Hempel redux: the murkiness of genre

Running on the treadmill today I started thinking about Amy Hempel’s writing again. Recently I read some vitriolic criticism of her work. It bothers me when critics slag a writer in such a way that suggests a near personal hatred. I sometimes think that reviewers shouldn’t even bother writing about work that they hate, unless they are able to muster up some degree of objectivity. I see no value in completely trashing someone’s creative work in a public forum. Above all, everyone’s definition and expectation of a particular genre differs, and so basing your critique solely on your own understanding or expectation is a flawed point of reference.

To follow that thread, much has been made of the blurring of genre boundaries in recent times. Flash fiction, mini nonfiction narratives, and prose poetics often entwine to the point where some have suggested that only the authors themselves are capable of declaring what genre a specific piece falls into, should they even care to label their work at all. Some don’t, although this can make it harder for them to find their audience.

Amy Hempel’s writing is a perfect case study when examining genre’s murky waters. She’s been described as a minimalist fiction writer, though that term has been loaded and discharged so many times over that it’s mostly shooting blanks now. Amy has said that most of her inspiration comes from poetry, and I would say that can definitely be seen in her work. Her stories are like frames, each sentence a neatly trimmed two-by-four, nailed together with precise punctuation. Sure, she could then cover this frame with thick boards of wordy prose, but why bother? Sometimes readers (and writers) want to sit on a bare floor and peer out at (or into) the world through the spaces between sentences. We don’t always (and sometimes never) want it all spelled out before us. Of course, there are those readers that do want a lot of action; they want a story to progress at a certain pace and get somewhere. But then there are those who aren’t interested in a destination, who enjoy an aimless walk, who love when a story ends leaving them breathless and unsettled, but not with perfect closure.

I think of Amy as more of a poet than a fiction writer. Poetry does not have to rely on the ease of line breaks and stanzas. Poetry can reside within a paragraph, with word choice and punctuation hammering out a steady rhythm on their own. But maybe even these terms, poetry and fiction, are not needed. For all writers draw from life, and life is real and true, but when we commit it to the page it takes on a different form altogether. Sometimes we determine what that form will be, merely with how we organize the words on a page. We can then try to bend it to fit a genre’s flimsy label. But perhaps that is unfair. Maybe we should not be corralling these words within fences. Maybe as readers and as writers, we should just let them flow through us, without the burden of our demands, without the limits of our expectations.

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