Despite the fact that reviewers occasionally use it to categorize a work, I don’t think most people think of grotesque as a genre. Instead the word is used as a description of something appalling: as in, Ew, that was totally grotesque. We talk about grotesque horror or grotesque satire, but not “the grotesque” so much.
So I asked myself, what if we did? How would you distinguish works in the genre and figure out its aesthetics?
Wolfgang Kayser, author of The Grotesque in Art and Literature, felt the grotesque not only constituted a large body of work but that it was on par with (yet a completely separate form from) comedy, tragedy and history:
The grotesque instills fear of life rather than fear of death. Structurally, it presupposes that the categories which apply to our world view become inapplicable. We have observed the progressive dissolution which has occurred since the ornamental art of the Renaissance: the fusion of realms which we know to be separated, the abolition of the law of statics, the loss of identity, the distortion of “natural” size and shape, the suspension of the category of objects, the destruction of personality, and the fragmentation of the historical order.
The grotesque was a genre, he seemed to feel, that was gradually becoming more pertinent, because life is becoming increasingly fragmented and absurd-seeming.
The grotesque is not concerned with individual actions or the destruction of the moral order (although both factors may be partly involved). It is primarily the expression of our failure to orient ourselves in the physical universe. Finally, the tragic does not remain within the sphere of incomprehensibility. As an artistic genre, tragedy opens precisely within the sphere of the meaningless and the absurd the possibility of a deeper meaning—in fate, which is ordained by the gods, and in the greatness of the tragic hero, which is only revealed through suffering. The creator of grotesques, however, must not and cannot suggest a meaning.
In a sense he’s saying it is the anti-fable, that a grotesque story is one in which no neat moral can possible tie up all of its innuendo. It can’t be summed up. There’s nothing pat about the grotesque.
This isn’t to say that it’s utterly meaningless, but just that the place of revelation (the “oh, I get what’s going on here” moment) is filled by elements of contrast like distortion, ambiguity, intentional alienation, hybridization, and surrealism. These are used to produce a feeling in the reader of a hyper-realized reality.
In the simplest terms, it’s about abnormal people and bizarre incidences in improbable scenarios that create a disquieting awareness in the reader. Through strange visions, we receive a more clear view of our world. At one extreme there are fantasies, such as Kafka’s or the work of E.T.A. Hoffman, so often called grotesque, and at the other there are realistic grotesques, like those of Flannery O’Connor and Irvine Welsh.
Then again, such a broad range of styles and approaches — many of which find themselves nested snugly inside other more well-defined genres — forces me back to the conclusion that the grotesque is, in fact, not a genre at all, but a technique. Even a fable could be told in a grotesque way that undermined its own moral. Hence our modern definition of the word: “distorted, deformed, weird, antic, wild.”