AWP 2013: That Genre Thing Again

March 11, 2013 § 19 Comments


A guest blog from Kathleen Stone:

Fiction/nonfiction: what’s the difference?  If there’s a difference, does it matter?  And eiawp2013dther way, what responsibility does the author have to readers and subjects? 

By the third day of AWP, I thought I couldn’t bear to hear these questions discussed.  I thought Lawrence Weschler’s observation about narrative voice and the division of the world between those who know it’s a fiction and those who don’t had been chewed over enough to last me a lifetime.  But still, something drew me to the Why Genre Matters panel.  Maybe the names of the panelists, or something about the blurb in the conference book drew me in, but whatever it was, I grabbed another cup of coffee and soldiered on.

Nonfictionist and moderator Dinah Lenney led off with her own strong point of view.  An author and reader are like two people on a see-saw, with movement and balance between them.  When the author doesn’t clue us in, and we don’t know what we hold in our hands, then the see-saw is left with only one person — out of balance and disappointing.  There is a diff, and it matters.

Scott Nadelson countered with the oft-made observation that there is no such thing as objectivity.  A blurring between genres necessarily follows, and the author can rely on voice and form to tip off the reader to what’s on the page.  His recent book, The Next Scott Nadelson, A Life in Progress, may be labeled a memoir, but it comes without a guaranty of accuracy.  So maybe there’s no diff at all?

Essayist and critic Sven Birkerts analogized genre to etiquette.  Genre distinctions are like rules, necessary for maintaining harmony amid the tensions, but they need not be stultifying, even as please and thank you are not.  A psyche that invents and writes about a blue bucket is not very different from a psyche that remembers a blue bucket, but different motivations are at play – – this could have been vs. this happened.  Writers of both genres share the act of creation, of giving narrative shape to the work, but for nonfiction writers, the engine is memory.

Poet David Beispiel joined Scott in label bashing.  Writers should be free to write whatever they want and label it however they want (or perhaps not at all).  Labels exist for the bookseller who wants to know what to order and how to display it, not for the author or reader.  I wonder what he thinks about truth in politics – after all, he does write for Politico.

Multi-genre writer Judith Kitchen agreed Weschler was right about narrative voice being a fiction.  It’s simply a lens for delivery, involving an aesthetic decision but not a deliberate fabrication.  A flood she experienced as a child, which she has repeatedly and variously treated it in her own work, is an actual event seen through different lenses, sometimes intensely and sometimes in passing, but always drawn from memory.  Judith concluded with a segue to why we like memoir:  it takes the place of gossiping with a neighbor over the clothesline.  That clothesline is gone for most of us and we embrace memoir to fill the void.

So, I’m glad I grabbed another cup of coffee and pushed aside my conference fatigue on Saturday morning to hear Why Genre Matters.  Or maybe it doesn’t.  The panel offered one of the most heady and honest exchanges of AWP.

Kathleen Stone is a writer who lives in Boston.  Her work has been published in Points East, a sailing magazine, and she has dreams of many more publications to follow.

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§ 19 Responses to AWP 2013: That Genre Thing Again

  • davidwberner2 says:

    This is such a great discussion. I have it with my students in a Radio Essay class I teach at Columbia College Chicago. Ultimately, truth matters, facts matter, even the smallest. It gives the piece a grounding it could not get in fiction. But that said, the students also debate about conversations, dialgoue, how could I possibly remember the exact words? That’s where I swing the other way, so to speak. Give me the “essence” of the conversation, the essence of truth, I tell them, and it will be okay.

    They wonder why I’m two-faced on this issue; and sometimes I wonder why I am, too.

  • Is livid too strong a word? Many people like Birkerts and Hampl we couldn’t get to hear because of small rooms for CNF/memoir. My panel too on unreliable narrators was maxed out. Rebecca McClanahan has a great idea: when the schedule goes out, AWP solicits our top three panel picks, then takes info and arranges room size accordingly. Please tell your AWP friends to forward this idea to the board. Tom Larson

  • SandySays1 says:

    My human writes (or tries to) and he thinks that writing is an art-form and that any attempt to relegate and reduce that art to a quantitative formula diminishes its ability to produce an unfettered flow of communicated ideas. Freedom in form promotes freedom in exchange.

  • It seems writers are often trying to pigeon hole one another, the cause and effect being a “you got peanut butter in my chocolate, no, you got chocolate in my peanut butter” argument.

    I’ve never attended the AWP but it does sound like you are getting some benefits from it. :)

  • I never thought of narrative voice as a lens for delivery. Thanks for giving me something to think about this afternoon.

  • segmation says:

    Dinty, I understand that Derek Walcott was a great keynote this year! Did you get to hear him?

  • [...] I was inspired to write a blog entry about a panel I attended on genre and Brevity posted it on their blog.  Here’s the link.   http://brevity.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/awp-2013-that-genre-thing-again/ [...]

  • Genre does matter, but if handled with care, fiction and non-fiction can coexist beautifully. Lines must remain clear, less our readers infer there to be an intent to deceive (when one generally does not exist), but as we all have heard on many occasion, life does imitate art (and vice-versa). I agree davidwberner2, this is a great discussion. Happy to be included.

  • marymtf says:

    While it’s true that ‘writers should be free to write whatever they want and label it however they want’ it’s the reader’s right to ignore those sorts of writers.

  • Really interesting post with some pertinent and important questions raised. At times though, I think writers should stop being theorists and just get on with the act of writing. If we write well we can let others worry about definitions and labels. But as I say, a great article. Many thanks.

    • 1WriteWay says:

      I agree this is an interesting post … so reminds me of my days in the English department. That said, I particularly like your comment: “At times though, I think writers should stop being theorists and just get on with the act of writing.” So true …

  • diofoxx says:

    This is a very good discussion. facts are fact and you can’t change that for the good of the writing. I truly believe genre matters, and that’s objective. If we start blurring lines we will start paint history as we see it and not as it happened.

  • mojotillett says:

    Reblogged this on Adventures of Mojotillett and commented:
    Interesting Blog from Kathleen Stone. I totally see her points!

  • LV Lewis says:

    Reblogged this on L. V. Lewis and commented:
    Writer’s choice to label or not to label was a good conclusion in my humble opinion!

  • Jessica says:

    My sister and I had a pretty intense debate about this recently. She is a scientist and I am a writer and we seem to have fundamentally different views about how clear the line is between fact and fiction.

    In Mark Twain’s Huck Finn the narrator opens with a line that to me captures the importance of truth in story telling: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.”

    Of course when I cited this as evidence to my sister that even the great Mark Twain stretched the truth a bit, she pointed it out that this being a quote from a fictional character whose life the author invented himself, she didn’t exactly see what truth he was stretching.

    Argh, scientists! We agreed to disagree.

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