In recent posts (Sept. 7 & 10), I reflected on the relative merits of print vs. on-line journals. The occasion was (is) a new journal being put together by some young writers I know. So, I've become more aware of editorial statements by grad student editors of literary journals.
One such statement recently made me do a double-take. The Editor in Chief, in her note, states that "Here at X, we've never been known for our strict adherence to genre definitions; on the contrary, we've been pretty outspoken about our interest in examining, stretching, blurring, and even shattering the boundaries that define all types of creative genres." An editor after my own heart; so far, so good.
But, of course, there are other editors at the journal, and at X, like so many, those sub-editors are defined by the genres they edit: creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, art, period. No "'Other' editor"; no "boundary-shattering department."
So in the Introduction, written by an Editorial Assistant, we find that "two pieces in this issue of X by G.W. offered a unique voice, approach, and, most interesting to me, a unique need for classification. It was the decision of this Editorial Board that '[title A]' would be published as nonfiction, and '[title B]' as a poem. . . . It's worth mentioning that these were submitted to our editor without the benefit of a genre assignment, the sole note [from the author] on the matter being . . . I'm just not sure what these are. Do with them as you see fit." [Go, G.W.!]
Rather than being an exciting opportunity and opening for examining, stretching and blurring, this note set the classificatory bees to buzzing about their work: these submissions "were thrown into the editorial fray for us, as editors, to decide not only their value to the magazine, but also how they would be presented. Some easily recognizable characteristics helped sort out the genre question for each piece. '[title A]' is longer, and broken up into . . . sections, where as '[title B]' is only twenty stanzas. This isn't to say that a poem couldn't be longer than an essay, but, in general, this is not usually the case." The former genre employs "proof and argument, rather than observation" or trope, which characterize the latter. Poetry "seeks to bear witness to the world, while creative nonfiction attempts to struggle with the questions that arise because of it."
Moreover, the Editorial Board was clear that "there was some risk in taking them and deciding for ourselves their individual genres; that perhaps only one could be taken to avoid this decision."
Why the "need" for classification? Why the sense of risk and trepedation? In my view, this statement is an excellent example of genre at work as an institution. Here we see genres operating as departments (or fiefdoms): who would get to make the call about each piece - the poetry editor, or the nonficiton editor? More importantly, perhaps, who would decide who would get to make the call? I imagine that, in the editorial meeting, there was a delicacy in articulating, when these issues became clear - followed by a "fray."
Secondly, there is the disobedience of the author, who refuses to pidgeonhole his own work, but rather has the nerve to ask the editors to make that editorial decision (or not). One gets the sense that if G.W. were not pretty well-known, the editors might not have taken either piece. ("404. genre assignment missing. this operation has committed a fatal error and must be shut down")
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the status of (many of) the editorial board as students. The Editor, she of the examining, blurring, etc., is a faculty member. The Editorial Assistant who expresses such anxiety about achieving the correct genre classification is a student. Being a student is perforce being subordinate - and hence, insecure. You don't want to look foolish in front of your peers ("you call that a poem?!"), and for grad students, this condition is exascerbated by the confusion as to when one ceases to be a student and begins being a colleague. Your creative-writing teachers have most likely defined their careers by specializing in one genre or the other (certainly not by mongrelizing intermixture!).
So the question naturally becomes, not whether or not genre is an aid or a hindrance to creativity, but rather, to which genre shall said piece be consigned. For these reasons, one is much more likely, I think, to see a non-genre or trans-genre section in a journal which is not beholden to a university for patronage, or in which one individual has editorial control.
I'm sure there are many (if not most) students who are comfortable with genre - and who might be relieved that some of their creative endeavor is already decided for them ahead of time ("my piece bears witness to the world - must be a poem. Whew!"). But there are a growing number of writers (and artists) both inside and outside academe who see genre as, if not a prison-house, then definitely just another tool to be taken up, put down, or refashioned at will. I expect the editor of X is one such person, and it is indeed incumbent upon those of us who are faculty (esp. the endangered species of tenured faculty) to create a space for that kind of work.
But putting students at their ease about publishing genre-bending work is harder. The publishing market is over-saturated, and the academic job market is super-hyper-saturated. Nobody wants to make a false move. Nobody wants to slip up. Being without a genre is, in some sense, being off the map. Who wants to be there, before you've even gotten anywhere?
All of which is also kind of sad. But hopefully, the young genre quotin' and totin' writers of today will at some point decide they're too old to give a shit, start writing whatever they want, and let the young folks worry about sorting it out.
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