This fall, Sarabande Books will publish The Book of Beginnings and Endings by Jenny Boully. The book consists of beginnings and endings of more than 30 different texts, spliced together seemingly at random. The subject matter ranges wildly: invertebrate zoology, probability, the psychology of a scream, the retirement of an ice cream man, a plague of frogs. Slowly, the reader notices thematic connections and the shadow of a narrative arc. In the book’s use of association, rather than spelled-out narrative, it resembles poetry. The texts themselves are essayistic, except that they are all fictional. How would you shelve this title in a bookstore? Nonfiction? Poetry? Fiction? In submitting the title for review, which editors? And what magazines, newspapers or Web sites? Do we send galleys to Kirkus, which won’t review poetry, or Poetry, which doesn’t review fiction? What prizes would the book be eligible for?
I’ve been down this road before. One of Sarabande’s more successful authors is Ander Monson, who blended autobiographical and fictional material in his story collection, Other Electricities, which bears striking resemblance to his book of poetry Vacationland, and his memoir, Neck Deep. Monson did us the favor of categorizing the books himself, but most of the time it’s up to us, as publishers.
Nor is the literary hybrid anything new. In the Middle Ages, paper was very costly. A certain economy of white space developed: verse was transcribed without lineation, sometimes even without spacing, in order to save parchment—written by necessity, as it were, in prose. Texts were written in two versions: one verse, one prose for two different audiences, learned and lay.
Right now, I’m reading Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, subtitled “a fictional memoir” and one of many memoirs blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, classified as a “nonfiction novel”; and Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which blends plays, poems and stories. Mary Matze, marketing director at Graywolf Press, which has published numerous hybrids, told me, “We have had to revisit the uncomfortable place that lies between fact and memory, which is faulty, fragmented, and in many ways itself a hybrid.”
Two of Graywolf’s hybrids have done very well. The Next American Essay, a collection of “lyric essays” edited by John D’Agata, sold 8,000 copies. Claudia Rankine’s book of short lyric essays, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. When I asked Monica Fambrough, marketing director at Verse Press (part of Wave Books), she reminded me that the Washington State poetry publisher began its publishing venture with a book of prose: Joe Wenderoth’s novel, Letters to Wendy, which sold 7,000 copies. She said, “We never look at a book’s hybrid status as a challenge. As far as press release copy and promotional language are concerned, [a hybrid] widens the audience for the book. You can draw audiences and reviewers in by pointing out the unique nature of the title.”
I’m confident blended genres are here to stay. Memoir mingles with film criticism, the short story shrinks to the size of a prose poem, and we are all the richer for the ripe confusion along literature’s edges. So maybe we should recast our anxieties about placement and call these hybrids opportunities, not challenges. If The Book of Beginnings and Endings appeals to a nonfiction audience, no doubt it will interest readers of fiction and poetry, too. In my view, that’s triple exposure. I’m going to send galleys to as many review venues as possible, no matter what the genre. Maybe a bookseller will fall in love, order three copies and scatter them through the bookstore. I’ll certainly nominate it for all prizes.
Sarabande’s latest collection of lyric essays, On Looking by Lia Purpura, was one of four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. To me, this is clear evidence that reviewers, judges and booksellers have joined with publishers in adjusting their categorical restrictions, making room for these inventive books.
|Sarah Gorham is president and editor-in-chief of Sarabande Books.|