In January, the writer, filmmaker, and artist Miranda July’s new work, The First Bad Man, will be available for purchase. It’s being marketed as a novel, but that’s not all it is. On December 16th, the public can bid on objects that are mentioned in the text via an online auction. Upon purchase, each object will be packaged with an excerpt from the book in which the object is featured, as well as July’s signature to verify the object’s authenticity. Right now, you can go on the website for the book and read the excerpts in which the objects are mentioned. July will be donating all proceeds from this virtual object auction to The National Partnership for Women and Families, a cause that is closely linked to the protagonist’s job and echoes themes present in the book.
This is not the first time narrative and objects have been linked together to bend an already established genre. A project called Significant Objects was started in 2009. The premise of the project was for each “talented, creative writer [to] invent a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object [will] acquire not merely subjective but objective value.” The items were auctioned off and a portion of the proceeds went to fund organizations such as Girls Write Now, One Story, and 826. Writers such as Trinie Dalton, Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and many others contributed to Significant Objects. Furthermore, physical volumes of these stories were available for purchase. And again here, one runs into a problem; to what type of genre do these object-stories belong, especially when bound in a printed volume?
I’m not sure, and that is thrilling. The inability to classify genre-bending, multidisciplinary texts disrupts both readers’ expectations regarding what a piece of writing should be and those who commodify such pieces of art. And that’s exciting because fracturing expectations paves the way for new, inventive texts that will both change us and make room for new voices.
Another reason I’m drawn to texts that alter readers’ expectations and bend previously established genres is because these types of texts always rattle my own expectations and push me to think of new ways of shaping my own writing. The first time I realized this was reading Leanne Shapton’s work. A friend lent me Swimming Studies, and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. I was awed that these texts didn’t try to fit into a genre but instead broke free of traditional genre restrictions in order to house their unique contents. Shapton’s work truly embodies the idea developed by William H. Gass in the essay that states its premise in its title: “The Sentence Seeks Its Form.” And the work has been extremely well received. Important Artifacts will be turned into a movie, with Natalie Portman and Brad Pitt as lead actors.
What does this tell us about the current literary environment? That today the experimentation and genre-bending of texts is becoming more and more accepted and expected; perhaps, even, anticipated. We are lucky to live in an age that is embracing this reconfiguration and should allow these new types of texts to inspire and challenge our ideas of what literature is and what it can become.
*Photograph courtesy The First Bad Man store website. Gum Popcorn, mentioned in July’s new book The First Bad Man. Bidding begins 12/10/14.