Genre Monsters

[I have so many writing projects right now, most importantly three in-progress diss chapters, and so these musings may be scattered and will be quick. The topic is a theme I keep coming back to in various ways, so it’ll probably cycle back through again in my posts. And happy Labor Day, especially to those of you, like me, who are working through most of it} (Remember to give yourselves treats and breaks; one of mine will be yoga.]

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it’s like to write a kind of thing that you’ve never written before. What are the feelings, rethinkings, and things that you can’t see for yourself? How do you conceptualize the new genre you haven’t tried out yet? How many models of it do you read? How much of it do you create anew? What is the image you get/have/can’t shake of what you’re doing versus how it fits into a larger body of work — the genre monster you are trying on?

To get more specific (though I think these questions apply to pretty much any creative genre), I am thinking about dissertations. I am of the unscientific but deeply-held opinion that few people writing a dissertation have read many of them. This is not a slag on dissertation writers; it’s more a reality of the way graduate programs are structured. Who has the time, first of all, to read someone else’s dissertation when there’s teaching prep, exam lists, class reading, article revisions, et cetera to do? Why read one when you could instead read the book it (was lucky to) metamorphose into? And – mostly my reasoning, as I think about it – how scary to read a finished piece of an unfamiliar genre when you yourself are just figuring out how your version of that genre is supposed to look. (Setting aside the helpfulness of reading it while you think those things, of course – I’m getting at illogical emotions here.)

Even when I wrote my dissertation prospectus, I didn’t look at other dissertations until my director suggested it, and her advice was to look at ones that hadn’t needed to be completely restructured to become the book. (Which is a whole other question I’m now deeply enmeshed in as I try to draft chapters that do as much of that as possible.) It turned out to be really interesting to figure out what it was supposed to look like without having models at my disposal. That, of course, is the opposite writing advice I give my students –

I’m also still thinking so deeply about Victor LaValle’s newest novel, The Changeling, which I’d been eagerly awaiting as a writing break present for myself. (He came and spoke in a class I was in my first year at the Graduate Center, and I think I managed to stammer out an inane question that he wielded gracefully.) It’s an incredible story – I read all 400+ pages on a grey June day. (I’m a fast reader, admittedly, but that still says something about how engaging it is.) 

You should know that this book is scary as shit, and that I am not generally a horror person, with the exception of Shirley Jackson, George Romero, Jordan Peele, and Victor LaValle. (I’m squeamish as all hell and I am susceptible to nightmares.) As in all LaValle’s novels, the wit is quick, the context is both recognizable and not (our world cascading into other ones), the politics are relevant, the social satire is important, and (most importantly for me) the dangers of white supremacy are evident. [Here’s where I’d do some close readings if I weren’t engrossed in my third dissertation chapter; wish there were a non-shoehorn way to include LaValle in a study of sixties girl groups and their sonic inheritors!]

While this novel isn’t a genre monster in the way the form of the dissertation is, its notion of monstrosity is useful for the kind of work my specific dissertation is taking on. (And I’m not even coming close to doing the book justice; I want to think and write more about it over winter break.) Above I called it a “study,” and it is one, but it’s also more complex than that. Because so few scholars before me have devoted monographs to the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and the Chiffons (to say nothing of the thousands of other American Black female artists who the critical and historical canons too often leave aside), I didn’t have a clear rhetorical/structural model for my book. The story I’m telling is one of gaps and of refusals – it would be easier to write another lionizing book about the Beatles, say (or even a usefully critical one that incorporates them aslant, like Elijah Wald’s alternate musical history How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. My project is something of an alternate history, too, in that I’m centering voices and talents who aren’t given enough cultural credit while I’m ignoring or critiquing the usual canonical suspects. Methodologically, it’s meant thinking really hard about what topics I want to include and why, and (since I’m not a historian or musicologist) what kinds of social and sonic theories I want to use to tie my tale to realities beyond the personal (which mostly means including intersectional perspectives and calling out or adapting the failure of cishet white theory against other kinds of supremacy).

I’m not really giving specific examples in the above graf, either, and I’m doing it, not on purpose, but with intent – my specifics are currently whirling around in my third chapter draft, and writing about the larger theoretical questions, however opaquely, here is helping me work out the scope of the chapters’ relations to each other. (Looking back at my prospectus might help any befuddled or annoyed readers.)

Even the word “monster” is a fluid one. For me, it tends to evoke cute and oddly-hued things, like Muppets. Lately, I’ve been using it to refer to the racist cretins in the White House, but aside from that, it’s a word I like. In terms of writing (stick with me here), it evokes a creature to whom one must respond, and that response can be a useful kind of wrestling, working hard, resetting, rethinking (the latter something I’ll tackle in my next post). So a genre monster could be cute, it could be boundary-crossing, it could be canon-busting, it could be thoughtful, it could be frustrating.(What is genre, after all, but the invention of mostly cishet white dudes given the power to do so by an incomplete history and an unfair amount of power?)

Okay. Back to my chapter. More soon!