Bending Genre/Essay as Play: An Interview with Margot Singer and Nicole Walker

Friday, February 21, 2014

In early 2013, I came across the phrase “Toward a Theory of Nonfiction” in a Google search and clicked on the first link, assuming I’d find a page referencing my anthology, Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Instead, I found a site, Bending Genre: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, a companion website for the forthcoming anthology titled Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury, 2013). I emailed the editors, Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, and asked if they’d consider revising the subtitle on their site because it wasn’t the subtitle of their anthology, and it was the subtitle of mine. They agreed to make the change. I was intrigued by this subtitular coincidence, and as a contributor to Bookslut, I was able to procure an advance copy of their book.

As I began reading Bending Genre, I realized that what Singer and Walker had collected truly did advance a theory of nonfiction, and I enthusiastically drew my blue pen under line after line. I couldn’t wait to share the insights and the complexities, so I began live-tweeting my reading. Each day, I’d tweet what I considered to be the most compelling and insightful lines. Sure, it wasn’t a playoff game or an episode of Mad Men, but the writers who follow me on Twitter responded, replied, retweeted, favorited. And the line that received the most retweets and favorites is one by contributor Mary Cappello: “Creative nonfiction requires its practitioners to work simultaneously inside a discipline and athwart it.”

I contacted Singer and Walker again via email and proposed an interview, one that reflected their anthology, and they graciously consented. Here are pieces, fragments, excerpts from the edited interview.

JT: Let’s begin at the end. The final section of the anthology, “Unconventions,” opens with an essay by you, Margot, in which you write, “Convention is what we talk about when we talk about craft.” Yet every piece in this anthology belies that premise by deconstructing convention. This anthology is not merely about bending genre, it’s about ______ing it.

NW: I would fill in the blank with the word “erasing” it, but then I would erase that word and say “reinventing.” I’d then double back and erase even that. You know how it is when you talk with your students about genre, and one of them asks, Why does it matter what we call it? You want to answer, So we can talk about it. So we know what conventions we are writing toward—even if we’re writing against them. But then, when someone else comes to you and says, You must tell me what genre this is, you take the opposite approach, argue that it’s using conventions from every genre. What I love about talking about genre is the way you simultaneously reinscribe the boundaries of genre and erase them.

MS: All these terms are tricky! Genres, as we know, are categories or systems of classification that are formed by conventions that change over time. As new art forms arise, genres bend. Craft guides don’t tend to talk about conventions or genres. They teach that to write “well,” you need to do things like “show, don’t tell,” “use concrete, sensory detail,” “portray complex characters,” and so on. We rarely step back enough to notice that these craft guidelines are nothing but the conventions of a certain type of (mimetic) literary prose. Fairy tales don’t follow these guidelines. Neither does newspaper journalism. In this anthology, I was hoping to move beyond the tired old “creative nonfiction is writing that reads like fiction but is based in fact.” What does “reads like fiction” mean? I guess I wanted to deconstruct the way we talk about craft. I wanted to ask instead what creative nonfiction is doing as a dynamic, evolving form of literary art.


On a Recurring Consideration in Bending Gender Genre: An Essay in Fragments

“Genre is a category, after all. So is gender. And the gender category difficult to characterize by normative standards is queer. The genre category difficult or impossible to characterize, the essay, is also queer. The essay is the queer genre.” (David Lazar)

“Said another way, genre and gender are both reading practices, resulting from ‘authorial intention’—the author’s desire to bracket and frame the text, control (or contribute to the control of) how the text is received, read, ‘understood.’” (Kazim Ali)

“I suspect that genre, like gender, with which it shares a root, is mostly a collection of lies we have agreed to believe.” (Lia Purpura)

“Think of ‘queerness’: Early feminist theory word-play: genre & gender. Always a link to behavior, the norm, the status quo, conservatism. & so to venture away is to defy nature, for some—” (Karen Brennan)

MS: It’s interesting that queer theory seems to offer the most readily applicable lens through which to think about generic innovation. One of our aims in this anthology was to spur a more theoretical conversation about nonfiction since so much of the debate up to now has focused instead on ethics, on whether or not essayists and memoirists are telling the “truth.” Post-structuralism, of course, is one of the things that has spurred the recent movement toward innovation in nonfiction by destabilizing the very idea of authorial control and fixed truth. Once you accept that categories of knowledge—including both genre and gender—are cultural constructs, not givens, boundaries begin to dissolve. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that we only thought in terms of two categories of both gender (male/female) and genre (poetry/prose).

NW: Not only do we realize how much genre and gender are cultural constructs, but the more we try to describe them, the more we see the binary choices as impossible to define. Prose with the headline called “fiction” has plot! People with penises drink beer! Not only do we realize our fundamental expectations about gender and genre are constructed ones, but we also, by calling attention to those expectations, have the opportunity to investigate those qualities. Now we can talk about plot. Now we can talk about beer. We talk about the labels of “penis” and “prose,” and now the conversation is shimmering with layers of what we mean by expectation. And once we know what we “expect” from a piece, we can figure out how to embrace and fulfill or how to subvert and revolt.

JT: That reminds me of a line from contributor Robin Hemley: “[The essay] prefers subversion to blending.” And every essayist here subverts the form in some way, yet interestingly (and helpfully), almost all of them include endnotes with sources, a traditional mode of scholarship. In that way, the anthology itself bends (anthology) genre.

Essayist and editor B. J. Hollars has pointed out, “[The] essay form thrives when we combine the old with the new, when we nurture the symbiotic relationships between the time-tested forms and those that may be considered more innovative.” Considering the essays in your anthology, which one would you point to, Nicole, as an example of a more “time-tested”/traditional essay and which one might you label as the most “innovative”?

NW: It’s interesting to me that the essays that talked about transgression were in some ways the most traditional, or rather, scholarly, essays. The ones that confronted the slipperiness of genre and gender head-on seemed to use a much more persuasive, rhetorical approach, perhaps because the stakes are so high. T. Clutch Fleischmann, Mary Cappello, and Kazim Ali pulled literary history into their pieces to substantiate their arguments. Other essays enacted their content through their form. Steve Fellner wrote about the problem with fragments by using fragments. Jenny Boully wrote about blurring racial lines by forgoing transitional paragraphs. Wayne Koestenbaum wrote about Play-doh and parataxis in short, paratactical expulsions. The essays weave together literary history, theory, and experiment. They play through each other.