Against Genre

The concept of genre—a defined category of writing, like poetry or novels or plays—isn’t currently fashionable. Many people find such categories too restrictive or fussy. Much of the energy of contemporary literature is in crossing and mixing various genres in single pieces of writing. Yet when it comes to poetry, it can help to think about genre in a more isolated way, at least temporarily, because the question of genre is really a question of purpose: Why did the writer choose a certain type of writing, and how does that choice affect how we should read the work before us?

Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry

I offer this quote from Matthew Zapruder’s book because the concept of genre, for me, is very different, and I wanted to write about the idea of genre from another perspective. My intent in this post isn’t to drag Matthew for his perspective, though I will respectfully disagree with some basic assumptions in his essay (and also note the quote above is just a quick aside and not at all a major point he makes in the essay).

First, I don’t believe genre is a concern for the writer. Genre is a concern of the publisher and the bookseller, and this is because genres are sales categories. Genre indications tell booksellers where to shelve certain books in their store, at the recommendation of the publisher, who has assigned it a genre in order to ensure the book is able to find its most likely readers.

Genre is taught to writers, for sure. These categories have become part and parcel of the writing program, so much so that many programs don’t allow students to take classes outside their genre of admission. I find this troubling. While I agree that deep knowledge of a mode of writing is valuable, exclusive study isn’t necessarily as valuable. But I say this, in part, because my own writing practice was deeply shaped by and informed by film form and film theory, two areas I never would have learned in a poetry workshop but whose ideals—sequence, suture, juxtaposition, narrative, composition and mise-en-scene, persistence of vision—all remain present in my poetic practice. So, yeah, I have a horse in this race.

Zapruder suggests in his essay that “stories and novels create characters and situations and tell stories; journalism communicates information; essays engage in that hard-to-categorize effort to explore, however loosely, a certain idea; editorials and sermons tell us what we should and should not do, and believe; and so on.”

But I would argue a poem, too, can do all these things. That an essay can have characters and situations. That novels can communicate information. That short stories can explore an idea, however loosely. I think very clearly of the Juliana Spahr essay “Spiderwasp, Or Literary Criticism,” a foundational text for me, or any of her books (Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You and thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs in particular).

So if this is the case—if my assumptions about what genres can do is valid, that is—then the categories Zapruder puts forward here become less enforceable.

In 2017, I had a reckoning with my relationship to genre. I had been writing novels, short stories, essays, screenplays, and hybrid pieces that cribbed from all genres for many years, but I noticed I always knew what form a piece of writing would take when I began writing it. I always knew when something would have a line break, or when it was a narrative that would unfold over many pages. I also knew when I would need to stitch together many approaches to discover the story in the interstitial moments it created.

I started to wonder if all writing was poetry, and any further categorization was just describing a mode of poetry.

Poetry is, after all, the oldest or one of the oldest modes of literary expression. Does it not make sense in some way that the novel is offspring of the poem?

I think all of this can stand if we’re thinking about genre from the standpoint of artistic production. Writers, be free to write how you write. Let it be your own.

The complicating factor is, as always, the marketplace.

Few writers have made careers while consistently eschewing genre’s restricting embrace. Mark Z. Danielewski is a writer particularly adept at it, as has Carole Maso, whose own book of writing about writing is called Break Every Rule, an artistic philosophy I endorse. When it comes time for us to move our writing from the desktop to desktop publishing, well, then things do get a bit more sticky and, I agree, they look a lot more like what Zapruder put forward.

This is because book buyers want to have a reasonable understanding of what they’re buying. They want it to meet their expectations. This means a mystery novel should have a mystery at its center, that a horror novel should be terrifying, that literary fiction will likely explore the internal lives of its characters. And that a poem…should have line breaks?

Except prose poems.

And poems with long end-stopped lines, I guess.

And poems in which the poet has decided not to use line breaks.

It’s much easier for me to think of poetry as “not other genres” than of a thing itself, and partly this is because for me, the magic of poetry is its permissiveness. Its inclusion. Its ability to morph and change and invite experimentation and innovation. (Other genres can do this too! I’m not saying they can’t.)

When I approach poetry as a place to invent, I find myself taking much more interesting risks, experiencing more foundational failures, and discovering what literature is capable of.

But poetry that doesn’t play by genre-based rules may struggle to find a readership, which poetry already struggles to do (for a lot of reasons that will probably be its own blog post later). So, no, I’m not doing Poetry (as a field) any favors with my ideological stance. I’m sorry, Poetry. I’m not doing it to hurt you.

Poetry contains multitudes. It should not be tamed.

 

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