Posts Tagged ‘genres’

As an ex-English major and instructor, I’m hyper-aware of genre. That’s why the idea of the bingo card fascinates me – not the cards used in playing the game, you understand, but parodies of them that summarize common responses to certain issues. What fascinates me is not just that the bingo card seems less than two decades old and remains a largely unacknowledged genre, but also that it’s a product of the Internet in general, and of feminist thought in particular.

One of the first bingo cards (if not the first) was probably the Buzzword (aka Bullshit) bingo card, which is full of business cliches like “synergy” and “user-centric,” and is supposed to be used to pass the time at long meetings. Wikipedia specifically identifies the inventor as an employee of Silicon Graphics in 1993, but, as with most popular culture, how accurate this attribution is uncertain – I seem to remember the Buzzword bingo card circulating a year or two earlier, when I first started using the Internet.

What is more certain is that the idea seems to have been popularized in Dilbert in 1994, and quickly became one of those Internet memes that well-meaning people were always sending to everybody in their email address books.

However, these early uses didn’t extend much beyond pointing out cliches and expressing a mild satirical rebellion. At some point, the basic structure was taken over by feminist thinkers and became more politicized.

One possible inspiration for this second generation card is Joanna Russ’ 1983 book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, whose cover summarizes all the ways to dismiss or minimalize women’s writing in a way that is reminiscent of the bingo card. But this attribution may be too narrow. It might be more accurate to say simply that this sort of anticipation of opposing views has a long tradition in feminist analysis, and the bingo card just happens to fit the tradition very well.

Whatever the origins, the Feminist bingo card (to coin a phrase) has proved even more popular than the Buzzword card. I know of close to twenty Feminist bingo cards, most of them with a feminist or at least an activist perspective. For example, there are Anti-Feminist and Sexist bingo cards, as well as ones for Porny Presentations, Anti-Breastfeeding, Anti-Bisexuals, Rape Apologists, Rapists and White Liberals. Almost certainly, there are more.

The Feminist bingo card keeps the satirical intent of the Buzzword card. What makes the Feminist card different from earlier cards is that (at least when done well, with the arguments organized and the free square used imaginatively) the squares on the card are anticipations of the arguments and evasions that opponents might use. Not only does it alert its audience to the replies they can expect, but, in effect, it informs opponents that they can’t possibly say anything that hasn’t been anticipated, so there is not much point in arguing. Moreover, since many of the points on any card contradict each other, when applied, a card provides quick proof that an argument lacks consistency.

You might call it an assertion of intellectual superiority, or at least of preparation for debate. You might, if you are feeling Lacanian, call the Feminist card a deconstruction of opposing viewpoints.

No matter how you describe it, when done accurately, it evokes a wry smile of recognition, like a cutting political cartoon. And should you find one or two of your own thoughts echoed on one of these bingo cards, surrounded by other viewpoints with which you disagree, it might even cause you to rethink your assumptions.

I appreciate the way that the Feminist bingo card has taken a more or less inane meme and given it a purpose. Were I still an academic, I would try to expand these notes into a monograph, going deeper into structure and interviewing the authors when I could find them (I know Mary Gardiner and Kirrily “Skud” Roberts have written bingo cards, but many other authors seem to be anonymous, or else their names have been deleted in transmission. Some cards are probably group efforts).

As a recovering academic, though, I just enjoy them, and never fail to click on the link to one. I never could resist a new or clever structure, and, with bingo cards, I don’t even try.

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Writers love to claim that their genre is difficult and arcane. I have heard poets claim that verse is the purest and most challenging form. Ditto for writers of short stories, plays and novels. I have heard diarists claim the superiority of the private journal over the blog, traditional journalists the superiority of the newspaper story over the online article, and mainstream writers the superiority of their work over science fiction or mysteries.

Maybe I am revealing myself as a hack, but I have trouble understanding why these claims are even made. Having published (if sometimes lightly) in a variety of genres, I fail to see much difference between them. So far as I have been able to observe, the task of writing is always much the same.

I suppose that writers make these claims to soothe their pride. Although writing is no easier than any other art, anyone who has even a few grades of education knows a few of its rudiments, so non-professionals think they know all about it. Moreover, unlike music or painting, it requires only items that can be found around most households, so amateur writers abound. Go to a science fiction convention, for instance, and you can probably start a conversation with anyone you meet simply by asking, “How’s your writing going?” Under these circumstances, perhaps many professional writers feel such a strong need to assert their expertise that they over-state the case.

Still, their claims sound false to me, because they are contrary to my experience of writing.

Generally, writing begins by an assessment of format. If you are writing a poem, you generally write in lines and stanzas; if you are writing a movie script, you need to follow rigid layout conventions before anyone will consider reading it. Similarly, online writing tends to use shorter paragraphs than writing that will be read on a printed page. Such assessments becomes automatic when you become experienced in a genre, but if you switch genres, you immediately become aware of the change in expectations.

The next consideration is your audience. For instance, vocabulary tends to freer and larger in poetry, because you can expect careful readings who are willing to take the time to puzzle out obscurities. The jargon (and what you need to explain) varies with the academic or technical audience. In online writing, exaggeration and hyperbole is more common, because online readers tend to be less engaged than print readers, and you want to keep your attention. In some cases, your subject matter might also change; if I remember correctly, Sylvia Plath said that she enjoyed writing fiction occasionally because in poetry she couldn’t write about things like toothbrushes.

And so it goes, for any type of writing I have done professionally. Any piece of writing requires that you adjust to the expectations of its stylistic or content genre. And, once you have, the acts of writing, revising, and editing differ only in the details.

Under these circumstances, claiming the superiority of one form over another seems unconvincing and downright desperate. Perhaps professional writing as a whole requires a different mindset or degree of talent and discipline than amateur writing, but at the level of process, where you spend most of your time, the act of writing remains constant. I can’t help thinking that those who insist otherwise do the art an injustice, and mislead everyone – perhaps themselves most of all.

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