I visited The Glasgow School of Art in November 2018 and asked the writers there what names they give their writing.
The table in the room where we worked wasn’t round but it felt round when we were all sitting around it. It was a table. And so we sat around it. It was a rectangle table that together and over the course of the day of working—reading, writing and thinking together—it felt to me that we had rounded. The designating, body-orientating force of a name. We called it a table and so we sat around it. We might have done something different. We might have sat at it (in fact, arguably we did this too). We might have sat or stood on it. Crouched under it. Ignored it. But collectively and reasonably at the beginning of the day we had all silently decided to call it a table. And so we sat around it. We put our things and our elbows on it, our knees under it—preparing to use it as a support for our work.
We didn’t call it a novel (for example).
Or a sculpture.
An essay or a translation.
The simple point I had brought with me to make was that naming matters. Consider, I said, what happens when we call something, often but not always writing, (a) translation. When we say: look, actually and as a matter of fact, did you (even) notice that this is a translation? Something happens. Of course it does. I’ve witnessed this. So many times I’ve witnessed this. My guess was that the writers were likely to have witnessed it too: how reading adjusts, how a sense of the provenance of the writing changes, how a relation to an outside, some absent other source of the work is established, how the writing we’re reading in this new light seems suddenly to shift and loosen. And then settle. And so on.
I put this point on the table because with translation the reorienting force of the name is so obvious and so strong. I set it down in the hope that the writers would open it out onto the broader problems and potentialities of naming the writing they write, and how much this matters.
And they did. We spoke about genre.
Genre as a kind of promise, a set of expectations to be met or thwarted or somehow both.
I asked and they shared their generic genre-desires: for the novel, for the essay, for the short story.
In my bag under the table I had a small book in French by a theorist called Marielle Macé, whose work I like a lot. It stayed in my bag over the course of the day our conversation was carried by some of what she writes. Thoughts like this:
No writer, no reader need believe in the truth or the reality of genres, nor even know how to define them, in order to mobilise them.
It is not necessary for genres to ‘exist’ for them to operate: there is something like a genre-effect, a genre-connotation, a genre-mode of looking that informs, massively, the writing, reading and history of literature.
It is not necessary, even, to believe in genres, for them to operate. For genres are not objects but supports of and for operations performed by writers and readers, the agents of literary life.
They occupy an intermediary position: between literature and individual works, between a text and a rule, between works which show features of resemblance, of derivation, of counterpoint, between the work and the public, between the author and the reader, between memory and perception, between history and theory.
Genres exert a pressure on the works that get written; this pressure can be exerted in the form of a law or a constraint, as in the case of most fixed forms of poetry, but also in the more flexible form of an attraction, transforming the space of genres into a kind of magnetic field.
A magnetic field in which André Breton’s Nadja, for instance, is pulled as much toward the pole of the novel as toward the enunciative force of the pamphlet. Contemporary literature is not immune to this pressure, and the genre ‘fragment’, or even the genre ‘text’, now constitute new poles…1
I also had in my bag a print-out of a paragraph by Annie Ernaux: her response to the question of poetry.
What is poetry? She had been asked by a French literary magazine.2
What is poetry?
(Not: what is a poem? The designating, body-orientating, transformative force of a name. But: what is poetry? Which sounds more like the flexible, transversal draw of an attraction).
I had photocopied the paragraph and distributed copies around the table. Together we tried to translate her response:
I don’t know how to say what poetry is, she/we wrote.
It seems to me that it is really, solely, a desire, she/we wrote.
…that of getting by way of words at the heart of the real, she/we wrote.
A desire that traverses all literature, making no distinction between genres and that is bound up for me with the desire to write, she/we wrote.
Let’s be specific, we agreed.
After spending some hours with the Annie Ernaux’s exacting phrasing, with the studied precision of her image-making and her thinking, let’s be—we agreed that it must be possible and might well be productive to be—(more) specific.
Let’s try to name the poles we are drawn to within this vast differentiated force field we call writing. A field constituted both synchronically and diachronically, and expanding.
Let’s try to think about the particular writing practices these demand: the different pressures they exert on our brains, our hands, our readers. Let’s do this whether we submit to them or not, whether we believe in them or not.
Let’s use the given open categories when they work: hybrid writing, cross-genre writing.
Let’s revise them when they feel not specific enough, not pressurising or supportive enough.
Let’s claim the right to name, to mess around with the relation between the expectations the name brings, the horizon it opens and the gap between this and the writing we offer for reading:
This is a translation.
This is an essay.
This is the start of a novel.
No, it’s a table. A sculpture; it’s a score.
Let’s claim the right to invent new names.
It’s a novel-table.
But let’s first notice the names we are already calling our writing. Perhaps privately, or only semi-publically, when the work is still in progress and becoming, and we don’t know—we have literally no idea—what it is or could be.
Let’s think seriously about what those names are already doing.
Because they are doing something.
Ontologically, epistemologically, phenomenologically, politically and aesthetically they are already doing something.
Let’s start asking what names we call our writing.
What are they? I asked. Please: tell me around a table.
Okay, they said.
Okay, for example, this:
- my translation and slight modification of sentences from Marielle Macé, Le Genre Littéraire (Paris: Flammarion, 2013)
- Annie Ernaux, ‘Atteindre par des mots le coeur du réel’, https://www.poesiepremiere.fr/poesie-premiere.html