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Genre and Power

by Joseph Harrington

“What kills me about writing the job letter,” said an on-the-market English PhD,  “is that everyone says you can’t deviate from the conventions – but then they tell you that you have to stand out. What the hell?”

In addition to being a pretty good nutshell critique of capitalist society generally, and the academy in particular, this statement is also a pretty good critique of genre – which, I would argue, is not unrelated to capitalism and hence, the academy. Genre considered as an institution, that is.

The NEA, for instance, requires that writers choose a genre – but only one – in applying for grants. In the academy, workshops typically shake out by genre, and creative-writing jobs are advertised by genre – to a much greater extent than those for literary critics and historians. Book subtitles often name a genre (“A Novel”; “Poems”; “Essays”) – which, of course, makes it much easier for publishers to market and for booksellers to shelve. And if you are shelved under “literature” (i.e., fiction), you may have hope of reaching a mass audience – which means living up to already-existing generic expectations, not trying to change them.

In many journals, genres operate as bureaus (or fiefdoms): they determine which editor will get to (or have to) make the call about each piece, or whether a piece will even be considered. Is it a docupoem or a lyric essay – meaning, does it go to the poetry editor or the nonfiction editor? For these reasons, one is much more likely, I think, to see a non-genre or trans-genre section in a journal in which one individual has sole editorial control. Diffusion of responsibility rarely lends itself to bold innovations, especially amongst those who are outsiders trying to get in.

Indeed, your creative-writing teachers most likely defined their careers by specializing in one genre or the other – and certainly not by mixing them in the same piece. The academy, like all bureaucracies, thrives on division of labor and specialization of function (or at least title). As a creative-writing-professor friend of mine suggested, “Our jobs are genres.”  Moreover, “’job’ is a ‘genre,’ too, and we’re confined inside them and their power strictures and insist that our students abide, too.”

Or perhaps we don’t have to insist – maybe students are only too eager to abide. If you’re institutionally unfree and twenty-one, especially, a genre can provide a reassuring, stabilizing label. An identity: “I’m a poet.” And you’re building on an established brand identity – you don’t have to spend half your elevator pitch trying to educate one of your elders about form. This issue is especially acute in the inherently conservative cultural climate of the United States at the present time, where “experimental fiction” is often quite realist and linear, and where “experimental poetry” often turns out to be a rather uncompelling “hybrid” (compromise)  between confessional poetry and Langpo.

The upshot is that the question becomes, not whether or not genre per se is an aid or a hindrance to creativity and innovation, but rather, whether or not a given piece is a creative and innovative poem (or essay, short story, etc.). Sure, sure, by all means, stand out from the crowd – but just make sure you don’t leave the building.

“Uh – what’s your genre?”


Very few first books are multi-genre or trans-genre experiments. Who wants to experiment with her or his career before it even starts? Young authors – students not least of all – are expected to declare themselves. Being a student is perforce being subordinate – and hence, insecure. You want to be able to identify a piece of writing and place it within a particular genre because you don’t want to look foolish in front of your professors by giving the wrong answer – or failing to detect a trick question. And you don’t want to look foolish in front of your peers (“oh please, you call that a poem?”). For grad students, these fears are exacerbated by the confusion as to when one ceases to be a student and begins to be a colleague.

I’m sure that many (if not most) students are comfortable with the Big Three genres represented in literary journals and might be relieved that some of their creative labor is apparently already done for them ahead of time (“My piece ‘bears witness to the world’ – and that’s what the editors say a poem does. Whew! Glad that’s out of the way.”) But there are a growing number of writers both inside and outside academe who see genre as, if not a prison-house, then definitely just another set of tools to be taken up, rejected, soldered together, or refashioned at will. This group includes some well-established writers; and it is incumbent upon those of us who are faculty (esp. the endangered tenured variety) to create a space for that kind of work.

Well-behaved writers rarely make history. In the final analysis, being a dutiful student is not enough; you do have to stand out from the pack, if you want to be published. And, as far as teaching jobs go, an MFA and $3.50 will get you a latte (in Kansas, anyway), if you’re not well-published already.

This doesn’t mean that it’s easy to publish genre-bending work, let alone put students at their ease about doing so. 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 go too far out on a limb. Being without a genre is, in some sense, being off the map – and who wants to be there, before you’ve even gotten on it? Be bold, be bold, but not too bold. That’s the contradiction. And, for the time being, most students and faculty still believe there is something material at stake. Hopefully, the younger writers of today will at some point either be too well-established to be scared of something new; or they’ll simply decide they’re too old to give a shit, start writing whatever they want, and let the young folks worry about sorting it out.

Joseph Harrington is an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Things Come On: an amneoir (Wesleyan 2011) and Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002).

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