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
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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
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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