Critical Mass

Geoffrey O’Brien on Merging Genres


Geoffrey O’Brien, who was a finalist for the NBCC award in criticism for his “The Phantom Empire,“was one of the panelists for the September 12 NBCC “Merging Genres” panel at the New School moderated by Peter Straub. O’Brien is editor in chief of Library of America, which won the NBCC Sandrof Award a few years back, a poet, and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. He shares his remarks from the panel.

Merge is what genres do. By 1600 it was already material for a joke, as Polonius tells Hamlet: “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.” In some archaic moment there may have been no genres—just the one all-encompassing matter of the tribe—but the pigeonholing impulse is clearly innate. All written literatures evolve generic classifications, the more complex the better. To the extent that the societies change the genres mix and merge and coalesce into spinoffs, generally at accelerating speeds. Sometimes it seems enough to sit back and watch the subgenres mutating, as if the patterns made by those constantly recombining variations and echoes and reflections were an entrancing enough spectacle in itself: the joy of taxonomy.

Beneath the superficial variations you can always feel the deeper continuities, the virtually hard-wired ancient templates. You can ride them all the way back to something like a source, on a bridge built on the imitation of models, millennium after millennium. Sometimes it seems as if the imitation of models is all that ever really happens, the copying of a gesture or a stance under circumstances that can never be the same. The impulse to repeat is what brought writing about in the first place. An inherited form is the husk that guards the kernel, that makes transmission possible. The German historian Ernest Curtius, in his study of the persistence of ancient literary forms through the middle ages and beyond, writes: “Mind became living in and through a form. Forms are configurations and systems of configurations in which the incorporeal things of the mind can manifest themselves and become apprehensible.” The writer in this context is part of a sequence of transmissions, standing at some arbitrary point in a corridor that cuts across time.

In a way writing itself is a genre. It’s architecture; it’s where readers and writers live. Some are perfectly happy to live in the buildings that have made available to them; others yearn for something grander or simpler or just different. Some become architects themselves and try to imagine new building materials, new methods of construction; others may want to tack together a crude hut in some isolated place where visitors are few. A small minority find it congenial to sleep in the open air. Literary forms can certainly be dismantled and rearranged more easily than architectural forms, but most writers in any age find it convenient—or, if they want to make a living, essential—to pretty much go with the prevailing norms, mixing things up a little for the sake of variety, like the actors in Hamlet. 

When models change it’s often because of intrusive circumstances, randomly arising opportunities or necessities. The modern novel begins when Daniel Defoe becomes aware that he can pass off a pastiche of a memoir as the real thing, and the result is something altogether different from the inherited Greco-Roman traditions of Heliodorus and Longus which had persisted up through the eighteenth century. Or, the modern novel begins when Samuel Richardson realizes that he can recount an extended narrative by imitating the emerging postal culture in which people can communicate rapidly and copiously by letter. Nowadays in Japan people write novels in the form of text messages, in the same way that the earliest Japanese novels evolved out of the highly compressed, elaborately allusive written communications passed around among members of the Heian aristocracy.

Nowadays it’s mostly a matter of marketing. A genre is a specialized niche which exists because it attracts customers—but after a while the customers exist because the niche exists. They can only choose from what’s on the menu, so taste evolves in relation to what’s on offer. Effective labeling certainly makes everything easier for publishers and booksellers. Readers are led along by signposts announcing: “If you liked that, you’ll love this.” But if you acquire a taste for a genre you have the satisfaction of knowing that you can be satisfied again and again. I don’t mean that pejoratively; it goes for Icelandic sagas and kabuki plays just as much as for romance novels or sword-and-sorcery epics. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of any work in any genre that is perfectly achieved. It’s as if we were taught how to accept limitation, and thrive on that acceptance: a very sound and necessary lesson.

But that very perfection can feel like enclosure. Deeper than the desire for the achieved perfection of a genre is the desire to escape from genre altogether, to get out of the trap of category like Jimmy Cagney breaking loose in an old prison movie. The impulse to discover the book that belongs to no known or knowable genre is not an exclusively American impulse but Americans have certainly pointed the way many times over. When I was a very young reader two books gave me concrete images of what such a book might look like: not by reading but just by opening them up, flipping through the pages and absorbing the visual effect. These were “Moby Dick” and “The Cantos.” They looked as if they breathed a different air. They looked like a way out of claustrophobia. As I say, this was before I read them.

Yet that first impression lingers because the promise they seemed to extend was irresistible. For a hundred years or so writers seem to have been trying to take the book apart to see what would be left after you dismantled the whole structure: a book made of air, a book freed from contingency, a book with no real beginning or end, a book with which a reader could have direct and unmediated communication. Isolation and fragmentation have often turned out to be the most useful tools for such an admittedly impossible task. Think of Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet,” a book both immense and nonexistent, a bottomless well of luminous fragments describing, it can seem, nothing at all. Or Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual,” a book so completely completed that it packs all known genres into the tightly sealed, mutually unknowable rooms of an imaginary apartment building.

The prevailing metaphor might be the message in a bottle, disconnected from any certain route, relying on chance. The diary, the journal, the travel log, the notebook, the scrapbook of randomly encountered newspaper headlines and encyclopedia entries, the synopsis, the glossary, the index, the discarded letter, the cryptic intercepted message intended for someone else: communications that are vulnerable, deflected, unsure of who is on the receiving end. David Markson makes novels out of scraps of anecdotes about the misfortunes and illnesses and deaths of people whose fame seems,to our deluded eyes,to have saved them. Luc Sante archeologizes the transient urban wilderness. Joe Brainard reconstructs a life out of disconnected pieces of memory. Poets like Charles Reznikoff, Susan Howe, and Nathaniel Tarn weave disparate strands of history into bundles of poetry as if that might be the only way they could be preserved. But I would hardly know whether to call any of these works poetry or prose, fact or fiction. They don’t want to be contained even that much.—Geoffrey O’Brien