Against Genre

Genre means the type of art, literature or music characterized by a specific form, content and style. For example, literature has four main genres: poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction. All of these genres have particular features and functions that distinguish them from one another. Hence, it is necessary on the part of readers to know which category of genre they are reading in order to understand the message it conveys, as they may have certain expectations prior to the reading concerned.
—Literary Devices: Definition & Examples of Literary Terms

Against Genre: Writing In & Out of Boxes

For the sake of argument, let’s says genre is a construction created primarily by the academy, the publishing industry, the library system, and bookstores, in particular, and most recently, the big chains. (Sound like a conspiracy theory? Try walking into a Barnes & Noble and ask after the poetry section. Nine times out of 10 the clerk either doesn’t know off-hand—in their defense, it gets moved a lot—or he or she points into a corner and says, “Bottom shelf.”) The work must be put somewhere. Must be called something, labeled, sold, catalogued, critiqued and analyzed, shelved and placed in a section. For sake of argument, let’s stick to these four main literature genres, eschewing science fiction, cowboy poetry, graphic novels, etc. (Though not for the reasons you might think. More on that later.)

And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all of the above is post-production. After the fact. Flotsam in the river of commodity. That, in production, in the creation of the work, especially in the early stages, there is no such thing as genre. I posit this because even if you perceive your work as being in one particular mode or form—as in, I am most definitely writing a poem here—you are most likely working with a variety of forms (or ghost forms). Staying with poetry…some poems are narrative lyrics, other lyric narratives. Many lineated poems quietly tug on the poet’s sleeve and ask to be a block of prose. Or you’re using words to re-create a photograph. Or the words might be best uttered on stage by an actor, or a voice-over in a film. Really, in the heat of the moment, how do you know? And why should you?

In the beginning, so speak, was the word. The phrase. The sentence. The image. The idea. The metaphor. Pencil on paper, fingers typing on a keyboard, a voice speaking into a microphone. Thoughts and images floating in the brain in a grand brainstorm daydream movie. Something out of nothing. Some thing.

I am against genre and for hybridity. Just as I am against homogeneity and for intersectionality. In the early stages of composition, I argue, it’s almost always better for the artist to be multitudinous—open, fluid, adventurous, associative. (I’m thinking James Madison’s Federalist Paper # 51.)

Even when focused in on a single idea or theme or scene, the writer functions as an omnidirectional mic picking up signals from all around; and then must find ways to bring these transmissions down into the work and to use them to fashion the artifact. Or, at least, this is what I strive for when I am working seriously on a piece. As a working artist and writer, my goal is to wake the reader up. To bring out something new (or to have it seen differently), to entertain, make you think, piss you off. As the work gets honed, and as I figure out where the work might end up or for which audience I’m writing, I may find myself taking genre into consideration (though I’d argue that it’s never entirely necessary to do so). Hmmm, I think, rubbing my chin, This would make a great New York Times opinion piece. No harm in that, right?

I repeat: it’s best not to worry too much about genre when starting a work, and not to worry even in the act of re-approaching a work. It shouldn’t be a bad thing to say aloud to the blank wall, “Damn this is a poem, a journal entry, a laundry list and a manifesto.” Nor should it be a deterrent to further investigations. Better to ask what the work is doing and what it needs in order to thrive. (You can ask what it is, sure, of course, but the question leans more spiritual than literal.)

Creativity is omnidirectional, as well. It draws from high and low, left and right, inside and out; from waking life and dream, truth and lie; from stories and thoughts as well as notions and insights. Not only that, but creativity, by nature is multi-cultural discourse. It can’t help but be, and we can’t help but being so ourselves if we are being truly creative. Think Whitman’s multitudes. Think two-way street. Think walking a mile in…

Though, for an artist or a writer, creativity is always and ever at the service of craft. “You can’t improvise on nothing,” as jazz bassist Charlie Mingus once spat. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. What came before. The rules and how to break them. You read, you write and rewrite, you study from masters, you work in a circle of writers, you send your work out. Rinse, wash, repeat. “You do what you must do, and you do it well.” (Dylan said that.)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to say, when arguing as I am against genre, that there aren’t different genres of writing—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, etc. I am just saying that you shouldn’t feel you have to draw from only one well or that you must assign only one genre to your work. Learn the different modes, the different forms. Be anxious inside tradition. Beg, rob and steal. Mix and match. Learn from your mistakes. Make up brand-new mistakes. (Miles Davis: “If you make a mistake, repeat it.”) But, by all means, resist the urge to typecast your work too early as this or that. Why not encourage it to be many things at once?!

Back to subgenres. In short: I love ‘em. They are perfect examples of hybridity in action. There’s “science” and “fiction”; “cowboy” and “poetry”; “graphic” and “novels.” And though subgenres are often used by libraries and bookstores to separate in their estimation the wheat from the chaff, for me such labels help to subvert standard assumptions of merit. They help wrest control back from the post-production trolls. My latest projects? “A memoir in poems.” And: “A collage novel in 11 chapbooks.” Which could also be characterized as “a serialized box-set edition.” In terms of publishing, the first might be a strong move whereas the other two, though accurate descriptions of what I am doing, are surely marketing nightmares. But I don’t care. The inmates are running the bookstore!

A few examples of hybrid work, work that remains a grab bag of forms and modes, work unafraid to defy category, omnidirectional work…

A. Van Jordan, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A
poetry, “novel,” screenplay, journalism
made-up forms (dictionary pieces), hybrid pieces

Theresa Cha, Dictee
memoir, history
photos, graphics, lists, poetry excerpts, journal entries
passages in French, Korean, English

Margo Jefferson, Negroland
cultural criticism, memoir, history
letters, photos, imagined monologues

Maggie Nelson, Bluets
memoir, poetry, art critique, journal writing, personal essay

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
poetry, essay, dramatic monologues, prose poetry
photos, photomontages

Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful
fiction, criticism, writing on jazz
photos, fictionalized portraits, interludes