When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think about it—so I write essays. But I also, frequently, want to know what others think about the same idea. If I think enough people might be interested, I try to edit a collection of essays. Editors don’t talk to each other that often. There are organizations of writers, but editors are strewn about, having occasional conversations that are rarely recorded. For this series of dialogues, I’ve tried to gather some editors of nonfiction anthologies to talk together. I fed them a few questions, which they’ve responded to or not. Their conversations are as interesting, as lively, as their anthologies. —David Lazar
This interview focuses on the Singer/Walker-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.
David Lazar: To what extent do you think anthologizing is a radical act, or can be? To what extent might it be conservative, or the impulse to preserve? Can you speak to these impulses or tensions?
Do you see your role as anthologist as transparent or abundant; when someone picks up your anthologized volume, is your presence generous or minimal?
To what extent has the volume you have edited stayed close to the idea you originally envisioned for the anthology? Did it evolve?
Most anthologies have somewhat limited shelf lives—some rather short, some longer. The influence they have is not necessarily commensurate with the length of time the anthology stays in print. What did you most want from your anthology? To keep work in print, or to influence a discussion, or the literary zeitgeist, or some balance therein?
We all have favorites that we seek to supplement, or even competitively, to replace. In addition to your own work, two of my favorite essay anthologies are Lydia Fakunkiny’s The Art of the Essay (1990) (she just died this year after a long career at Cornell) and Christopher Morley’s Modern Essays (1921). Both have very sympathetic introductions. What are some of your favorites? And speak to your anterior and ulterior anthological motivations.
In making your choices, especially with contemporary writers, there are going to be cuts and inclusions that have consequences amongst one’s writer friends, since one is forming a canon of the included, a personal charmed circle of those who deserve to be in the book. Could you talk about your considerations and some of the responses you’ve received?
Margot Singer: Unlike many anthologies, perhaps, Bending Genre grew out of a group of existing essays, rather than the other way around. The idea for the book arose from a series of panels that we did at AWP over the course of three years. By the time we developed the book proposal (in October 2011), we already had twelve completed essays in hand. All but four of the remaining fifteen essays were written expressly for the book. (Wayne Koestenbaum, Brenda Miller, David Shields and Eula Biss contributed previously published essays. Several others were written for our book, but published in journals prior to the book coming out.)
In soliciting contributions, our main criteria were very simple: Whose writing did we most admire? Who was bending genre in the most interesting ways? Who seemed likely to have an engaging perspective on the issues we wanted to address? Many of our contributors are writers at least one of us knows well. They are all important voices in the field. It seems a little strange in hindsight, but only in the very last phase (after the manuscript came back from outside review) did we even explicitly ask questions about the diversity of our contributor list, ultimately following the suggestion of an outside reader to add a few more “contemporary and out LGBYTQ authors, and/or writers of color, and/or disabled writers.”
The other aspect of Bending Genre that is different from many, if not most, creative writing anthologies is that it is a collection of critical (or, creatively critical) essays. We thought for a while about including a companion anthology of the contributors’ creative work, but decided against it for good reasons (including the plethora of good anthologies that already exist). Collections of critical essays have a different kind of “shelf life” than anthologies of creative work, I think; they are less influenced, perhaps, by the editors’ aesthetic choices or contemporary trends. Our feeling was that the conversation about genre-bending creative nonfiction was one that had not yet been collected in book form. We very much wanted the book to be at the forefront of an ongoing conversation that would expand outward, yet be in dialogue with the ideas we offer here. I hope that gives the book some staying power.
Nicole Walker: When I read the question that noted anthologies have short shelf lives, I was like, what? Short shelf lives? And then I looked around at my shelves and noted the many anthologies I hadn’t opened for years. There are some essay collections (Susan Orleans’ Best American, John D’Agata’s Next American, Philip Lopate’s The Art of) that I use over and over again. Seminal, might be the reason. These collections planted the seed for me as to what essays could be. I can flip to any essay in those collections and say, oh yes, that’s why I write essays. That’s what led me here. Bending Genre is, I hope, among the seminal texts for creative nonfiction theory. What kinds of strategies, tools and crafting techniques make up nonfiction? How does nonfiction’s name become part of an essay’s form and content? What happens between the words creative and nonfiction? Where does trying to theorize about one genre lead to understanding another? When does nonfiction transgress against poetry, fiction, even its own nonfictiony self?
Creative nonfiction is a rebellious, transgressive genre, so I hope Bending Genre is too. It’s a radical act to write nonfiction and attach the word “creative.” It’s almost a joke, to put the two oxymoronic terms together. That’s why I love the phrase. It’s as funny as: Fiction means naturalistic renderings of conflict using scene, dialogue, narrative and plot. It’s as funny as: Poetry is iambic pentameter sonnets. The first job is to try to name it. Give it a phrase. Describe how it might work. The next job is to take that phrase down. Bending Genre’s essays fight, while trying to make, the genre every step of the way.
In fact, when you ask the question of how did we choose, among so many great essay writers, to make the “charmed circle” of essayists represented in this book: The idea of transgression made it easy. It’s not so much that we chose the best of the best writers (though we did choose a lot of the best), but we invited those who were thinking about genre differently from the idea that nonfiction reads like fiction, except that it’s true. The most transgressive essays made the cut. Gender equals genre—transgression! Video games are essays—transgression. Fragments are stupid—except this whole essay is made out of fragments. You have to be wrong to be right; you have to blur the lines before you even establish them; you have to chase Hermes down like a locomotive.
MS: I agree that our impulse here is radical rather than conservative, creative rather than canonizing. I see the book as a way of shifting the conversation away from these endless debates over whether or not writers of creative nonfiction are telling the truth. It’s not that I don’t believe in the importance of honesty, but that I think it’s not the best or most interesting question to ask about a work of literature. Judging creative nonfiction on the basis of whether or not it adheres to “truth” or “reality” is a bit like judging a photograph on the basis of how closely it corresponds to what an individual or a place “really” looks like. To me, that’s not the most interesting part.
So I would say that this is an anthology that aspires to spark a conversation, not to preserve or record one. The voices in the collection are in dialogue with one another over questions of hybridity, generic conventions, narrative and poetic form. We didn’t solicit essays for the three categories into which we eventually organized the book. We just asked contributors: How does nonfiction actually work? How does it recombine and transform elements of other genres? What techniques distinguish nonfiction from other kinds of prose? How do genres inform and influence each other? What does it mean to write against—both in opposition to and in dialogue with—the expectations of genre, the conventions of form?
NW: I’m teaching the book this semester. I screwed up a little, I think, by assigning two essays a week instead of just one. The students, who are relatively new to nonfiction, struggle a bit to understand everything that’s going on. But that’s the point of grad school, right? To tell yourself, “I’ll read that again later, and get it fully.” I do think Bending Genre will be one of those books they go back to. My students have dug in harder this semester than in previous ones, because of the theory in the book. Dave Madden talks about the importance of juxtaposition in his essay “Creative Exposition.” He compares the montage effect of cinema to how nonfiction works. He claims that nonfiction acknowledges what film has always known: that the brain needs no transitions. I have never had more fun teaching about how the periodic sentence and appositives work, as when Madden describes how Harper’s “Findings” work. David McGlynn’s essay about traumatized time shows what the effect of manipulating tense can be, and how past tense makes the most sense for nonfiction, because reflection is implicit in the essay form. Brenda Miller and Margot Singer write about hermit crab essays in their pieces. One of the best essays from our class was written in the form of a resume. Ander Monson’s “Text Adventure,” which I never fully got, because I don’t really get video games, is one of my students’ favorites. The idea of making texts adventurous, and getting to create the outcome of your own narratives, inspired students to think through how their work could be even more adventurous if they knew just a little computer programming.
As I teach this book, using it as a pedagogical tool instead of considering it as an editor, I realize how fully theoretical it is. By theoretical, I mean that it looks at the underlying structures of nonfiction to see how nonfiction works. It relies on theoretical constructs like reader-response theory, film studies and post-structuralism to show that nonfiction isn’t just true stories, written with the techniques of fiction, but its own genre. By bending genre or, as Brenda Miller would say, telling it slant, we can see how nonfiction operates—maybe not only as its own genre, but its own discipline.
MS: In American critical circles, the novel has always gotten all the attention. More recently, the memoir (“life-writing”) has joined that group. Shorter prose forms—the short story, the essay—lurk in the wings. In the introduction to Short Story Theory (1977), critic Charles May writes, “The most valuable remarks made about the [short story] form have been made not by the critics but by the short story writers” (3). He notes the dearth of scholarly journals and the lack of systematic criticism devoted to the contemporary short story. One of the reasons for this lack of attention, he suggests, is the surfeit of handbooks and writing guides from the early decades of the twentieth century that, inspired by O. Henry, aim to guide the writer to popular commercial success. Both of these phenomena—the lack of serious attention from academic critics, and the plethora of commercially minded how-to books—seem to me to characterize the situation creative nonfiction finds itself in today.
I rather hope that Bending Genre will seem a little dated forty years from now, because that will mean that the critical conversation has progressed from its current stage to a more sophisticated, critical assessment of the essay. Already it joins a small group of literary journals (e.g., Brevity, Fourth Genre, River Teeth) and anthologies (e.g., John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay , Jill Talbot and Charles Blackstone’s The Art of Friction , Jill Talbot’s Metawritings , B.J. Hollars’ Blurring Boundaries ) that highlight the essay’s hybrid and various forms. Perhaps Nicole’s graduate students and others—both critics and practitioners—will carry this work forward to the next stage.
NW: I’m with Margot in that I hope this anthology, along with the anthologies Margot mentions, puts a little pressure on the conversation about what nonfiction can be, and how it can be formally distinguished from fiction. I was thinking of literary magazines like Diagram and Copper Nickel, and how these magazines don’t denote in their tables of contents whether a piece of writing is fiction or nonfiction. These new anthologies, along with Ned Stuckey-French’s Essayists on the Essay, Dinty W. Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Guide to Flash Nonfiction and David Lazar’s Essaying the Essay and Truth in Nonfiction, bring definition and vocabulary to the form—allowing us to consider whether a piece is nonfiction, not based on whether or not we can ascertain the status of its fact, but on how the piece operates using the techniques, tools and forms of creative nonfiction.
Margot Singer is the author of a collection of linked stories, The Pale of Settlement, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction and the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers. She is the co-editor with Nicole Walker of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She has been awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Thomas H. Carter Prize for the Essay and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose. Singer is the Dominic Consolo Associate Professor of English at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, where she directs the creative writing program.
Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg. She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, and, with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and an associate professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.