“Genre and Selfhood and Speculation, Endless”: Jeff Alessandrelli on writing AND YET

Genre and Selfhood and Speculation, Endless

I recently published a book that, like thousands of books, is nebulous vis-à-vis genre. And Yet is a book-length fictional essay. It’s a long prose poem. It’s an experimental novel. It’s a commonplace book with a wavy, fragmented narrative. It’s a work of eclectic literary collage. It’s autofiction. It’s nonfiction that’s more informed by the imagination as compared to data-sourced analytic facts or precision points. It’s somewhere in between all of those and none of them.  

The jacket copy for the book, which I wrote, states:

An innovative work of speculative fiction, Jeff Alessandrelli’s And Yet interrogates contemporary shyness, selfhood and sexual mores, drawing out the particulars of each through personal history, cultural commentary and the author’s own restless imagination. And Yet builds off the work of authors as disparate as Michel Leiris, Marguerite Duras and Kobo Abe, while quoting from and alluding to texts by Susan Sontag, Young Thug, Young Jean Lee, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück, among others. At the same time, however, And Yet is entirely itself, with a nameless, self-questioning Millennial protagonist simultaneously proud and afraid of his formidable interiority. “Love is a thing full of anxious fear,” especially when what you ultimately love and fear is your self,” writes Alessandrelli, and And Yet draws such a notion down, out and around again, finally arriving at its own idiosyncratic answers.   

Prior to And Yet I’d never written a piece of speculative fiction in my life. So why call it that? 

For some background, I’m mostly a poet and over the past decade I’ve only published with small presses. Some have had staffs of 7+ people, others just 2 or 3. But all have been small, in the sense that the books they published and put into the world were destined to be for a small subsect of readers. If they didn’t utilize Print-on-Demand (POD) services, they had small print runs of no more than 1,000 copies, tops. I can’t speak for the editors of each of the small presses I’ve published with, but if I were to guess I would say that their goal was and is to publish books they liked rather than ones they thought might sell in large quantities. (I can’t speak for those editors, but I myself co-run a small non-profit press and that previous assertion is our goal at least.)

Before writing And Yet I’d written in loosely recognizable genre modes. Kinda. Lineated poems were lineated poems and essays that involved a bit of narrative and research were essays. Reviews of books were reviews of books, unless they were “creative” reviews, in which case they might morph into original essays. Since, in terms of paragraph spacing, they were justified, prose poems were poems, unless they had a narrative—than they were (or could be) short-short fictional pieces. Lyric essays I thoughts of as a somewhat murky thing that were essentially long, narrative-lite poems.

Basically when I encountered genre type on the Submittable page of the journal/press that I was submitting to I went with my gut…or what was open to submissions. It might be bad to say but I’m nothing if not an opportunistic writer, at least in terms of how I categorize what I write. Being that I’m not in academia (I’m an adjunct at a community college but publications don’t matter) and, no matter what it’s called, don’t make any significant $ from my work, for the most part what I call or don’t call a piece of writing just doesn’t seem to matter much.  

With And Yet, however, I had to reexamine my genre fluidity. I initially envisioned the book as a long essay, one that contained a lot of other sources and cultural/artistic quotes and citations. (A la David Markson, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, David Shields, etc., etc.) Midway through the writing, however, I started to fib—or maybe a better word is “fictionalize.” As noted in the above jacket copy, the unnamed protagonist of And Yet is exceptionally fearful. A shy Millennial, he’s afraid of sex and himself. His desires unsteady him. Although, in terms of my own life, there are elements of truth filigreed throughout the book, with many of the characters having real-life counterpoints and/or being comprised of composites, at the end of the day the book isn’t “real.” Or it is, very much so, with the caveat that that reality is imaginative. “I told as much of the truth as I could imagine” is And Yet’s guiding centerpiece and sentiment, which is taken from the poet John Gallaher’s poem “The Way We Live Now.” As much of the truth as I could imagine.    

I don’t read much commercial fiction. It’s not that I don’t like it, not necessarily. More that I simply gravitate towards more elongated and elliptical forms of writing, ones that actively play around with form, narrative, gestation, and the like. (It might also be worth noting that whenever I do try write narratively, sans disjunctions of any kind, it doesn’t turn out very well. I wish I could zig and zag straightly. But I can’t.) Being a small press poet/author this is probably a good thing. If I had the chops and skill to write a book of commercial fiction I might be in trouble. I’d want to place it with a Big 5 publisher and would have expectations and hopes and the blanket desire for wider recognition. I do have those things on some level, to be sure, but I’m also aware of what type of writer I am. And commercial it isn’t.     

After And Yet found a publisher (which took two years), and all of the revisions were finally through, it was time to actually put it on the publisher’s website. What to actually call the book was one of the final to-dos. The contract that I originally signed in 2020 had deemed the text a work of poetry, although when I signed that contract I made mention to the head editors that I didn’t really think of And Yet as poetry. At the time I was conceptualizing it as a work of autofiction, mostly because that term was in the zeitgeist and it seemed to loosely describe what was going on in my book. But And Yet isn’t super autobiographical, at least not directly, and the harder I was on the protagonist (see above) the more I felt like an autofiction designation would be selling my own living breathing person short. If the I is an other, I wanted the I to be an other.         

I eventually landed on speculative fiction, then, for a couple of reasons. The first is that at the small press level what you want to call and market your book is largely up to you and the press. Unlike Big 5 publishers, most small presses don’t have huge marketing or publicity departments, if they even have marketing or publicity departments. Although there are certainly a plethora of writers who are genre-monogamous—they’re strictly novelists or essayists or poets—I’d venture to guess that most are somewhere in between, albeit leaning on a certain slant of the genre-slathered fence. Being that I’d never really leaned on the fiction side before—I don’t write short stories and don’t have a bad first novel saved somewhere in the deep dark depths of my hard drive—And Yet seemed like the ideal vehicle to give it a try. Also, the press that published the book ([PANK]) didn’t seem to care one way or the other, so why not. Fiction is the word; fiction is the way. The book’s primary marketing department (me/myself/I), moreover, agreed as well.                

As for the speculative part of that equation, though? On first glance it doesn’t seem to fit. Speculative fiction is oftentimes far more ethereal and otherworldly–i.e. what if there were no city streets in the United States and no cars and everyone lived in orange-colored trees, communicating only via touching one’s fingertips to a series of solar panels stationed exactly 9.1 miles apart from one another? (I’m exaggerating here but you get the idea.) Speculative fiction is traditionally indebted to the non-realistic, the deep-seated imaginative, the heretofore unknown or unrealized. There are dozens and dozens of deeply cherished speculative fiction titles, from 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale to The Lord of the Rings. Each creates its own idiosyncratic and indelible universe within the confines of the book.   

Being that it’s set in the contemporary world, with no supernatural elements of any sort, And Yet has zero of the hallmarks of a typical speculative fiction work. I nevertheless chose to categorize it as speculative fiction due to the fact that the entirety of the text is predicated on the malleability of selfhood. The below quote from Henri Michaux’s (great) book A Certain Plume elucidates And Yet’s central thesis: 

“One is perhaps not made for a single self. One is wrong to cling to this. One takes unity for granted. (Here, as elsewhere, it is our will that impoverishes us, sacrifices us.)

One wants too much to be someone.

There is no single self. There are not ten selves. There is no self. SELF is but a point of equilibrium. (One among a thousand others, always possible, always at the ready.)”

For And Yet’s protagonist selfhood is an agonizing, endless procedure. He’s never sure who he is at any given time and the stops and starts that are inherent to the process torture him. Over the course of our lives we’re so many different people and the protagonist of my book has a problem simply letting things be. Particularly in terms of sex, he overthinks it, to the point that he handicaps himself to his mind at the expense of the pleasures of the body. His only solace is art and literature, which he uses as both sword and shield. For every waking moment in the protagonist’s life there is a corresponding artwork to accompany it and he aims to live in books in order to not exist in the real world. He’s an art monster, albeit one not concerned with status so much as uncertainty.         

Although my book’s “I” and my own personal “I” are different, there is one thing that we roundly agree on: that selfhood is never fixed. It’s speculative. Who you are now is not who you’ll be in 10 years. The same holds true for who you were 10 years ago. As the queer theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa asserted, “[i]dentity is a river—a process” and one’s self “needs to flow, to change to stay a river.” Same as a good work of art, the only constant in any human being’s life is the unexpected and unforeseen. In that sense every human act is speculative, and to wish differently is to cease to be human.

Exclusive excerpt from And Yet

Jeff Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the poetry collection Fur Not Light (2019), which Kenyon Review called an “example of radical humility … its poems enact a quiet but persistent empathy in the world of creative writing.” Entitled Nothing of the Month Club, an expanded version of Fur Not Light was released in the United Kingdom in 2021. In addition to his writing, Alessandrelli also directs the nonprofit book press/record label Fonograf Editions: jeffalessandrelli.net.

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