Blurry Boundaries: on trespassing across genre lines

Because my bio refers to me as “novelist, poet and essayist,” I sometimes imagine you, My Inquisitive Reader, wondering how I dare to claim such vast territory. Or perhaps that’s your not-so-subtle eye-roll suggesting I should stop being such a dilettante and pick a genre already. Did I hear someone say “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” or was that just my imagination?

The truth is, I both do and do not believe in genre categorization, considering the argument that such labels are designed to benefit libraries (no offense!) and, frankly, to assist bookstores and their customers (yay!) with shelves shouting CLASSIC or CONTEMPORARY (as if these, among others, are genuinely distinct regions of reading material). I’m not even talking about differentiating among age groups (just how sharp, for instance, is the line distinguishing “appropriateness” of books for a child poised on the threshold between middle grade and young adult?). Somewhere in my not-so-secret heart I’m convinced that the POETRY section might as well have a warning sign saying KEEP OUT. When people tell me that my novels read “like long poems,” I take a careful breath before checking to see if they intend to offer a compliment or a critique.

I’m not the first writer to suggest that there are quite a few readers who are afraid of poems. Although I’m honestly flattered when a reader uses the term “lyrical” to describe my novels, there are plenty in the publishing industry who might call that adjective the kiss of death. And I write “accessible” poetry, I say, smiling in a vaguely sincere/ironic way. Although my novels are definitely non-linear, they are character-driven and narrative oriented. More reassuringly, I can tell you that they are not aiming to be experimental (the e-word being another kiss of death, if you’re a “commercial” publisher).

I’m also not the first author to admit that when people ask me, “What kind of books do you write?” I hesitate before saying “literary fiction.” (See under: How do you explain the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction?) If the question includes a chirpily helpful mention of the interrogator’s favorites such as, “Sci-fi, mystery, romance…?” I stifle my inclination to groan and instead mumble something like, “I write novels that are mainly about real life.”

As for real life, my “emotionally autobiographical” fiction has been floating hand-in-hand alongside my book of poems – that volume, Gravity, which I fondly call the “autobiographical companion” to my novels. In other words, not only do my sentences and paragraphs bear an often-uncanny resemblance to my lines and stanzas, the content of all my books reflects an essential practice of self-discovery, revelation, and interpretation. Remember what Joan Didion said in her essay, “Why I Write” (a title she deliberately “stole” from George Orwell, and a title many times copied since then). “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn, Dear Reader, that I’m writing a book-length work of non-fiction for the first time – even though the territory feels deeply familiar. Fact: I’ve always been following Emily Dickinson’s command to “tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” My themes and concerns have shifted and yet remained the same. In my first two novels, The Speed of Light and Blue Nude, I wrote about inherited grief and trauma, as well as the healing power of storytelling and art making. These books are distinct in characters and settings – the secret life of a Holocaust survivor and his descendants interwoven with the silences of a Central American refugee; a descendant of Nazis in desperate exile colliding with an Israeli woman seeking escape of her own. Yet both books address my fascination with the tangled legacies we carry from our family histories, as well as my hopeful commitment to transforming sorrow into song. In my third novel, Electric City, I take on a much larger canvas of time and place, digging through the geological layers of American identity, indigenous displacement, a path toward the losing – and finding – of one’s true home in the world.

Now, with my work-in-progress entitled Survivor Cafe, you could say I’m back where I started. The landscape is both old and new. In this book of non-fiction, I’m asking questions about our personal and collective “conversations” with the past. Continuing my devoted pursuit to discover not what I already know but what I want to know, I’m reviewing the series of journeys – literal and metaphoric – that I’ve taken with my father: to Germany, to Buchenwald (the concentration camp where he was imprisoned), to the country from which he was exiled, and inside the language he (almost fully) renounced. I’m also tracking our broad cultural explorations of memory and memorializing, the parallels and differences between Holocaust and other post-war (re)collections. How do we preserve most authentically the experiences and testimonies of firsthand witnesses once they’re no longer here among us? How do we manage this wrestling with the presence of the absence?

The trouble and the beauty, a friend often reminds me, we get to make our peace with all of it. For this author, that means it all gets to show up on the page, whether the lines extend to the margins or break apart in space, whether the cover says “a novel” or not. Over the course of nearly four decades as a writer of prosaic poetry and poetic prose, I have come to embrace my way of straddling these allegedly separate worlds. Mind the gap, you say? Thanks for the tip, but if you could hear the voices inside my head (and I hope you can), I don’t mind the gap at all. For me, the spaces in between are exactly where I want to reside.

About Elizabeth Rosner

Prize-winning author of novels ELECTRIC CITY, THE SPEED OF LIGHT, and BLUE NUDE. New poetry GRAVITY.
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