Genrephobia

Genrephobia

May 09, 2012

Last year, some friends and I assembled a book club, which, unlike many book clubs, actually does spend a good deal of time talking about the books. We also drink wine and gossip, of course, but not until after the discussion. Also unlike a number of book clubs, ours is coed and ostensibly open to all genres.

We've done a variety of fiction (including some classics and some experimental modern fiction), with some nonfiction thrown in (including last month's downright mind-blowing Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, which you should immediately go get your hands on). This coming month, we're breaking into the realm of fantasy with George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.

And yet. In the months leading up to National Poetry Month (April), I tried in vain to convince our group to try a book of poetry. I felt confident that I could select a book of poetry that would be accessible enough for those who are timid in approaching it, yet intricate enough to satisfy, well, me. No dice. They've given a strong "maybe" to the idea of doing a graphic novel one month, but poetry was a pretty firm "I don't think so."

What is it about poetry that people find so intimidating? Is it the fear of not "getting it"? Of seeming foolish by missing some grand poetic insight that only those in the know can grasp? In my writing group, the fiction writers are sometimes reticent to share their thoughts on a poem since they themselves aren't poets, yet the poets are usually filled with ideas for their short stories.

I find it interesting that poetry as a genre scares so many people, despite the strong poetic nature of some literary fiction, and the fact that some great works were written as poems (The Odyssey, for one). Through Knopf's Poem-A-Day newsletter (which runs every April), I recently discovered James Merrill’s acclaimed The Changing Light at Sandover, a 560-page epic poem/memoir, which intrigues me in its genre-bending. The genre line blurs often with poetry. At a recent meeting of my writing group, we discussed what distinguishes a prose poem from prose or poetry (there's no easy answer to this since everyone's idea of what constitutes poetry varies greatly, line breaks being the one major feature). And of course, there's been much publicity in recent years about the fuzzy line between the areas of nonfiction and fiction (most notably with A Million Little Pieces).

At a reading by Neil Gaiman—who has written teen books, adult books, graphic novels, children’s books, and television and movie scripts—the author was asked how he decides on his audience. He replied that he doesn't. He simply writes and later lets his publisher decide who it is for. I think this is also an interesting way to approach genre—more as a marketing tool than as a strict framework. Certainly some genres have strong distinguishing characteristics, but it's a shame that those guidelines become rigid boundaries outside of which some readers are wary to stray.

My husband has recently resurrected his love of comic books and graphic novels and has been amassing them as quickly as he can devour them. Breaking into this genre has not only revealed to him a new slew of reading material, it has also opened up a community of people (from the comic shop owner with whom he's now on a first-name basis to the message board geeks and reviewers), as well as myriad new media ("best of" lists, podcasts, conventions, and reading devices). And yet, with all that is insular in this genre, it is inextricably linked to other genres. Numerous novels have been rendered in graphic form, and some graphic novels are downright poetic (including the gruesome passages by Rorschach in The Watchmen: "Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach.").

National Poetry Month has come to a close, and yet I'd love to follow up on its aim "to increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture while acknowledging and celebrating poetry’s ability to sustain itself in the many places where it is practiced and appreciated." I'd encourage readers to use this season of rebirth to branch out from their usual reading habits and try a new genre. It doesn't have to be poetry, but if you choose to jump in, let me make some recommendations. For smart, funny poetry, Donkey Gospel by Tony Hoagland. For narrative poetry filled with strong imagery, Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey and Luck is Luck by Lucia Perillo. For poetry filled with pop culture references that is heart-breaking at times and always amazing, Notes for my Body Double by Paul Guest. And of course, for lovely lyrical ruminations, look no further than the judge of our 2012 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Contest, Li-Young Lee (check out Book of My Nights). (Leave a comment with your own suggestions, or if you'd like me to send you some more.)

So don’t be timid in dipping your toes into the pools of another genre. Come on in—the water's fine.


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