I’m going to be talking about The Genre of Silence at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle as part of an exhibit, “Genius: 21 Century Seattle” My talk will be on October 10th at 2 p.m. moderated by the Seattle poet Maged Zaher with two other writers. We’ll be in a talk that will last about 90 minutes with questions, answers, and hopefully some silence called Break the Genre: what are the boundaries and limits of each genre (poetry, fiction, memoir, comics, etc.).
Our current world seems awash in noise with perpetual tweets, hourly outrage cycles playing themselves on Facebook, trending topics, and so. There is so much talk that Dewey Decimal style categorization schemes have entered the mainstream as jargon: #hashtags. We are surrounded by so much information, we have all acquired some skill as information scientists. In this deluge of noise, how does silence stand a chance?
My talk will look at the great Russian short story writer (Red Cavalry and other stories) Isaac Babel who famously invented the genre at the 1934 first congress of the Union of Soviet Writers, where he said he was becoming “the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence.” I will also look at other writers who have been famously silent as the late J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee.
In talking about Babel’s silence, his arrest, death, and the recent discovery of his last years in prison and the cause of his death, I will look at my father’s photography of the Alpine Lake Wilderness Area. When my father died, he left behind him thousands of photographs of trees, lakes, rocks, and blurry hillsides in a collection that demonstrates my father’s mastery of the genre of silence.
Babel’s silence after the noise of the Red Cavalry championed his cause after his abduction. JD Salinger’s after “Hapworth 16, 1924,” became a mystery and in many ways magnified his work. Harper Lee’s silence also raised the mastery of her first book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Breaking her silence has broken her mastery of the genre.
I was left was with a number of questions and for some reason in looking at his photographs the Babel’s phrase, “Genre of Silence” came back to me. It brought to mind a number of questions that I would like to figure out. If silence is genre, what is a genre? How can we say something without saying anything at all? Is this possible? How can we not say something and yet still speak? What then is the genre of silence?