Four Hybrid or Cross-Genre Experimental Books by Women
Hybrid or cross-genre writers don’t fit into one category—they write some combination of novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, and/or essays. They experiment with form and do not necessarily follow the rules or conform to the expectations of one genre, stretching beyond it or using qualities traditionally associated with one (or more) and applying to it another. For the books in this article, this approach isn't just an experiment for experiment's sake: it reflects the stories or emotional content of the books. Also, reading hybrid or cross-genre work can remind writers that they don't have to shoehorn themselves and can find the way that works best for the book they want to write.
The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom
Before I read anything by Selah Saterstrom, I assumed she was a poet: I would always see her name listed or associated with poets, or I would hear poets talk about her. Technically, though, she has only published three novels (The Pink Institution, The Meat & Spirit Plan, and Slab) and a work of nonfiction (Ideal Suggestions: Essays on Divinatory Poetics)—but they are all written in a similarly hybrid/cross-genre style.
The Pink Institution, her first novel, is divided into sections, each of which consists of fragments or vignettes focusing on multiple generations of women in a Southern family. Sometimes the vignettes look like small square paragraphs, or prose poems, with titles. Sometimes semicolons are placed every few words, as if the paragraph is falling apart but barely holding together. Sometimes the vignettes have extensive white space between words, and the paragraphs spread or stretch across the field of the page. The sentences seem to be floating, or melting away from each other. Saterstrom also includes text supposedly pulled from a Confederate Ball program guide, with ink smears rendering the sentences half-unreadable, but still transcribed, as if the ghosts of the words remain present. The vignettes often describe brutal and ominous scenes, and Saterstrom's approach to the form reflects the haunted feeling.
Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet
Kate Greenstreet is a poet who often works with prose fragments, or in long prose-like lines that can seem to be pieces of narrative. In all her books (case sensitive, Young Tambling, The Last 4 Things, The End of Something), there's a sense that something is ending or has ended, but it will be documented—remembered. Greenstreet says the initial idea for Young Tambling was to write a book that is "not autobiography, but about biography," though she ultimately calls it "experimental memoir."
The title comes from the folk ballad "Young Tambling" or "Tam Lin," in which a young woman saves a man by not letting go of him as fairies transform him into various wild animals and dangerous objects. The girl drives the narrative and saves the male character. Greenstreet explores this story, the ballad form, and her own memories. But also, in a more impressionistic way, she writes poems/prose fragments inspired by the ballad. She's Tam Lin holding onto other people, herself, her memories—and there are also metaphors in the ballad for the creative act (holding to the work as it is changing and transforming) and experiencing art (becoming the transforming figure that is held).
The form of Young Tambling itself is always changing: sometimes a page of the text looks like an essay, sometimes memoir, prose poems, poems with line breaks. There's images in the book, including photographs, prints or etchings, and scanned papers full of handwriting. Quotations introduce each new section, and then later, the same quotes will appear again, half-erased. These textures foreground the process of writing, and of the process of memory. There's a sense of trying to capture, document, or record each stage of something as it is moving and transforming.
Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was a conceptual artist who often worked with performance and film. Born in Busan, she came to the U.S. with her family during the Korean War. She was educated in French-language Catholic schools and then earned four degrees from UC-Berkeley. In Dictee, the many different angles of Cha's background and perspective are felt and present, as if she used everything at her disposal to create something wholly original.
Sometimes the book is written in long prose pages, sometimes in fragments that look like prose poems. Most sections are inspired by women from Cha's family, Korean history, Greek myth (the muses), and Catholic tradition (Joan of Arc, and Cha's namesake, St. Therese). Visual materials like photographs, historical documents, letters, calligraphy, lists, and diagrams are included. Some sections are like written with script-like language, as if describing the camera shots of film that doesn’t exist. Some sections of the book stylistically resemble the types of exercises found in language workbooks, and "dictee" refers to a French dictation exercise in which students write down what their teacher is saying. Religion, family, womanhood, history, art, film, Korean, French, and English were all languages in Cha's life, and there's a sense in Dictee of the forces and figures in her life—and Cha herself—trying to communicate or express something.
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Speedboat is a novel divided up into what looks like titled chapters or sections, but although they are connected, they could also conceivably stand on their own, so they could look like short stories or essays. The chapters themselves consist of connected fragments collaged together: each page looks like a typical page of prose, but the text jumps from one scene, image, anecdote, or piece of reportage to another. This is all from the perspective of one character, Jen Fain, who is a journalist in '70s New York. The reader learns about the character through what she sees, observes, and remembers.
Older, more traditional approaches to the novel—like the narrative arc—don't always reflect how modern life feels. But so many writers who try to push on this point end up writing books that are a strain to read and don't give the reader much of a chance to connect. Speedboat, though, is fun and funny, and it creates an emotional and visceral experience for the reader. Each fragment is a distillation: the reader intuitively understands so much in just a paragraph or a line, and through the rhythm created by the sentences and the movement from one fragment to another. (These types of approaches are familiar to poets—and comedians, and sometimes journalists.) Speedboat moves at a fast clip that feels simultaneously breezy and melancholy, evoking not just what that time and place must have been like, but also what it's like to be constantly around other people, yet alone.
Other Recommended Writers
And of course, there are many other women writers who work in hybrid/cross-genre ways and should be included!
- Mary Robison
- Elizabeth Hardwick
- Bhanu Kapil
- Joy Williams
- Mary Ruefle
- Gro Dahle
- C.D. Wright
- Anne Carson
- Alice Notley
- Virginia Woolf
- Clarice Lispector
- Gertrude Stein
- Fanny Howe
- Renee Gladman
- Bernadette Mayer
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Hilda Hilst
- Danielle Dutton
- Nathalie Sarraute
- Carole Maso
- etc. etc.!