28 April 2007

What are genres?

Following up on Timmi's & other posts, I'd like to relate an experience recently that has me scratching my head.

I've been working very lately in a narrative form I've kinda made up, but borrowed from new techniques in oral transcriptions of native tales, where line breaks are used to indicate breath pauses. I've had Olson in my background for years and this put me in touch with "projective verse" in a new way -- I've always liked the field composition notion and its urging for one to make decisions at each new moment in the process of making the work. Sukenick relies on this quite a bit in In Form, which was also a big early book for me.

But what I've always written is so-called fiction, as per Sukenick. So it feels to me like I'm writing fiction when I write, for instance,

"Ah, Woodchuck

I will tell the story
of Woodchuck

One day
God looked down

On the people and
the people were having

a bad time
because of the sportsmen

The sportsmen would travel
in cars along the roads

so all the people had to do
was put out their heads

or stand up out of their holes
and the sportsmen

would shoot them from the road
with rifles

To die
when all you want

is to look out of your hole
is a bad thing" etc.

it's fiction, to me, but with line breaks.

I sent this out recently to someone who'd asked me for some new work and he said, yeah, he'd like to publish it, but could I rewrite it as sentences. Otherwise, he'd have to pass it to the poetry editor (who, he gave me to think, might not be so well inclined...). So the piece will soon appear ...

"Ah, Woodchuck.

I will tell the story of Woodchuck.

One day God looked down on the people and the people were having a bad time because of the sportsmen.

The sportsmen would travel in cars along the roads so all the people had to do was put out their heads or stand up out of their holes and the sportsmen would shoot them from the road with rifles.

To die when all you want is to look out of your hole is a bad thing." etc.

Well, this raises all sorts of questions regarding the definition of fiction, but from other situations than those discussed already, it seems to me. That is, it seems that the working definition of fiction in the marketplace (and the marketplace of ideas, for that matter) is as a resticted form. On one side, we have poets who write without line breaks increasingly, and whose work is most often called Prose Poetry -- that is, a species of poetry that happens not to employ line breaks. A poetry editor receiving a piece without line breaks likely wouldn't think twice about publishing a work without running past a fiction editor. From another side, "creative non-fiction" claims that the discourse of fiction isn't as serious or relevant in the "real world" as their discourse -- even though fiction writers throughout the twentieth century regularly employed (more "creative") non-fiction in collage and fragmanted narrative forms -- a la Sukenick, Kundera, Vonnegut, Kingston, Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, etc.

It seems as if the territory allowed to fiction in the dominant consciousness these days is a very limited one. Frequently I hear people who pick up Starcherone books say, "It's like poetry..." or "I don't know what to calll the form with your books." To me, it's fiction, but it seems as if I assume a larger territory for the form than is currently accepted.

Poetry's identity in a culture where fewer and fewer people read is less compromised than that of fiction. Fiction, on the other hand, it seems to me is starting, even in the reading public, to suffer from definitions given it by marketplace forces that privilege realism. There's a great review in the new ABR (yes, more than one, but one to the point) by Anis Shivani on the new Harcourt "Best New American Voices" short story anthology. Editor Sue Miller claims in her introduction to the collection that there's not "a workshop story" in the entire book, but Shivani argues there's nothing but -- and then masterfully defines what constitues a typical "workshop story": "occur within realistically identifiable milieus and settings...; history, politics, and culture serving only as background to individuals' private struggles," etc.

I don't know how it might be done, but I think part of reclaiming fiction must reclaiming be its SPACE -- space that the atrophied contemporary mainstream models of fiction has ceded away.

I think the first version above is better (though containing the same words) than the latter -- it preserves the question of whether fiction can use language as its tensions and traditions may allow, much as any other form or genre would allow. Eugene Onegin wrote a verse novel way back when, and Nabokov dabbled with line break -- not to mention the line smashing of Federman. But when "form" became "genre" -- a subtle shift in nomenclature in recent years -- we may have gotten the short end of the shtick.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting how commercial restrictions in literary fiction will tend, almost by default or definition these days, to support societal norms. Whereas I'd always assumed that one of the freedoms licensed to literary art...and Art in general...was to stretch and even break those very norms.

No more iron fist (รก la Stalin) when it comes to censorship, then. The bars of our conceptual prison are coated with crushed velvet and the guards are polite to a fault.

Welcome to the age of Totalitarian Decorum.

jdeshell said...

Dear Ted,
The rules (laws) of genre are always external, while the rules of form are internal. Think of the requirements of mysteries, for example, or westerns. It’s not surprising that these rules can be in conflict with one another, with the external demanding something that the internal refuses, and/or visa versa. I also don’t think it’s surprising that given the current state of economic affairs in the publishing and reading public, that the external laws of genre are now influenced (determined?) by extra-literary or non-aesthetic factors. Yeah yeah yeah. Jeffrey

Ted Pelton said...

Jeffrey -- If an internal law of form falls in the forest and no one hears it, and this goes on for enough years that "form" itself is all but forgotten, is all that then exists "genre"? That's what I fear has happened. Come on (come on), Come on (come on), Come on (come on)...

Steven -- I wonder, seeing how desperately conservative academia is (as hierarchical and hide-bound as corporate America, or moreso), I wonder if conservatism is as much a function of the MFA world as it is commercial markets.

Anonymous said...


It all somehow swirls together...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I think the Woodchuck simply reads better with sentences. And I am very happy that you were willing to change it.
all best,

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it only kills the dramatic pacing that way, is all. I imagine Paradise Lost goes a bit quicker in paragraph form as well.

Ted Pelton said...

It's been bugging me for a couple weeks -- Eugene Onegin is not the name of a writer, of course, but the title of Pushkin's long-ago novel-in-verse.

* said...


A young writer named Noah Cicero from Youngstown has been employing line breaks in his fiction for years now.

His technique is referred to as the sentegraph.

Noah Cicero probably invented the sentegraph.

The technique is already being used by lots of people, including myself.