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.
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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?
6)On the Shoulders of Giants by Robert King Merton (1965). In this sparkling book, written as a series of letters to a colleague, a famous sociologist plunges into compendia of quotations to meditate on the nature of quotation itself.
7)Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1982). A hip, challenging mix of Korean history, language theory, and memoir—the most radical of all Asian American autobiographies.
8)How to Imagine by Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin (1983). A book about artist Marcel Duchamp that also manages to be about sustainable agriculture, cave exploration, and the authors’ own friendship.
9)Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter (1997). A wild, wide-ranging meditation on translation and verbal creativity that’s also a chatty memoir and a treasury of language tricks from the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach.
10)Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa (1999). A quirkily bilingual mix of autobiography, prose poetry, essays, and fiction that explores poet (and Utne Reader visionary) Anzaldúa’s Mexi/Americana sensibility.
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