Guest Post, Rich Ives: Which Box Do I Put It In?

Which box do I put It In?

While this might seem like a statement, it is really a question disguised as an observation. It seems to me that one of the most destructive trends in recent “literary fiction” successes has been the devaluation of style in favor of plot and character. While ideally, all these things should work together, popular literature has always favored plot and character over style, and now it appears that even “literary” works fear too much development of style as a clear sign of a limit to the potential audience for the work, the kind of thinking that was previously more limited to genre writing, best seller attempts, and the innumerable serial novels.

The backlash to this exists in “innovative” fiction and some small press releases, but the gap between the two has been increasing. In poetry, there is an equivalent polarization between experimental and traditional although the reasons seem to have much less to do with the potential popularity of the work.

Fortunately, there are always writers more interested in the most unique and complete experience of the writing regardless of popularity trends, which are usually not really trends at all but disguised returns to more direct explanation in the fiction. “Show us, don’t tell us,” often becomes give us the experience and then tell us what it should mean.

Popular fiction has always been good at stealing the thunder from literary art by adapting its successes to more mundane purposes. One of the latest victims of this is flash fiction, which has in many quarters been increasingly less experimental and wide-ranging in its structures, approaches and particularly its style. Some publishers of flash fiction are now drawing a stricter line between the prose poem and flash fiction. Theoretically interesting perhaps, but isn’t that defeating one of the reasons the form developed?

I began writing shorter prose works first as a poet trying on foreign hats, finding so much more of interest in the form in translated works from countries where the distinction between poetry and fiction was not so clearly drawn, places like Russia, for example, where poetry is actually popular and sometimes sells well. I felt a freshness that caught and held my attention more fully in the form, and one of the reasons was that I could come to it with fewer preconceptions of what it should be.

As I worked in shorter prose forms, I found it veering into essay, autobiography and satire as well as mixing fiction and poetry, and the range of possibilities excited me. There are rhythms and voices that function better in a confined space. There are different kinds of condensation and pacing. There is a different kind of tension created by knowing the experience will end sooner.

As I explored the range of possibilities, I found several of the resulting works rejected by a poetry magazine for being “fiction” and the same work rejected by a fiction magazine for being “poetry” without either of them having actually considered the work beyond their assumptions of its genre. I started sending the work without labeling it or designating which department it should go to and had pieces accepted by both fiction and poetry editors assuming it was meant for them, and even labeled with just as much certainty as “essay,” an assertion I had not considered, but which, once it had been pointed out to me, seemed equally valid.

Now that the idea of fiction completing itself in a much shorter space has been more widely accepted, the attempts to restrain it to more definable dimensions are returning, and the reactions against this are also occurring, making the questions such work raises once again more polarized. Is this healthy disagreement, or merely two equally restricting forms of boxing up creativity?

Many literary magazines and online sites claim to want “experimental” and “hybrid” work, but is this really what they want and publish, or have too many of them narrowed the definitions, and has the label “experimental” become merely an excuse for focusing on a single dimension of the work, just as popular fiction does with a different single dimension?

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14 thoughts on “Guest Post, Rich Ives: Which Box Do I Put It In?

  • September 23, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for this post, I can relate to many of the same thoughts. Ultimately I’ve made the decision to write without excuses for my work–without restrictions. When something I write fits into a category I will submit it. If it doesn’t, I won’t. Either way, I’ve discovered that is the best way to maintain my creative drive without making sacrifices I don’t want to make. To each his own!

  • September 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    I have to agree with the above statement. I never write with a specific “genre” or category in mind; I just write what I want to write in the manner that seems to best fit it. These regulations and guidelines determining what is fiction, poetry, or otherwise don’t often coincide well I noticed.

  • September 23, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    As someone who is studying fiction, this is something I’m always curious about/frightened of. On the one hand, I’m still learning what a good piece of writing even looks like. On the other hand, part of the fun and inspiration of writing comes from trying new things. Especially in a workshop setting, it’s like a catch-22 — do I sacrifice following the rules I know in order to try something new and end up with a potentially horrible story, or do I stick to the same old same old knowing I’ll at least have a few things going for me? I’m very appreciative of innovation in fiction (particularly because not all of our books look like the Iliad — phew!) and this is a wonderful topic to think about. Thank you!

  • September 24, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    I wonder – should we call them rules, or guidelines (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?). I appreciate Rich Ives’ opinion that rhythm and voice work better when they are constrained. Perhaps constrained isn’t even the right word – adhered, fitted, cultivated to a specific style. Ives’ belief that experimental fiction can be one dimensional has teeth, but no writer should ever follow rules too strictly if it means their creativity is suppressed!

  • September 25, 2012 at 10:19 am

    The concept of style being lost for plot immediately made me think of Nabokov’s Lolita. The style, voice, and character permeate the rather disturbing plot, illustrating the power to create beautiful language with an unpopular plot. Nowadays, I agree with the statement that too many definitions of fiction and poetry have been narrowed into “boxes”. In school, writing has always been subjective and writing for a direct audience is always tricky. Experimentation does still exist out of the confines of a boxed in definition, but some author’s work may not be seen to transcend all categories by certain critics.

  • September 26, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    I thought this was cleverly written. I agree that writing should just be writing. Even though there are certain genres that need to be stated, it shouldn’t have to be important to know. Regulations and guidelines may be present, but as fiction writers, we tend to ignore them. I think one of the perks of being a fiction writer is the fact that we get to bend these rules and make them our own.

  • September 28, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    One thing i have learned in the past few years is to not hold restrictions on my writing. For the longest time I was trying to write within the “rules” that the writing gods dictated. Only when I decided to just let myself write was I able to become more creative and open. The whole point to art is to keep pushing the boundaries and not be held captive by restrictions. I think this article helps writers and readers realize that while there may be selected genre’s it’s important to remain open to different concepts.

  • September 29, 2012 at 9:14 am

    As seems to be the consensus, I found this post to be very interesting. The problems I have encountered seem to stem more from a need by others to generalize things as specific genres. This is odd as it seems natural that emerging writers would question the boundaries of genre established by those writers that went before them. There are authors who question these conventions quite successfully, like David Mitchell, though it seems like it will take time for the community at large to accept that this might be an emerging movement, especially given the stigmas that many genres carry.

  • September 30, 2012 at 12:25 am

    Usually when I write, I stray away from rules and guidelines. I let my story take me wherever it wants to take me before I reread it and take control. When a writer constantly worries about adhering to the strict form of a certain genre, it can take away the pleasure, freedom, and creative liberties of writing.

  • September 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    I have to agree with this post. In all of my fiction classes, we’ve sort of been pigeon-holed into what can be considered “fiction” and my resistance to this mandate might explain why my professors and I rarely, if ever, got along. I figure that writing what I like, what feels right, is best for my own sanity and my own growth. If I submit something, I suppose it’ll fall into whatever category a literary journal might feel it belongs, but I don’t think I’ve ever set out to write something for the sake of submitting. Write for writing’s sake!!

  • October 1, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Very interesting blog post! I loved this line: “As I explored the range of possibilities, I found several of the resulting works rejected by a poetry magazine for being “fiction” and the same work rejected by a fiction magazine for being “poetry” without either of them having actually considered the work beyond their assumptions of its genre.” I agree, that labelling pieces of work is oftentimes detrimental and ends up devaluing the work itself. I’m glad you were able to get your work published by not labelling it poetry or fiction.

    This ties in to when people ask me what my favorite “genre” of literature is. I always tell them that I simply enjoy reading a good stry. That’s all. It could be classified as sci-fi, or humor, or even romantic, etc. But I hate dealing with all of those categories. Just bring on a good story and I’m game, regardless of whatever genre the publisher decides to place it in on the bookshelf.

  • October 1, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Excellent article. The part where Mr. Ives describes how a particular work was rejected by a poetry magazine for being fiction while being rejected by a fiction magazine for being poetry was very eye opening. When I write I try not to dwell on genre to much.

  • October 1, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    These ideas remind me of an article I recently wrote about whether or not poetry can be called a form of “art.” I think that one should write, whatever kind of writing it may be, with the intention of expressing creativity without having to adhere to specific guidelines or keeping their toes inside the “box.”

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