Saturday, January 5, 2008

Genres I Have Known--And the Toughest One I Know

"Genre" is a funny word--funny "peculiar," not funny "ha-ha," to quote from Eudora Welty's perfect short story, "Petrified Man." Once upon a time, it (the word, genre) was used to refer to immense historical paintings; now it refers to a kind or a type of almost anything. It has become an especially slippery word with regard to kinds of writing. Arguably, "the novel" is a genre, but then critics, publishers, bookstore-owners, writers, and agents will speak of "genre-fiction," and what they mean is novels that are written to fit in such categories as romance, mystery-writing, westerns, and so on. And then we get into "sub-genres," and that way lie several genres of madness.

Using the term to describe kinds of writing, I hereby confess to having written pieces of writing in the following genres. A "p" appears after a genre of which one or more pieces have made it to publication, for whatever that is worth (not much, as it turns out):

Anthology (which requires a mixture of writing and editing)--p

Aphorisms, book of (I actually started to write such a book, but I quickly realized I was not sufficiently wise or aphoristic, I stopped, thank goodness.)

Article, general (in the magazine, Writer’s Digest, for example)—p

Article, scholarly—p

Audit-report (I only edited these, but sometimes I rewrote whole sections; these were performance-audits, not financial ones)—p (but only in-house, as it were—but available to the public)

Autobiography—an extremely short one, in third grade; fragments of others languish in notebooks

Book review—p

Cartoon—[not even remotely close to the solar system adjacent to publication]

Case-statement--this is a genre in the not-for-profit world

Chapbook (mini-book of poems)-p

Chapter [in a collection of scholarly articles, for example]--p

Column--p (in a medium-sized metropolitan daily, twice a month for 3 years; how real weekly or daily columnists keep going, I do not know; bless their hearts.)

Conference-paper (oy, what a genre!)

Criticism, book of--p (on Langston Hughes's short fiction)

Dictionary-entry (for the New Dictionary of National Biography [Oxford U. P.], for example)--p [not the same as an entry in a Webster's-like dictionary or lexicon, of course]


Email—p (p in the sense that all of us who write and send emails publish them; in a away, even if we don’t send them, we publish them; what a brave new world); believe it or not, there are scholars out there who try to define and discuss "electronic mail" as a bona fide genre.

Encyclopedia—(wrote one; edited another)—p


Essay (although most have been in the article, chapter, news story, review items already listed)—p


Joke--so hard to write

Letter (as in “to the editor”)—p

News article (sports only, and only for small dailies and weeklies)—p



Play (but only a one-act)


Poetry collection—p

Post—as in blog-post

Reference-guide (a book-length, annotated bibliography)—p (with my pal, Tim Lulofs)

Report—mostly curricular ones, therefore mostly academic, but not always

Review-article (an odd academic genre)—p

Screenplay—“p” in this case would refer either to purchased or produced or both; neither, yet, but keep you fingers crossed; on second thought, un-cross them.

Short story—p

Textbook—p (sole author and co-author)

Text-Message—p (for explanation of p, see “Email”); I'm awful at this genre; family-members mock my text-messages; the tiny key-pad mocks my thick fingers; I feel as if a reader-over-my shoulder is saying "WTF!"

For me, the hardest genre in which to write is the novel--by far. I've published one novel, a mystery (sub-genre, "police procedural," technically). I have completed five others, three of which really stink, and I'm their parent, two of which I am close to liking. (Too bad the "fiction-market" seems to be going to that hot place in a hand-basket.) So at the moment, I am one-for-six in the publication-of-novels department, but I feel lucky just to be one-for-anything. (Sometimes when baseball players get in a slump, observers say they are "one for June").

From my perspective, novels ask everything of the writer--and seemingly all at once. I feel awkward writing them in a way I don't even when I'm writing short stories, which are a cousin of the novel. True, it is extremely hard to write an excellent or even a very good poem, but even when I come up short, I know it, and I know why, and I can move on, whereas with a novel, I might write (and rewrite, and rewrite) hundreds of pages and then realize it all stinks--but not really know how to fix it. I feel as if I'm the captain of a large ship, and the steering no longer works. I know many fiction-writers, however, who feel the same way about poetry. They feel as if they simply can't write poetry, even when I try to tell them, "Of course you can."

Co-authoring and co-editing anything are extremely hard, but I've been lucky. If you and your co-author or co-editor a) can converse frankly but politely and b) have the same work-ethic, even if you have different work-habits, then chances are you'll be okay. Even so, the process will be hard. To modify the old joke, get any two writers (or editors) in a room, and you'll have at least three opinions on any subject.

After I wrote a few screenplays and took an intensive workshop from a pro, screenplay-writing (or screen-writing: what an odd term) seemed quite manageable. The problem with them, of course, is multifaceted: there are a million screenplays; nobody really wants to read them; as William Goldman famously wrote, "nobody knows anything" in Hollywood; even if by some fluke you sell one, it might get buried or rewritten beyond recognition or both; it's a murky genre, at best, because producers, directors, and editor actually make the product; it's basically a Hollywood genre; and so on, and so forth. Among the countless characteristics that prevent me from being a real screenwriter is that I tend to want to write films I'd enjoy watching.

I felt a bit at sea, or at least at lake, with the one-act play because I don't know a lot about stage-craft. However, I did feel as if I knew how to write something that actors and a director could run with, so to speak. That is, I tried to stay aware that I was writing for the stage, not the page.

I have not written science fiction or fantasy, nor have I tried to write a graphic novel. I haven't written a cook-book, but I wouldn't mind trying, if only I knew more about cooking! I haven't tried to write pornography or even erotica, although I've written scenes in fiction and screenplays that might qualify as "erotic." I haven't tried to write a self-help book or a how-to book. I haven't tried to write a television-pilot or a radio-play. I haven't tried to write a biography, but I think great biography-writers are to be cherished.

I never wrote a telegram, but I did receive one--once only. I had to drive down to a Greyhound bus station to pick it up.

I wouldn't mind getting a play produced, a screenplay sold, a short-story collection published, and at least two more novels published--this is, after all, the silly season of resolutions, also known as pipe-dreams.

Should I try to write an "Op-Ed" piece at some point? Nah. But you should!
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