Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Evolution of Fourth Genre

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:

1. Wanted to bring younger writers into the journal, and younger readers, I made a concerted effort to do so, and think I have made a big change in that area. A good mix of talented graduate students, or recent graduates have been making their appearance in our pages. Lots of emerging writers as well mixed in with more seasoned writers, but a dramatic shift. At AWP, lots of graduate students coming by the table NOW because someone in their program had a piece accepted. I wanted more diversity of age: got it.

2. I think, though some may argue against this, that we've moved the journal into welcoming more diverse styles of creative nonfiction, with an openness to innovation and lyric essay. We're publishing more short essays of an experimental sort. I wanted to represent better the range of writing being done under the umbrella heading of creative nonfiction. I think there's been improvement. Still we're dependent on what comes through the door.

3. Introduced picking a clearly innovative essay to spotlight and ask the writer to write an accompanying essay about the essay's composition.

4. Introduced Writer as Reader section. See guidelines. Eula Biss is writing on Joan Didion for our spring issue. This is the most exciting feature for me that's new and my idea.

5. New book review editor, emphasis on more diversity of what we review. Deliberate attempt to make sure we're reviewing widely. moving in the right direction.

6. Cutting capsule reviews which I thought was a weak part of the journal. Gone as of spring.

7. Trying to publish more graphic essays. Trying.

8. Redesign to make a little more elegant and literary within the limited means at my disposal.

So, there goes.  I too noticed quite a shift in terms of variety of content.  Whereas most of the essays in the Fall 1999 issue were of similar length, style, and structure, the Fall 2009 has some surprises: shorter essays, a graphic essay, and a bit more experimentation in terms of style.  The magazine still has its organizing principles (it has traded in the three black boxes for three black arrows facing northeast), but has allowed for more structurally experimental essays; one of my favorites being Heather Seller's "Becoming a Mouth."  Again, gotta love the organizing method here: Sellers uses ten headings (i.e.: 1. CRAZY GIRL, 2. HUMOR I DESIRE, and so on).  This is a new kind of story-telling unseen in the first issue.  The story isn't linear, but served to us in episodic chunks.  The chunks are all related, but we see more of a non-linear mind in action.  Seller's opens with a vivid scene of an outcast girl (presumed to be her?) on a playground.  The section ends strong and shifts from sad to hopeful with: "...and the girl on the edge alone has one idea she knows is good.  She's going to be funny" (17).  BOOM!  Killer line.  Then she goes into how she honed her specific breed of dark humor and how she has utilized it--for herself and her writing students--throughout her life.  She shifts from the personal into a more big picture essay as she discusses the role of comedy--"we laugh at painful things"--and the role of the comic writer: "we have to digest what is not digestable" (24).

I find it interesting that both pieces I read (and loved) were addressed to writers.  The first being a caveat to the fame and fortune of best-selling authors in "Towards Humility," and the second a "how-to" on comedy and comic writing in "Becoming a Mouth."  Again, maybe this is because the people at Fourth Genre know who their main audience is: writers, of course!



  1. I thought it was interesting, also, that both pieces address the act of writing, though in completely different ways. (Could this reflect some sort of nonfiction trend? It's meta-writing about writing...not just acknowledging the singular act for the piece or the reader's participation...)

    The pieces work totally differently though. The Lott essay, from '99, felt honest and self-deprecating. That he begins with the explanation of his use of the second person was helpful because the technique often seems like a cheap trick. Here, he uses the form poetically, beginning and ending with the I; the intervening moments inserting us as subject. It also helped, of course, that the topic was interesting...what actually happens in the process of being plucked by The Force (ie. Oprah). (And...what will happen when the show ends?!)

    The Sellers essay, though similar in the address of the craft, read differently for me. The tone was much more serious and there was a sense of, dare-I-say unearned?, authority. She discusses why humor, as separate from delight, is so critical in her writing; I'm on board for this. But we fail to get the reason for the [serious] humor until late into the piece and vaguely at that. I guess the question is raised: does this essay stand on its own, particularly if the reader is not familiar with the author's other writing? And then, how specific should a piece be, whose trajectory is writing itself?

    Anyway, it's good to read that Fourth Genre is interested in new forms of writing, of the essay. I think we have to be now, as editors, readers and writers; our culture demands it.

  2. This post was fascinating. I want to read both issues and to follow what other projects Alrich is up to. Thanks for this.