- Editor's Notes
The centerpiece of this issue of Fourth Genre is an extended roundtable on "Travel in Nonfiction" organized and moderated by Robert Root. The title alone dispels the stock labels we sometimes affix to nonfiction subgenres. The roundtable is not, strictly speaking, about "Travel Writing" or, indeed, "Writing about Travel." Once the participants get beyond the retail categories of travel writing as guidebook, postcard, or tourist aid, the conversation opens up into some interesting terrain. They begin to explore travel as an approach to writing itself. They enter into "the emotional vertigo of travel" where travel has more to do with a writer's point of view and frame of reference than with a particular place, and where place awakens inner journeys. The net effect of the entire roundtable is twofold. It suggests that all good narrative nonfiction is about travel—movement through time, place, psyche, event. And it reminds us that labels themselves are necessary and necessarily limiting.
That latter insight is especially bracing at a time when labels for the contemporary nonfiction essay proliferate. "Creative nonfiction"—the mother of all genre labels (and the likely progeny of the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s)—has spawned a lexicon of related and sometimes competing critical terms: essay fiction, factual fiction, "faction," documentary narrative, cultural journalism, "journalit," personal cultural criticism, and so forth. Sometimes these are distinctions without much of a difference, driven by critical hair splitting, editorial convenience, or genre politics. They are offspring of the academic urge to decipher, delineate, and designate. At any rate, we have to be careful not to confuse the labels for the work of good narrative writing in its myriad forms—or allow the designations to obscure a universal truth that a good essay, no matter its subgenre, makes the reader a participant in the writer's exploration and inquiry. There may [End Page vii] be some wisdom in Marilyn Abildskov's disclaimer in the travel roundtable that "genre labels are probably more about marketing than the deeper layers of a literary work."
The other insight about all narrative writing as travel is borne out in the essays and commentary we've assembled for this issue. In "Marking Time in Door County," Sarah Gorman, for example, travels to a familiar peninsula in Wisconsin where her family has vacationed for generations. The subject of her essay is a summer spent at "Grey Logs," an ancestral cabin situated on 150 feet of isolated waterfront. The essay is about the "cache of dreams that plays out deliciously" as Gorman is pulled into the slipstream of memories evoked by such a familiar place. Marcia Aldrich's "The Bed of Metamorphosis" tracks the travels of a piece of her bedroom furniture through space and time. It too is a good example of travel writing as a way of compassing the inner journeys that parallel our movements through space. The subject of her story—a mattress—becomes a metaphor for a personal history that yields a poignant ending. We "labeled" Sue William Silverman's reflection on blue moons as a "commentary" when it too is really another travel essay. In her case, Silverman uses metaphor as a way to journey into childhood and adolescence, pop music, and other celestial places.
Instead of belaboring the point about travel in nonfiction, making it too much of just another label, or getting too precious about it, we invite you to accompany this issue's other writers on their sojourns. In their company, and on your own.