As a writer and especially as a student in an M.F.A. program I am often asked what it is that I write. My answer will vary somewhat depending on the person asking and the context of our conversation but I always find that at the center of that perfectly reasonable question lies a demand to identify oneself through genre. So the question becomes not just, what are you working on, but rather what are you?
As an undergraduate, I studied poetry and wrote a lot of short, spare, tightly enjambed poems. These pieces were mostly bad but I was certain that they were poems and therefore I was a poet.
After I left school and found an amazing writing community in Seattle through Bent Queer Writing Institute, I started to write stories and essays. Complete, unenjambed sentences! Those sentences were crammed full of sound and image but since they happily went all the way across the page I was certain that what I was writing was prose and that as a prose writer I should now set to work on writing my novel.
I would not have owned it at the time but I had a pretty rigid view of genre. I understood that my fiction could be memoir-based or my prose sentences could be rooted in poetic elements of sound and syntax. But I felt ultimately that it was my job as a writer (and especially as a writer who wanted to be good) to commit to a specific genre and in doing so eliminate any problematic markers of other genres from the piece at hand.
Lucky for me I ended up with a lot of smart friends and teachers who introduced me to work that did not easily fit into a single genre category. I read Lydia Davis, Haryette Mullen, Maggie Nelson, Micah Ling, Michael Martone, Eve Alexandra, and Julio Cortezar. This work was funny, smart, beautiful, and strange. It shook my own creative sensibility, my idea of the good, genre-abiding writer.
What I loved and continue to love about work that pushes the boundaries of genre, work that resides in in-between spaces, is the unruliness of it. I believe that rowdiness comes not from disregarding form or genre but from inhabiting the space lineated by expectations so fully that the writer is able to push the form until it bends, blurs, or breaks. It’s the same thing I love about a well-crafted sonnet and a mind-blowing drag performance.
When a piece of classical music like something by Bach is played on period instruments, the notes make use of the instrument to its full capability. And so every time the piece is played there is the risk of rupture. As a writer this is what I want to make and as an editor this is what I want to publish.
Speaking of publishing, we just opened submissions for our annual ½ K Prize and there’s been a bit of confusion about what genres we’re looking for in this contest. And that’s because we’re not looking for a specific genre at all. I love this contest precisely because it offers a home for pieces that are not easily categorized. This is an opportunity for us to examine and showcase work outside the traditional boundaries of genre.
There are a couple of great examples from last year’s contest up on our website now. J. Bowers’ “Two on a Horse” could be called a series of historical fiction short-shorts. Megan Moriarty’s “The Clowns Are Leaving Soon” skews more toward the genre of the prose poem. But neither of my short descriptions here accurately encompasses the wild strangeness that Bowers and Moriarty welcome in these pieces. So, in terms of genre we at the Indiana Review are inviting you to play whatever instrument you choose and if you play it till it breaks, all the better.
Dying to share your own thoughts on genre? Have deep feelings about possessive apostrophe preferences? Come at me in the comments.