We decided to try something different in the table of contents of the most recent print issue of Harvard Review. As I explained in the HR39 editorial, there is something fundamentally unsatisfactory about dividing work up into Essays, Stories, and Poetry. Everyone has always known this, of course — some essays are like stories, some stories are like poems — but attempts to find new terms or carve out intermediary genres seem doomed to perpetual failure.
In the current issue I suggested we try out a new category which I called “Stories from Life.” My goal was to recognize a kind of writing that seemed to lie somewhere between Essay and Story. It was meant as an experiment and, like most experiments, it met with mixed success.
Part of the problem was the pieces I picked. Two of the stories, Brian Doyle’s “The Boyfriends Bus” and Jim Kelly’s “Night School Confidential,” seemed to me to have something in common, mostly in the manner of their telling — a directness and honesty that made them feel autobiographical, even if they weren’t.
I should add that both these authors, when asked, described their pieces as works of fiction, and I was certainly never trying to suggest that they weren’t made up. What I was trying to get at was the voice, the way it convincingly mimicked firsthand experience. In this, they resembled much of the nonfiction we publish, which is also highly personal, often autobiographical, but also strongly narrative (and, undoubtedly, in places made up), and which often feels to me like “stories from life.”
And this is where I made my mistake. I think my new category might have been more persuasive if I had included an essay or two — maybe Jessica Johnson’s “The Education of the Peppered Moth,” for example. Instead, I included Ellen Wilbur’s “Depression,” a story that, on second thought, didn’t really fit the bill.
Ellen was mystified. “Dear Christina,” she wrote,”the new issue of the magazine arrived today and while I’m pleased to be included in it I have to tell you I was stunned to have my vignette appear under a category not called fiction.” Ellen goes on to argue that “the whole excitement of writing is imagining people and situations [the writer has] never consciously experienced.” Which is undoubtedly true.
But then I never really imagined that Brian Doyle had gone on a bus trip with his wife’s old boyfriends or that Jim Kelly had been given a stuffed squirrel by one of his night school students — it was the feeling of authenticity the authors had achieved that mattered and that I was trying to signal by grouping them in this way.
I always find it upsetting when my writers are upset and I suppose this is what comes of experimenting in public. So, to Ellen (the full text of whose letter can be found here), please accept my apologies for miscategorizing your story. It was certainly meant as an honor and not as a slight.
And, to the rest of you out there: if you have any good ideas for new genre categories we’d love to hear about them. Because if our experience at Harvard Review is anything to go by, the number of difficult-to-pin-down pieces is only increasing and I don’t think we’re going to be done with this subject anytime soon.