Fourth Genre--an excellent literary journal and major crush of mine--has been around for awhile (ten years to be exact). For this blog entry, I thought it would be interesting to look at how Fourth Genre has evolved over those ten years. To illustrate this, I'll look at two issues and discuss two essays: the first from Fall 1999 (insert Prince lyrics here) and the second from Fall 2009. Ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Heck, ten years ago today, I was fifteen and heading to an N'Sync concert. I digress.
Let's start by looking at Bret Lott's "Toward Humility," published in the Fall 1999 (Vol. 1, No. 2) issue. First, a bit on structure. This piece is structured with numbers, but instead of going in numerical, chronological order, we get a backward numbering set: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. I tend to dig this kind of organizing principle--not just because I'm anal and I get off on numbered chunks (so crisp, so clean!)--but also because it keeps me reading until the very end. And that's important. It's so easy, with essays, to stop reading a piece if you have a hard time following it's path. Now onto content. "Toward Humility" works for me because it does a great job utilizing its second person narrative voice. I'd imagine most people who read Fourth Genre--and most literary journals in general for that matter--tend to be writers. Since this piece is from the perspective of a writer who has earned enormous and unexpected fame, we writerly types can sink easily into this voice (we want to imagine that one day, that'll be us). But, as we read on, we see that this fame and fortune comes with its downfalls. The author, after gaining major attention for his first book (even getting to be on what we presume to be "The Oprah Winfrey" show), never achieves the same amount of attention for his later work. In the essay, the protagonist is currently working on a new novel, but it's not living up to his (nor his editors') sense of potential. Towards the end of the essay, there's a poignant scene where we see narrator yelling during his son's soccer game: "Let's GO! Get in the GAME!" He yells at his son. We realize though that he's not so much yelling at his son, as he's chastising himself: Finish that book! Make it good! By the end of the book, the narrator has isolated himself (presumedly just temporarily so) from his wife and family. We see that the price you pay for fame is the frightening possibility of losing those that are most important to you.
I should pause for a bit and talk more about this Fall 1999 issue. The journal is arranged in very predictable patterns. In other words, there's nothing fancy going on here. As I scan through the issue, I see the essays are just about all similar in length (15-20 pages long) and are structured the same. With the exception of Bret Lott's essay (he uses numbers) and John Lane's essay (he uses Roman numerals), within each essay, three black boxes are always used to indicate section breaks (the same way that dots or asteriks are utilized in many essays). I found it somewhat shocking that the journal kept this form going for the entirety of the journal. It was as if the journal was saying, "If you don't have an organizing principle for your essay, we'll make one for you. We love these three black boxes!"
Fast forward ten years later. Now we have the Fall 2009 issue. A lot has changed in terms of the structure and content of the journal. To find out what specifically changed, I emailed the current editor, Marcia Aldrich, to hear her perspective. She graciously answered my email with some awesome, detailed answers. Here's what she said: