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Thread: The Question of Genre

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    The Question of Genre

    Yesterday, I posted my story "The Noonday Siren" at the above forum for short stories/fiction.

    The moderator's comments raised some interesting questions in my mind regarding genre.


    Feedback on "The Noonday Siren:"

    There is a form that follows a pattern somewhat like this - it has a
    name I have forgotten- where poetry and prose are interspersed.
    Usually the theme is descriptive of nature. Is this meant to be such a

    At any rate, this does not easily fall into a category. Essay? Prologue
    to a fiction piece? Memoir of sorts?

    I do have comments, but until I know the intended length and type of
    work we are looking at I am reluctant to jump in.

    Do please read our Posting Guidelines.

    Sitaram replies:

    I am anxious to read your comments/criticisms.

    The psychologist Alfred Adler once remarked that one mistake many people make in life is not taking enough risks.

    I take a risk every day by writing in my own fashion. I suppose the most risky undertaking is to sell ourselves to the world as we are. Hemingway, in "A Moveable Feast," is horrified when F. Scott Fitzgerald admits to "tweaking" his stories in a certain fashion so the magazines will accept them. Hemingway calls such "tweaking" harlotry (actually, he uses a different, stronger word.)

    The question of genre is challenging. Some textbooks tell me that the very first novel was Lady Murasaki's "Tales of Genji."
    I suppose when it first appeared, circa 1000 C.E., people were quite puzzled, expecting perhaps an heroic epic in dactylic hexameter.

    People were horrified at first by Melville's "Moby Dick" and Joyce's "Ulysses" precisely because they didn't seem to fit existing models or genres.

    The dance they call the "Minuet" was quite a scandal in its day, because men and women actually touched the tips of their fingers ever so briefly. Apparently, prior to that, dances involved the men staying on their side, in an orderly line, and the women staying on theirs (an no touching).

    There was a certain point in the history of painting and drawing when some anonymous artist discovered perspective and a vanishing point. Prior to that, paintings and drawings were flat like those Eastern Orthodox Icons and the ancient Egyptian wall paintings. And whatever shall we do with someone like Escher?

    Once upon a time, I imagine, all poetry was in dactylic hexameter and rhymed with a certain rhyme scheme. When e. e. cummings came along, he must certainly have been considered odd. But his oddity had a certain charm and it stuck. e. e. cummings was the first person clever enough to think of the simple "gimmick" of always writing his name in lower case. Jesus was fond of the virtue of humility, but the name is never written in lower case. I do not imagine that cummings did this from humility, though I cannot speak for cummings, but to this day, even encyclopedias honor his wish and style and write his name in lower case.

    I am reminded of an amusing story, meant to be a joke but quite possibly a true story. I read it in a psychology text.

    One day, the police found an individual walking about in the street, rapped in a sheet, mumbling to himself. They were quite naturally concerned for this person's safety and took him into protective custody. Soon, there arrived at the police station a group of one hundred such people, all clad in white sheets and mumbling. They had come to take their leader back to their church. One is a menace. One hundred is a congregation.

    The textbooks tell me that Edgar Allen Poe was the first to write in the mystery genre. Was it "The Cask of Amantallado?" Anyway, before Poe, what might one make of such stories?

    We now accept Melville and Joyce as great writers in their own style. Were I to attempt to imitate "Finnegans Wake" people would say "Oh look, that poor fellow is imitating Joyce! How boring!"

    Were I to imitate e. e. cummings style, people would know right away.

    The textbooks tell me that the word "Novel" comes from a word which means "New." We even say that something is a "novel ideal" when it is new and different.

    Yet, people like Balzac could set up little factories of ghost writers to churn out thousands of pages based on a formulaic style. I recently read that the creator of the Nancy Drew childrens series had the same sort of successful formula and factory.

    We always look for something new. St. Paul, when he visited the Hill of Mars, scolded all the Greeks because they are always looking "for some new thing." Yet sometimes, should we find something new, we are not quite certain what to make of it.

    Dante's "Inferno," in the description of Limbo, describes all the ancient philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and others strolling about the perimeter, in peripatetic fashion, speaking in low voices about dark mysteries scarcely to be comprehended. My Greek professor from Heidelburg once said she would prefer to be in their company than in the highest heaven singing praises to the Almighty.

    There is an old joke about one Supreme Court Justice, hearing a case on obscenity, who said, "I don't know a definition of pornography, but I know what I like."

    Tolstoy has a charming story of a Bishop, sailing on a voyage, whose ship stops at a remote little island where the only residents are three religious hermits. The Bishop visits with them and, to his horror, discovers that, not only are they illiterate, but they do not even know the simplest of Church prayers. The Bishop stays with them for some days teaching them the "Our Father" prayer which they learn only with the greatest difficulty.

    When the Bishop is satisfied that they have made some progress, he boards his ship and begins to sail away. Just as the ship is leaving the harbor, he hears some voices and shouting just off the starboard side of the ship. He looks in amazement to see the three hermits running alongside the ship on the surface of the water. They were quite upset because they had forgotten the last sentence of the prayer and wanted to hear it one more time.

    The word count was an easy matter, as Microsoft Word does that automatically. I must give the issue of genre some consideration. Perhaps you might create a section for works of genre yet to be determined?

    It may have been Abraham Maslow who said: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem tends to become a nail."

    Take a peek at "Melville's Quarrel with Fiction" by Nina Baym:

    One sentence in Ms. Baym's essay stands out for me:

    "We have seen that Melville found genre requirements an impediment to his imagination, and that this was so even when the genre elected was, supposedly, the one permitting the greatest freedom, the romance."
    Last edited by Sitaram; 01-31-2005 at 07:52 AM.

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