Friday, January 23, 2009

Fragments and Genre

The following letters are the first two from a series of correspondences between the Senior and Assistant Editors of The Green Lantern Press on the subject of the genre of Fragments

Dear Nick,

Once upon a time, Caroline and I had an interesting conversation about how to classify Fragments.  Of course we’d love to believe that a work of art, like a human being or an experience should transcend classification on some fundamental level.  On the other hand, we are a press and a press distributes and markets books in a world that depends on classification to function.  I cannot consider this book a work of philosophy or criticism because it does not submit itself to the methodical rigor that those types of thought entail.  To me, the closest genre I can fit this piece into is poetry.  I understand that this is a provisional category and that the piece resists any attempt to label it “poetry”.  I do think that this label, however, can be useful to an extent.  Poetry is a lot easier to write than prose, because it is shorter.  You can scratch out a poem in a few moments, and toss it aside if it is not quite right and start another one.  Fiction takes time and dedication.  The burden poetry takes on in order to right this inequality of effort is that poetry must be perfect.  Every line must be an example of the very best writing available to human culture.  There are many lines in this poetic-leaning work that betray a charm that would be entirely suitable as a moment in a work of fiction, but do not stand up to this test of poetry.  Some turns of phrase and idioms that are—if I may be so bold—a little bit selfish.  A poet is the ultimate perfectionist.  A poet must be a chess master, must have played out every move a reader might make to see that it upholds the standard of perfect and nearly unattainable beauty.  I think that perhaps this is the origin of the myth that poets are insane, drink irresponsibly and die young.   


There are lines in Fragments that I believe attain that perfection.  But there are many that I believe do not.  What I suggest for this book is to edit it as though it is poetry, even if it is not.   But why indulge in partial perfection when there are so many lines in this work that can blow you away, make you shake your head, alter your world view, suck your gums in delight and envy?  How wonderful would it be to have a tiny, sublime book filled with only the lines that knock a reader off his feet.  It is incredibly rare a reader has an opportunity to read such a book—and we are faced with the incredible situation of having the material to make one right in front of us.  I feel it is would be an injustice to both the world of readership and to our author to have the occasion to build such a book and cast it aside in favor of publishing a book that is a slough of near-perfection pinned up by bright points of true brilliance.


Yours truly,




Dear Lily,

First of all, as to the issue of classification. You’re right in saying that it isn’t a work of philosophy or criticism. One could argue that it is a philosophical novel, though that brings about its own set of problems and general silliness. After all, all novels, save for the most vapid, are philosophical. Despite being a story about a bunch of characters talking and falling in and out of love, Proust has a lot more in common with Augustine than he has with Danielle Steele. Fragments is, in a sense, written philosophically, but to focus on the philosophical aspect is like focusing on the “opera” half of “rock opera” when listening to Queen. Or something. But that’s neither here nor there. And while I agree with your ideas of how poetry must be written, I don’t think this is quite poetry either and to edit it as though it were poetry does the work a disservice.


In the end, although “we are a press and a press distributes and markets books in a world that depends on classification to function,” I don’t necessarily think it’s our job to supply those classifications. That’s why critics get paid the big bucks. We have to look at everything critically, of course, but I think our job is more to put these things out in the world and let the readers and the critics do with them what they will. Hell, I’d be pleased as punch if one bookstore put Fragments in the literature section, another put it in the philosophy section, and another stuck it in poetry.


The only way this classification process helps us is in the editing process. And, again, editing it as a novel is a hell of a lot easier than editing it as poetry. Another stupid analogy: some of Beckett’s later prose pieces resist classification. They’re all philosophical and maybe they even have more in common with philosophy than they do fiction, but to edit them as philosophy would be a waste of time. Essentially, if I couldn’t figure out exactly what kind of genre a work falls into, I’d ask myself what kind of editing process is least likely to commit a horrible rape against the text. And that’s where I’d classify it. (Granted, I haven’t thought this through, but it seems like a good place to start.)


So most of what follows is my argument as to why Fragments is a novel.


I don’t think it’s necessary to go into what constitutes a novel, so I’ll list some of the ways in which it seems to differ from one.


1. There’s no real story. Obviously. But, just as obviously, I don’t think that’s a huge problem, because the novel has been moving away from stories for going on a hundred years now. Fragments is, however, about something (how language defines and affects our relationships, etc).


2. Most novels can be graphed horizontally, moving from point A to point B, with jumps at points of crisis, drops in lulls, and so on. You can’t really do that here. The way I see it, it tends to move vertically. History books move vertically. (“Consider this a history of something that is happening right now.”) History books are never as clean as novels: they have to circle in upon themselves. The threads of narrative never connect cleanly. One can either try to impose a straight narrative on history (running the risk of grave omissions), follow separate threads (this is how the plague came to Europe, this is how it affected medicine, this is how it affected daily life, this is how the governments dealt with it, this is how the Jews were affected by it, etc.), or combine all of those threads simultaneously. Fragments takes the third route. Luckily, most history books don’t.


3. Where most novels have a clear narrator (or number of narrators),Fragments has something more in line with Joyce’s “arranger.” That is, there are a number of voices speaking here, and rather than gather them all under a single narrative voice, Carl has let the voices speak for themselves and arranged them on the page. Some of it is what She is thinking, some of it is what He is thinking, some of it is what She is saying, some of it is what He is saying, some of it is what She has written, some of it is what He has written, some of it is what they have read, etc. That said, you don’t have to love or agree with every turn of phrase and idiom, but should you see them as things a character has written (and they spend a lot of time writing), they cease to be self-indulgent filler and actually serve to provide some insight as to what is going on in a particular’s character head.




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