Genre Discussion: Helpful Guide or Straitjacket?

The other day, I ran into a friend while I was talking to a librarian about my new book. My friend asked to see my book. She looked at the blurb on the back and said, “Oh, dear, I have a terrible time with books like this. Fantasy. I just don’t understand it.”

“Well, it’s science fiction…” I began, but she was shoving the book back at me.

“I just don’t like dragons and swords and stuff like that.”

“Not all fantasy has that,” I said, abandoning a discussion of both my book–which lacks dragons and swords–and science fiction.

“Yes, it does,” she said.

I started listing some books I thought she would like, everything from The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord to Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Most she hadn’t read (because it was fantasy) but “Oh, I loved Mists of Avalon!” she said and then added, “But that’s not fantasy.”

“Of course, it is,” I said always willing to state my opinion.

A couple days later, I ran into this friend again, this time at the post office. She was bubbling over with excitement because she’d talked to her son about the Golem and the Jinni and found out he’d read it and loved it. She’d started it, and she loved it, too. I don’t know if this is going to open up her thoughts to reading outside her “usual” genres, but it points out how writers can fail to reach readers and how readers can miss out on great books because of genre:

  1. Readers become trapped in the idea that genre defines a book’s content, theme, style.
  2. Writers find themselves trapped into writing stories that don’t take unique paths.

Writers suffer the most damage. Genre conventions dictate what they can write and/or how they can write it. That can smother creativity. This starts early in a writer’s career. For instance, one of my friends was denied admission to a university MFA program because she wrote science fiction. Many programs still limit work to “literary.” It’s not just academia. For instance, writers in the fantasy genre must be careful to not mix character origins. Take care not to mix a mythological god in a story with randomly chosen creatures such as dinosaurs and the Cheshire Cat. 

Of course, all these genre boundaries shift about. What a shock when genre fiction writers became recognized for their literary accomplishments; for instance, writers such as Vonnegut and LeGuin have work that science fiction writers sometimes now claim as “literary science fiction” and the academic world calls, simply, “literary.”

Sometimes this classification game begins to look as complicated as listing all the animal species (a couple million or so). Wikipedia breaks down the “common fiction genres” into 25 categories. Various departments of education often cut that down a little, but in reality the genres multiply as professors of literature (one of the fields I taught for decades) bring books into the classroom. The classifications become as narrow as the hair on a villain’s chin.

Of course, many writers shrug off the rules and write what their imagination dictates. This often results in wonderfully imaginative and unique books, which is what I’d say about Redemption in Indigo and Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. Each page is a surprise.

Even cross-genre (or genre bending) writing has become a genre. I keep seeing articles such as “Three rules for writing a cross-genre novel.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for writing rules. Grammar and punctuation (I was a teacher after all) are essential, in my opinion, for clarity. Rules also apply to style: show don’t tell, for instance. Essentials of plot and scene building keep a story from dying on the page. On the other hand, one purpose of learning rules is to know how and when to break them effectively. For instance, a well-used sentence fragment adds spice and characterization.

“Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form…. Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects….Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls….”            –from “Diligence,” A Mencken Chrestomathy–H. L. Mencken

So sometimes, if you’re willing to pay the penalty, genre rule breaking is an option (including cross-genre rules). For instance, in my last book Quantum Consequences, I used science fiction as the main genre; however, I took on fantasy to account for the origin myth of elves and dwarfs as well as some abilities of central characters. I was aware of the fact that I was violating many traditions of the fantasy field. In so doing, I also knew I was limiting publishing options. Few big publishers want to risk a book that breaks with genre tradition unless the writer is already well-known and popular.

Look how hard it was for Stephen King to move out of horror. Even so, his work is sometimes still restricted. I recently read an article that said he had mastered almost all the genres except literary. I guess that means that his nearly 20 awards for writing won’t ever include a Pulitzer.

So who wins in this genre box building?

Academics

In literary circles where analysis is the name of the game, genre allows for historical, social, and cultural contexts. Taking something apart to study it is SOP.

Institutions

Libraries and stores know where to shelve books. Publishers and publicists know where to market.

Writers

Marketing is easier if you write mysteries that follow the genre boilerplate. Finding publishers and readers is marginally easier. One writer I know has churned out five or six books a year by following this practice and now has almost 200 books attributed to his name. Readers devour such books in the same way that my husband eats potato chips (except the books aren’t fattening). Likewise, getting publicity is easier if you have a clear genre.

Readers

Readers who don’t want surprises, don’t want their assumptions challenged, also benefit. If they pick up a Regency romance, they already know the time period, the basic plot (romance), the likely class of characters, and the outcome. Readers who don’t find the expected in such a novel will be as upset as a Texan who orders sirloin steak and gets tofu. That doesn’t mean either the Texan or the tofu is bad. Likewise, genre preferences don’t make advocates “bad readers.” Books for escape (entertainment) have an important place in our culture. This, for the same reason, means that writers of such books are not “bad writers.”

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With all that said, the controversy over genre continues. Some writers and readers like risk, like taking a literary journey where no one has gone before. Natural rebels? Eager to tell their own stories in their own ways? More in love with the art and craft of writing than publication? Or, for readers, more in love with meeting unexpected people and traveling on unexpected paths with uncertainty always in the balance and utter delight only one sentence away?

We need those who write within conventional structures and those who don’t.

Sometimes the unconventional becomes conventional. Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov pioneered the short story. Murasaki Shikibu penned the world’s first novel (according to most sources) The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century. Short story and novel are now standard conventions.

Who knows what the next convention will be?

Whatever it is, the result will no doubt be named and placed in the growing hierarchy of genres becoming standard, like steampunk novels today.

Experimental Nonfiction: Is It New?

Last week on Sunbreak Press Facebook page I posted a call for submissions to a publication wanting “experimental nonfiction.”

A few people have since asked, “What is ‘experimental’ nonfiction?”

The answer lies in another question: What is traditional nonfiction? That is, what do you expect in a piece of nonfiction? A number of answers jump to mind, some focusing on the goal of the genre and some on the craft.

To start with the goal of nonfiction, one answer may be truth. Well, as we know, writers have been debating the differences between fact, memory, opinion and, therefore, truth for eons. Because that concept is abstract (elusive), some authors use the term essential truth, which means, most closely, truth as perceived by the author. Consequently, most nonfiction relies on personal memories–either those of the writer or other voices in the essay. This is a truth for the individual that may become a universal truth to which readers can relate.

With that answer in place, the idea of experimental nonfiction may be to use sources other than memories to come to an essential truth. That can be done through need (memories are missing) or choice; this gets into craft.

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For instance, to take the first reason for using other sources–need: suppose you’re writing an essay that comes from the events of your sixth birthday party where, according to family stories, your discovery of your mother and the neighbor kissing created havoc, which led to the family home burning to the ground. That has been the simple version of a family truth for decades and maybe you’ve always felt a little guilty about being party to the disaster, so you’re going to write about the event. However, in the family library, you’ve recently found pictures of that kissing neighbor, who was a different race than your family; this happened when racial tensions were high in your town. Then you find a newspaper article about that neighbor’s murder, which took place two days after your birthday.

You have no memories of your own, and writing with “perhaps” and “if I connect the pieces” throughout the manuscript becomes tedious. Suppose you drop standard chronological details and instead use a collage of newspaper articles, song lyrics of the time period, and quotes; with these, you may juxtapose birthday cake candle images with various other fires: burning crosses, passion, hell. You’re dealing with an essential truth that has emerged through juxtaposition. The story morphs. This is still nonfiction, but it’s not within what we think of as traditional nonfiction today.

This technique can also be used for the latter reason (choice), which is based on choosing technique to help you discover your own message. You let an essential truth build in your reader’s mind and even in your own (with, of course, your guidance).

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When this sort of genre mixing and chronological omission is practiced, first person often is abandoned for third person. We expect memoir, for instance, to be written from first person (with the author being the speaker). To shift person is another way to experiment with the genre. This sort of approach can change the voice, the tone, and the style of the work.

Another technique that often involves person switches or omission of first person is to use multiple story lines, weaving them together, to create an essential truth that none of them would have on their own. In a beautifully written essay on writing essay, “The Art of Memoir,” in Michael Steinberg The Fourth Generation, first edition, Mary Clearman Blew compares this sort of writing to that of creating quilts from scraps of material, each with its own story:

But any story depends upon its shape. In arranging the scraps that have been passed down to me, which are to be selected, which discarded? The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.

Although this was written in 1993 and deals with selection of details, the concept of experimental is at its heart; these writers were just not using the term experimental.

Whenever you’re using multiple genres to create your work, you are using experimentation. Although writers often wrote in boxes in the past, cross-genre work and genre bending have become increasingly popular. As mentioned above, you may well include articles, songs, and poetry in nonfiction to give it added depth and interest. Check out an interview with Margot Singer and Nicole Walker in TriQuarterly for some more thoughts along these lines.

Another aspect of essay that is usually expected is that it will be personal, focused on the self; after all, the word essai to Montaigne was his effort to provide thoughtful, personal honesty with his “little thoughts” (as a side note, the tradition for years was that only men could write essays, for only men could think).

Any essay that uses second or third person, of course is drifting from that idea of personal honesty, but that can drift even farther. In the 1990s, the term literary journalism was used to separate the personal essay from the rich essays that strove to avoid pitfalls of fiction (including telescoping time and creating composite characters) used by some creative nonfiction writing. According to John McPhee, artistry did not need to correlate with “made up” (Literary Journalism). McPhee and other literary journalists often objected to the term creative when correlated with nonfiction.

Literary journalism is often about situations, places or people other than the author or even anyone well known by the author (such as family).

Essays have, of course, been changing constantly over the decades. Perhaps these changes are all experimental, but over time we have fallen into thinking of essays in traditional ways (first person, chronological, memory-based reality). Perhaps thinking in terms of “experimental” is just one way of putting the creative freedom back into how we write nonfiction (or artistry if you prefer).

In essence then, experimental nonfiction is neither new nor particularly experimental; it remains, however, writing that seeks truth.