Ethics in Publishing: Genre Bending and Pushing the Craft

In the first chapter of her instructional text Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin observes that “getting an act or an idea across isn’t all a story does. A story is made out of language, and language can and does express delight in itself just as music does. Poetry isn’t the only kind of writing that can sound gorgeous.” Many good writers of fiction and creative nonfiction employ poetic devices, such as alliteration, assonance, and slant rhyme, or have arranged their texts in unconventional ways within the white space of the page. Likewise, many contemporary poets write in ways that are traditionally indicative of prose.

Yet, in my own experience submitting to literary journals, I have encountered an interesting and persistent problem. I sometimes write very short pieces that are not quite poems, but they also aren’t traditional prose. When seeking publication, I’ve often encountered submission categories defined by a specific genre and I am left wondering whether to submit my work under one, or the other, of these genre categories. Some journals specialize in creative nonfiction, others are fiction specific, or poetry focused, and many magazines that publish all three genres keep each (in submissions and in publication) separate from the other. While it’s certainly the prerogative of journals to maintain their missions, the defining and segregating of genre creates a condition that excludes those works that seek to straddle genre lines. Inevitably, it also excludes certain writers only because their work isn’t easily classified within the given submission structures.

What are the circumstances that have created these narrow submission parameters and how is this practice limiting writers? In an online article published in Boulevard Magazine, Kevin Larimer, the editor-in-chief of Poets & Writers, explains:

Innovation, in the form of inspiration—the creation of new and more complex fictional worlds, deeper and more nuanced interior narratives, more meaningful lyrical exchanges, and more profound modes of processing lived experience—is the work of poets and writers. It is precisely what we are chasing, letter by letter, line by line, page by page, day after day. Innovation, in the creative and artistic sense, is what pulls us forward. Innovation as it relates to literary publishers, however, is a different animal—one that’s not as wild.

If this is the case, there is an obvious disconnect between the most imaginative writers and the interests of publishers. Lynne Barrett, in her article “What Editors Want; A Must Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines” at The Review Review, explains that an “editor’s eye is always on the magazine,” implying the ever-lurking specter of economic failure. She also writes that submitters “still need to read magazines” and they need to “set time to do the research.” Owning those responsibilities is indeed up to the writer. However, I would argue that genre flexibility on the parts of editors and publishers benefits the craft of writing itself, as well as those writers who are brave and skilled enough to challenge the current norms in creative writing, regardless of how marketable their work may be. The best, most important writing might, in fact, be the least marketable. The mission statement for the online journal The Operating System describes the condition succinctly:

With a crippling, particularly noxious brand of global capitalism on the rise, the likelihood of erasure is even more true: as funding for the arts dries up, as people abandon or never explore art out of rising costs of daily life… organizations and publishers choose financially less risky work

They are making the same claims as this author. Fortunately there are journals that seem to be far less risk averse. The editors at The Operating System go on to express their intentions in terms of the literary canon:

The Operating System makes “books” a radical act of canon correction. We actively seek out and make room for work that might have in another time been referred to as “avant-garde” but the label is unimportant; what is critical is that the most groundbreaking, unorthodox, visionary work produced in any era is all too often in danger of being lost, and we are committed to carving out space for those voices.

It stands to reason, then, that if publishers are going to allow the market to dictate what writing gets published, journals will be left with less innovative writing, thus excluding literary works that are truly pushing the craft. The Operating System does allow and invite difficult-to-categorize submissions, and on the final page of McSweeney’s Issue #53, the editors state the journal “exists to champion ambitious and inspired new writing, and to challenge conventional expectations about where it’s found, how it looks, and who participates.” This kind of statement, from McSweeney‘s and other innovative presses like Tarpaulin Sky Press and Rose Metal Press, gives a writer hope, as does The Operating System‘s claim to “accept no boundaries between forms.”

At Portland Book Festival (formerly Wordstock) in November, 2018, I was thinking about issues surrounding genre and atypical submission structures, which lead to a few interesting conversations. Evan P. Schneider is the editor and founder of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac, a journal that describes itself as “the practical bicyclist’s literary handbook.” Schneider pointed to Hilary Oliver’s piece, “[Mark Twain Cycling Kit]” in The Best of Boneshaker, and explained:

As nonfiction, it runs really short… just because it isn’t some 2,500-word think piece or braided personal narrative, didn’t mean it shouldn’t be in print, was my opinion. Hilary is a tremendous writer who has placed pieces in the nation’s top outdoor magazines, and the further I got into editing the almanac, the more I saw I had a chance to create a place in print for pieces that didn’t fit elsewhere.

While Schneider admitted his magazine includes a lot of “niche” writing that might not easily fit in other publications, he also said that publishers “have to choose from and in turn curate for a money-spending audience—and that doesn’t usually involve taking risks on genre-bending pieces from emerging writers.” In the case of more established writers, it seems that the rules may be different, and Schneider explained that “publications do and will publish genre-bending work, but usually by Lydia Davis… the risk is far lower for them to go with the big-name writer.”

It is true that smaller, more niche journals like Boneshaker might invite the kinds of writing that will inevitably change the way all of us view the craft of creative writing. In a Ploughshares article “The Give and Take of Literary Magazines,” Michelle Betters writes that “fledgling journals undoubtedly provide a much-needed home for underrepresented voices, experimental work, and young writers.” As I discover new magazines with the expressed intention of challenging genre and other literary norms, I am also aware that small and obscure journals may be the only, best place for new and innovative types of writing.

August Amoroso is a reader for Portland Review. He is a BFA in creative writing student at Portland State University.