Of Fact, Fiction, and Resisting Literary Classification
December 20, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Sheila O’Connor
This is true: I didn’t know how to “classify” my hybrid book, Evidence of V. I knew I’d written a deeply researched book that made ample use of fact, of archival documents, and narrative nonfiction. I knew it was inspired by the factual truth of my maternal grandmother, a fifteen-year-old dancer who in 1935 was incarcerated for being pregnant with my mother. I knew the intention of the book was to illuminate this little-known U.S. history of imprisoning thousands of girls for immorality and incorrigibility in the first half of the last century.
But, I also knew it was a book that welcomed fiction. In brief, lyric flash pieces collaged between the research and the facts, I attempted to recreate the missing character of V, the talented young singer unjustly sent to the Minnesota Home School for Girls, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. My artistic impulse to imagine V to life through the act of fiction, grew out of my long-time writerly belief that imagination often yields a second kind of truth. An emotional, lived truth.
During the years I focused on writing Evidence of V, I didn’t consider what I’d call it, beyond “a hybrid text.” Instead I attempted to create a literary work that mirrored the negative space of absence—absent people, absent language, absent truth—and my own inability to piece together a cohesive narrative of my fractured history or family. As I’ve done with every project, published and unpublished, I allowed form to follow function regardless of the genre. Collage? Assemblage? Hybrid text? A Book-in-Pieces? A Lyric Puzzle? At different points in time, in conversations with editors and agents and fellow writing friends, I called it all those things.
Early readers called it a poetry collection, creative nonfiction, a lyric sequence, a book of flash. Later, in his generous description of the finished manuscript, the poet Ed Bok Lee calls it among other things a “police report, ethnographic study, noir screenplay, historical account, existential spreadsheet” and “several other forms that are uncategorizable.” For so long, its inability to be labeled energized me. The book’s nerve came in part from its refusal to conform, its mirroring of a family legacy of noncompliance.
And yet, when Rose Metal Press—a publisher committed to literary works that move beyond the traditional genres—prepared to launch it, a subtitle was requested and required. What to call this text so that readers, booksellers, reviewers, grants and contests have the ability to name it, to place it in a category? In my mind, the book was as much a work of nonfiction as fiction. As much poetry as prose. Settling on any of those designations risked narrowing the scope of what it truly was. And yet, how to be sure the book would be read from start to finish, not as a collection of disconnected, separate pieces, say a collection of poetry, or lyric essays, or flash (all of which it also was), but as a work with a forward moving-narrative trajectory that opened on page one? In addition, there was the question of invented texts which was completely clear to me: the intimate details of V’s young life had been imagined.
The need to classify Evidence of V felt fraught with narrowing, with a kind of genre compliance I’d resisted from the start, but eventually we settled on a subtitle: Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions. While it wasn’t without compromise, and perhaps not entirely accurate, in the end I’d advocated for calling it a novel, in transparent admission of all I had imagined, and in support of the way I wanted readers to enter and exit the book.
And perhaps more importantly, I considered it a statement on the truth and formal innovation I felt the novel form could hold. And yet the need to “genre” V immediately distanced it from discussions of poetry and nonfiction, despite the fact that pieces of the book have been published and recognized as both. And stranger still, most readers continue to refer to it as a work of nonfiction even with the designation of novel on the cover. As one reader recently told me: “I thought the facts were fiction. They were that impossible to believe.”
Evidence of V is only a single text, but it’s one in a line of published hybrid texts that resist classification. And what to do with these incorrigible texts? Is there a future where agents and publishers, bookstores and journals, grants and contests and residencies, and MFA programs across the country, recognize the validity of the hybrid? Is there a possibility that literary gatekeepers and genre zealots will invite these hybrid books into their company without saying all they’re not? All the ways hybrid texts have failed to conform. Is there a way we can resist the need for tidy genre classifications in our desire to keep things clean? Or at least work toward genre inclusivity as the hybrid text continues to claim its voice within the literary landscape?
In the case of Evidence of V, I made a choice to write a book that’s nonconforming, incorrigible, exactly like the girl for whom the book is named. Fortunately, the price I’ll pay for that decision is significantly less than the six-year punishment my grandmother endured for her refusal to conform. A book is just a book, but if Evidence of V has done its work, I have to hope it will find its willing readers, and maybe a literary gatekeeper or two, will open up the door.
Sheila O’Connor is the author of six books, including her most recent hybrid novel, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts and Fictions (Rose Metal Press). Inspired by her maternal grandmother’s incarceration as a pregnant fifteen-year-old in 1935, Evidence of V combines imagination and archival documents to shed light on the history of committing “immoral” girls. Sheila is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.