AWP 2013: That Genre Thing Again
March 11, 2013 § 19 Comments
A guest blog from Kathleen Stone:
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.