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.


The Book Bubble

Is the publishing bubble going to burst?

I’m thinking a lot about how literary publishing has really exploded in the past several years, with the rise of small presses, nonprofit presses, print-on-demand services, diy publishing, and so on. I think it is fantastic that there are so many ways to get books into print now, but I’m also a little nervous about the book market’s ability to sustain such diversity.

Whenever there is a technological advance–such as, say, the internet–there follows an enormous market swell of entrepreneurs who seek to capitalize on the advance by founding companies, services, and such. Affordable desktop publishing was one such advance, extending the means of book production to more hands, and print-on-demand technology has been another leap forward, making those production means endlessly affordable by reducing the amount of up-front capital required to found a press or even print a catalog of titles.

All of this has, so far, meant great things for writers, particularly poets, whose work is not widely read by the American reading public. While the for-profit world tends to operate in a Darwinian way (the market determines the lifespan of a product or company), nonprofit organizations crop up whenever “market failure” occurs. Consider market failure to be something like the vanishing of the passenger pigeon. Nonprofit organizations ensure that for any market, nothing goes out of style. Instead, nonprofit orgs require the interested percentage of the market itself to support the activity by making charitable gifts, which are, in non-profit speak, the same thing as venture capital is to the for-profit, but the return on investment is social rather than capital in nature.

Now, more than ever, poets possess the means of production for their work, reminiscent of the days when writers assembled their own “pamphlets” of work. Wasn’t Walt Whitman’s book essentially a self-published title? It feels like it could be a very democratic time in publishing.

Except for that fact that many publishers are going to fail, particularly with the recession.

It’s as likely that a big publisher will fail, and possibly more likely because there is more capital at stake there, more money spent up front on printing and marketing, than a POD press, or even a DIY press. I think we’ll start to see a significant change in the publishing model, although I’m not exactly sure what that is. I fear poets will see more and more fee-based contests, but as an idealist, I’m sure there will continue to be fee-free ways to get books bound.

The internet + desktop publishing + print on demand technology = completely user-based production integration. For example, my online magazine, LOCUSPOINT, costs me $100 per year to keep alive. My labor is volunteer, my authors are volunteer, and my readers are volunteer (meaning they don’t pay). I feel like it’s a good use of my $100 dollars (and my time!) to do this. A print magazine’s budget can soar to $30,000 per year, just due to printing ($5K an issue), postage (yikes! always increasing), and staff salary (when appropriate). So, you tell me: which is the more sustainable model?

There’s a growing sense, though, that when the internet is involved, content should be made available for free. Charging for access to information on the internet is quickly becoming a fool’s errand, and I think another change we’ll see to that model is that fee-based news services will die (sorry, New York Times) because there are alternative options that don’t charge (Yahoo! news, for instance). And Google, with its insistence on extending services to clients for free, is really at the vanguard of this transition.

So this begins to beg the question: will there come a time when books are free? Now that we have Kindle and Sony Reader running around, it’s more possible. With the production costs of the bound book decreasing, there are fewer things to pay for. Normally, this would mean an increase in the profit margin, but in this case, it means a reduction in cost to the consumer because they sense there’s less value in their purchase (like how iTunes songs are cheaper than songs you buy on non-rewritable media).

And the next question: should books and literary magazines be free?

Yes, that is the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

Free distribution is likely to widen readership (with no barrier to entry, people of all economic backgrounds can participate, which is something many traditional presses forget about, even contests who charge fees forget this).

Free distribution means the purpose of the activity is not to turn a profit, but to accomplish something else.

Perhaps what we’ll see now is use of the literary magazine as a “preview” of books to come. Like, a press collects a cohort of authors into its fold, uses its literary magazine to promote and publicize their work through a free system of distribution, and then entices readers to purchase books (online, naturally) so that they can read the whole thing.

…and isn’t that a model we’ve seen before (to some extent)? “Schools” of writers, banding together, publishing their work themselves, distributing it free or for low-cost, and then publishing books…

…yes, it sounds like something that happened the last time there was a significant advance in publishing: the photocopier.

Poets Repeat Themselves

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet,”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has even been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. (Langston Hughes)

Replace Negro with queer, white with straight, see also discussions on various blogs about this context.

The Only Thing Worse than Being Talked About

One of the more intriguing facets of Gossip Girl’s narrative structure is its reinforcement of the idea of the panopticon.

The panopticon, originally conceived by architect Jeremy Betham, is a circular prison structure in which prisoners can be watched without them seeing the person watching them. Michel Foucault famously deconstructed the philosophy behind the panopticon in Discipline and Punish, but many people will recognize it in a more literary context—that of George Orwell’s Big Brother.

In Gossip Girl, it’s not Big Brother who’s watching, it’s Big Sister, speaking to us (the audience) in the purring, confidential voice overs provided by Kristen Bell. But there are a few important differences between Big Sister and the panopticon:

1. Gossip Girl doesn’t actually watch anyone herself
2. Gossip Girl doesn’t report what she sees, she reports what she knows.

It’s true. Gossip Girl is the twenty-first century version of Big Brother because she deals in knowledge, which in the reality of the show is the ultimate currency, trumping even the enormous trust funds of its denizens. Gossip Girl’s free influx of information comes from her army of watchers—her loyal readers—who can be anyone.

Although Gossip Girl is the enforcer of what is “good” behavior and what is “bad” (although her definitions tend to be in alignment with contemporary society’s), she isn’t simply an enforcer. She is also a tool, an elegant, sophisticated form of punishment various main characters use to serve their own sense of justice. Blair is the most notable user of Gossip Girl as a tool for retribution, sending her juicy tidbits on her friends to pay them back for their perceived misdeeds. Unlike Big Brother, Gossip Girl doesn’t just enforce societal codes; instead, she enforces justice.

Justice is a malleable ideal. It’s more than simply “wrong” or “right.” As a friend of mine once told me, evil people never conceive themselves as committing acts of evil. The human conscience requires justification—a ha! justice—in order to act. Jacques Lacan referred to this as “passage l’acte” (permission to act); the lack of it is essentially what keeps “good” people from stealing, committing murder, etc.

In Gossip Girl, justice often entails facilitating someone getting their comeuppance for being too upwardly mobile, too downwardly mobile, too self-righteous, or too hypocritical. It’s this last crime, the crime of hypocrisy, that is most widely enforced. In the world of Gossip Girl, there is no greater transgression than to criticize one person’s behavior and then commit it yourself.

And really, what’s so wrong about that?

Principles of Nonprofit Employment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A Case Study

There are several traits involved in working for and succeeding in nonprofit environment that seem fairly common across the board, whether someone works toward social betterment or in the arts sector. Over seven seasons, Buffy Summers epitomized the kind of moxy the nonprofit employee must embrace in order to create positive change in their community.

1. The nonprofit employee must experience his or her work as a calling.
In the first season of Buffy, we learn Summers has been “called” to duty by an ancient prophesy. The prophesy states that into every generation, a girl is chosen to lead the fight against the forces that seek to harm humans, and that Buffy herself is the most recent chosen one in a long line of former (now dead) Slayers.

Buffy’s work as the Slayer supercedes all of her other commitments. In school, she must constantly miss classes to train, stay up late and skip studying to fight vampires, or work within the academic environment to fight evil. Slaying comes first. In season six, when Buffy finally has to get a “real job” in order to pay the mounting bills, she has to battle evil at her job (the Doublemeat Palace) and rearrange her work schedule in order to be successful in her calling.

Work that is experienced as a calling comes to us as something sacred, something from which we benefit as we benefit others, and seeks to make positive change in the community on many levels. Those who experience their work as a calling in this way tend to be more invested and more passionate about the work they do: they are working for something “more” than just money; they are working for humankind. The pitfall, however, is that the nonprofit employee may then also make too many personal sacrifices to succeed at work, thereby putting their whole emotional investment in the job rather than their life. Buffy manages to offset this through her connections to her family and friends, who provide a necessary level of balance to her nonprofit work. This, too, is an important lesson for the nonprofit employee.

2. The nonprofit employee must know, value, and embody the nonprofit mission statement.
Early in the series, we learn of the Slayer lineage that, “Into every generation, a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil ways, to cease their destructive manners, to prevent the end of the world. When one Slayer dies, the next one is called. ” (I believe this version of the mission is explained to Buffy by one of her nemeses.)

This is a clear nonprofit mission statement. From this, we can gather:
1. Who is doing the work. (The Slayer)
2. What resources are used in carrying out the work. (special strength and skill)
3. Who the target of her intervention is. (The human population/the forces of good)
4. What specific steps the nonprofit organization takes to fulfill its mission (the statements beginning with “to hunt,” “to stop,” “to cease.”
5. How we can recognize when and if the work is completed (evil will end, monsters destroyed).
6. How the organization is staffed. (When one slayer dies, the next is called)

At the end of season 2, we get a clear sense of Buffy’s embodiment of the mission statement when she reveals to her mother that she has been battling evil as the slayer for almost three years:

“Do-do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or, god, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.” (“Becoming Part 2”)

Buffy’s ownership of the Slayer mission statement and her recognition of the work required to carry it out make her an exemplary nonprofit employee.

3. The nonprofit employee must devote part of their time to fundraising, revenue generation, and donor development.
This is a complicated area for Buffy’s nonprofit work, since revealing her secret identity as the Slayer is perceived as endangering the people she loves. If the forces of evil knew her identity, they could, for instance, target her family for retribution.

In season six again, during Buffy’s financial crisis, she toys with the idea of charging for her services. Many nonprofits, especially these days, turn eventually to for-profit or revenue-generating endeavors in order to fund their community service or charitable work. These endeavors can range from bake sales to membership sales to ticket prices for events, but the end result is the same: the for-profit endeavors can only be undertaken if the end result is that it subsidizes the nonprofit work.

While at a bank applying for a loan to help her pay her bills, Buffy is told she has no collateral and is not a likely candidate for financial assistance. At that moment, demons rob the bank and Buffy fends several of them off, saving the loan officer in the process. Struck by an idea, she tries to use her services as the Slayer to barter with the officer to approve her loan, but ultimately, she has difficulty in developing a revenue stream there because her request is perceived as manipulating her audience rather than inspiring them to donate.

Later in the same season, Buffy does succeed in developing a donor/patron for her work: Giles. In the depths of her financial misery, Giles hands her a check—for all intents and purposes, a tax-deductible donation (were she incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization by the IRS)—to help her offset the overhead costs of her Slaying work.

It’s important for nonprofit employees to understand the importance of donor development in creating a successful organization; although 40% or less of a typical nonprofits income stream comes from private donations, these donations are generally some of the most flexible funding an organization receives because it often comes without governmental restrictions on its use or grant-specific project use.

4. The nonprofit employee must strive to develop an audience for his or her services.
Because nonprofit organizations typically do not provide “needed” services to the community, or because they work in low-income or disenfranchised populations who may not elect to receive services, the nonprofit employee must work hard to embed themselves in their community and reach out to affected or targeted populations in order to be successful.

While Buffy’s identity is supposed to remain a secret, she often goes into underrepresented communities to do her work, finally cultivating there a devoted and supportive audience. In “Anne,” for example, she works among the homeless, runaway youth of Los Angeles (who are sucked into a concentration camp-like hell where they labor tirelessly until death); in “Gone,” she infiltrates the Child Protective Services system in order to save her sister from “the system;” in “Go Fish,” she works among the high school’s swim team to prevent them from turning into, well, fish.

In the season 3 episode “Prom,” we finally get a sense of the return on Buffy’s tireless work to rid the world of evil. At her high school’s prom—which she barely makes because first she has to trap and kill three vicious hell-hounds who have been trained to attack anything in formal wear—she is honored and recognized by the senior class, who give her an umbrella-shaped trophy as the “Class Protector Award.” She is given a round of applause and thanked for her services.

5. The nonprofit employee must understand his or her impact on the community, often through data.
In the same episode (“Prom”), Buffy is recognized for her work in cultivating public safety. During the speech that recognizes her, the emcee includes some factual data to back up the claim that she is the “class protector”: the data collected by the class over her three-year period at Sunnydale High prove her successes: the class of 1999 boasts the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class at Sunnydale High.

Additionally, Buffy also receives gratitude from the people she saves. They thank her for her services, and then run like hell. However, one failing of Buffy’s work as a nonprofit entrepreneur is that she begins to lose touch with her community. In “Once More, With Feeling,” she rescues a man tied to a tree by several demons and vamps. The gorgeous young man, his shirt nearly falling off his body, reaches out to her and begins to thank her, assumedly with some kind of physical affection. Her reply, which cuts him off: “Whatever.” It is during this time that Buffy’s connection to her mission and community are at its lowest; even then, it is critical to listen to the population served, to gather qualitative data on the service delivery, in order to further the mission and better the organization.

In order to carry out both audience development and donor development, data like this are essential in educating the community about an organization’s impact. It is also useful when applying for foundation or government grants to support nonprofit work; those organizations typically prize hard data over soft data (like participant comments and other qualitative data). Soft data tend to mobilize private donors, who are more interested in “changing lives” than broad community impact; their focus on effects on individuals means they are more interested in hearing from individuals.

6. The nonprofit employee must know when it is time to close up shop.
Over her tenure as the Slayer, Buffy works tirelessly to end evil, dying twice in the process (but never staying dead for more than a few months), until, at long last, she rids her town of evil once and for all (“Chosen”).

She does this using an interesting method: first, she shares her sacred power with all of the “potential” slayers, who have been gathered in Sunnydale under her protection so as not to end the lineage of the Slayers. This is her largest community impact and it is a metaphor for the nonprofit employee who is so empassioned, so persuasive, that he or she inspires others through their work to take up the mission and work toward the same goal with her.

Once the Hellmouth (and, in the process, Sunnydale itself) have been destroyed, it is clear that Buffy has fulfilled her mission as the Slayer. Over the course of American history, a few nonprofits have succeeded in fulfilling their missions; their choice, then, is to close up shop or revise the mission. In the case of Easter Seals, they revised their mission to include working against birth defects rather than just polio (which was eradicated from the US); in Buffy’s case, she is reminded that there is still “another Hellmouth in Cleveland” should she choose to continue her work in a new affected community.

The Other Art

Last night in my Art & Public Policy class, we talked a bit about how “the arts” are trying to cultivate larger audiences, gain more funding, and be more successful in general.

And I started wondering if it’s effective for the arts to lump themselves into that ubuiquitous category THE ARTS.

For example, there are performing arts and studio arts, particpatory arts and spectated arts, commercial arts and fine arts. Those encompass a wide field of play! In Arizona we have the Arizona Commission on the Arts, whose job it is to circulate funding, opportunities, and resources among all the arts. (And they do a great job, too!)

But I was thinking about whether or not it might be better for the arts to splinter off into more discrete subgroups. Say, for example, the opera, the symphony, and theatre shuffle off into a Performing Arts Coalition—are there concerns similar? Do they share a similar audience/need/philosophy? Would it be in their best interest to share audiences and funding rather than competing for spare change with the rest of the arts?

Similarly, I often find that in discussions of THE ARTS, literary arts are often conspicuously absent! People are more inclined to associate the Fine Arts (visual and performing) with THE ARTS, but writing is often viewed separately. This is perhaps because there is such a large commercial publishing industry at work in the world that people have slowly come to separate THE ARTS from what you can buy at your local Barnes & Noble (and perhaps rightly so…). But, too, even at ASU, the Creative Writing master’s program is in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, not in the College of Fine Arts, and I suspect this dichotomy exists at many institutions.

I’m not necessarily advocating for a splintering of arts disciplines; I’m just asking questions. Is it possible that our legislators and voters are rejecting arts funding because there is no line-item veto in funding the arts? Do people want to fund the opera and not literature, the art museum and not the symphony, the ballet but not arts coalitions?