Reading Brevity’s blog this afternoon has gotten me thinking about genre. Often when I tell people I’m writing a book on love stories they look at me with interest and say, “You’re writing a novel that’s a love story?”
I usually respond by explaining that, no, I’m writing a nonfiction book about love stories. But this description does not make a particularly snappy elevator pitch. Sometimes I say, “I’m writing a book-length essay on love stories,” or “My book is part memoir, part research, part family mythology.” Sometimes I wish I was writing a novel just so I would have the language to describe what I’m doing. But what I’m doing doesn’t seem to have a sufficient genre descriptor. Calling it a book-length essay allows for the wandering approach that Scott Russel Sanders famously called “chasing mental rabbits.” But it’s ultimately unproductive because, frankly, most people don’t know enough about the essay as literary form for a book-length essay to sound remotely interesting. On day one of teaching the personal essay to my undergraduates, I spend a lot of time distinguishing it from the academic essay–a genre they seem to either tolerate or loathe.
But memoir isn’t quite the right word either. My experiences happen to be a convenient starting point for talking about love stories. But in the book I also want to re-imagine the stories I’ve spent my life hearing: my parents’ and grandparents’ love stories, things I could not possibly remember. Annie Dillard says, “A memoir is any account, usually in the first person, of incidents that happened a while ago.” But what if those incidents happened before I was born?
And where does research fit into all of this? Some of the tools I’ve been using to explore the topic include the things scholars, philosophers, and friends have to say about love and love stories. And when I actually publish this thing, in what part of the bookstore or library might it reside? I find myself in a weird, nameless gray area.
But luckily, if that’s the right word, lots of other books fall into a similarly ambiguous space. A few that come to mind right away are: Lauren Slater’s Lying, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, even Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. We don’t have adequate generic words for books like these much less a designated bookstore shelf. All are narrative. All are intensely personal. All are imaginative. But all are distinctly unwieldy creatures when it comes to genre.
So should we coin the messay? The novoir? When we discuss this in class, many of my students are comfortable with blending truth and fiction or research and narrative. To them, a good story is often just that. But I worry about orphan books that so easily find themselves in genre limbo, mostly because I’m aware that that’s exactly what I’m writing.