Old Moon

Saturday, July 2, 2011


If you're like me, you quail when asked to tell what genre you're producing. The common understanding of that term won't fit my fiction. I have recently (within the past four years, say) rediscovered nonfiction, and even more recently (within the past two years) reconnected with poetry--but that's about as far as I can push classification.

Settling isn't romance, but it is a love story. Maiden Run isn't even that easy to classify, unless you could call it a sort of love story about one family's home with subplots about the lives of the siblings who must give it up. An editor whose judgment I trust calls my third novel "literary." I suspect the first two might fit that description as well. However, I  submitted an essay to a magazine seeking literary essays whose subject was an ideal fit. They rejected it because they said they were seeking "more literary" work. I guess that's an example of the usual myopia of an author.

I have a much admired friend who has published a large handful of romances in different subgenres. They are very good indeed, and each fits perfectly into the formulas that were required in the seventies when she wrote them. I was unable to bend my imagination to the plots and requirements of that kind of writing, while she relished the challenge as of a puzzle. I envy those who can both spot the necessary ingredients and how to present them within standard limits, and then craft fiction to fit. My characters are too apt to take hold and run outside any boundaries I may have decided on ahead of time.

Memoir seems to be on the upswing in popularity these days. Those I've read most recently all have some very much out-of-the-ordinary jumping-off point. One is about the peculiar (to an American readership) experiences of a woman who spent most of her life with a not too successful farmer in Africa while the upheavals of the fifties and onward were overtaking them. Another is about a very literate man who found himself not only imprisoned for a white collar crime, but incarcerated in the last remaining leprosarium in the US. Exotic places or circumstances might be enough to sell a memoir without too much trouble.  It's the same appeal fiction has:  the chance to experience something vicariously. It's a temptation to write a novel that pretends to be a memoir (not a new idea, heaven knows), and almost certainly, since it wouldn't be labeled as a memoir, you'd be right back where you started--that is, faced with the bare fact of your competence as a story-teller.

My main problem is how to approach an agent or publisher without recourse to classification--not because I'm unwilling, but because I don't know where my work belongs. Like most writers of fiction, I rely to a great extent on my own experience, but for a memoir, I have no eye-catching singular events to attract a reader. On the other hand, think of the poetry of a recluse like Emily Dickinson and the ruminations of an ordinary man like Thoreau.

I know you have to have a hook; I know you're supposed to be able to make "an elevator pitch;" I know you have to stand out from the hundreds doing the same thing. But even if you can follow those dicta, you have to find a way to fit into a slot before you can get anyone even to consider what you can do. You can't afford to pretend to be something you're not. This, I find frustrating.

1 comment:

Glenda Council Beall said...

Publishing today is similar to the medical world with so many specialities.
We have to diagnose what we have before knowing which doctor to see and we have to figure out what genre our writing fits before we know where to submit.

This makes me think of ? Frey who knew his book was fiction, but wanted so badly to publish it that he agreed to call it a memoir because the publisher wanted memoir and not fiction.