Sunday, March 05, 2006

What's Experimental about Experimental Writing?

The term “experimental writing” has been bandied about a lot lately in the literary circles that I frequent. I have to confess that the more often I hear it, the less sure I am of what it means.

In a recent essay, Marc Lowe defines "experimental writing" by way of contrast with "literary fiction," and in so doing entirely conflates the latter with "traditional realism." In his view, contemporary literary fiction requires “believable characters with memorable names and realistically portrayed attributes,” “plots that resolve themselves in a decisive, if blandly predictable, manner,” and “a clear and understandable (i.e. linear and tidy) storyline with a consistent style of narration (no abrupt shifts in tense/time, no blurring of who’s who or what’s what, etc).” Experimental writing, on the other hand, "[does] interesting things with language and/or narrative structure."

I'm sympathetic to Lowe's quest to defend experimental fiction but I barely recognize the literary landscape that he describes. It seems to me that, by virtue of what he excludes and includes, he has defined the term "experimental writing" so broadly as to subsume the bulk of contemporary literary fiction thus accomplishing precisely the opposite of what he set out to do. I’m entirely in agreement with Dan Green on this point:

Fragmentation, chronological displacement, shifts in point of view, and other forms of non-linear storytelling are quite common in contemporary literary fiction, so common that I would say the sort of naively realistic, unswervingly linear narrative Lowe describes is in a distinct minority among the books that appeal to today's literary reader.

I would go further and suggest that even contemporary genre fiction (though admittedly crime fiction is the only realm of genre fiction in which I read widely) no longer routinely adheres to the requirements that Lowe lays out for traditional realism.

What, then, is experimental about experimental writing? An obvious answer would be that experimental writing is writing that breaks new ground, that does something that’s never been done before. This sets the bar too high, however, given that there isn’t a great deal of new ground left to break. For example, there’s nothing wholly new at this point about stream of consciousness, or surrealism, or metafiction. All have been done before and done well. Indeed, many writers who embrace the label “experimental” explicitly align themselves with established schools of writing that follow set conventions.

Would it be sufficient to define as experimental work that simply breaks new ground for the writer? Clearly not. If I were to attempt to write a novel in the style of a classic western, it would certainly be an experiment for me. However, if I succeeded, no one would deem the result experimental fiction. If the term “experimental” is to have any meaning in the literary context, it has to attach to the work rather than the writer.

The most interesting definition of “experimental fiction” that I’ve come across thus far is one provided by Douglas Glover in The Enamoured Knight. He defines it in relation to realism, but he doesn’t set up an either/or proposition. He describes a continuum with “strict realist” at one end and “experimental” at the other, with plenty of space for hybrid forms in between:

What seems to be the case with experimental fiction is that it is always written with other, more conventional books or conventional notions of reality in mind; one of the primary effects of experimental work is the denial of expectation, the surprise the reader feels when form is inverted or twists back on itself or is in some other way subverted. Most commonly the experimental artist does this simply by drawing attention to the work of art as a work of art. A painting isn’t about the image it represents; it’s about surface, shape and colour. A book is a book. In this way, oddly enough, the experimental novel is tied to the strict realist novel, the same but opposite, like the right and left hand. They are both committed to a species of honesty, authenticity, or "realism." But the larger novel tradition swears allegiance to verisimilitude while the experimental tradition diminishes the importance of illusion and highlights the reality of the work itself, its materials, tools, and process.

This too is only a partial definition of “experimental writing” but, given what I’m reading and writing these days, it resonates for me.


RickyGrove said...

I think Douglas Glover is closer to a definition of experimental fiction that anyone I've read. I've been a part of experimental theatre for the last 15 years and it's usually defined in relation to realism. But isn't this really a definiing scheme from the fifties? Modernism versus Traditional? I think we have moved way beyond that set of definitions. In my view, experimental has become a marketing scheme. Truly experimental works are created out of a combination/mashup of old and new elements. The most experimental fiction I've experienced in last year has been the Voyager CD "The Beat Experience" and the game Half Life 2 (not strickly fiction though). These two forms worked in the same way fiction does, but with entirely different means. Simply jagging around with form doesn't constitute a real experiment (as you point out so well). This is a good discussion topic and one that would bring out a lot of ideas. Neat post!

R J Keefe said...

I disagree that there's not a lot of ground left to be broken. We discover the ground only when it has been broken, generally in response to a writer's problem.

Anonymous said...

This argument sounds really similar to the difference between abstract vs. representational art. I don't recognize Lowe's traditional novel either, and I read pre-1950s fiction almost exclusively. Surely some literary giants - Samuel Butler? Marcel Proust? Jonathan Swift? - would qualify as "experimental" by this criteria, and they're certainly not contemporary writers...

Anyway, I think you're on the right track with your "tools over verisimilitude" theory. Great post, Kate.

chapman said...

it may be that, for a writer, this isn't a definition worth thinking about.

any definition, itself, tends to prevent the creation of experimental work. because it creates a misleading recipe.

an experiment really does need to be in some way unprecedented. not a pastiche of previous techniques.

but it's not a proper activity for a writer to sit around saying "am i experimental, am i avant-garde?" you'll do better to find out what way it is you write naturally, and what it is you can bring that is the most personal and idiosyncratic.

the artists we honor as great avant-gardists were often just naturally expressing their own weird personalities.

late goya, late beethoven, kafka, ives, beckett--they weren't saying "i've got to get some technique going to make this material more avant-garde." they were working on their own concerns within their own worlds.

what made their work new was that they didn't adjust the work to suit an audience.

but "experimental"--that's just a word for journalists to apply after the fact. nothing a writer should waste a second over.

Aaron Dietz said...

Just wanted to say I appreciated this. It's ultimately an impossible thing to define, so in general, one must consider the purpose of the definition, and work from there. Maybe.

Aaron Dietz said...

I'm back to say this: I was referred to Emile Zola's "The Experimental Novel". It is most likely the origin of the term, "experimental literature". In it, Zola links experimentation in literature to the scientific method. It is, in short, the "I have a dream" speech of experimental writers. Essentially it expresses the ultimate goal of experimental literature: to cure society of all its ills. It's brilliant.