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Sean Prentiss Explores Creative Writing's 'Fourth Genre'


A telltale sign of a Vermonter is his or her wearing of multiple hats. We all know folks like the landlord/state legislator who does carpentry and serves on the board of the electric co-op, or the librarian/live-music-venue owner who moonlights as a puppeteer. So it makes perfect sense that Norwich University assistant professor of English Sean Prentiss should coedit a book that can be used as a college text, an independent writer's guide or just a darn good book to read between jobs — perhaps while the dough is rising, the paint is drying and the legislature's adjourned.

The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction — coedited by Prentiss and his former grad-school classmate, author Joe Wilkins — is a collection that explores the meaningful permutations of creative nonfiction, aka the "fourth genre," and its various mashups with the three other genres (poetry, fiction and drama), as well as with journalism and oral storytelling.

In recent years, the fourth genre has taken a beating owing to the factual liberties taken by writers such as A Million Little Pieces memoirist James Frey, scolded soundly by Oprah; and essayist John D'Agata, whose imprecisions in About a Mountain also aroused public ire. Skirting the controversy, The Far Edges offers insights from some of the genre's staunchest practitioners, such as Dinty W. Moore, founder of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction; and multiple Pushcart Prize winner Brenda Miller. Both of these authors articulate the possibilities and limitations of creative nonfiction, all the while exemplifying the aspects they're exploring. They both tell and show how the genre, which often draws heavily on techniques of fiction and poetry, breaks new ground and expands the territory of literature.

In his own contribution to the anthology, Prentiss demonstrates what the genre can accomplish by telling a personal story. His essay, "Eternal Sunshine of the Nonfiction Mind: A New Philosophy for Understanding Truth and Creative Nonfiction," investigates multiple "truths." Prentiss shakes down his teenaged memory of heartbreak, using the journalist's tool kit and the philosopher's mind, until personal, emotional and theoretical truths have trickled out.

Prentiss, who relocated to Vermont in 2012 from a position at Michigan's Grand Valley State University, also lives a hybrid life as an academic-slash-writer-slash-adventurer. An avid traveler who spent 16 years living on the west side of the Continental Divide, he's the creative editor of Jeffersonville-based Backcountry Magazine and the author of another book, forthcoming in 2015, called Finding Abbey: A Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave.

In 2013, Prentiss founded the Norwich University Writers Series, which has so far hosted eight writers, including Vermont poets David Budbill, Major Jackson and poet-translator David Hinton; along with farther-flung writers such as sci-fi novelist James Patrick Kelly and essayist Elena Passarello. This fall, Prentiss expects to welcome Hardwick author Ben Hewitt to the reading series, as well as the graphic illustrators and performers behind the Kill Shakespeare comics project.

Prentiss says the series helps fulfill his mission as a creative-writing teacher to expose undergraduates to a wide spectrum of writers, allowing them to discover how practitioners of all literary genres accomplish their work. Often, it turns out, writers do that much the same way carpenter-legislators hammer together walls and laws — by working steadily and diligently.

On Thursday, July 24, Prentiss will don yet another hat, appearing as a featured writer at the Renegade Reading Series (see related article about Renegade Writers' Collective on page 24) held at Burlington's ArtsRiot, where attendees can expect to hear pieces by authors working in at least two literary genres — or maybe at the far edges of all four.


The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, edited by Sean Prentiss and Joe Wilkins. Michigan State University Press, 172 pages. $22.95.
Renegade Reading Series, Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m., at ArtsRiot in Burlington. Free.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Man With Plans: Norwich's Sean Prentiss Explores Creative Writing's 'Fourth Wall'"