Intellectual Genres

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I was at a writers’ conference a few years ago, in a session led by an acquisition editor from Penguin. (Don’t you just love the idea that the publisher is called Penguin, by the way?) Anyway, she was telling us about the shelving codes used by publishers to help booksellers departmentalize their material. The big categories, of course, we know: genres like mystery, thriller, travel, biography, supernatural, and so on. But she surprised me by talking about the subcategories as well. For instance, within “mystery,” there are noirs and procedurals and capers and historicals and romantics and… and “cozy mysteries.”

W.   T.   F.   F.?

Yes, friends, the cozy mystery. Amateur detective, usually an older woman, no visible crime or violence, no sex, no profanity. Just a cheerful little murder to solve, within a scatter of chatty and eccentric neighbors in a picturesque inn or seaside town. Murder She Wrote, basically. Sometimes the books actually contain recipes, or knitting instructions! This is a major genre, and you had better not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get past page ten.

The genres of higher education, of course, are our disciplines. And you had likewise not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get through your CV.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to market my fiction writing, an utterly different world than nonfiction (although literary agents are as anonymous, and as non-communicative in their rejection, as faculty search committees). And there’s a way in which the pitch letter is making two opposing cases at once. This book is fresh and innovative… and fits right in with all these other books you already know how to sell. As you market yourself as a candidate for a faculty position, you also will be making exactly that same divided case for yourself, that you’re an exciting and challenging scholar who’ll fit right in.

It’s an exacting line to walk, especially with so little feedback. So here’s my suggestion. Your department should have a folder (literal or virtual) with every single CV of every single tenure-track and tenured faculty member, available for the study of its graduate students and pending graduate students. Bio statements, too. Not only for their ostensible utility, to help your students know what you do so they can more wisely choose advisors—but more importantly as a study guide to the genre of your discipline. Which journals show up most often? Which doctoral programs did people in your department most often come from? How are research interests framed? How does your discipline define itself through its actions and allegiances?

You can learn to write a cozy mystery. It isn’t hard; you just read a hundred of them, and you start to learn the form. So too with your discipline; you learn the basic moves, and then figure out ways to do exactly those things, but with enough elan to be noticed among all of your shelfmates. To do that, you have to have the reading material to learn from.

Here’s another hint. Your department members won’t do it. They’re busy, and it’s not a priority. So some graduate student is going to have to make it her project, to go door to door and beg until she assembles a critical mass of CVs and bio statements from her masters, building a reverse-engineered guide to her genre. Get used to lifting your own bootstraps, kids.