Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Questions of Form and Genre

In my poetry class we just finished reading 
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje.
(3 1/2 Scoops)
It is written in a very interesting hybrid form and uses multiple voices, many of which go unidentified, to piece together the myth of Billy the Kid.  It explores the unknowability of others and what is lost and gained in the mythologizing of a man. The book was originally classified as Poetry and somewhere along the line its categorization shifted to Fiction. This raised the questions, what does this reveal about us as readers? And as writers?  I was intrigued by the responses from the poets in the room, because this is a fairly routine type of discussion in the realm of Writing for Children: What is YA? Who decides? What does it mean? It did feel nice to get to brag that in the Young Adult Section an author's entire body of work is side by side, regardless of genre classification. We still might be seen as the underdogs in the world of capital L- Literature, but at least we have one up on those authors that feel pressured to write under specific genre guidelines. In general, I find the debate over labels, classifications, and categories unnecessary chatter.  Yes, there are expectation of a genre, but with strong writing a reader will figure out the rules with which the author is asking them to engage with the the text in front of them.  All the other issues are ones of consumerism, marketing tactics, and how many steps the book buyer needs to walk in the big box bookstores.  

In preparation for next weeks discussion of Italo Calvino and Lydia Davis I just read a eulogy written of Calvino by Gore Vidal in which I found this wonderful quote: 

In Calvino's case, the American newspaper obituaries were perfunctory and incompetent... Surprisingly, Time and Newsweek, though each put him on the "book page," were not bad, though one thought him "surrealist" and the other a "master of fantasy"; he was, of course, a true realist, who believed "that only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid piece of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can't make anything."

Not only does this show that labels are usually wrong and, by nature, minimize a work, but it also provides amazing advice for the creative writer in an genre: that there must always be a foundation of truth underneath all writing, regardless of genre expectations or experimentation with new forms.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. Isn't it what they say: "If you want the facts, read non-fiction. If you want the truth, read fiction."