In the future we will finally be allowed to live, just as we are, to imagine, to flow, to pulse. Let the genres blur if they will. Let the genres redefine themselves.
– Carole Maso((Maso, Carole. Break Every Rule. Washington, D.C: Counterpoint LLC, 2000. Print.))
…Who cares what it is or isn’t as long as it changes your life?
– Christine Hume((Hume, Christine. “Some Capacities and Fallacies of Literary Hybridity: a Card Game.” Poets.Org The Academy of Poets. Web. 31 July 2012.))
Prose, verse, text, texture, photography, digital works, physical movement, paintings… these each exist not within artificially defined containers or genres (Prose, Poetry, Art) but rather as organic expressions of humanity. The privileging of one modality over an other is a cultural bias — reinforced by academia, capitalism, politics, and mediated historical lenses — that serves to maintain/reinforce the social construct of power/identity, of what is archived as “part of” and what is marginalized as “other,” of what is recognizable and what is invisible.
What does it mean to work across these genres, to create works that defy tidy categorizations? How is the thin membrane between genres breached by works that seek to tell a story of un/certain experiences, identities, and questions? How does the exploration of these questions push against the forces with a vested interest in keeping the distinctions in place? And how do these works, by their very existence, create a new space for creative expression and exploration?
The term genre itself is one of multiplicities and taxonomy, being used within ever-constricting groupings; from Species (Literature, Music, Art), to Genus (Prose, Poetry, Drama), to Family (Lyric, Narrative, Epic), to Order (Confessional, Language) and so on. By the time we reach the work itself, at the level of that thing which is its own unit of existence (Life if we keep with the analogy), the levels of categorization create layers of expectations that either serve the work or work against it. As William Hughes states in the discussion of genre in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas:
Paradoxically, genre is conceptually located both within and outside of an individual text; it is a tool that may be employed with equal facility by author, reader, and critic. It is, equally paradoxically, both an instrument of restriction and a mode of liberation.
(912)((Hughes, William. Genre. Ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Charles Scribner and Sons. 2005. Kindle Digital File.))
Knowing that a book is a romance novel, for example, lets the reader know that the plot, the character development, and the level of language are likely to be geared to support the common formulas expected of romance novels within the context of the current culture. Or knowing that a book is fiction, rather than non-fiction, renders a fact-checker unnecessary. In this way, genre provides a short-cut, a code, that allows the author to create within a specific modality without having to train the reader how that modality functions. It allows the reader to enter into a work with a certain pre-determined familiarity. It can, to echo Hughes, be a “mode of liberation.” The ramifications of breaking the code or the contract created by the expectation of genre can be readily seen when a book labeled as non-fiction, such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces or John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, is assumed to be completely factual and turns out not to be.
Like biological taxonomies, it is helpful to keep in mind that these are not dictated by natural law but by academic studies and cultural conventions. New species and crossbreeding defy categorizations; outliers push against prevalent theories. When reading works that blur the line between multiple genres, at what point does the question of genre enhance the experience/understanding of the work and when does the need to categorize cause us to miss out on meeting the work where it is on the page/screen/wall…? What do we do when our seemingly innate need to classify, our belief that in order to know a thing, we must categorize/name it, limits our ability to experience a work that does not cohere to generic expectations? What is at stake?
In her interactive essay, “Some Capacities and Fallacies of Literary Hybridity: a Card Game,” Christine Hume calls genre “a question, a plaything, a protean game, an unfinished conversation” (n.p). This view of genre requires that we understand it not as something inherent within a work, regardless of authorial intent, but as something constructed. And, like all systems of categorization, the ways in which genre is defined, defended, and institutionalized reflect the larger context in which it functions.