its fanbase, a group of readers and writers, have been vital. When it comes to fantastic genres, they can’t be defined as culturally homogenous. Finding those entry points where they can be cracked open to let in specific cultural representations is a huge and incredibly exciting mission. We’ve seen many wonderful examples in the past decade.
Guest Editors: In the field of Anglo-American SFF generic boundaries have become increasingly porous, and experimenting with different genre-bending practices has been encouraged and celebrated. How do you think fantastic genres appear in Hungarian fantastic literature and culture? What is the role of Próza Nostra in representing genres and generic hybrids?
Steve Szabó: I’m not a fan of labels. Genres are undoubtedly useful: literary critics can describe complex ideas through them fairly easily, in the bookstore we know which section has the books we are looking for, and they are also useful in dividing passionate readers, and beyond this there are other practical uses. Yet, reading reviews one gets the feeling as if genre and its characteristics were more important than the actual text. I think it’s more exciting to read fantasy than an essay trying to disentangle the subgenres of fantasy. These categories have become increasingly hybrid. Of course, you can find buzz words to render texts to certain categories. I’m glad we can allow these genres to blend on a theoretical level as well.
It would be hypocritical to start talking about what’s happening to the principal fantastic genres in Hungary and how they could mix and match. I would still suggest—even if it means putting some of the above thoughts in brackets—that weird/horror and fantasy typically blend well with Hungarian themes. While there’s a significant tradition of combining typically science fiction and horror elements—not only in literature—I can see fewer examples of this in the field of the Hungarian fantastic.
The criticism of the Hungarian fantastic definitely suffers from genre fetish, and Próza Nostra is no exception, not really. The website’s tags are based on generic labels so the readers can quickly find what they are most interested in. This is a good example to show how we think of texts, systematically. Criticism observes and thematizes hybrid genres and crossover texts, and the entanglements of their characteristics. So, while we celebrate this kind of experimentation, using the same labels we simply reinforce the genres’ taxonomy.
Guest Editors: What aspects do you consider the strengths of the fantastic in Hungarian literature and culture, and how could they be supported?
Steve Szabó: The greatest strength seems to be—and I’m thinking about the outstanding texts that will be considered milestones as we look back at them in a few years—is that they can be topical without losing their global perspective. The majority of fantastic fiction, including the international scene, as far as I can see, is not like that. What I mean is that the way they reflect on current socio-political issues puts an expiry date on them.
Literature and the arts have to reflect the world but I still think this is done most successfully when it does not remain mundane and it can reflect something of the human condition. From where I stand, the fantastic engages with contemporary issues in a way that it uses genre features to convey a message metaphorically, so the fantastic itself is just a shell. I can’t say this trend can’t be seen in the Hungarian fantastic, or that this is exclusive to fantastic literature, but I still think the biggest achievement of the Hungarian fantastic is that it can reflect on the problems honestly and uniquely in a timeless way.
Guest Editors: How do you see the development of fan communities in Hungary? How do they shape and reflect changes the fantastic is going through?
Steve Szabó: In the past decade, quite a few new communities have formed that remained and developed further. I don’t know the statistics, but I feel like these groups are massively influential. They are instrumental in spreading information quickly, and through them readers can find books easily; they make it much simpler for writers to enter the market. The work of these vibrant communities comes to fruition.
Just to mention my own journal first, Próza Nostra has had several offline events in Szeged and Budapest as well. We’ve got book launches, meet and greets, Q&As, conferences. We also have an active role in organising the inaugural convention ViTA or Világok Találkozása [Wor(l)ds Collide]. These events create their own communities.
I’ve already mentioned Black Aether. It began as a fanzine, supplying niche demands, warranting scepticism whether it’s got a future in the digital age. Yet, it was capable of reaching the fans of Lovecraftian horror, and readers of horror and weird in general. The above-mentioned Attila Veres debuted in the fanzine, and Balázs Farkas and Zoltán Komor also published there. The community surrounding the magazine has founded the Hungarian Lovecraft Society, which is equally visible in this field.
The Facebook group, F.I.O.K.—Fantasztikus Irodalmi Olvasó Kör [Reading Group for Fantastic Literature], includes several writers, readers, editors, and publishers in their ranks as active community members. The Spekulatív Zóna [Speculative Zone] is one of the most important resources when it comes to the fantastic scene. Bence Bukta’s podcast, Booktár [Bookhoard], specialises in the fantastic. These are all grassroot projects, they’re not backed by a publisher, it’s just a few passionate people who love fantastic genres.
This is, of course, not a comprehensive list but I think it shows that these literary communities not just follow the changes in the field of the fantastic but also shape it, make it more accessible with the intellectual material they accumulate.
Guest Editors: Considering current trends in the production and consumption of fantastic literature and media, how is the Hungarian fantastic likely to change in the future? What new directions do you think are possible?
Steve Szabó: Someone in publishing should be able to provide a more accurate picture since they see the commercial data. Looking at the current trends, I would say the weird and horror are going to become more prominent. This would be great since there are fewer books published by Hungarian authors compared to other strands of the fantastic. At the same time, there’s considerable interest in the genre, so I can definitely see the increase of debut novels in the field. I also hope we are going to see more volumes that reach back to Hungarian myths, folklore, and storytelling traditions. This might be wishful thinking, though. I firmly believe, however, that unless there’s a huge global crash that changes everything, I can’t see the Hungarian fantastic become tepid or irrelevant. It’s definitely coming up, strongly.