Literary Conspiracy

One thing I love about the internet is its ability to help me recover memories. For instance, I had a memory of a snatch of song whose lyric went “…the crickets sing you a lullaby by the dying fire…” After a search, I discovered that the song is Garten Mother’s Lullabye.

I still don’t know who might have sung this to me or when I may have heard it. The Pirate originally thought  it might have been one of the many songs my grandmother sang to me when I was a child, but considering that my mother doesn’t know it, I find that unlikely.

But now we come to another mystery. I have a clear memory of a poem I read when I was small. I don’t remember the title of the poem, but I do remember it being about Arethusa, a dolphin. It talked about “her suit of unshrinkable gray.” I thought that the poem might have been by Edward Lear, or possibly Ogden Nash. Sadly, neither of those men ever wrote a poem called “Arethusa” or a poem about a dolphin, although Nash did write poems about an eel, a guppy, a jellyfish, an octopus, a shrimp and a turtle.

Where does this memory come from? I grew up in two households (my parents were divorced when I was very young) full of books, so I know that I read it somewhere. I was frankly surprised not to find it on Googles “copy every book in the entire world and put it in our massive database” project currently being deployed by a crack team of not-actual-Google-employees somewhere on Garcia Drive.

The search for Arethusa has begun to take on the feel of a Search for Arcane Knowledge, as I keep seeing the name in unexpected contexts (that is, any context that does not involve Percy Bysshe Shelley or large navy ships) and I feel that it keeps popping up to mock me.

I will find it, though. Before I die, I will.

Tell Me About Your Novel…

For many, many reasons (not the least of which was Alistair McCartney‘s lecture this morning on the subject), I’ve been thinking about genre.

When I applied to grad programs, everyone wanted to know the same things: what genre are you writing in. At Antioch, the genres are fairly broad: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and writing for young people. And yet, even within that space, there are always those people whose writing is hard to define. What do you say about a story where two historical characters, say, Winston Churchill and Viscountess Astor meet and exchange words? What if we had the scene take place in the Parliament buildings themselves? So far, we’re solidly in nonfiction, but the second we start putting actual words into their mouths, we’ve drifted into fiction. If we describe a scene which might have happened, such as Churchill and Astor exchanging friendly insults, we might call it creative nonfiction. However, if we say that the both of them hated each other because she was secretly in love with The Doctor and was jealous that Churchill got to go up in the TARDIS and she didn’t, we’ve crossed over into fictional territory. And if we present the whole scene in Ogden Nash-style verse, that’s something else entirely.

Part of the problem with these genres is that two of them, fiction and poetry, are descended from Aristotle’s divisions of literature – “epic” became fiction and “lyric” became poetry. But all the others are offshoots of fiction that have to do with subject matter and how it’s presented. I myself am not entirely sure what separates regular fiction from writing for young people, whether it be subject matter or method of presentation.

Even after we’ve figured out that we’re dealing in fiction, one can slice “fiction” so thinly that a new genre is presented for every single book that’s published. Urban fantasy, memoir, historical fiction, prose poem – at this point in history, writers have more freedom than ever before to define themselves as they see fit: to create their own genres and carve out their own niches. Who knew that the first job you’d have as a novelist was to make up a term for your own genre?