The "F-Word": Fragment and the Futility of Genre Classification: a Roundtable Discussion with Eula Biss, Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, and Allie Rowbottom

Allie Rowbottom

Hybrid essays, lyrical essays, nonfiction novels, memoirs in fragments. Lately, the blurring of genre lines, although a storied tradition, seems to be of particular interest within writing programs and the literary communities that inform and encircle them. It was with an interest in these mixed forms, and a particular curiosity about potential links between poetry and creative nonfiction writing, that I approached Eula Biss, Sarah Manguso, and Maggie Nelson, three writers whose work epitomizes successful, lyrical life-writing and poetic journalism. The following conversation regarding genres, writing processes, and the lines between poetry and prose took place in the fall of 2011 and was, quite simply, illuminating. It was, likewise, a pleasure to curate. All I needed to do was sketch an outline for conversation and collaboration, then sit back and marvel at the color these writers brought to it.
                                        —Allie Rowbottom

Allie Rowbottom: All of you work across genres, poetry and literary nonfiction in particular. What is the link between these genres for you? Do you find them especially complementary?

Sarah Manguso: I’ve never wanted to make up stories, so before I could fill a page I was called a poet, and after I could fill a page I was called an essayist. But I’ve been doing the same thing all along, just ruminating on my existential problems.

Maggie Nelson: All of my writing feels as if it exists on a continuum, with one of the abiding links being a certain disinterest in making up stories. Or, to put it more positively, one link has been an intense and ongoing desire to see and say, to document, to observe, to research, to bear witness, to articulate elements of the so-called “real.” Another abiding link must be one’s own recurring preoccupations, one’s own problems. It’s easy for me to see these through-lines in everything I write; the taxonomy of how the piece eventually needs to take form isn’t really so important. Or, rather, how the piece eventually takes form is very important, but form for me comes out of the imperatives of content. For some time now long-form prose has been the place where my particular imperatives have been compelling me.

Eula Biss:  For me, genre is a continuous—rather than compartmentalized—space, and I write across it as my subject demands and my abilities allow. Even when I’m writing something that draws fairly unambiguously on the essay tradition, I tend to write across sub-genres of nonfiction. The metaphor of a spectrum, with its two extremes, is so often applied to these sub-genres that it eclipses the ways in which memoir can function as journalism or that personal meditation can function as cultural criticism. I’ve never found the taxonomy of genre particularly accurate and there is something about it that feels... um, like a charmingly pointless pastime? Maybe even a little colonialist and slightly macabre, like the pinning of butterflies. And maybe a tad gendered, too?

SM: That taxonomy conversation, with its obsessive ranking and sorting, to me just reeks of fear.

MN: Eileen Myles may have said it best, in a conversation with Laurie Weeks, in terms that weirdly echo Eula’s butterfly comment:

              I think literary categories are false. They belong to the
              marketplace and the academy. It’s the obedience issue that I’m
              saying fuck you to, the scholar or the editor trying to trap
              the writer like a little bug under the cup of ‘poetry’ or ‘prose.’

Since writers crossing genres—either within pieces or over the course of a career—is about the least new thing under the sun, the question of why the taxonomy discussion has enthralled so many as of late (i.e., what that enthrall says about the sway of the marketplace and the academy) seems the larger one.

EB: This may be unfair, but I’ll admit that whenever genre taxonomy is raised a little voice deep in my interior mutters, “Can’t we leave that business to the boys?” 

MN: I’ve been musing about the question of a gendered dynamic here. While I don’t think it’s a wrong proposition per se, I feel oddly dry about contributing a thought on this account. I think I might feel that way because it seems too rote to attribute an interest, or over-interest, in categorical thinking to something that might be called male, while something that involves blurred or undefined boundaries is attributed to something that might be called female. The division hearkens back to an old conversation about écriture féminine or about Aristotelian or Lockean categories—a conversation that doesn’t seem to bear much fruit right now, especially as “blurring boundaries” has become its own sort of commodity. I think we all know, as readers and as writers, that good work is good work, and it doesn’t matter if that work is intensely genre-specific or intensely genre-disobedient. There’s crappy work on both accounts, and there’s brilliant work on both accounts. As Eula explained earlier, most of the fascinating action in writing always comes in the in-between.

EB: This question gets to something that has nettled me for some time, which is the way we allow memoir to be treated. Most writers, as Sarah points out, wouldn’t dream of suggesting that, say, there is something inherently bad about poetry as a genre. But plenty of respected critics and writers get away with suggesting that there is something inherently inferior—maybe even disgusting and dirty—about memoir. Lorrie Moore’s piece, “What If,” in The New York Review of Books is the most recent offender that comes to mind, but she’s just one of many.    
    I’m troubled by the very popular suggestion that memoir, because it sometimes sells well, is a selling of one’s self. This charge is sometimes extended to anything written in the first person, a charge of “navel-gazing.” This also somewhat solidifies an often vaguer association between memoir and the body, and then the frequent efforts to position memoir as low art or “artless.” It seems quite possible that all of these attitudes are actually the result of our extreme anxiety, as a culture, around the concept of the self. This self-loathing (ha!) just happens to intersect on occasion with woman-hating, another cultural feature… I don’t know. But I do know that all this affects, and sometimes paralyzes, my students, who are often fearful or apologetic when writing about or through themselves. I have, more than once, met that fear with this quote from Sarah’s The Two Kinds of Decay: “Those who claim to write about something larger and more significant than the self sometimes fail to comprehend the dimensions of a self.”

MN: I wrote an undergrad thesis on the gendered notion of “confessionalism” in relation to the wildly misogynistic reception of Sexton and Plath, and then, years later, a dissertation-turned-book about gender and the “personalism” or “Personism” of the New York School, and the particular challenges female writers posed to its terms. I also just finished a dialogue about literature and gender with my friend Brian Blanchfield, called “Importunate to Meretricious, With Love,” as a reviewer once called his first book “importunate,” and my The Red Parts “meretricious.” Neither of us knew what the words meant at the time, and both of us were utterly horrified when we looked them up. “Meretricious” means “of, or relating to, a prostitute”—to which I’ve learned to say, bring it on!

EB: I looked up “meretricious” some years ago when I was working on an essay about this subject and kept stumbling on the word in reviews of memoirs by women.

MN: I’ve grown so tired of writers (or anyone, really) pillorying that which they don’t naturally tend towards (i.e., fiction writers denouncing the memoir), and, in turn, valorizing what they do (i.e., we three valorizing the complicated literary memoir). That’s why I think your point about counseling your students gets at where the action is. Rather than spending one’s time and energy defending the value of any given genre or mode, one might instead focus on imparting a sense of maximum permission and agency to go wherever it feels hottest to go, come whatever small-minded or misogynist opprobrium may.
    As a jump start, I recommend watching the hilarious little film clips, easily found online, that Wayne Koestenbaum recorded for his recent book Humiliation, in which he includes a lesson on how one might transform a fart in yoga into a badge of shame.

SM: I, too, recognize the coded misogyny with which memoir is disparaged in major media outlets. At least as bad is the open misogyny with which virtually all books by women are reviewed, even by other women. With few exceptions, books by men are described as abstract entities, and books by women are described by adjectives that would more accurately describe a female body. Meretricious is just the beginning!
EB: The Lorrie Moore piece was interesting to me less for what it said than for how effectively it reflects the most common misapprehensions of the genre. It begins with a series of rhetorical questions that suggests an odd nostalgia for the kind of traditional memoir that is more or less limited to servicing the greatness of the author. If memoirs in this tradition often fail as works of art, I would propose that that is mainly because they were never intended to function as works of art. But Moore mistakes this lack of ambition in certain works as an inherent flaw in the genre—thus the weirdest feature of her review is that it is an ostensibly positive review of two memoirs framed by a negative review of the genre. Any failings of these works are due to the fact, she suggests, that nothing better could be accomplished in this genre: “Even Nabokov’s canonical Speak, Memory does not give us the brilliantly vivid and coherent dreams of his novels—because it simply can’t.” She says “even” because she began by echoing the popular lament that memoirs are now being written by ordinary people, quoting Neil Genzlinger in the The New York Times Book Review: “Unremarkable lives” should go “unremarked upon.” The possibility that what makes a life “unremarkable” is also what makes it fascinating seems to me to be underscored by the frequency with which works of fiction feature characters carefully crafted to appear “unremarkable,” even when their circumstances are extraordinary.

SM: We seem to be talking specifically about “common misapprehensions,” which to me means the misapprehensions of the willfully ignorant. Moore’s piece uses the rhetorical devices common to Republican political campaigns, which generally play to people’s laziness and fear rather than their reason and intellect. The misapprehensions encouraged by Moore, Genzlinger, et al aren’t going to go away. People for whom the highest literary form is the latest 800-page historical novel are simply not ever going to judge work based on its actual quality, or certainly not until the major media outlets fall in line with the best judges, and that usually takes a generation or two. Until then, it’s pearls before swine. Maybe my question is: Until then, should we care?
    In an interview between the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and poet Amanda Field in the San Francisco Film Society’s online magazine,, Zahedi speaks of what he calls “the fascism of the extraordinary”: 

              I remember once, I approached one of the programmers
              of a new video diary series on public TV, and said, “I’m
              doing a video diary, can I possibly submit it?” She said,
              “What’s your angle?” I said, “Well, it’s just a year in my
              life.” She said, “What’s so special about your life?” I said,
              “Well, nothing, that’s the point.” And she said, “Well, are
              you handicapped? Are you gay? Do you have a terminal
              illness? Is there some reason we should care about your life?”
              I said, “Nothing beyond the fact that I’m a human being,
              and I’m having a life.” And she said, “Well, I don’t think
              that’s what we’re looking for.” I think that assumption that
              ordinary life is boring is just a really prevalent one, and there
              has to be something that is pre-ordained as dramatic.

His responses so beautifully frame the basic problem we’re all up against.