We moved into our house late enough last fall that I didn’t pay attention to the leaves on the large tree in our backyard. I had appreciated its shade, especially during those warm days of Indian summer, but I didn’t give a thought to its genus or species.
The following May, when the green and orange buds began to bloom, our family was gathered on the patio for a birthday party. “Well, that’s a tulip poplar,” my dad pronounced.
“It’s the state tree, isn’t it?” I asked. I knew those leaves looked familiar.
“Yeah,” he said, finishing a bite of his grilled burger. “It’s the state tree.”
Did it matter what kind of tree provided the morning shade to our backyard and the pollen to our local bees for honey? Maybe not. But knowing what kind of tree it was, knowing that this was our state tree, even, made me feel more rooted to this little plot of land where we find ourselves. Knowing how our tulip poplar fits into the landscape and culture around us helps me fit a little better myself.
As with trees, so with many areas of my life. Categories matter.
When people find out I’m a writer, they have one question. What do I write? They’re unhappy when I don’t have a simple answer. Impatient is the word. Why shouldn’t I be able to tell them?
Part of the problem is that I don’t write just one thing. Occasionally, I write poetry and short stories. I’ve written a play or two in the past. I am a blogger, but I’ve also written a book. So I’m part of the problem, but the rest of the problem is literary genres. They feel either too limiting or too expansive. Take the phrase “creative nonfiction,” the genre I would most closely identify with. Author Scott Russell Sanders explains his own malaise with that term:
“I suppose we do have to use labels, but I don’t find “creative nonfiction” to be an especially useful one, even though I’ve won prizes and taught workshops bearing that title. “Nonfiction” itself is an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat. Sticking “creative” in front of “nonfiction” doesn’t clarify matters much, and it’s pretentious to boot, since it implies that other forms of nonfiction—Plato’s Republic, Ellman’s Joyce, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—are not creative works of intellect and imagination.
For Sanders, and for me, another term works better: essayist. “It’s a term with a venerable tradition, and it preserves Montaigne’s emphasis on essay-ing—on making a trial, an experiment, an effort of understanding,” Sanders says. “Essay” captures the depth of the thinking and breadth of exploration I seek when I write. For others, though, the word brings back academic nightmares. Themes, five paragraphs, thesis statements, proofs, proper citations: most people would rather read anything than an essay. It’s usefulness as a category for non-essayists is clearly in question.
In fact, the usefulness of all genres may be in question. In the recent New York Times Sunday Book Review article “Do Genre Labels Matter Anymore?,” authors Dana Stevens and Leslie Jamison offer two perspectives on the ongoing usefulness of categorizing literary works.
According to Stevens, genre labels have been distorted to the point of outliving their helpfulness. “The role of genre on the cultural marketplace too often seems dictated by trends, either in fashion (zombies are in, vampires are out) or in finance (superhero movies usually do big box office; movies with heroines, super or not, generally don’t),” she wrote. As such, Stevens believes literary works are embraced or dismissed not according to quality or literary merit, but simply by their genre.
Jamison, on the other hand, says that these genre labels are still helpful because they express intent. “Do genre labels matter? Sure they do,” Jamison wrote.
“Not as rigid categorical descriptions but as illuminations of desire. It’s futile and misguided to insist on their absolute boundaries (‘All great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one,’ Walter Benjamin said), but they do offer a set of crude terms we use to articulate hungers for which we haven’t found or wrought a more precise vocabulary …. That wanting is the molten core—for truth or beauty or resonance—and the texts are just the cooling lava formations that form across the crust, the byproducts of craving. There are important differences between fiction and nonfiction—and I believe in the ethical necessity of fact-checking, which viewed rightly can become its own sort of generative formal constraint—but our uninterrogated absolute distinctions leave much middle ground unspoken for.
Assuming genre labels are preserved for now, maybe a better question is whom do they matter to? Publishers certainly like them—even require them—as a way to plan for, market, and sell books. Readers rely on genre labels as a kind of social contract. These labels help them know what to expect. “When I write what we’re calling creative nonfiction, I feel bound by an implicit contract with the reader: I don’t invent episodes, don’t introduce characters who were not actually present, don’t deliberately change circumstances,” writes Sanders. “So when I sit down to write about actual events and places and people, I don’t imagine that I can give a flawless transcript, but I do feel an obligation to be faithful to what I’ve witnessed and what I recall. In writing nonfiction, I feel an obligation to a reality outside the text; in writing fiction, I feel no such obligation.”
As such, writers themselves often must think in terms of genre labels, too. At the very least, genre often plays a role in submission requirements. For instance, writers have to know whether or not they have written a poem in order to submit to a poetry-only journal. Beyond that, genres also provide boundaries for writers. Like Sanders, as an essayist, I don’t make up scenes. My dad was really in the backyard eating a burger. If I invented that scene, it would be fiction.
Not all writers, though, find that their work fits so neatly into categories. Consider the work of Rebecca Solnit. Her book The Faraway Nearby was labeled by her publisher as both Memoir and Anti-Memoir. Another of her books, Wanderlust, covers topics as wide-ranging as anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, and religious studies. And generally, much of her work could be called memoir, journalism, personal essay, travel writing, art critique, nature writing, and more—all at the same time. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is,” she said in an interview with Benjamin Cohen for The Believer,
“but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. People want to call you something, and saying you’re just a writer is not enough. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, but Orwell wrote memoir, fiction, polemics, beautiful essays, reviews, ruminations, and tirades; Sontag wrote mostly essays, a few at length, some dealing with broader ideas and genres, some dealing with politics and ethics—and then there are her novels. I love best the nonfiction of a lot of people celebrated mostly for their fiction, from Virginia Woolf to Jamaica Kincaid.
Which raises several questions: are publishers limiting the scope and quality of writers’ work when they force them into strict categories or refuse to publish what doesn’t fit? Also, are they limiting readers’ experiences with other great writing because it is categorized so narrowly? And does the social contract between writers and readers even extend beyond high level genres like non-fiction and fiction? The lower we go into subgenres, the more debatable the definitions. For instance, young adult is not actually a genre, according to the Literary Genre Wikipedia page. It’s an age category. And graphic novel, likewise, is not a genre. It’s a format. Assuming a western romance young adult graphic novel were written, it would exist as such a categorical Frankenstein that the contract between author and reader would be all but destroyed.
I don’t want to live in a world where books and articles and other forms of writing don’t fit if they don’t fit neatly. And I certainly don’t want to write in such a world, where the limitations I face have less to do with the quality of my work and more to do with the shelf space at Barnes & Noble. But I don’t think that world is going to exist much longer. With an enormous virtual bookstore at our fingertips, with searches by keyword that extend beyond labels printed on the backs of books, with print-on-demand technology no longer dependent on shelf space or floor space, with a growing market for mashup genres like steampunk romance and classic literature zombie fan fiction, maybe there is hope for writers. And for readers, too.
At some point, the publisher’s marketing plans no longer matter. The reader’s journey toward finding the book fades. The writer’s intention transcends vague universal labels, taking its place in the work itself. And the contract between all writers and all readers is narrowed to one writer and one reader.
Ultimately, it’s not the labels that connect us. It’s the words.
I think again of the tree in my backyard. Eventually, I did check out its entire scientific classification (Plantae, Angiosperms, Magnoliids, Magnoliales, Magnoliacaea, Liriodendron tulipifera). Not much of it made sense except for “Magnoliales.” My tulip poplar is related to the magnolia tree.
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the category of my tulip poplar that resonated with me the most. It was the personal connections I made with it: the memory of mimeographed coloring sheets filled with tulip poplar leaves in fourth grade, my Dad marveling at its exotic-looking buds, my husband pruning it with long-handled sheers, and the way the air cools when I stand beneath its branches.