Problems After Genre

by on Aug.03, 2010

So we all think we don’t want genre, we want to be anti-genre or perhaps hybrid, but since these are genres too, let us think about what it means to really go genreless. To go genreless in our contemporary publishing environment is to make a work without a ‘document map’, without a diagram, without a blueprint. Without a sales category. A work such as this has no overview or topography. It can’t be nicely summarized. It cannot be publicized, because it lacks ‘publicity’. In place of publicity it has secrecy, distortion, obscurity, waste. It is a waste product.

Going genreless of course has no place in conventional or traditional publishing, but it is also outside the formalist rubric under which most ‘experimental’ prose is published. The diagrammability of formalist writing is what gives experimental writing its scientistic “rigor”. To go genreless is to go without rigor, needless to say. Except rigor mortis. Many of the synonyms by which experimentalism calls itself manage to keep the movement above the waste, in the ordorless interstices of the mind. Even ‘hybridity’ now carries a conscience-clearing green and lefty corporate-scientistic orderly taste, not promoting “pollution” or “contamination”, as the term hybridity might imply, but honorably promising to prevent it.

Everyone wants a genre, if only (and especially) a new-fangled one. Genre is a kind of team. You can go to bat for your genre. You can certainly bunt for your genre.

To exist in the swoon, to be shapeless, genreless, to eat the placenta, to get shit in your eyebrows … now you are really in trouble. To get a ISBN number, your publisher must check off your genre. To go genreless means you can’t be sold. To be placed in the Library of Congress catalog you must similarly fulfill a genre. To be genreless means you can’t be entered into the record. To apply for a berth at the AWP conference, you must check off to which genre your talk pertains. To go genreless means you cannot speak. To apply for a job you must establish your competency at genre. To go genreless is to expose incompetency.

But what is genreless writing, or what could it be? The most easily envisioned is a heap of genred writing, a writing that is so excessively or multiply genred that it is simply “out of whack” with itself. That is to say, it is whack, like crack, as Whitney Houston informs us. And as she further held, if she were a drug addict, where are the receipts? When one’s book does not balance with oneself, the receipts are missing. One is a kind of addict. Solipsism and dilation replace the wellmade form. Disgrace, degeneration, decadence. Yet to diagnose this problem is to apply terms from accounting: such a book is unbalanced. It cannot make an account. It does not earn its payoff—or worse, has no payoff. It wastes time, or it wastes the audience’s time.

When a single work is infested with genre to the point that it is genreless, it may not be able to bear itself. It may commit suicide several times but it always wakes up and finds that it still exists to its disgust and dismay, and everyone else’s.

22 comments for this entry:
  1. Dan Hoy

    Maybe I’m being too literal here, but it might be helpful to distinguish “genre” as applied in marketing from “genre” as a critical tool. These overlap but not 100%. The difference (at least as I see it) is one of emphasis. Typically, genre as a marketing tool is primarily concerned with target audience expectations, while genre as a critical tool is primarily concerned with content strategies and details (genre “conventions”).

    In marketing, you position a product within a genre to appeal to audience familiarity or curiosity. Variations on “If you liked this, you’ll love this,” “Experience this in a way you never have before,” or “This is like nothing you’ve ever experienced!” You can adhere to a strict genre party-line, or mix and match genres, or attempt to establish a new genre by applying a “new” label to a mixed genre. This really depends on your target audience and your strategy for appealing to them. From a sales perspective, the ideal scenario is a cross-over genre hit that appeals to the base while drawing in the audience from the periphery (i.e. the mainstream) or from another base or multiple bases.

    In criticism, you apply a genre to a piece to determine how that piece is conforming to or resisting the conventions of that genre, how effectively the piece is conforming/resisting, and what this conforming/resisting might “mean”. Or something like that. This analysis of the content might intersect with an analysis of the genre in the marketplace (e.g. whether or not this piece is bucking or milking a trend, how this reflects back on the content, and what that might mean). The analysis might also intersect with the actual reception of the piece in the marketplace, and how this fits within larger historical considerations, etc.

    I assume most artists, when creating a work, have both marketing and critical considerations in mind (whether they are resisting or appealing to them), in addition to their own personal obsessions and inclinations. I can understand why an artist might be uncomfortable with a particular genre label being applied to their work, since it shades how that work is received, critically and within the marketplace, but trying to evade the very concept of a genre label makes little sense to me as an artistic objective. What would be the real objective here? To be perceived as an iconoclast, or a genius? To create some kind of pure work that resists all defilement? The former seems like a result to me, not an objective, while the latter seems like an impossibility. I personally don’t feel it’s possible to create a truly “genreless” product. From a marketing standpoint, a good salesperson can sell anything. From a critical standpoint, everything can be classified within a set of conventions — it’s just a question of whether this is an established set, a mix of established sets, or a mix of established sets that is repositioned as a unified, newly established set.

    Again, maybe I am being too literal. But it sounds like what you are getting at with the label “genreless” is a genre that suffers from future shock: a work that cannot be balanced, or make an account, or earn a payoff, or ever end really, because it is overwhelmed by its own future — a future that is happening right now. It has no future because it is the future. How do we define what hasn’t happened yet while it is actually happening? This perhaps gets at what it feels like to exist within a perpetual present, where space shrinks into the palm of your hand, and the apprehension of time overwhelms the experience of it. The parameters of this kind of genreless genre might set the stage for a recovery of space and time, and human experience, or else a reclassification of what it is to be human, or an unveiling of what it has been all along. If I had to position this hypothetical genre in relation to an existing genre I’d pick Gibson’s brand of cyberpunk as a reference point, and in particular the theme of pattern recognition that dominates his work — similar tropes of resistance, secrecy, distortion, waste, etc., but without the ability to spot emergent patterns within all the chaos. In the genreless genre, there is no messianic consciousness casting its net across the field, only lost apostles of this truth.

  2. Adam

    Interesting post but very hard to read with this background image.

  3. Ross Brighton

    I think Dan has a point – the future thing is good. Prescience, prescedent. To go unclothed in genre (howevermuch that is possible) is to create a new space, which will then be named(subsumed into the meta-set of the generic). I’d rather think of internal conflict/fucking within the genre-set, bodies permeating/poluting/corroding one another…

    preliminary thoughts

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi, thank you all for responding to my post.

    My motivation in writing this post was twofold. First, it’s quite amazing that it’s so difficult to think of writing without genre. It reminds me of the old Zizek truism– it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Ditto for genre.

    Secondly, it’s interesting that nearly everywhere one turns in the indie/alt publishing/writing/performing/teaching world one comes up against genre, even when dressed as anti-genre, hybridity, etc. So I wrote the post to try to unthink the hygenic persistence of genre.

    Secondly, I’m *hardly* promoting purity, since I use images of shit, degredation, waste, etc. I used the tag ‘genre hygiene’ because I wanted to consider whether small presses, collectives, the AWP, hiring committees were actually enforcing a kind of ‘genre hygiene’ and maintenance. And, as Ross points out, interpenetration etc is of course very interesting. The only version of ‘genreless’ writing this post imagines (but surely not the only one imaginable) is one so weighed down by genre (or genres) that it shits or sheds genre and can’t stagger forward. I wrote two books that tried to dwell in dessicating but identifiable genres– Nylund, the Sarcographer,which I called a ‘baroque noir’ and Flet, a deliberately conventional environmentalist sci-fi–and now I’m just wondering what writing might be without genre.

    Do we just have a total taboo or thought ban when it comes to going genreless?


  5. jesusangelgarcia

    Funny, I just kind of had a conversation about genre with some folks who are readers but not writers.

    Me: Yeah, I wrote this novel.
    Them: That’s great! What is it?
    Me: Sex, god, rock ‘n’ roll, social web … [blah blah blah]
    Them: That’s great! Is it a mystery?
    Me: No, it’s not really “genre” fiction. I guess you’d call it literary fiction.
    Them: What’s that?
    Me: Um… it’s writing that doesn’t necessarily rely on the narrative conventions of genres like thrillers, mysteries, romance, action-adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. It doesn’t fall into those categories. It’s defined by what it’s not, I guess.
    Them: What is it then?
    Me: Literary fiction.
    Them: Never heard of it.
    Me: But you’ve been in a book club for years.
    Them: Never heard of it.
    Me: That’s OK. It’s usually about as popular as poetry.
    Them: We don’t read poetry.
    Me: Yeah, who reads poetry?
    Them: We know, right?… So you said there’s sex in your book.
    Me: Yeah, quite a bit. It’s kinda hardcore at times. Sex and god. You know.
    Them: Sounds great! We want to read it.
    Me: Are you sure?
    Them: Definitely.
    Me: It won’t be published for a year or so.
    Them: We’ll definitely read it, and you can come talk to our book group.
    Me: That would be great.
    Them: Yeah!
    Me: Yeah.

  6. Danielle

    Exactly! “Genre hygiene!” I’ve been trying to think of genre as strategy rather than category. Genre as a set of tactics one can apply, with which one can develop an architecture. It’s not liberating like: you think this way and then all of a sudden you’ve got a mouthful of placenta. But it does release you from writing the boring parts.

  7. Dan Hoy

    Hi Joyelle — I like the link with capitalism here: genre as a kind of system that absorbs all forms of resistance to it, and the challenge of trying to unthink it. That’s what I was trying to get at with the reference to purity — it has nothing to do with shit, but with a desire for a kind of liquidity that resists calcification, labels, patterns, prisons, identities, etc. My point was just that “genre” is a tool that (to me) belongs to marketing and criticism, and this tool can be applied to any product regardless of how that product is designed. It’s like stars trying to resist the constellations we put them in. They can’t shake free of the stories we apply to them, and yet each star remains a singular point of light. So I was questioning going genreless as an artistic objective, not as a critical problem to think about. The “genreless genre” I was imagining (playing off the genreless writing you were imagining) would be concerned with this critical problem as thematic material.

  8. Tyler Flynn Dorholt

    Dear Joyelle, listeners:

    Generally, I think that there is a thought-ban on going genreless; in order for one to attempt such a feat the entirety of genres must be consumed and this, as Joyelle points out, would then involve the shitting or shedding of the genres and, realistically, how much can one withstand their own work’s burrow into a new genreless cavern, sans bowels? The thought ban is coyly utilized in that that one would need to develop the genreless work by first enacting, even if through destruction, every other genre along the way. If one is desirous enough to get to this point then their own disintegration would make the final and attempted piece perhaps life-threatening; however, this seems to be the appeal of the attempt as well, a sort of laboring trudge through all the tricks in order to mangle them and then discard them in the face of a new space.

    Of course, and as Dan and Ross further elucidate, variations of genre might be stricken to interpretation; but I don’t think that running the discussion with the literal too much in mind will open up a place for gritty inhalations and thus fresh exhalations; this is not to say Dan and Ross do either. Moreover, in order not to hinder this topic from being about one thing or another maybe we can push for it to be about what writing would be without genre?

    This makes me question how we do and would, without genre, search for books; not we as communities but the we that is the self, perhaps the self as writer meeting self as reader (a magnetizing genre-controller of correlation on its own [who we vocally admire often gets turned into the person we are said to write like]). For example, if there is a writer that you admire there is often a curiosity affixed to liking this writer that leads you to want to find out what/who that writer themselves admired/was influenced by. This task then becomes less about following a genre and instead about tracing an influence—does the influence swallow you and dice you out anew? Unfortunately, the beginning of this search sometimes begins with an acceptance or enactment of genre. Let me provide an example: because I was heavily into reading Perec for a while I was then guided toward Harry Matthews and somehow over to Marcel Bénabou. By the time I got around to reading Bénabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books I felt as though the influence being traced was also the disrobing of genre, in that these writers were in fact located within the Oulipo school but had also taken the instructions and conceit from the school to really sort of fuck up their own shit. All three of them have taken turns being called “experimental” or “in the tradition of” yet Bénabou, in particular with Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, almost goes genreless and genreless in the way that you explain Joyelle, in that the work becomes so out of whack and he is thus so disgusted with what he knows he is doing, in not doing anything traditional, that he wants the reader to put down the book, to read something more relevant, like their own complacent air.

    I feel that trying to provide examples of books, as I got sucked into doing above, will lessen the stride that this discussion can successfully employ, so I will stop at that. What I’m fascinated with, which your piece hints a lot at Joyelle, is that this may just be another guised storm controlled by the cloud-mongering critics. I say this in the sense that even with the proliferation of multifarious journals and hybrid work, both of which may not intentionally grow as such, there is always the eye outside which will say that this work is in the tradition of something or, and which is the sad state of a lot of criticism, label something before it would even begin to understand what it is being labeled (I’m thinking of terms like the New Sincerists). This is the thought-ban again, that one cannot get to that state as it will be named something before they get there, like the first settlers must have experienced finding out they couldn’t call Dakota Anderson. Thus, envisioning a genreless world of writing means all forms of criticism, even blurbs and the lighthearted gesture toward a friend via recommending a goodie, would need to be obliterated, maybe even killed by hired hands with long wiry nails. People would not be given a chance to search out or define what they want but have to be beaten senseless by it and without proper report or clarity, which I think would, ultimately, be just grand.

    This would involve acceptance too, which leads into part of the Shutter Island piece, in that there is both unbalanced atoms and perhaps a brassy propensity for disruption, maybe even less a propensity and more so an unbridled and inward excretion of indefinable sludge when involved with something genreless. When speaking of what people don’t get, isn’t that as close to genreless as we can get? Without genres people tend to bumble about feeling stupid and their excuse is that something didn’t make sense. Inversely, they are most likely not wanting to talk about why, searching for a quick out, a modifier for a symbol known to the whole. The closer a piece comes to being genreless the more it will be discussed yet additionally there will be more and more fussed about in terms of difficulty in setting into genre. The piece will not win and will most likely not remain genreless—too often we will see and feel the pen behind a magazine sneak in and call the genreless piece something like post-post-primal, or reverse-deconstruction, or nouveau-kitsch or … a thought or two … I digress, for now. If this genreless world can exist, the picture of it in my mind is already making me want to jump out of the window, if only just to leave it unpopulated because that is the only way of making the genreless not another genre.

    Cheers, Tyler

  9. The Modesto Kid

    This is a lovely, fascinating piece of writing. Thanks, and thanks to CH for the link.

  10. The Modesto Kid

    I have linked to you from my blog, and tried my hand at rendering a paragraph of your post in Spanish.

  11. don mee

    Great to follow your shitful thoughts, Joyelle!
    I read this piece as a brilliant contestation of literary norms that collude with capitalism. Looking forward to reading more.

  12. John Beer

    What about writing without language? Would the resistance to that (if there is any) be the mark of a taboo?

  13. Christopher Higgs

    Really enjoyed reading this essay & thinking about it, Joyelle. Wanted to let you know that someone has translated it into Spanish:

  14. Joyelle McSweeney

    I’m psyched about all the directions the different responses have taken this in– awesome. My head’s exploding–nice experience. And thank you, Modesto Kid!

  15. Joyelle McSweeney

    but when will Whitney Houston write in??

  16. Tyler Flynn Dorholt

    Whitney might be singing in shortly, although perhaps hoarse and Bobbyless.

    Addendum: I was just reading this passage in David Markson’s “The Last Novel” this morning:

    “His last book. All of which then gives Novelist carte blanche to do anything he damned well pleases.
    Which is to say, writing in his own personal genre, as it were.”

    Markson jitters within the context of placing words, stories, and anecdotes in nearly every important writer/artist of the last three century’s mouths; some are truths. Is a personal genre an attempt at going genreless and would someone like Markson who, as discoveries over at HTML Giant–via the lucky book buyers who’ve stumbled across his whole collection signed and pummeled with notes at the Strand on Broadway–have noted, disliked near everything he read be capable of having consumed so much genre and “crap” that he needed a personal genre to write himself out of it all?

    Hey John, I’m wondering what forms the “writing without language” you ask about has or would take. If it was something like, though tied to dadaism, Schwitters “Ursonate” or even recent work by writers like Jukka Pekka Kervinen, though this could just be seen/heard as homophonic or textually-disrupted language, then it has boundaries. So I guess writing in one’s own language still isn’t writing without a language. If there is a resistance it isn’t strong, as writing without language would seem to end with a reader departing with a taste that there was a gimmick, or a threshold, whereas a genreless form of writing could always be destroyed by yet another genreless form.

  17. Johannes

    Yes, I’m also wondering what John meant, and like you Tyler, i have the sneaking suspicion that such a move would be a kind of purist escape rather than infestation of genres.

    Also worth thinking about: Samuel Delaney’s ideas about “the paraliterary.”


  18. The Modesto Kid

    Those interested in “writing without language” could do worse than check out “The New Post-Literate”, Michael Jacobson’s gallery at — another good resource (and what initially hipped me to asemic writing) is Bolaño’s short story, “Wandering in France and Belgium”.

  19. J. Robinson

    Very thought provoking post, but I always wonder about the distribution and production of “literature” in regards to genre. I sometimes believe that the “book”, that formal production of literature that writers want to create and the “literature readers” want to read, could be the problem. I mean, what about producing posters and sticker series in order to get over the concept of genre while widening the idea of what writing/literature is and lessening the importance of the “BOOK”?

    I know it’s dumd thinking, but I’ve alwayrs wondered abot this…

    I would love to see publishing companies represent writers in galeeries or publicly hung , “public reading” areas.

    My question is : should publishers widen their ideas of what production and literature means?

  20. Monica Mody

    I like the addledness of this genreless writing – it’s genreless since it’s addled by genre, being addicted to genre. But this addiction, this new addiction, will it at some point become a new use, or usefulness? Is it already getting there? Guess we’ll find out only when it’s crossed all limits, is out of limits.

    Genre hygiene. I guess the question is how do we deal with the anxiety of being useful (in our capacities as writers, artists) that gets so successfully taken care of when we use/cross the conventions of genre. By “we” I mean I – that’s a persistent anxiety for me.

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