The UR List

Genrebusters - The 10 Best Books that Defy Categorization

| July/August 2001

The familiar labels of novel, poem, memoir, essay, and reporting seem sensible and solid, but they’re really artificial divisions. A growing number of writers—particularly ones who are trying to explore their own complex sensibilities—make unforgettable books by blurring genres beyond recognition. And this has been going on for quite some time, as you can see from this list (in chronological order) of genre-bending classics.

1)In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams (1925). Essay collection? Book of prose poems? History? Personal rant? Whatever it is, it’s about what America means to an influential poet.

2)Paris Peasan

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t by Louis Aragon (1926). Surrealist poet Aragon’s evocation of the Paris neighborhoods doomed by 'slum clearance' in the mid-1920s is a philosophical adventure, memoir, wild dream vision, and urbanist tract à la française.

3)Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (1941). Is it journalism, confession, novel? Agee’s portrait of Depression-era Appalachia is a window on his own troubled psyche.

4)The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly (1944). This combination journal, autobiography, and commonplace book is really an account of the troubled life of an English man of letters, made mostly of quotes from others.

5)An Anecdoted Topography of Chance by Daniel Spoerri (1960). Artist Spoerri tells the stories behind all the objects on his messy dining room table. Is the result an art book, an autobiography, or a neo-dadaist prank?