Friday, July 13, 2007

discussion continued: the usefulness of genre?

Hey everybody:

Thanks for your helpful and welcoming responses. I’m using this blog a little bit as a way to generate some conversation topics of my own, and I’ll have time for it sometimes and not others, I’m sure. I do like participating on other people’s blogs, but there are sometimes things I want to say that would be out of place elsewhere. I’m not a fan of the people who seize blog comments boxes for their own agendas; if you have an agenda, start your own blog, and if that agenda’s interesting enough, people will probably read it.

Ann, obviously we could talk about how the fiction industry and media have been hung up lately on some very questionable distinctions between memoir and fiction, but that would only be saying what we already know. I do think that both fiction and memoir involve an important “truth test”; we read them partly for what they tell us about the world, the human imagination, etc, and when those things seem consciously falsified, that’s a problem. But deciding where the truth vs. falsity line lies is very tricky; the lie is clearly not in the conscious inventing, which all fiction and memoir does. Nor is the issue really “accurate depictions of the world” since so many inventions of the kind we would now call sci fi or fantasy or all sorts of avant garde and other non-realist literatures have incredible truth telling power. My fiction mixes things that happened with things that didn’t all the time., and I know yours does too. Finally, I’m trying to let my fiction or poetry “call it how I see it,” but that means very different things at different times. I’ll have to think again about it. I wonder where other people see a “truth test” in their own writing.

Small Fry, it’s funny to be in the position of teaching when, on one level, I help students make (tentative) distinctions about genre and then, on advanced levels, I show them all sorts of literature in which those distinctions break down. But like you, I think it’s probably fine, even if sometimes shocking for the students. I guess there are two types here of the pleasure (and the pain) of knowledge; the growth that comes from being able to make successful distinctions, and the growth that comes from realizing that a lot of it really is a house of cards.

FrankenS, what you say is definitely true. You and I usually talk about this in the context of rock and roll, which as you’ve made clear to me numerous times, is different in many ways from literature. Still, yes, genre can be one way of structuring a piece of music or writing–and I’m leaving aside, for now, how completely fuzzy words like “genre” and “form” and “structure” have become, although it’s an issue I’m hoping to return to soon. But I would say this: even the strictest sticklers for genre norms probably still imagine themselves as adding something new to those norms. If not, the artist runs quickly into nostalgic paint-by-numbers (your phrase, I think) copycatting. Funny though: we don’t, in literature, have revival cover artists, people literally doing all Frank O’Hara or Gertrude Stein like some bands do Presley or the Beatles. But I bet that’s just because there’s no money or literary prestige in it.


Clint B said...


Your comments on genre - esp on Wed (your first post) are tres cool. Esp to give up the canard that experimental fiction ISNT a genre ... the pathology of self-satisfaction that attends to that delusion in certain avant-garde circles is telling. Years ago I asked Steve McCaffery in an interview (published in Witz I think) if experimental writing itself was a genre - for much the same reasons you give, the Jamesonian idea of there being a contract of expectations between writer & reader. & yr comment about the lack of Stein cover artists (but see bpNichol's 70s Steinian text Journal) - is answered in a way by your earlier reference to Borges?

Ann_Bogle said...

I certainly notice in your next post the use of the term "falsity," wh. I like, when describing fiction, better than the term "lies." I've heard two novelists (w/ whom I'm personally well acquainted) claim that fiction is "lies." It's demoralizing to see it that way, I feel. I like "falsity" and its counterpoint "accuracy" better than "lies," since they might convey an adherence to or straying from artfulness as well as a certain relationship to facts that pertains differently to fiction and memoir. I like the feeling in "truth." I disagreed when I felt expected to suggest that "truth," at best, meant hope of "honesty." "Decency," bet. people & bet. writer & reader, a controversy.

frankenslade said...

I don't know about for all heavy hitters of literature, but aren't there pop genre exercises cranked out every month to capitalize on the general feel of some critically acclaimed mystery writer or fantasy writer from the past? There's that whole market of historical fiction. I believe there are still people writing in a "pop" Southern vein. There's that guy who's written some novels, roughly, in the voice of Virginia Woolf - The Hours even includes Woolf as a character and became a hit movie. These writers may not be literature's Fab Faux, but aren't they literature's Stray Cats? Or is it unfair to consider these writers part of "literature?"

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, y'all.

Definitely, Ann, I'm glad that "honesty" isn't the baseline for the truth/falsity problem. Then we'd have to read forever a bunch of writers who were being honest regarding their feelings but didn't know much what they were talking about. I'm perhaps edging towards "clarity," which to my mind would involve awareness also of limitations, confusions, misunderstandings, and all the dishonesties that we're all so fond of.

Thanks Clint and FSlade too for your helpful clarifying comments. I think my sense of how to focus my thoughts would be this: the Nichols journal issue (which I don't know and would love to hear more about) is a fantastic poet (plus friends?) playing Menard playing Stein in some particular context and then going on to other things, not someone whose main or sole claim to artistry consists of slogging out Doors covers for what actually might be an okay living over 20-plus years. I can respect the hard work involved for the cover band, and it's hardly the worst way to make a living, but I'm unlikely to bring it home and listen to it.

And absolutely, FSlade, those cranked out genre Hollywood/NYC books are all over the place. Some of them are even okay and semi-original, like Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (more about that book soon, I hope). I think I probably do call them literature, since literature is a broad thing. But I also think those people mainly imagine themselves as unique and interesting writers; they don't think they're cover bands at all, and they don't dress up like Raymond Chandler. They're closer therefore to Avril and Korn than to Presley imitators; mediocre artists getting big attention and money for being "the next big thing." I'm reminded of Larry Ochs from Rova and his joking advice about how to make money in music: take something that was done well in the past, and do it poorly.

Lorraine and I are headed into the desert tomorrow to spend the weekend with friends. We're probably leaving the horse with no name at home.

douglang said...

The stuff about lies reminded me of B.S. Johnson’s, "Telling stories is telling lies." If you don’t know of him, he was a British working-class experimental writer , described by his biographer as, "Britain's one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s." This was not exactly accurate, given the existence of Alan Burns, Ann Quin and others, but he was the first writer I knew who did things like having a totally black page in the middle of a text, or, publish a novel in a box with unconnected chapters , to be read in random order, or, interrupt the text to explain the actual circumstances on which the story was based, which was where the lies issue popped up.

I hope that you and Lorraine have a great time in the desert,

I miss you both.