Genre Trouble

I read an article sometime last year that described how some non-English speaking cultures don’t make a distinction between fiction and nonfiction and since then I haven’t really stopped thinking about it. This is probably for two reasons: I have been reading a lot of non-fiction lately; and I work in, and spend a lot of time in, bookshops.

Working in, and shopping in, bookstores forces you to constantly think in terms of genre and form. Book jackets have this same effect, which is useful for shelving. You can almost immediately tell what sort of book it is by looking at it. Crime fiction uses a certain typeface. So called literary fiction has developed a trend of minimal, uncluttered design, often with thick white borders, a large typeface, and a photograph — which probably started with Ali Smith’s novels and those publishers who wanted to try and emulate her success. It indicates visually to the reader that these are books of the same kind, in some way. And of course it indicates that it’s literary fiction. It’s probably a novel, too and maybe by a female writer. Gender distinctions are baked right into the branding as well as the way the books are merchandised: not just whether the author is a certain gender but which gender it is marketed for. Something that I found occasionally is people bringing books back, having realised that it wasn’t what they thought it was. “These are short stories” or “This is a biography”. The jacket had led them to a certain conclusion without the stamp of genre and form being printed on it.

These distinctions are pretty arbitrary. The distinction enforced between crime fiction and capital-f fiction is very thin. It would be like separating out romance fiction or historical fiction. A lot of people would want that too, but the distinction would begin to become a section based on what publisher have decided to market the work as, rather than what it is. But, even the reader does this with everything. Being alive makes you define things in terms of other things—in terms of categories. A recent review I saw of Moshin Hamid’s Exit West described it as having being marketed as “magical realism” but having actually been pretty mainstream fiction. I recently read Monday Begins on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers, which was marketed as science-fiction but actually, to my mind, was pretty Master and Margarita-esque, which is literary fiction but with heavy magical realist elements. Sometimes this sort of genre trouble actually decreases enjoyment of the book, because it is going against your expectations. You go in expecting one thing, but end up with something else. Sometimes we want to know what we’re getting.

But to get back to nonfiction: the distinctions are pretty much endless. Nonfiction can be history, biography, politics, essays, literary criticism, social sciences, popular sciences, the disgustingly named “smart thinking”, self help, art, philosophy, religion, travel writing. The list goes on. A book I read last year called Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton, a beautifully written memoir on art, sport, and ambition. That ended up being categorised as sport in the last bookshop I worked in. This isn’t wrong but it’s just unhelpful. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City ended up in biography, which I suppose works. It’s in-part a memoir, but it’s also an intelligently written exploration and meditation on a number of ideas, artists, works. Something feels lost when trying to categorise it, like the category actually removes something. Both of these books are in some sense narrative non-fiction. Or they’re something that I keep thinking of as memoir-on-a-theme. I find the term memoir a lot more helpful because it gets across the removal from mass market biography. This is helpful when thinking about fiction, too. Is it mass market fiction or is it literary fiction? Then you do away with all distinctions of genre, but end up with something maybe a lot worse: snobbery. The term “mass market” implies the unworthiness of that market which is by definition the majority. You force most readers into a category which patronises them.

Ignoring the categories in which English-speaking cultures separate their books is futile, I suppose. Instead, those works which actively engage with those categories are by far the most interesting. In a recent interview I did with Thomas Morris for The Cardiff Review he talked about the “cross-pollination of genre” — a description I really like. In the English-speaking West, realism has the utter stranglehold on literary fiction: fiction that is very fictional but attempts to seem as direct and real as possible, while making you very aware of its form as a novel. It’s not a story, or a tale, or a fable. It’s a novel, this thing that our culture invented not even that long ago in our history.

And this fiction is, of course, fine. Some of the finest works ever written fall into the realist form and still do. But they don’t play with form and genre. They don’t acknowledge the lines, except in making clear that they are well within them.

Underground in Richard Booth's Bookstore, Hay-on-Wye

Underground in Richard Booth's Bookstore, Hay-on-Wye

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders came up in the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Awards in the historical fiction category. So, yes it’s a novel about Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, and the circumstances of his death. I’m with you so far, Goodreads.

But this is also a novel that shies away from realist conventions, too. It’s about ghosts who don’t realise they’re dead. The entire novel, more or less, is set in a graveyard with a macabre cast of the ignorant undead stuck in the “Bardo” — the place between life and death. So, it’s not really historical fiction. Because, you know, ghosts aren’t real. It certainly isn’t realism.

The one thing we can be sure about the book going in is that it’s a novel. For one, it won the Man Booker Prize, for which short story collections, collections of poetry, works of nonfiction and drama are not eligible. And even more so, it’s George Saunders first full-length novel. Prior to this he’s only written collections of short stories and essays. So, that we can be certain of. If it’s not short stories, and it’s fictional prose, then it must be a novel — the short story and the novel being so often defined by opposition to the other.

But at the same time it isn’t very novel-like. It doesn’t look like a novel on the page. It looks like a play, actually. The work is almost entirely dialogue, with the speaking character’s name following each paragraph. These characters literally narrate what’s happening in the plot in a very lucid narrative style, a very conventional one, but in that way it’s more like a radio play.

And also he uses a device I wasn’t expecting, and that I totally love. Long chapters of the novel are purely quotations from other nonfiction sources from or about the real date in which the novel is set. Sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a sentence, and each is then followed by another reference that follows on from the next as lucidly as if they were written as conjoining paragraphs in the same work of prose. When you get to the end of the novel, there’s no list of sources. Yet Saunders has clearly done his research and created a collage of primary and secondary material. The lack of footnotes or appendices suggest that it’s a completely fictional work. They cast doubt on the veracity of the source material. Without researching further you don’t know whether these are real sources, quoted accurately, or just a device used by Saunders to illustrate happenings outside the immediate vicinity of the characters, or cast the plot in its historical context.

And I think that’s deliberate. Some of these sources are actually made up. Without their context, too, they’re used intentionally to create an effect and are thus untrustworthy by nature. By cutting quotes off from the larger text, Saunders is using as much fictional artifice as if he were writing them himself (some of which, he did). Even further, the sources conflict with each other:

A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above the scene.

In “White House Soirees: An Anthology,” by Bernadette Evon

There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.

Wickett, op. cit.

A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly.

In “My Life,” by Dolores P. Leventrop

The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.

Sloane, op. cit.

For Lincoln in the Bardo, we’re never outside the world of fiction. The elements of nonfiction, sourcing, history are as much part of the artifice of the author as are the characters. The dialogue of the characters is as much illustrating something about their perspective on the events as much as the sources illustrate something about the historical characters’ own biases on the events. Those that view Lincoln himself as a good father, a bad father, an ugly man, a handsome man, a fool, a coward, a hero — these are all a part of their truths but never the capital-T Truth, and cast doubt on this distinction between nonfiction and fiction while using both the create one coherent, beautifully written narrative.

To me it seems the most interesting thing literature can do right now is exist within this cross-pollination of genre and form, because as readers we read with categories in our mind, and the ability to adjust and form new ideas of categories. Those books that don’t just exist on the edges of genre but actively engage with the edges for effect are going to be the most experimental and new. Grief is the Thing With Feathers challenges our distinction between the novel and poetry by using features of both. Autumn by Ali Smith reminds us of the political and the contemporary throughout the work and blurs fiction and nonfiction. The White Book by Han Kang and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit remove the distinctions between autobiography and autobiographical fiction. This isn’t a new thing, really. One of the features of postmodernism (maybe the feature) is the challenge it brings to established forms and categories. In Oblivion by David Foster Wallace and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, the author is explicitly referred to or even acts in the narrative. But we can challenge old ideas in new ways.

Because of the utter stranglehold of realism as the dominant form in English language fiction, everything that deviates is defined as an other. Only realist fiction can be capital-f fiction. Everything beyond that is lumped into a new category or is an exception to the rule, existing on the fringes. But that’s where the most interesting writing is going to happen, in the space between genre and form. Writing that’s hard to explain, hard to put your finger on.