April 22nd, 2013 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Experimental fiction as genre and as principle

Mothlight Cut-Up

A few years ago at Big Other I wrote a post entitled “Experimental Art as Genre and as Principle.” That distinction has been on my mind as of late, so I thought I’d revisit the argument. My basic argument then and now was that I see two different ways in which experimental art is commonly defined.

By principle I mean that the artist is committed to making art that’s different from what other artists are making—so much so that others often don’t even believe that it is art. As contemporary examples I’m fond of citing Tao Lin and Kenneth Goldsmith because I still hear people complaining that those two men aren’t real artists—that they’re somehow pulling a fast one on all their fans. (Someday I’ll explore this idea. How exactly does one perform a con via art? Perhaps it really is possible. Until then, I’ll propose that one indication of experimental art is that others disregard it as a hoax.) Tao visited my school one month ago, and after his presentation some folks there expressed concern, their brows deeply furrowed, that he was a Legitimate Artist—so this does still happen. (For evidence of Goldsmith’s supposed fakery, keep reading.)

Eventually, I bet, the doubts regarding Lin and Goldsmith will fall by the wayside. Things change. And it’s precisely because things change that the principle of experimentation must keep moving. The avant-garde, if there is one, must stay avant.

That’s only one way of looking at it, however. Experimental art becomes genre when particular experimental techniques become canonical and widely disseminated and practiced. The experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, during the 1960s, affixed blades of grass and moth wings to film emulsion, and scratched the emulsion, and painted on it, then printed and projected the results. Here is one example and here is another example. And here is a third; his films are beautiful and I love them. (The image atop left hails from Mothlight.) Today, countless film students also love Brakhage’s work, and use the methods he popularized to make projects that they send off to experimental film festivals. (Or at least they did this during the 90s, when I attended such festivals; I may be out of touch.)

Those films, I’d argue, while potentially beautiful and interesting, are not necessarily experimental films. As far as the principle of experimentation goes, those students had might as well be imitating Hitchcock.

For a literary example, let’s look at the Cut-Up Technique. Brion Gysin created it accidentally in the 1950s, when he sliced through a stack of newspaper with a razor. He demonstrated the method to William S. Burroughs, who used it to write Naked Lunch (published in 1959 by the Olympia Press—the first press to publish Barry N. Malzberg!). The novel proved immediately controversial, mainly due to its “obscene” content (sex & drugs)—but its fragmentary nature didn’t help.

Today lots of writers make Cut-Ups. And they need not risk nicking themselves with razors, since there exist numerous websites happy to do the cutting up for them. This is experimentation as genre. Sure, the results may boggle minds at certain rural MFA programs—but c’mon! We all learned the technique from Naked Lunch, which is commonly taught at college. And numerous journals are happy to publish such work.

In February 2011 I went to AWP, where Kevin Killian approached and (very politely) said, “Dodie’s work is much more experimental than you’re giving it credit to be.” This was in response to claims I’d made about one of Dodie Bellamy’s projects during my debate earlier that year with Christopher Higgs:

“If Cunt-Ups is experimental, it’s not because Bellamy did a Cut-Up in the year 2001. Viewed from the perspective of literature at large, Cut-Ups, and collages in general, are by now rather familiar. Of course there might be audiences who find Cunt-Ups the strangest thing they’ve ever seen. But Bellamy is following in a tradition: she states that directly in her Working Note: ‘Per Burroughs [sic] rather vague instructions […]’.”

I was careful there to qualify my claim, to not declare Cunt-Ups utterly devoid of experimentation. Rather my point was that if it was experimental, it wasn’t experimental because it was a Cut-Up. Cut-Ups—hell, indeterminate collages—are by now no longer inherently experimental or transgressive. If anything they’re traditional, familiar, even reactionary.

Be clear: I’m not claiming that good art can’t be made by means of collage, or that it’s impossible to find new ways of doing collage. The science-fiction / horror novel that I’m currently writing is collage-based, and I like to think it’ll be a good book, maybe even “experimental.” But if it is the latter, that won’t be so because it incorporates collage.

I’ve been making this argument for a while now. The response it usually triggers is: “Collage is still experimental to somebody!” That’s true; I don’t doubt it. But along the same lines, somebody somewhere no doubt thinks Vertigo experimental. My dear mother, for instance, would think it an odd film indeed, were she to watch it. Lord knows what would happen were I to show her Brakhage’s Mothlight.

But so what? My mother is neither a cineaste nor a film scholar. She isn’t particularly interested in movies. Meanwhile, her cinephile son found out about Brakhage at the Pennsylvania State University, in 1996, when he took a film class there. Since then he’s taught a few film classes of his own, where he’s included lectures on Brakhage, and shown the man’s films, which were also discussed in the course text (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art, 8th Edition). He could even show examples on DVD, thanks to the Criterion Collection, which has released two compilations of Brakhage’s films. The man has made it.

Likewise, if you graduate from college with a degree in writing or in English, odds are you’ve heard of Billy Burroughs. Naked Lunch has been kept in print by the Grove Press since they acquired it in 1962. It was included on Time Magazine‘s list of the 100 best English-language novels. David Cronenberg adapted it into a movie in 1991 (starring Robocop), which has since been released on DVD by (you guessed it) the Criterion Collection. The book, just like Brakhage, has made it. The Cut-Up Technique has made it.

The image atop right pictures a Cut-Up I made using the 28 March 2013 installment of the Chicago Reader. I opened that paper up to the middle and took out a straightedge razor and started slicing through the pages (no software for me). I then transcribed as best I could a portion of the resulting textual juxtapositions:

people but have to take love
who wouldn’t have to take her own
he said the person because would rather
Milwaukee than to huge Woodlawn—well
explains her own be experiencing
member wood seeking help for just made
even worked with kids in foam
you’re telling a client who used

Nothing experimental or transgressive or subversive is happening here, folks. Collage has made it. Random textual juxtapositions have made it. And one reason why they have made it is because they no longer possess much if any revolutionary potential. Such writing was once feared, perhaps, its legitimacy doubted. But times have changed. The powers that be, great institutions like the Pennsylvania State University, have seen the collage, and know they need not fear it. If anything, the intervening years have witnessed our world’s transformation into the collage. While writing this post I took fifty small breaks to check my email and answer texts and peruse Tweets and check out the word on Facebook. And, yes, that’s a pretty banal way of describing the manner in which we’ve grown used to encountering text as fragmentation—precisely my point.

Meanwhile, not all things that well-known experimental artists once did have entered the canon. William S. Burroughs was also a junkie. Heroin was as fundamental to his writing as the Cut-Up, perhaps even more fundamental. Why don’t his fans today embrace that technique—shoot some smack, then write? Why don’t they try teaching that in their college workshops—bring horse to school, encourage students to dope, see what happens? No? No takers? Well, Cut-Ups it will be, then!

Art that’s experimental in principle lies outside common genres, outside the canon. Most people find it unacceptable. Ange Mlinko notes several examples in her Nation review of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry, 2nd Edition, where she laments the inclusion of “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ ‘plundergraphia’ and ‘Google-sculpting’,” then singles out Vanessa Place and Catherine Wagner as specific examples of bad (illegitimate) poets. Wagner’s offense is to have penned

the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….”

To Mlinko, this poem’s lack of merit is self-evident; she assumes you agree. (She makes no argument as to why the poem is garbage, she just quotes its opening.) Since it’s so obviously trash, why did the editor, Paul Hoover, see fit to include it? There Mlinko provides an argument: Hoover was

eager to jettison sensibility, [and] has only fashion and popularity to guide him. […] Why would you teach this textbook? Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.

We’re back to “it’s a con.” None of the poets whom Mlinko fingers are making “sensible” poems. They’re just being fashionable—the implication there being that they will soon go out of fashion. And like all artists like these poets are capital—the money in your pocket, as well as the cultural kind, poetic street cred.

Mind you, I’m not trying to pick on Mlinko. She’s conservative in her tastes, but that’s not a crime. And who knows? Maybe she’s right about Flarf—although I’d rather see an argument, not just indignant dismissal. I’m always troubled by the refusal to engage. But what troubles me more are those artists who share Mlinko’s poetic boundaries, and yet mistake their conservatism (idolatry of canonized artists) for experimentation, for a radical subversion.

Maybe you, like me, know some devoted John Cage fans eager to build careers repeating that man’s work. They agree that all sounds are equally acceptable, and that they can use chance techniques to compose. Although in my experience, they usually aren’t fully committed to those ideals. But whatever; they commit themselves to a certain tradition now 60+ years old and aging. That’s their prerogative. I certainly don’t t think them awful people (though I might think them awful artists). Artists should make whatever they want, and there’s nothing wrong with remaking artworks from the past. I love tradition! But what are the claims that those artists make about their art. The young poet making poems by picking words out of a hat is no more experimental than the painter producing landscapes in the Impressionist tradition. Both are manifestations of aesthetic conservatism, of adherence to safe, acceptable traditions.

John Cage didn’t spend his career repeating others’ experiments. He took inspiration from Erik Satie and Henry Cowell, yes. Everyone making art has influences and operates in traditions; none of us invented “making art.” The question instead concerns the status of our influences and traditions. Cage’s heroes were not oddballs in their time, as well as in Cage’s time, and Cage learned from their oddest efforts. Satie and Cowell were not, by 1940 or 1950 or even 1960, institutionally enshrined. In following them, Cage broke hard with the dominant aesthetic of his time (serialism, which he studied under Schoenberg in the 30s). The compositions he made looked damned peculiar to nearly everyone around him, and were not seriously regarded until fairly late in his career. His circle of friends was small and he was poor and his influence started expanding only later in his life. Today he’s a legend and people adore him, practically worship him. He’s become St. Cage. In the past eight years, I’ve attended three Cage exhibitions at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and have no doubt missed more. And I can mention his name to hundreds of people who know who I’m talking about. I own numerous books by and about him, and have access to numerous recordings. All of this has been the case since I first found out about Cage, nearly twenty years ago—at Penn State University.

To repeat Cage’s fifty-plus-year-old experiments now, and to thereby pronounce oneself experimental, is to practice experimental art by way of genre. And to practice experimental art by way of genre is to betray the principle of Cage’s experimentation. Cage’s work has become a new set of boundaries. Many have no desire to escape them. Why should they? It’s comfortable there, knowing “the right way” of making art.

In stray moments I wonder why so many self-professed experimental artists practicing today are so determined to recreate the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t wonder why that time period is still relevant to the present (because it is), but why remaking revolutionary artworks from then should count today as revolution.

My point is that to take an artwork seriously, to take an artistic method or technique seriously, demands that we understand it in relation to its time. Cage’s chance techniques, as well as collage, and the Cut-Up Technique—they meant certain things in 1959—they positioned themselves against the culture in particular ways, which is how they derived their subversive qualities. Since then the culture has changed—it’s always changing—and this body of techniques is no longer quite so-positioned. We do well to wonder if they can still achieve what they once did.

Those who claim otherwise are by extension claiming that nothing has changed, or that little has changed. In their view, experimental artists comprise some kind of Rebel Alliance, long at war with the evil Galactic Empire—ever since Darth Aristotle built the very first Death Star of Unity. The Rebels, a scruffy and underprivileged lot, have spent the ages arming themselves with mind tricks good at disrupting that unity, and knocking the Death Star’s targeting computer out of whack. Jedi Master Wil’bu Ro’cut discovered one such technique, a means for disrupting linear time and space, which he passed on before his death to his Padawan, Kathack Theer. Who passed it on to . . . What those espousing this view misunderstand is that there is no single Galactic Empire, but a succession of them, if not a multiplicity of them. The Rebel Alliance sometimes succeeds in blowing up a Death Star. But so too does it often succeed in building a Death Star of its own. The Cut-Up Technique is now aboard a Death Star. It’s helping pilot that Death Star.

(I’m terrible at analogies.)

At this point we might ask (assuming any of this has been convincing—please let me know): what are the demands of experimentation as principle? Does it necessitate the rejection of genre, or of tradition? Does it require a constant breaking with the past? Yes and no. Because there are, I think, two different ways, broadly speaking, to go about it, both of which I’ll try addressing in my next post.

Until then, just try doing something experimental.

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  1. Matt Rowan

      Just to address the Tao Lin point. The guy stokes people’s passions. He certainly has that going for him. I’m not willing to fall into the trap of suggesting he isn’t “legitimate,” because I know the hornet’s nest that stirs, I do for my own personal tastes, find what he’s concerned with creatively (apparently) incredibly dull, and for what it’s worth, unimaginative in the ways I find exciting. Is he unimaginative? No. Is he highly polarizing because of how he approaches his art, and accordingly there are legends of people who either love him or hate him? Completely. I might say more, but for now, that’s what I think (if anyone was curious).

  2. Michael Fischer

      People dislike Lin, who, btw, is incredibly dull and unimaginative, because his style is affectedly derivative, which isn’t helped by his gimmicky persona. I don’t see how anyone with a knowledge of “the past” could see him as doing something radically new. The style often feels like overworked and overcooked Modernism, like if you were to plop twenty-two-year old Hemingway in Brooklyn minus the historical urgency and context. I find him completely boring, lifeless, and unoriginal because of my “understanding of the past.”

      As for your questions…I side with Michael Martone (and others) in that I refuse to acknowledge “experimental” as a genre, unless you want to rename the entire genre as a whole–fiction–experimental, because it is. And I base my argument on my understanding of the past, an understanding that makes any attempt to tease “experimental” as a separate category from “fiction” pointless. The demands of experimentation are the same demands any serious fiction writer should privilege, namely, a dual and contradictory awareness of the past and originality, and how the two can never be resolved. Why would anyone want to pick sides?

  3. Brooks Sterritt

      Brian Evenson responding to deadgod in the comments section of http://bit.ly/jBVfYu (w/r/t “experiments that stay experimental”):

      “My sense is there are, and that there’s something about Beckett and Kafka that still remains fresh, though perhaps that’s not true of all their work. I don’t think of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as particularly innovative at this point, nor do I think of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as being so; that may be partly because those are the works that the culture at large has spent the most time interpreting, appropriating, claiming. But Molloy still feels alive to me, a little bit of a different book every time I read it (same with “A Country Doctor”). Would they feel as alive if they’d had the same sort of aggressive commentary as “The Metamorphosis”? Maybe not, but I also think that there’s a reason they haven’t had that commentary, that they resist cultural appropriation more successfully than those other (still excellent) works.

      One can argue that Sterne’s Tristram Shandy remains still innovative as well despite being several centuries old; I guess I’d argue instead that from one perspective that seems to be the case and from another not, that maybe it’s as much a question of the angle you take in regard to a work, the way you look at it. Writers are constantly revivifying works that come before them, going back and looking at books that weren’t particularly noticed in their own time but that now seem like they opened productive possibilities for fiction that were missed. So I think innovation lies partly in the resilience of the work (which suggests a certain quotient of productive ambiguity) and partly in the angle of gaze of the reader/thinker. In that sense, a few literary works still feel innovative through several generations, but a very few indeed–there are far more works that succeed well for a particular moment but can’t adapt outside of that moment.

      If you want to phrase it in “experimental” terms, I guess you could argue that there are some experiments that are very hard to repeat, that the precision and elegance of the procedure make them stand apart and last over time…”

  4. P@+ F1nn

      I think peoples’ minds will change about Tao Lin once Taipei comes out, which is much more “literary” than Richard Yates and SFAA, mostly because he lifted some of the constraints he used to impose upon himself, which would lead people to think he “wasn’t trying” or something. I love all of Tao Lin’s writing, but I think many of the criticisms directed at him would be deflated if people read Bed and Eeee Eee Eeeee which, like Taipei, are not written in a minimalist realist style. The non-linear presentation of Eeee Eee Eeeee is really well executed and there are some moments in that book — like when that teenage girl rants semi-coherently about her anti-capitalist fatalistic philosophy to her patient mother, who tries to understand — that are just about as good as fiction gets.

  5. Brendan Connell

      I am a little uncertain of the word “experimental”. I think by using it we impress upon many texts things that are just not there. Since, in fact, most of what is called experimental has been done before, something truly experimental would be something that us “literary” types would not recognize. I also definitely would not call Tao Lin experimental. I actually cannot think of any contemporary author who really is. But, in the end there are only two genres: Bad Writing and Good Writing.

  6. Brendan Connell

      Yes, I think Brian hits on it. But the reason Beckett is great has nothing to do with being experimental. It has everything to do with Beckett being a thoughtful person and a writer of great ability. The beauty of Malloy lies in the language and Beckett’s revelation as to perception, not in that, stylistically, he was imitating Joyce. If a writer can’t bring original thought and revelation to the table, all else is just distraction.

  7. Jeremy Hopkins

      This reminded me a bit of what you and [somebody] were saying elsewhere about “eccentrics.”

      An artist determined to make something “experimental” might be forming their own spoke away from the center, eventually becoming what some might call “eccentric,” but not without a traceable path to the center; and not without the risk of forming a new center (which would be the established experimentation you talk about, such as cut-up).

      Another artist might have never been in the center, might not really know what the center looks like, and could create in an intellectual space apart from the tradition altogether (or to whatever degree is realistically possible), creating something which might be called (however fallaciously) “experimental,” though it wasn’t produced with that as a principle. It might be more accurately called outsider/naive art (though I don’t like either term).

      I mean, if you don’t know the rules or tradition, if you aren’t actively and willfully doing it differently, that doesn’t mean you can’t “innovate.” (Does innovation prove and experiment occurred?) And if you do know the past, then to intend to innovate, you either intentionally do it “wrong” or “experiment.”
      I think one could do it “wrong” without actually hoping for or seeking a new kind of “right.” Would this still be an experiment? Maybe it is mere vandalism or dirt-kicking.



      Is it possible to subvert Cage, or art in that vein? Perhaps by parody, but who would know the difference?

  8. deadgod

      It makes sense to turn the conversation away from “experimental”–which term (I guess) few embrace–to “fresh” and “alive” and the feeling of surprise: work that’s “resilien[t]” in, as it were, resisting normalization or conventionalization on the parts either of a culture or, for the most part, ‘strong’ readers.

      That’s what a ‘classic’ is, for those who don’t resent such a category: something that stays new-feeling for most of its audience (that is, for most readers and most periods of the work’s emergence).

      The point of “phras[ing] it in ‘experimental’ terms” is to let forward that persistent novelty, which Evenson acknowledges while resisting “experimental”, in terms contrary to familiarization: what in/of it causes surprise on a second encounter with the work? or (nearly) every reading? in (nearly) every community in which the work arrives?

      Although it seems to have become an embarrassing ambition to announce, I think it’s worth preserving “experiment” in contrast to “convention”.

  9. deadgod

      to take an artwork seriously […] demands that we understand it in relation to its time

      A less open-and-shut understanding than it sounds.

      To take the historicity of action thoroughly is to risk ‘seeing’ historical distance as an opacity of methodologically uncertain dissolution. We can’t “understand it in relation to its time”, because that time isn’t our time, and the premise is that different times are really, really different.

      This relativizing means that nothing is repeated; Allais’s score of unwritten notes (for ‘deaf’ people) isn’t silent in the way 4’33”, because their contexts–including, for the latter, the former–aren’t identical.

      Blow Out isn’t Blow-up Hitchcockized, because the ’80s weren’t the ’60s.

      Historical difference requires that copying is necessarily ‘making it new’, and that influence doesn’t exist (except as a convenient fiction).

      Maybe “experiment” and an ‘experiment/convention’ or ‘experiment/tradition’ contrast are a way out of a critical historicist morass.

  10. takethisrobot

      The problem with “experimental” as I see it, is that this word triggers an association with the physical sciences, that when one “experiments” it is with a measurable result in mind, and that the experiment is judged a success or failure based on the extent to which it achieves this result. This is not, in my experience, or in the descriptions put forward by art historians, how artists experiment. The artist relies on his/her own subjective judgement in choosing whether to redact or allow a piece of art into the world. Even accepting the substitution of this individual judgement for the rigid parameters governing “success” in the scientific sense, the end product which reaches the market would not be an “experiment” but a “result.”

      In this light, I saw Evenson’s use of the term subject to “the precision and elegance of the procedure” as acknowledging the private nature of experimentation and the artist’s unique role in the process (as the sole index of success), as well as the inherent fallacy of applying this term to works which have become a part of the discourse. Although, perhaps this is me projecting my own views onto the quote. Idk

  11. Jeremy Hopkins

      What about DNA?

  12. A D Jameson

      I definitely agree about good and bad. Although I think that’s determined more by genre than by absolutes.

      I call Tao Lin experimental because I see a lot of people claiming that what he’s doing doesn’t count as literature. Thus it seems to me he’s challenging what counts as literature, which is what I consider experimental. It doesn’t matter to me whether someone else has done it before. Lit’s a vast tradition and no doubt everything’s already been done in the abstract. But it’s also important to look at how things are done in specific places and times. And just because something’s been done doesn’t mean everyone knows about it, or that it’s commonly accepted.

  13. NLY

      Abstract principles, like being experimental, as an artist, mean very little to me. Creativity is a game of lived specifics and particulars, and if I’m happy to occasionally view the creative process as a kind of local experimentation and self-testing, it’s also alien to me to spend any time thinking about ‘being experimental’.

  14. A D Jameson

      I knew you’d pick out that line, deadgod :)

      I believe Borges when he argued that Pierre Menard had written a different book than Cervantes had.

  15. A D Jameson
  16. Brendan Connell

      Well, I think Tao Lin has as much claim to “literature” as anyone else. But considering he has landed a big publishing contract, I am uncertain what validity those who claim he doesn’t write literature holds.

      As for “genre” – I think that is where we start to slip. “Genre” is only a marketing tool and has very little to do with what is inside the covers. Unfortunately many people align themselves with genres simply because they crave to belong to some group, to have some sort of identity. So, in that sense, I think writers who closely align themselves with specific genres are less likely to be good writers. I am not saying it is impossible, but it is far more rare. In this I also include those writers who profess to be writing “literature” or “experimental” writing.

      But I am generally of the opinion that ability in writing/art is more of something someone is born with than that is learned. Thus my distrust of art schools, MFA programs etc.

  17. A D Jameson

      An artist determined to make something “experimental” might be forming their own spoke away from the center, eventually becoming what some might call “eccentric,” but not without a traceable path to the center; and not without the risk of forming a new center (which would be the established experimentation you talk about, such as cut-up).

      I think I agree with that. Artists are always reacting to specific situations (real or imagined). If an artist wants to be different from everyone else, then he or she needs to have some notion of what everyone else was like.

      John Cage was very much outside the center in the 1950s and 60s. Then he formed his own center. Now a lot of people are clustered there.

      Another artist might have never been in the center, might not really know what the center looks like, and could create in an intellectual space apart from the tradition altogether (or to whatever degree is realistically possible), creating something which might be called (however fallaciously) “experimental,” though it wasn’t produced with that as a principle. It might be more accurately called outsider/naive art (though I don’t like either term).

      I don’t like those terms, either. It seems to me that artists either operate within artistic traditions (to a greater or lesser degree), or they simply aren’t making art. There has to be some degree of continuity, however infinitesimal it may be.

      Personally I find the outsider/naive art terminology more marketing/branding than anything. (I used to be the membership coordinator for an outsider art gallery.)

      I mean, if you don’t know the rules or tradition, if you aren’t actively and willfully doing it differently, that doesn’t mean you can’t “innovate.” (Does innovation prove and experiment occurred?) And if you do know the past, then to intend to innovate, you either intentionally do it “wrong” or “experiment.”

      I do believe that some experimental art is made on accident. Also though I tend to differentiate between experimental and innovative. Innovative means making something new again; Harry Potter is one of my go-to examples. (Rowling revived the boarding school genre through it.) But I wouldn’t call Harry Potter experimental.

      It’s easy to see how someone who doesn’t know the dominant traditions—i.e., an outsider artist—could experiment “on accident.” But they would still have to have some idea of what art making is, or has been.

      Is it possible to subvert Cage, or art in that vein?

      I fervently hope for the future of art that it is.

      Cage is loaded with contradictions and inconsistencies. I wish people spent more time picking at them. I plan to spend more time doing precisely that. (I adore Cage and think the best way to demonstrate that adoration is to critique him. Like I said—I’m tons of fun at parties!)


  18. A D Jameson

      I’ve read the beginning and ending of Taipei and agree that it looks pretty different than Tao’s other books. Looking forward to really sitting down with it.

      I agree, too, about Eeeee Eee Eeee (although you spelled it backwards—”5-3-4″ is how I remember it myself). I dunno. I’ve read all the guy’s books, and they all seem pretty different to me. He’s totally invested in exploring form/style, admittedly within a relatively small area. He also revises extensively; I don’t get how others don’t see that. (It’s easy to find different versions of his poems, for instance. Plus he has always said he revises extensively.)

      For some reason people don’t read Tao Lin very carefully. Is my experience.

      Cheers, Adam

  19. Roxane

      I agree about Taipei, which I am currently reading. It is not the book I was expecting. It’s going to surprise people.

  20. deadgod

      Of course, I’d meant culturally rather than naturally–another fraught polarity–, but it’s a useful analogy, so I’ll play.

      Leaving aside the quibble that no replicated strand of tens of thousands–or, probably, even scores–of nucleotides is exactly identical to its ‘original’, the identity of ATCG-etc. strands to other same-sequenced strands ATCG-etc. is a real question for science.

      It’s a complicated way of asking whether and how two electrons are the ‘same’ or ‘different’ (or both or neither).

      I think Aristotle’s solution remains the gold standard of ingenuity and accuracy. Two electrons, or two pieces of same-sequenced nucleic acid, are formally the same as and materially different from each other. As are two apples, two lizards — two of any members of a category. It’s by virtue of the mind’s participation with and in formal unity and coherence that one can recognize the categorical similarity between two electrons, and by virtue of the logic that emerges through empirical compulsion that one can recognize their categorical differences.

      With respect to historical difference, I think the variables that are either the same or different (or both or neither) are so numerous, mutable in themselves, and susceptible (as it were) to observer interference that the DNA analogy is only, eh, so useful and not more. However much “so” is…

  21. A D Jameson


      I don’t think Tao has a single style, and I don’t find his writing dull or imaginative. And I don’t see the problem with being derivative. He’s working within a particular tradition, yes, I think that’s clear. But he’s not just doing the same exact thing others in that tradition have done. But even if he were, so what? As Borges said, to rewrite Don Quixote now would be to produce a different novel.

      But I’ve read most everything by Hemingway, and while Tao is definitely part of that tradition, he’s not the same thing. Sure, he’s interested in elision and parataxis. Tao, I think, learned it more from the dirty realists, who of course learned it from Hemingway et al. Hemingway learned it from Stein. She learned it from the French Symbolists.

      My point is that Tao exists within an established tradition, with clear debts, and yet many people don’t acknowledge what he’s doing as literature. That interests me greatly. Because it seems to me he’s found a way to experiment with something pretty familiar (a certain kind of realism).

      One of the reasons why I like distinguishing between experimental fiction as genre and principle is that I think experimentation can be done everywhere, and not just in particular areas. And in that way I agree with you that all fiction has the potential, at least, to be experimental. But I don’t think all fiction is. I would also distinguish between experimentation and innovation. To make something new doesn’t mean to challenge people’s notions of what fiction is, or can be. As I’ve said elsewhere, Harry Potter is innovative, but it isn’t experimental.

      Always good to hear from you!


  22. deadgod

      So Cratylus’s puzzle stands forward: if you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t step in ‘it’ once.

  23. A D Jameson

      I’m not interested in whether people like or dislike Tao’s writing. People are free to respond to it however they want. I initially disliked it myself, then learned to like it.

      What interests me are the objective claims people make about it—claims as to whether it’s even literature, what tradition(s) it’s operating in, whether it’s innovative, etc.

  24. A D Jameson

      I tend to agree that theoretical arguments matter only if one can point to specific examples. I’m pragmatic that way.

      I also don’t think that making experimental art necessarily gets one anything. So one’s experimental—so what? Although in my experience it’s the “experimental art as genre” crowd that tends to most value being experimental.

  25. A D Jameson

      My initial impression is that it looks like a certain kind of Vintage book from the late 70s / early 80s.

  26. Jeremy Hopkins

      If we include things such as “historical context” as ingredients, then no particular combination of all ingredients may be replicated; but the ingredients themselves may reappear. QED: influence is not a fiction.

  27. Jeremy Hopkins

      I have enjoyed some Cage, and he’s interesting to hear in interviews, but I still think he was wrong about stuff.
      “Put a can of paint on a pedestal and tell people to imagine the painting is whatever is going on in the room at the time.” https://twitter.com/J_Y_Hopkins/status/243409774291591169

  28. A D Jameson

      He was wrong about a lot of things. The biggest mistake his current fans make, I think, is to accept everything he says so uncritically.

  29. NLY

      Yeah, the sense that being experimental in relation to history is the ultimate good of art is what I find most difficult about that crowd’s thinking. I’m sure, for example, there was a certain level of obsession with ‘newness’ on the part of Joyce, or a certain level of interest in his own difference from his precedents on the part of Shakespeare, but the human particulars are very rich in those two. The Poundian rhetoric of most Make It Newsies doesn’t seem to have an analogous richness to it, only an over-elaborate line for the philosophical hard sell.

      To put it another way, your point about how often people who want to be experimental do so by recreating the techniques and devices of another time strikes me as being mostly about needing someone else’s particulars to wear because all you have on offer are theories about practice.

  30. Michael Fischer

      Thanks for the response, AD.

      1: Points well taken on Lin. I could disagree with you here, but I’m honestly uninterested in expending further energy on a writer who, at least online, is over-examined at the expense of other writers just as interesting yet less “popular” or “unpopular” online. I’ll admit upfront that his PR stunts and gimmicks bother me a great deal, because it reinforces this notion that a writer’s personality or persona is as important as the work, that becoming “popular” or provocatively unpopular online (see Seth O’s latest trick/gimmick) is now seen as an important career step before anyone pays close attention to the work. I’m bothered tremendously by this elevation of “author,” or the idea that in order for readers to like one’s work, readers must first be attracted somehow to the writer’s personality (positively or negatively). When did this shift occur? I don’t know, but I hate it, and it’s becoming more prevalent because of the Internet and platform-building.

      2. The problem with “experimental”-as-“genre” is that it usually looks and feels a certain way. There’s no real methodology for classifying “experimental” work other than it carry itself in a way that’s immediately recognized as experimental; many works not considered experimental are clearly experimental upon closer examination. It’s not like people use the word to classify certain works of realism more experimental than “experimental” work. We all know that if someone created an “experimental” section in a bookstore, the books within would look and feel similar and be immediately recognizable as “experimental” by niche lovers of experimental literature. Perhaps you are genuine enough to include a range of works within this supposed genre, but, in my experience, most people who use the word “as genre” have a rather insular and narrow idea of what it looks and feels like–and I find this coded use of the word highly problematic and disingenuous.

  31. deadgod

      No, that’s an incisive way to catch Evenson’s distrust of “experimental”, and one I hadn’t thought of in your helpful terms.

      I think considering “experimental” as a close analogy to physical science is useful in this way: an “experimental” work is an ‘attempt, trial, essay’–a testing.

      What happens if ____? (‘Happens’ aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually, and so on.)

      And, put this way, there’s the objection–qualification, I think–that Bomb (Michael Fischer, one of ? “Guest”s (?)) has raised often: all fiction, for example, is at least a little such a ‘What if?’. Mrs Gaskell, Cheever… pick someone who thoroughly belongs in groups, or whom you think of as uncontroversially an example of a type. That writer, every time, is actually “experimenting”–is, as Evenson’s suggests, coming to a privately navigated new place with each work.

      Likewise with “convention”: as Adam says (again) on this thread, every work, no matter how different-seeming from all around it, practically employs or makes a home in various “conventions”.

      So “experiment” and “convention” are not dichotomous, but rather, are poles on a spectrum, between which extremities (unreachable in experience) all points partake of some more or less inverse ratio of those extremities.

      The Unnameable, while clearly falling within certain “conventions”, is equally clearly considerably an “experiment”, and the Rabbit novels, while clearly “experimenting” with a couple of routines, are clearly “conventional” novels.

      (One–especially one who loved reading Beckett and Updike–might ask, well, why bother differentiating Beckett from Updike in this way? since they’re each a fine writer? Well, what’s that guy doing reading this thread?? It’d be like someone who absolutely hates liver ordering liver in a restaurant.)

      Perhaps a way of answering Evenson’s misgiving at “experimental” would be to think of it (in art) as a synonym of ‘exploratory’. Hard science, too, ‘explores’, but, as you say, a scientific test is one of a given hypothesis; whatever genuinely novel fact or perspective that arises is set aside from the “experiment” for later, separate investigation. An artwork doesn’t test in this way: it’s OKAY if the thing feels quite different than you’d expected it to… it’s even GOOD.

      “Experiment” in the sense of knowingly challenging one’s forestructures of understanding–as Adam says, “experiment” in art is often directly, willfully connected to overcoming the or some givenness of “art”. (–while in science, “experiment” means establishing or reinforcing some notional givenness of concrete experience, or establishing the reason for disputing that given.)

  32. A D Jameson

      Hi Michael,

      I hear you. I plan to write more about this phenomenon myself.

      In case it’s not clear, I have a lot of problems with experimental fiction (or writing, art) as genre.

      many works not considered experimental are clearly experimental upon closer examination

      Heavy agreement. And this is very well put:

      We all know that if someone created an “experimental” section in a bookstore, the books within would look and feel similar and immediately recognizable as “experimental” by niche lovers of experimental literature.

      That’s precisely the problem.

      Have you read House of Leaves? It’s very experimental!


  33. A D Jameson

      I keep meaning to make a list of all the News:

      Make it New
      The New Criticism
      The French New Wave
      [all the other New Waves]
      The New Sentence
      The New Narrative
      New Wave
      The New Thing
      Huey Lewis and the News
      The New Wave Revival

      Making it new is the oldest game around.

  34. A D Jameson

      Experiment comes from the Latin “to try,” and originally meant to put something to a test. It long predates empirical science (adding: at least as we currently understand scientific experiment).

      For me the test is a test of art’s boundaries. The experimental artist wants to see how far he/she can go and still be making something recognizable as art (recognizable by others).

  35. A D Jameson

      I think there are at least two questions here:

      1. Is the artwork good/great?
      2. Is the artwork experimental—does it test or expand or challenge our notion of what art is?

      Experimental art need not be good art, and vice-versa. Indeed, if the artwork is extremely experimental, that may complicate answering the first question (since the goal might be to disrupt the very means by which it can be answered).

  36. A D Jameson

      I definitely agree that certain things stay experimental. It all depends on how the culture moves, or parts of the culture move. Also, it might make sense for artists, later on, to repeat certain experiments. (I don’t find that to be a contradiction.)

      We all have some idea or set of ideas as to how art can be made. Those ideas overlap to a greater or lesser extent. This can be demonstrated by walking into a bookstore, observing the similarities between the books there.

      Experimental art challenges those ideas. If someone argues that something is a work of literature, and you/others resist agreeing, you’re in the presence of experimental art. I think it’s that simple. (Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the experimental artwork in question is good, or will eventually be accepted as art.)

      This is why experimental techniques that becomes experimental art as genre stop being experimental. No one today disputes that the Cut-Up Technique can be used to make literature. (Sure, some people somewhere may dispute that, so it remains experimental in those quarters, but so what?) Of course the situation may change, and someday it may be necessary to test that boundary again.

  37. deadgod

      “Ingredient” here is another term for ‘formally identical unit’.

      Sodium and chloride are “ingredients”; while the atoms are different, different sodium and chloride atoms combine to form the same pattern: NaCl. The molecules of that kind of salt are formally the same, no matter the material distinction among a particular sodium atom and particular chloride atom in a particular salt molecule in your hot dog and such atoms in a molecule in the South China Sea and such atoms on a comet in another galaxy.

      What of the ‘units’ of culture?

      We call the ceremonial uniting of a man and a woman as the parents in a family of parents and children a “marriage”. Is that relationship a trans-culturally fixed “ingredient”?

      Are the “marriage” between Hephaestus and Aphrodite that comically (and sinisterly) appears in The Odyssey and the two “marriages” at the end of Sense and Sensibility and the “marriage” at the heart of Light Years the same “ingredient”? –was the question I’d meant to beg, in the sense of a hypothesis yet undemonstrated in its conclusion.

  38. Jeremy Hopkins

      Cultish repetition of revolutionary mantras: “radical,” as in “rooted.”
      Art meant to make people think about form may eventually become formal. (Like you said in the article.) How can this be? Because the forms against which they acted still live on. The riverbank erodes, yes, because there is evermore water to fill it.

  39. Brendan Connell

      Well, I think the whole idea of “testing or expanding or challenging our notion of what art is”—is, well, very old fashioned. In other words, just having that as such a common criteria (it is taught at University to a huge number of students each year), is in itself completely non-experimental. In other words, yes, in the 50s and 60s this concept was valid, but it no longer is. The value-system of “art” should no longer be in these terms. What terms it should be in of course is the big question and to answer it is something that critics are failing to do…. I am of course not putting forward these ideas as argument, but more in the hopes of furthering the discussion.

  40. A D Jameson

      It certainly is an old-fashioned idea. The principle of experimental art is nothing new.

      What art is keeps changing. It will keep changing as long as there is art—its specific boundaries will always be in dispute. But those disputes will also change. The boundaries change.

  41. Brooks Sterritt

      I really like the distinction you’ve brought up, of art as experimental vs. art that uses (formerly) experimental techniques.

      I wonder about defining something as experimental if others say it isn’t art though. People enter museums all the time and annoyingly say “this isn’t art,” depending on their preferences. They say it about video art, graffiti, and even canonical minimalist stuff, etc. But that doesn’t make any of that experimental.

  42. Brendan Connell

      A more interesting question might be, why, with such an abundance of “art” being produced, so little of it is good.

  43. A D Jameson

      That’s true. But they’re also saying that in museums. So they’re encountering those things in the presence of a cultural institution that claims they’re art.

      This is why I use my mother as an example. (Sorry, Mom!)

  44. A D Jameson

      I think roughly 10% of it is good. Which has always been the case.

  45. Brooks Sterritt

      I guess I’ve never heard someone make the claim that something isn’t a novel while holding it in their hand.

  46. Brooks Sterritt

      And I actually can’t really remember any articles that try to exclude Tao from literature, per se, though I may have forgotten them

  47. A D Jameson

      1. You lead a charmed life.
      2. Ange Mlinko disagrees with you, and she’s not alone.
      3. Here’s another example. “Literature is made when a writer exploits different rhetoric in an attempt to manipulate a reader; Lin’s ‘literature’ is the account of his manipulation of his girlfriend in a prose that is interchangeable with anything online written by the under thirty commentariat.”

  48. A D Jameson

      See also the comments following Josh’s review. E.g.,

      October 13, 2010
      11:01 pm

      Dear Joshua Cohen,

      I love you. Seriously, I love you. It’s about time someone called out Tao Lin, and not just hate on but intelligently destroy. I have been waiting to read something like this for a long time. I am now going to go out and buy a copy of “Witz” as soon as possible to thank you. I hope to meet you someday so you can sign it and then we can talk about how bad Tao Lin is. Also thank you for calling out fishman’s blog and the legion of hipster kids who want to be Tao Lin because they also lead boring lives and are dumb. Thanks again.

      I don’t make this stuff up. I just observe.

  49. Brooks Sterritt

      Too true–those are good examples, that I now remember. I guess I lump those kinds of criticisms together with the people who see a Pollock or whatever and say “my child paints better than that.”

  50. Brooks Sterritt

      That kind of thing is entertaining but doesn’t add anything to the conversation for me. I’m interested that people try to undermine a work’s status as “art” but not interested in their opinion really. It basically translates to “I don’t like this, so I’ll call it not-art.”

  51. Jeremy Hopkins

      Comparing one physical grain of salt (strictly, NaCl) to another will not show the same sameness as the comparison of two fictional marriages. And yet they must have something in common, else they wouldn’t both be marriages. (Like you said about categories.)

      [In other words, I get your point that cultural “ingredients” are different from physical materials and did already when I said the thing about DNA.]

      To answer with questions: If we see in the natural world things reproduced, (even if they are only small things,) why would we limit our abstract thinking to modes and/or conceptualizations which deny reproduction? Isn’t it literally unrealistic?

  52. JosephYoung

      I like the defining of experimental as “that’s not art”–that’s smart–but i think deadgod’s “freshness” principle is more useful to art and artists. if someone can do 3rd person omniscient domestic psychological realism and make you feel like you’ve never seen it before then there’s the money shot.

  53. A D Jameson

      “my child paints better than that.”

      That’s exactly it. There are multiple ways to declare artworks illegitimate.

      Which is exactly what I think the experimental artist wants to risk (speaking generally). That’s the/a boundary—whatever currently doesn’t look like art.

  54. Jeremy Hopkins

      It’s because people are picky.

  55. A D Jameson

      I certainly don’t agree with the comment, or with Josh’s review, but I note that more than one person is drawing a limit there in the year 2010.

      I’m always interested in noting where others are drawing the boundaries. Art consists of whatever people currently think art consists of.

  56. Brooks Sterritt

      Then there would seem to be as many boundaries as there are people, some of whom still think anything non-figurative is illegitimate.

      That’s interesting. What about someone who says everything and nothing is art? What kind of boundaries are there to transgress/tread for that person? We’ve had long had human shit as art (and other fluids, etc), intangible performance as art, going to someone’s house and cooking food for them as art, etc. Seems like boundaries in the visual arts are less of an issue, and have been.

  57. A D Jameson

      Then there would seem to be as many boundaries as there are people, some of whom still think anything non-figurative is illegitimate.

      That’s possible but in my experience it doesn’t actually happen. Because people learn from what preceded them in the culture what things are. Don’t you agree? I mean, don’t you find that people tend to agree as to what a work of literature is? Which is to say, scene by scene, there’s a lot of overlap as to what makes an artwork?

      That’s what I’ve found to be true. People tend to agree with one another. Most people like agreeing with one another.

      People are less individual than they think.

      This cuts to a common criticism of the MFA workshop. “People in MFA workshops want to turn every story into a work of 3rd person limited psychological realism.” I’d say that’s true in my experience, 9 times out of 10.

      People in MFA workshops think that 3rd person psychological realism is the best way to make a story.

      I mean, it isn’t like one walks into a bookstore and sees every possibility for writing fiction represented! This is why experimental fiction will always have a place. And this is why there will always be experimental fiction. (At least, according to the way I define it.)

      As for someone who says that everything is art, that’s a different conversation altogether, one which I plan to spend the next year if not longer addressing. (We can discuss it together! I hope that we do.)

  58. A D Jameson

      I think freshness is a different thing from experimentation.

      There are at least two things at stake:
      1. What do we already understand to comprise art? And how to make that feel fresh? That’s what I call innovation.

      2. What lies outside what we currently call art? That’s what I call experimentation.

      Personally, I’m more interested in innovation than I am in experimentation, but I think both have their place in the ongoing conversation as to what should comprise art.

  59. takethisrobot

      deadgod–thanks–I think that “coming to a privately navigated new place” is an excellent way to put it–much more in line with a “process-oriented” view of art, and leaving open the possibility that one may create either something that seems “new” or “fresh” by largely conventional means or, conversely, create something conventional using completely unprecedented processes (I might argue, however, that the latter case is probably more common than the former, as incipient writers have much more of the “product” generated by their forebears, to use as inspiration, than they have access to the actual “processes” used to create those works–taking this thought one step further, would the writer using “conventional processes” even know that they were conventional?)

      To answer A.D.’s point–and to some extent, in reference to the original article–in thinking about the suitability of a term (in this case, “experimental” w/r/t writing) I try to apply, in most cases, descriptivist principles, relying on popular and contemporary usage to determine not only meaning, but the relative weight of multiple meanings. That is to say, A.D. is entirely correct in pointing out that the word “experiment” predates empirical science, which is relevant in that it’s meaning can/should not be completely circumscribed by that discipline–in my view, though, “experiment” has meant different things at different times, and to different audiences.

      It is only in this present situation, and in light of my unavoidable biases as a person alive in this place and time, that I find the word to be insufficient. Perhaps it is an overly academic notion that the words we use do much to control the actual substance of the discourse, but I do believe that the term “experimental,” in the popular imagination, does not reflect the nuanced, imo “more correct” understanding evinced in Evenson’s comment, as well as in the comments above. If it did, the term wouldn’t provoke the broadsides of critics such as Mlinko, Franzen, etc., as it would be understood more broadly to include artists those critics find praiseworthy. “Experimental” understood in this sense is larger than a genre or principle, it is an impetus, even a necessary one, to artistic creation. The fact that it is, demonstrably, not understood this way is evidence that a new term might be needed, so as not to perpetuate the false binary any further.

  60. A D Jameson

      Hi Brendan,

      I think genre is more than just a marketing technique, though that’s debatable. I suppose I like to think that genre is more than just a marketing technique, but I might be wrong about that.

      I mean, genre certainly can be a marketing technique, but maybe it’s more than that? I keep meaning to do more research into the history of genre, and where the notion came from.

      Literally it just means “kind,” right? And it makes sense to distinguish between different kinds of art, I think, whether a market exists or not? (But maybe I’m wrong about that?)

      Anyway, I agree with you that anyone claiming that Tao Lin isn’t writing literature is wrong. But people keep making that claim. That’s what interests me. It suggests to me that he’s demonstrating a boundary that many people today subscribe to.

      I definitely agree with you that people crave belonging. That’s my whole critique of experimental fiction as genre.

      I liken experimental fiction as genre to people who fall in love with Tori Amos, or Star Trek. (And I say this as someone who, at different points in his life, fell in love with Tori Amos and with Star Trek.)

      What happens is, I think, people discover something that speaks to them. (Tori Amos / Star Trek / a certain kind of experimental fiction). And they then think they’ve really achieved something. Well, they have! A previous limitation they had has been E X P L O D E D ! ! Their consciousness has been expanded.

      But then they think that they’re done. They divide the world up into two things:
      1. Those who are on board with Tori Amos / Star Trek / experimental fiction;
      2. Those who aren’t.

      (Feel free to substitute “indie rock” for any of those terms. Ryan Schreiber and Pitchfork make for another convenient example. We don’t lack for examples! Also, I live in Chicago.)

      Anyway, my point is, those people then think that the revolution is over. Because the purpose in life is to get from point A to point B.

      Point A: non-fan
      Point B: Tori Amos / Star Trek / experimental fiction / indie rock / Pitchfork fan

      And my point is that to think of something revolutionary as a thing that can be definitively accomplished is to misunderstand the very principle of revolution.

      “The price of revolution is eternal revolution” (to grossly (mis-)paraphrase Wendell Philips).


  61. A D Jameson

      No, you can totally step in it. I step in it all the time.

  62. Brooks Sterritt

      It’s tricky, because I certainly don’t think people agree on what is “good.” But just like you said about the institution of the museum, a label in a bookstore that says Fiction/Literature is a kind of a legitimizing stamp.

      I agree about the workshop consensus thing, but I’ve also only attended certain ones, and don’t have an overview of all workshops.

      can’t stop thinking about “alternative” music and getting derailed

  63. A D Jameson

      He he!

      Actually, I think there’s substantial overlap as to what is considered good and bad. Humans as self-selecting beings who crave social acceptance. I know I am.

  64. Brendan Connell

      I think roughly .00000001% is good. Which has not always been the case. Hell, look at the poetry being written in the 1500s in English. On average it was just much better!

  65. Brendan Connell

      You really think 10 percent of the books being written now are good?

  66. Brendan Connell

      I would say people are really not very picky.

  67. A D Jameson

      You’re probably right. I lean too heavily on Jim O’Rourke’s argument: “90% of any genre is crap” (paraphrase from memory).

      Still, it all matters to somebody. Plus their uncle.

  68. A D Jameson

      Sure. I just don’t want to read them.

      . . . .Maybe 9%?

  69. Brendan Connell

      But if you don’t want to read them, they aren’t good probably :)

  70. A D Jameson

      I guess this is the one time I use a metaphor. I read an interview once with Jim O’Rourke and the interviewer asked him, “What kind of music do you like,” and he responded, “I like good music. 90% of any genre is crap.”

      I don’t know what the right % is but I totally agree in principle. I like good writing, I don’t care what genre it is, experimental or otherwise.

  71. Michael Fischer

      While I agree with you in principle–e.g. workshops should embrace stories that employ omniscient POVs–the 3rd person limited “rule” is a rule for a good reason: it’s a rule because, to borrow your phrasing, 9 times out of 10 the dude who submits a 3rd person omniscient story is just being sloppy; he’s not truly committed to an omniscient POV, so well-meaning folks suggest he commit to limited 3rd in a revision.

      Should they also suggest he consider omniscient POV? Sure, why not? But I think it’s naive to downplay the reason why that rule exists. It’s also naive to downplay the inherent problems in trying to write a modern 15-page story through the POV of multiple characters rather than limited 3rd or 1st. Antonya Nelson calls 3rd person limited the “default POV” for modern short fiction, and I agree with her, which doesn’t, btw, mean one can’t write short fiction from other POVs; it just means you better have a good reason, just like you better have a good reason for writing a 1st person narrator (voice, active character in the story, or fly-on-the-wall passive for a clear purpose).

      The limited 3rd person short story is also a hallmark of Modernism and often experimental, too; if anything, the omniscient POV is more “traditional” and closely attached to psychological realism, whatever that means (95% of all literary fiction could probably be classified as some form of psychological realism). It seems like people use psychological realism to refer to domestic realism, as if domestic realism is the only fiction that develops the psyches of characters.

  72. Jeremy Hopkins

      Y’r picky

  73. deadgod
  74. A D Jameson

      Holy shit, I had no idea. Thank you so much!

  75. Don

      The reason Tao Lin is so captivating is because he has so publicly sabotaged any ability to be anything other than a writer (writing endlessly about drug use, etc etc). He has gone “all in” on writing, which is rare and compelling nowadays. He isn’t careful or careerist.

  76. Matt Rowan

      Yeah, but the “objective” claims are rooted in whether they like Tao Lin or not. I think it’s interesting how people who don’t see how someone could like a certain form of writing are therefore looking at it through some lesser lens. In general, it’s pure egotism. I’m totally guilty of this, though I try to call myself on it. And do better just to ignore things I find objectionable (for any of a billion reasons) rather than wading into a debate I know boils down to like and dislike, in the end.

  77. Matt Rowan

      Yes, I would agree with that assessment. Hopefully he doesn’t go the way of predecessors like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac. (Somewhere someone is pulling their hair out at my mentioning Lin in the same category as those two literary giants.)

  78. Matt Rowan

      All of which is to say, I am essentially interested in the same thing, but I will admit I do not like Tao Lin’s writing or, really, most of what surrounds his writerly persona (for example the doings and happenings of “alt lit”).

  79. A D Jameson

      Matt, imma disagree. I really don’t care whether people like Shoplifting from American Apparel or not. Rather, what I am interested in are the claims people make about how the book has no style, or no form, or isn’t literature.

      So, for instance, Josh Cohen writes something like,

      What’s uncomfortable about the book [Richard Yates] is the notion that all of this actually happened, that this book seems to be pure transcription: not only of events but also, appreciably, of e-mails and g-chat sessions.

      And that’s totally wrong. The book may be describing true events, yes, but it is not “pure transcription,” and I’d argue it doesn’t even seem that way. Lin elides material constantly. He renders chat sessions as spoken dialogue. He presents the events in third person. And so on. He’s applying very familiar fictive techniques, but the end result doesn’t look like fiction to Josh—it looks like pure transcription.

      That’s why I think Lin’s writing is experimental. It demonstrates a way to formally rearrange the very familiar elements of fiction and poetry in ways that many bright, well-read people then don’t “buy” as fiction or poetry. And this discussion and this reading is not “rooted” in whether one likes the books or not. It has nothing per se to do with personal subjective response. Someone might pick up and love Richard Yates because they think it isn’t literature, or doesn’t have style, form, etc. I don’t care. I care only about the objective claims people are making (“it does/doesn’t possess feature X”; “it is/isn’t literature”).

  80. A D Jameson

      I am especially interested in Tao Lin and the New Sincerity / Alt Lit because I am especially interested in heavily mediated artworks that use their mediation to present themselves as unmediated. My core interests being Romanticism, French Symbolism, and punk music—movements that invested themselves in making heavily artificial, formalized works of art that instead felt immediate, raw, and authentic. Lin’s writing is a new incarnation of a very old debate in literature / art.

      By way of contrast, Kenneth Goldsmith is also interested in immediacy, presence, rawness, lack of mediation. But he tries to achieve it by making artworks that are not mediated, or are as mediated as little as possible.

      There are two arguments, really. Lots of people want art to feel new, raw, fresh, non-artificial, etc. On one side (a-formal, anti-formal) are folks who think that the way to achieve that is to mediate the artwork as little as possible, to get outside of form. “Make life and art as similar to one another as they can be.” That’s Goldsmith, Chris Higgs.

      On the other side (formal) are people who want to work with the inherited, familiar tools of making fiction/poetry, but find some way to rearrange them or re-present them such that they feel new, immediate, etc. To use mediation to achieve the effect of non-mediation. That’s Tao Lin.

      Me, I’m on the formal side, but I’m interested in both sides as they’re trying to achieve a similar end but through very different means. (This is another way of expressing my interest in the distinction between the concept and the constraint.)

  81. Brendan Connell

      or somebody don’t have good taste

  82. Tintim JY

      I dont really have any investment in “experimental,” “avant garde,” “innovative” or any of those other categorizations that most of us use for lack of a better term (I think Id be totally happy to go around calling what I write litearture of excess if I thought that would mean anything to anyone besides a tiny group of people), but that said, after reflecting on your post for a few days, I am thinking that maybe there is some danger in being too fundamentalist in your dedication to formalism as your sole framework for defining terms like “experimental.” Possibly the risk and peculiarity of Dodie’s book may have little to do with its form and everthing to do with how different its execution is from a bro (albeit a white one) like Burroughs, and I dont just mean its content but also its aesthetics.

  83. deadgod

      I should say that I think historicizing to the point of relativistic denial of communication or knowledge at all is a morass; the difference between different “marriages” (in a community or in a history of literature) doesn’t militate absolutely against the category itself, but rather, indicates the problem with categorization, namely, the threat of deterioration into dogmatism.

      I think–as I’m convinced Aristotle’s dialectical practice discloses that he does in a practical way–that there are both continuity and discontinuity in how we refer to the world.

      So sure, there’s influence (that is, a ‘same river’). Spenser knows (to some extent) and is responding to Homer when Spenser’s triangle of Malbecco/Hellinore/Paridell refers to Menelaus/Helen/Paris. When we use the ‘same’ word in different sentences, we’re referring to a (same) category and maybe the same thing.

      The same is a condition for the possibility that ‘difference’ is intelligible, that ‘difference’ enters understanding of experience at all.

      I’d meant to suggest that contrasting “experiment” with “convention” (or “tradition”) is a way–without imposing any strict incompatibility between them–to get at how history is constituted both by continuities and ruptures.

  84. Jeremy Hopkins

      “the threat of deterioration into dogmatism.”
      — Indeed.

      “The same is a condition for the possibility that ‘difference’ is intelligible, that ‘difference’ enters understanding of experience at all.”
      — Sure: if we never ever categorized anything, all things would always be ‘different’ and therefore we would not likely notice ‘difference.’ Left-handedly, someone might speculate that without differences we could have never imagined sameness.

      “contrasting ‘experiment’ with ‘convention’ (or ‘tradition’) is a way … to get at how history is constituted both by continuities and ruptures.”
      — If a really big chunk of ice falls off an even bigger chunk of ice, it may still be historically referred to as ‘an iceberg,’ but not ‘THE iceberg.’ [smiley]

  85. Don

      Well, reading the blogs/twitters of Lin and his followers can be horrifying at times because much of it is just narratives of drug addiction and eating disorders… which is compelling but also gross, when one considers the people are so young, etc. In the coming years we’ll probably get some rehab/getting clean writing.

  86. Don

      Every wave of experimentation is only a return to what was forgotten from the past, every avant-garde is a recovery of ancient experiments. I think after Shakespeare (if not earlier) every possible aesthetic experiment has already been done, but most are forgotten and await discovery.

  87. Michael Fischer

      I’m struggling to figure out how what you describe is “experimental.” Essentially, you’re arguing against Cohen’s polemical charge that Lin transcribes by saying no, “he writes autobiographical fiction.”

      So let’s assume you’re right: Lin writes autobiographical fiction; he doesn’t transcribe. Autobiographical fiction, like, say, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” uses fictive techniques to transform reality. How is that awesomely experimental? The mere fact that his materials are things like g-chat sessions and iPhones?

      And I’ve read his dialogue and most of it is boring and tin-eared.

  88. PedestrianX

      I find it hard to accept this argument when its main example, the Cut-up, didn’t start when you’re claiming it did. I’m sure you know Tzara was doing it in the 20s, and Burroughs himself has pointed to predecessors like “The Waste Land.” Eliot may not have been literally cutting and pasting, but Tzara was.

      If you read Shakespeare’s source texts, he was essentially cutting and pasting in a lot of instances. For my money, Shakespeare is still experimental, for this and many other reasons, and so are Burroughs, Eliot, Tao Lin, Beckett, etc.

      I think the idea that experimental literature ever possessed any “revolutionary potential” has always been a very comforting one to its practitioners.

  89. Michael Fischer

      I agree. I have no problem calling Lin experimental, mainly because I don’t put much stock in that term–that, or I consider it overblown and stating the obvious. I do have a problem with this slippery threshold that suggests, rather vaguely, that Lin is experimental while others aren’t. Well, who isn’t experimental?

  90. A D Jameson

      Hi PedestrianX,

      I don’t think you’ve read what I’ve written. It doesn’t matter to my “central argument” if Tristan Tzara was doing the Cut-Up Technique before Burroughs/Gysin. My argument is that the CUT stopped being experimental in principle after Burroughs popularized it, and made it mainstream. Tzara may have had the technique before Burroughs, but he didn’t make it mainstream. Burroughs did. But, whatever, let’s pretend for a second that Tzara was the one to make it mainstream. All that changes is the year in which the CUT stopped being experimental in principle, and became experimental by way of genre. My “central argument” remains the same; the date just changes.

      If you read Shakespeare’s source texts, he was essentially cutting and pasting in a lot of instances. For my money, Shakespeare is still experimental, for this and many other reasons, and so are Burroughs, Eliot, Tao Lin, Beckett, etc.

      Now you’re just getting metaphorical, and this has nothing to do with my argument.

      My basic point is this. If an experimental technique becomes mainstream, it’s no longer experimental. And yet I see lots of people claiming otherwise. I know lots of people who make Cut-Ups in the year 2013 and who claim they’re experimental writers. They aren’t. That’s my point. No more, no less.

      Also, those people are not revolutionary, thogh they often claim that they are. And I agree, I am sure it comforts them. But it’s another way in which they’re wrong.


  91. A D Jameson

      Hi Michael,

      Let go of your dislike for Tao Lin for a moment. Here’s my take on experimentation by principle. I’m interested in writers who produce work that others don’t accept as valid—as not being novels or poems or literature, what have you. If that’s happening, then we should be able to find people who are doing it. Tao Lin offers one such example. He’s written poems and novels and other people have claimed—very publically—that those poems and novels are not poems and novels. This interests me because it demonstrates a current limit in the way people think of poems and novels.

      This does not necessarily have anything to do with the way in which people once thought of poems and novels. Lin is definitely influenced by Hemingway. But so what? What matters is that, in the here and now, people like Josh Cohen don’t think Lin is producing “valid” literature. If Lin is so derivative of Hemingway, like you claim, and just copying the man, then why would people have a problem with what he does? Josh has read Hemingway. Josh doesn’t think Lin’s work is literature. This suggests Lin isn’t just copying Hemingway (and he isn’t).

      My notion of experimentation as principle has no problem with people being influenced by past writers. I have never claimed that. Maybe if Hemingway were alive today and writing, people wouldn’t think that what he were doing would be “valid” literature? I don’t know and it’s impossible to answer that question.

      I think I am being pretty objective when I say that people out there don’t accept what Tao Lin is doing as valid. I see those people and can point to them. This has nothing to do with whether I like Tao Lin, whether you like Tao Lin, whether anyone likes or dislikes Tao Lin. It has to do with what people think counts as literature. It has to do with how literature is defined.

      I define being an experimental writer (in principle) as anyone who demonstrates where those borders lie. This has nothing to do with whatever they are trying to set out to be an experimental writer or not. They write, people react, borders get seen. That is all.

      In my experience, most of the people who claim to be experimental writers are not demonstrating where any borders lie. Instead, they are copying past experimental writers who are now mainstream. Hence my concept of experiment as genre.

      I hope this is clearer. Thank you for your comments.


  92. A D Jameson

      Yes and no. I dunno. Certainly I don’t deny that a lot of what people think of as being new is in fact something old. Literature has been around for thousands of years and it is vast and a lot has been done. No one has read all of it. I know that the more I read the more I see that “everything has been done.”

      But so what if everything has been done? The situation I just described means there’s value in repeating things. Because no one can see everything that has been done. So doing something old that others haven’t seen should count for something.

      But I also think it’s wrong to think of things that have been done in literature as being over and done with. Even if I took some old technique or idea and repeated it now, it would not necessarily mean the same thing, because times have changed. The culture has changed.

      It might make a lot of sense to repeat or redo something old now. It might turn out to mean something entirely different.

      Or maybe it wouldn’t. It would depend on the thing. Someone would have to repeat it. Then we would see.

      If someone makes a Cut-Up today, I don’t think it counts as experimental, because no one has a problem with people making Cut-Ups. That doesn’t challenge anyone’s notion of art today. (Making a Cut-Up in 1959 did challenge such notions. Perhaps it will again in 2059; who knows?)

      Tao Lin’s writing is heavily influenced by Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, others. It exists in a clear tradition, and yet it annoys people, who then say that what he is doing doesn’t count as valid literature. That demonstrates a boundary, or boundaries. Even though the tools Tao is using to do it are traditional tools.

      Experimental writing in principle has nothing to do with whether something is “new” or not. I wish people would let go of that idea. I have never claimed it and if they’re reading that here, it’s because they’re bringing it in themselves. I usually just assume that everything has already been done.

      All that matters to me (in terms of experimentation) is whether people accept the work as acceptable or not. If they do, it’s not experimental. If they don’t, it is. And that might be a simple distinction but I think it’s a useful one for various reasons.


  93. A D Jameson

      Hi Tim,

      I have less investment in the experimental than you might think. But I have every bit of investment in “innovation,” which is something quite different. I would argue.

      I am not a fundamentalist. My main goal here is to claim that a lot of what gets called experimental isn’t. Specifically, I claimed that if Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups is experimental, it is not because it’s a Cut-Up. But of course it might be experimental for other reasons. For some reason people keep missing that point even though I keep taking care to state it quite clearly. I think this is because people are in love with the idea of the Cut-Up Technique being experimental. I think that’s because people are in love with the idea of experimentation by way of genre.

      My point is that a lot of what gets called experimental art is in fact experimentation by way of genre. Which I don’t think is experimental. Thus my real point is that the claims that get made about such art—that it’s revolutionary or daring, what have you—are incorrect. That is my point and the force of my critique.

      Also I suppose I’m arguing that a lot of art that is often dismissed as not being art is in fact experimental.

      But I don’t think that being experimental has any value in and of itself. Fuck experimental art. I’m interested in art, myself. That said, if we’re going to have these terms, I think it makes sense to try using them with some clarity. But if others don’t like my proposed definitions, then fine; I won’t be upset. I’m not trying to be some Eternal Historian of What It Means to Be Experimental. I’m just trying to propose some concepts that others might find useful. If they do, fine. If they don’t, fine.


  94. Michael Fischer

      In this particular instance, my dislike for Lin is not getting in the way.

      Your argument, unless I’m missing something here, is that he’s experimental because “others don’t accept his work as valid.” Your primary example is a reviewer I’ve already admitted to be polemical (at least in his review of RY). And while I’ve said upfront that I dislike Lin, I have not said that I don’t consider him “experimental.” If it makes you feel better, I’ll call him an experimental writer. Truly, and no offense, I don’t care if you consider him experimental, more than I care about the underlying implication that he’s somehow doing something special that other supposedly non-experimental writers are not doing.

      In fact, I bet most writers believe they are, to some degree, “experimental,” even if they don’t use that term. Maybe a better way for us to have this discussion is that instead of you l ontpo one writer, you tell us some writers who are not expiemernal.

  95. A D Jameson

      Hi Michael,

      I think you’re misreading me; apologies if I facilitated that. I have no particular investment in whether stories are written in an omniscient POV or in 3rd person. Or in 2nd person, or in no/inconsistent person. I myself have written all those kinds of stories.

      I’m interested in all the things fiction has been, currently is, and can yet still be. I don’t think that any POV is necessarily any better than any other. I also don’t think that consistent POV is necessarily better than an inconsistent one. Those things have to be determined on a story-by-story basis.

      What bothers me is when people assume ahead of time that one way of writing is better than any other, and that all stories should then be turned into that kind of story. And I’d have this problem regardless of what the “ideal” story was considered to be. At the moment, in my experience, workshop participants usually want to be James Wood and turn all stories into works of psychological realism written in either 1st or 3rd limited, with loads of similes and plenty of free indirect discourse. I am opposed to that homogenization of fiction. But I would be similarly opposed if everyone in the workshop wanted to turn every story into a POV-free collage using the Cut-Up Technique.

      My objection is to the homogenization. My opposition is to the assumption that there exists a right way of making fiction (a priori, in the absence of any particular context).

      I think that every kind of writing can be done well.
      I think that every kind of writing can be experimented with.
      I think that every kind of writing is worth considering, all other things being equal.

      I have never said that fiction written in 3rd person can’t be experimental. Quite the opposite!


  96. A D Jameson

      Hi Michael,

      I’m pointing to Josh’s review because I can. Tao was just at my school, and when he left a lot of people told me that what he’s writing “really isn’t poetry.” I find Tao’s writing to be useful when making this argument because, in my experience, a lot of people don’t consider his writing valid.

      I have no doubt that there exist other writers who are more or less experimental than Tao is. Maybe I should find a better example? I also like referring to Kenneth Goldsmith, because a lot of people don’t consider what he does valid writing, either.

      Ange Mlinko’s review in the Nation, cited above, is also useful, because she’s arguing that Vanessa Place and Cathy Wagner (and Kenneth Goldsmith) aren’t making “valid” literature.

      Again, maybe it’s possible to find better examples. I’m just trying to point to actual instances of actual people in the here and now making the argument that what certain writers are doing doesn’t or shouldn’t count as literature. And in every case, I’m not talking about philistines, but intelligent, well-read, published and respected fellow authors. I think that counts for something.

      Writers who aren’t experimental? There are millions of them. Anyone who everyone accepts as making literature. My pal Jeremy M. Davies, for instance. His first novel, Rose Alley, was very well received. No one who read it, to my knowledge, said it wasn’t a novel.

      Being an experimental writer (experimental writer in principle) has nothing to do with whether the writing is good or bad. It has to do with whether it comes out and people accept it as literature or not.

      I don’t consider this a very complicated or controversial point, although maybe I’m wrong about that. Anyway, my real argument here is that a lot of what people call experimental writing is in fact not experimental writing, because it isn’t experimental in principle. It doesn’t challenge what people think is literature. Instead, everyone accepts it as literature. Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups, and most of what the New Narrativists have written, will serve here as another example. They call themselves experimental all day long, and yet everyone I know accepts them as making perfectly acceptable literature. Maybe people opposed what they were doing back in the 1980s, but in my experience, they’ve always been makers of valid literature. I’ve never seen anyone argue otherwise.


  97. PedestrianX

      If you don’t think Tzara was as widely influential in Burroughs’ day as Burroughs is in ours then I don’t think you know your art history very well.

      That also doesn’t address the fact that Eliot, who may not have been using paper and scissors to write “The Waste Land,” might as well have. And no one would bother denying that Eliot was more influential than either of them.

      My point is that techniques can be experimental in many different eras, notwithstanding their use in broader cultural contexts, or the “mainstream.”

  98. Michael Fischer

      Fair enough. Perhaps we’re really addressing separate issues. So much depends, also, on the make-up of the workshop. Often, those rules exist because students have no clue what they’re doing, and it’s already like the blind leading the blind. I’ve learned why those rules exist more so after becoming a workshop teacher and sitting on the other side of the desk. For instance, the no-genre rule: it often makes sense not because genre is bad, but because students will manipulate the conventions to avoid writing something original or uncomfortable, because the conventions are often louder or more readily available than conventions associated w/ “literary fiction.” So rules might homogenize, but they can also make sense. I also openly admit that the model is flawed and limited.

  99. A D Jameson

      If you don’t think Tzara was as widely influential in Burroughs’ day as Burroughs is in ours then I don’t think you know your art history very well.

      You’re right. In fact, I am a sentient fish who just learned to think and to speak. This writing thing is new to me. Glub glub.

      My point is that the Cut-Up Technique today is ultra -mainstream. I learned about it in college. Naked Lunch is one of Time‘s Top 100 novels of the past 100 years. That’s ultra-mainstream and that’s all I’m trying to say. If the CUT was ultra-mainstream in 1959, then whatever; that doesn’t alter my main argument. Please excuse my vast ignorance as I was still a fish in that year, and wasn’t aware that Tzara was as famous then as Burroughs is today. Although your claim strikes me as entirely dubious; please cite evidence and educate an ignorant fish?

      That also doesn’t address the fact that Eliot, who may not have been using paper and scissors to write “The Waste Land,” might as well have.

      That strikes me as problematic. You can’t just run everything together and call it the same thing. Eliot didn’t use the CUT to write the Wasteland and the poem would have turned out entirely differently had he done so. It seems to me you want to lump a lot of things together but I’d argue that’s a mistake. Different techniques that artists use produce different results and that’s entirely the point of having and using different techniques.

      Collage was a widespread principle in the 10th Century, but not all collage techniques are equivalent.

      My point is that techniques can be experimental in many different eras, notwithstanding their use in broader cultural contexts, or the “mainstream.”

      You’re perfectly welcome to that point. Inasmuch as I understand it (I don’t follow you from “notwithstanding” onward), I don’t think it disagrees with my writing here? I would never claim that techniques can’t be experimental in many different “eras.” Dinosaurs no doubt thought the CUT very avant-garde.


  100. Michael Fischer

      “Being an experimental writer (experimental writer in principle) has nothing to do with whether the writing is good or bad. It has to do with whether it comes out and people accept it as literature or not.”

      You don’t see the problems with this argument? Experimental literature is simply what people resist as being called literature? Your definition of “challenging notions of literature” also seems rather narrow, since that could feasibly occur on the subconscious level during the act of reading.

      And who are these people? What are their qualifications? We go from a respected indie novliest to…Students?! Students–undergrads especially–are usually not qualified to make reaching assessments about whether or not something “is literature.”

  101. A D Jameson

      I love giving my students rules to follow. Rules are useful for many different reasons. I just don’t like it when rules become hard and fast laws.

      Ideally, I think workshop participants should learn how to read stories on a case-by-case basis, and not just apply some “filter” to them. If all that needs to be done to make any story better is to put it in 3rd person and add more description and an epiphany, then why bother having a workshop?

      I was in workshop on Monday, and a fellow student submitted a story. And everyone wanted it to be less heavy-handed. But it seemed to me the piece was entirely invested in being heavy-handed. Being heavy-handed was essential to the story having its unique effect. And I think I was reading the story more carefully than the others in the workshop were (but I would think that, wouldn’t I?). I think it’s important to not treat all stories the same. (Incidentally, this was a PhD-level fiction workshop.)

  102. A D Jameson

      You don’t see the problems with this argument?

      Oh, I’m sure it has problems. Any argument has problems. Any concept or model or definition has problems. I would never claim otherwise.

      And who are these people? What are their qualifications? We go from a respected indie novliest to…Students?! Students–undergrads especially–are usually not qualified to make reaching assessments about whether or not something “is literature.”

      That’s why I didn’t say they were. That’s why I pointed to Josh’s review in Bookforum. He’s a contributing editor at Harper’s. That’s why I pointed to Ange Mlinko’s review in the Nation. That’s why I described the reaction of PhD writing students at UIC. You know, qualified people.

      I think you’re overreacting and imagining situations that would also disturb me which is why I didn’t propose them.


  103. A D Jameson

      Here’s another way of thinking about it. Context always matters. So let’s say I show Naked Lunch to my freshman comp class, and they think it’s the most experimental thing they’ve ever seen. None of them think it should count as an actual novel. They think it’s a hoax.

      But so what? Who care’s what my freshman comp class thinks? By which I mean, what authority do they have to determine what is or isn’t literature? They have no such authority.

      But Bookforum, Harpers, the Nation, Time Magazine, PhD programs in writing—they have some authority. So it matters, I think, what they think is and isn’t literature. Inasmuch as it, you know, matters.


  104. Michael Fischer

      I don’t believe I’m paranoid, AD. I believe the gist of my concern is with your argument’s lack of concrete analysis. Your argument that his work is experimental depends mostly on how people react to it either editorially or via cursory personal taste, rather than close analysis of his work, which I find odd, given your strong commitments to formalism. This is why I have no problems conceding that he’s experimental, because I’m confident I could analyze his work closely to show that it’s experimental while still expressing my dislike for his work and gimmicky PR stuntman persona.

      I could do the same for numerous other writers I like and dislike. For instance, I love Joy Williams; so does Tao. Joy is easily as experimental as Tao, and I could show you this by analyzing her work closely–work that might not appear flamboyantly experimental at first glance.

      As it stands, because so much of your argument about what constitutes experimental literature depends on how people react to certain viscerally, I can’t help but sense a bit of condescension and dismissiveness from you, which is surprising and something I’d expect from Christopher Higgs, not you. All this is attributed to your lack of commitment to close analysis in your OP and gives off the patronizing vibe that those who dismiss Lin are somehow too stupid to get his work or mere haters expressing their discomfort with the unfamiliar. But you haven’t taken the effort to show us–in rigorous, thorough detail and analysis–what makes Lin experimental on the page.

  105. Jeremy Hopkins

      Getting away from personal takes on terminology, I want to ask about your point that when people think it isn’t art it is therefore experimental.

      1.) If people accept it as art, then it is no longer experimental in principle.

      2.) If people do not accept it as art, then it is experimental in principle.

      What if they’re right and it isn’t art?
      Is it then a failed experiment, or just some non-art?

      It seems the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘experiment’ is somehow both unidirectional and indirect.

  106. A D Jameson

      Hi MIchael,

      I distinguish between experimental and innovative. I get the impression you don’t make such a distinction? Not sure. But if so, that’s fine. And I’m ultimately more concerned with innovation than I am with experimentation—I suspect that, in that regard, we agree.

      All I mean by experimental here (“experimental in principle”) is that such work challenges people in that they don’t think the work is valid as literature. That has nothing to do per se with formalism. Kenneth Goldsmith’s work inspires that reaction, and his work is a-formal or anti-formal. Tao Lin’s work is entirely formal. In both cases, all I am saying is that people like arguing that neither author is making valid literature.

      Joy Williams is a deeply innovative writer whose work I adore. But I’m not aware of anyone ever saying that what she wrote wasn’t literature. (If anyone ever did, I missed it.) Thus by my definition she is an innovative writer but not an experimental one.

      I don’t think my point is really all that controversial. Whether it’s useful is another question entirely.

      I don’t get any of the ad hominem stuff about my ego. I also don’t get why you seem so worked up about this. Sorry if I riled you any.


  107. A D Jameson

      Hi Jeremy,

      What if they’re right and it isn’t art?

      That’s a great question. Definitely how we define art matters a great deal. I think of art as being whatever people call art. I could call the tree outside my window art, and it might then be art to me. But it might not be art to anyone else in Chicago. So, inasmuch as art is a social practice, societies need to agree (to some greater or lesser extent) as to what art is.

      If one person says that something is art (“the tree outside my window”) and no one else agrees, then I guess that person has just found an extremely experimental artwork. Because only that one person thinks it’s art. So that points to a real boundary in how people define art. But is that worth anything? I dunno.

      By way of contrast, someone might claim that a urinal is an artwork. Most people might disagree. That, too, would be an experimental artwork. But then, over time, many people might come to accept that urinal as an artwork. Others begin making similar pieces. Now there’s a new tradition—the readymade. It stops being experimental by way of principle, and becomes experimental by way of genre. (I could submit a urinal to a show somewhere and no doubt offend some people who don’t know Duchamp, but my experiment wouldn’t count for much in the broader conversation about what art is.)

      By my definition/logic, the more the work is accepted as art, the less experimental (in principle) it would seem to be. I think I think that.

      Is it then a failed experiment, or just some non-art?

      I don’t know what “failed experiment” would mean (by these terms). I think that work is either experimental or it isn’t, although it can be experimental in degree. It all comes down to how it’s received.

      I suppose one way experimental art could fail in this regard is if someone tried making something experimental, and no one thought it as such. Like, if I enter the urinal in an art show, meaning to be provocative and to blow minds, and everyone else shrugs, and just points to Duchamp’s readymades, then I guess I failed to make an experimental artwork.

      Again, to clarify, I’m proposing this definition not because I really care all that much, in the end, about experimental art. My main point here is to argue that a lot of what I see people calling experimental art in my opinion really isn’t. I want to critique experimental art by way of genre. (Not because I care people are making it. Artists should make whatever they want. Rather, I am critiquing the claims that are then made about such work.) That’s really my main focus here. But it seemed to me that if I were going to claim that, I also needed some way of defining art that was experimental but not experimental by way of genre. Hence the concept of experimental art by way of principle.

      I’m also happy to acknowledge that I might be totally crazy or wrong about all of this. Or that my proposed concepts/definitions aren’t useful. If others find them useful, then that’s great; I’m glad to help out. If not, then it’s really no big deal. I might learn something then, or my being wrong might lead to a better understanding of the situation. Or it might not do anything whatsoever, which would also be OK, I think.

      Ultimately I’m more concerned with innovation in art. I think that’s something different than experimentation, honestly. A lot of works that are innovative aren’t experimental in any way (either in terms of genre or principle). Is what I’d argue.


  108. Jeremy Hopkins

      RE: “a failed experiment” — This could be a “failure to experiment” or an “experiment which failed in its aim.” The second is still an experiment, the first is not. They might both be art, or might not. I imagined your argument addressing either possibility and was confused.

  109. Michael Fischer

      “Ad hominem”? Really? You’ve said similar things to other commenters on this thread and in a similar tone and have come off as rather defensive to fair questions and critiques of your position(s). I refuse to buy your argument that experimental literature is simply “what people say isn’t literature.” That’s quite the watered-down argument.

      It’s also insincere to pretend like your personal definition of “experimental” is completely free of the historical, cultural, and social baggage of that term, like you can just speak for what the word means for you personally and dismiss the very real baggage it carries outside your personal definition.

      This neat separation you suggest between “experimental” and “innovative” also seems too simplistic and unrealistic, as the two words are often interchangeable in numerous contexts. I don’t have a problem with you but it’s clear you’re not interested in genuine discussion HERE, so I’m done with you on this thread.

  110. alan rossi

      I’m just a party interested in these things and I almost never comment on this site and I hate to like fall in here and play arbiter (and not that AD needs it at all), but I mean, I got to this comment and it just seems so off. I don’t think AD has been defensive at all and maybe I’ve missed some comments, but I haven’t seen any “similar tone.”

      Also, his entire argument isn’t “simply” that experimental literature is defined by those who fail to see it as literature. This is just a component of the definition; also, this component of the definition serves as an extension of the more general and traditional idea of avant-garde, which is art that pushes the boundaries of art – so, of course, it seems to me, there might be some who wouldn’t want to call such experimental things art/literature b/c boundaries have been pushed to a certain point making the art-thing, possibly, either unrecognizable or (in Lin’s case) not-worthy-of-being-recognized.

      Also, I haven’t seen him be insincere. I think I remember AD saying several times that he doesn’t find his own argument that controversial, and the component of the definition you dislike seems, as I think AD would admit, to be a mere extension of a pretty basic definition of avant-garde – so it’s totally cultural and historical.

      This section is the only section that reads with anything like a defensive tone and, frankly, it seems like you’re talking to yourself about something. I mean, it’s cool if you don’t like his argument, but it also seems like you’re bringing up stuff that is either frantically tangentially related and/or stuff that you seem to be personally super pissed about (the “but all writers experiment thing”, which I happen to agree with you on to some degree). I don’t know; I’d take another look at this though to see if you really feel the way you think you should feel, not that it matters all that much.

      Anyway, have a good night.

  111. Michael Fischer

      You’re a good friend, Alan Rosi. Good friends have their friends’ backs and that’s clearly the case here, for better or for worse.

      I’m not interested in you telling me what I don’t know, but thanks for the offer. I do in fact know what I’m talking about and know the definition of experimental offered here is unsubstantial and problematic. If you want to pretend like experimental and innovative are two disparate categories, be my guest.

      You have a good might too.


  112. alan rossi

      I’m just trying to engage, like you are with AD, with some of your points I find problematic. Some of those points have to do with theory, some of them have to do with the psychological make-up of this thread.

      I don’t know who I’m (not) good friends with in this situation, and I don’t want to pretend that experimental and innovative are disparate categories (I’d have to think about that more) – anyway I never mentioned I thought they should be distinct.

      Take care.

  113. Michael Fischer

      I’m curious what you find problematic about my posts, the majority of which are about the denotation and use of a term and its definition.

      1) I have not denied the existence of experimental literature.
      2) I have even agreed that Tao Lin is an experimental writer.
      3) I have not denied that experimental literature “pushes boundaries.”

      Most of my posts are about the way a term is being casted on this thread and how its usage might disqualify certain works unfairly.

      What do you find problematic about that? And wouldn’t you agree that “experimental” is often used as a marker of artistic distinction, that it is considered by many writers to be a compliment and marker of artistic distinction? I’m pretty sure you don’t merely view the word in its most clinical denotation. All of us are “writers’ writers” here and know the label is often complimentary and code for, “high art.” No need to be dishonest about this obvious fact.

  114. Don

      To be clear: I think experimentation (that is, recovery) is awesome.

  115. PedestrianX

      Well, I win this round. Well played.

  116. A D Jameson

      It’s telling you think in such terms. Also, clever language, hadn’t realized you invented that “well played” line.

      Wanna show me any evidence for your claims? Like, regarding Tzara’s popularity? Or that he invented the Cut-Up Technique? Or do you just want to posture and win points on the internet?

  117. rawbbie

      I am really against using the word “Experimental” in non-literal ways. If you are not testing the viability of a new way to create or present literature, then it’s not “Experimental”. It seems like people use the word to refer to something “weird” or “fresh” or “new” but that’s not really what the word *means*.

      I like the way you explain how a cut-up is not experimental; like doing an experiment that proves that gravity affects all objects equally in a sixth grade science fair: it may be experimental to *you*, but not experimental to the rest of the world.

  118. A D Jameson

      Me, too! I tend to use “experimental” in its literal sense of “a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.” In my view, experimental writers are trying out new ways of writing, while others around them aren’t working that way, or don’t believe those ways valid. (I said said more about this in my original Big Other article.) Cheers, Adam

  119. Michael Fischer

      Unfortunately, such an ahistorical definition of the word isn’t going to sit well with people who know the word has been used in non-literal ways by its proponents for many years. There are numerous examples of experimental literature that is called experimental by the posturing avant garde that is not “testing the viability of a new way to create or present literature.” In fact, postmodernism itself is founded upon the belief that technique has been exhausted and all that remains is the reflexive consideration of technique, which itself is an admission that experimentation in most literal sense is a farce.

      So, while you and others mean well, your ahistorical definition is extremely problematic.

  120. Jeremy Hopkins

      “Postmodernism itself is founded upon the belief that technique has been exhausted and all that remains is the reflexive consideration of technique, which is an admission that experimentation in its most literal sense is a farce.”

      — If it was ever *not* exhausted, then how could it be now? When did it become so?

      Why should I believe them? Have they tested and found the limits of human thought? Did they achieve this knowledge through experiment, or observation?


      A literal definition will surely be problematic in talking to people who use a non-literal definition.

  121. Michael Fischer

      Q: “If it was ever *not* exhausted, then how could it be now?”

      A: Because it (re: technique) has had time to become exhausted. You’ll have a difficult time arguing convincingly that literary technique has not been sufficiently mined over numerous centuries of practice, which doesn’t mean, btw, that today’s writers can’t be highly original.

      Q: “Why should I believe them? Have they tested and found the limits of human thought? Did they achieve this knowledge through experiment, or observation?”

      A: I don’t know. Why should you believe anything or anyone? It’s great that you’re critical and healthily skeptical. Just make sure you don’t make the mistake a lot of creative writers make of ignoring or downplaying history.

      Comment: A literal definition will surely be problematic in talking to people who use a non-literal definition.

      Response: Of course, this oversimplifies my point about the undeniable historical context of the word and its various connotations, and presumes a neat binary between literal and non-literal that doesn’t exist for the historically aware.

  122. Jeremy Hopkins

      A1: Sure. And really I’m of the opinion that there are always multiple values at work when we consider things abstractly, and something actually can appear (and even be) both new and not, depending on perspective.
      A2: Sure.
      Response: Aren’t you utilizing a binary between “historical” and “ahistorical?”

  123. Michael Fischer

      Jeremy Hopkins: Aren’t you utilizing a binary between “historical” and “ahistorical?”

      Michael Fischer: Nope.

  124. Michael Fischer

      Jeremy Hopkins: Sure. And really I’m of the opinion that there are always multiple values at work when we consider things abstractly, and something actually can appear (and even be) both new and not, depending on perspective.

      Michael Fischer: Oh, well in that case, we really don’t disagree. I was under the impression that you believed there are contemporary fiction writers inventing “new” techniques wholly out of thin air.

  125. Jeremy Hopkins

      Okay. I’ll ask.
      How not?

  126. Jeremy Hopkins

      A category he doesn’t recognize? Might as well say he doesn’t know what realism is. I am not convinced someone can get a master’s degree and not have *some* idea of what experimental literature is. I am a pleb, so I get to say “It’s bullshit” with impunity; but I honestly expect more from a university professor.

  127. Michael Fischer

      You’re obviously young. Realism and experimental don’t compare as “categories.” Michael Martone knows what he’s talking about.

  128. Michael Fischer

      Because it’s almost always used as pejorative to describe the lack of historical perspective. Have you ever heard anyone use that word in a positive manner or suggest that it is a potentially positive counterbalance to “historical”?

  129. Jeremy Hopkins

      Okay, so one’s a class and one’s a genus.

      And the pleb/professor stuff was me joking. But the fact remains, it’d be irresponsible, if not impossible (according to you), for someone to get that far and not have encountered the term in its “historical” usage. But rather than engage with the “historical” definition you’ve referred to, he acts like he has *no* definition whatsoever, and then answers all the questions anyway, going so far as to provide a list of “experimental” works, even though he said he has not “ever used it to describe any work of literature.” The answers pretty clearly rhetorical and not direct representations of what he really thinks.

  130. Jeremy Hopkins

      1 = on = historical
      0 = off = ahistorical

      Perhaps there is some other definition of binary at play here.

  131. David Sewell

      I see the point you are making about the genre of experimental, but to my mind there is or should be no such thing. The term experimental I think too is harmful, the word itself suggests work not thought through to the end, or not finished, when it is in fact fully under the control of the artist and rendered to completion. If the artist didn’t know where the work would end up as they started, they are content with the end point sufficiently to call it completed. Rather than experimental, it is as you say work which differs from the normally accepted conventions. It is sort of avant garde but that label has become a bit debased too in this cynical age of exploitation and seen it all critical jadedness. Do we even need a label? let the work stand or fall on its own merits, without labelling it as ‘other’ or ‘transgressive’.

      marc nash

  132. Animated Gifs as Cinema | HTMLGIANT

      […] was planning to put up the next installment in my experimental fiction series today (part 1, part 2), but school has interfered. (I’m writing a paper on Dickens’s use of the […]

  133. rawbbie

      Postmodernism in art and literature is an extension of Modernist experimentation and the failed attempt at escaping Romanticisms. If Postmodernism was demonstrating the exhaustion of technique, it would have have re-made modernist works. It didn’t do this. It still strived for something new/different. I feel that Postmodernism was the exhaustion itself; it’s the last gasp of the Industrial Avant Garde before new modes of art and literature were able to be produced through newer technologies, mediums, and techniques by the current Digital Avant Garde (writing poems with bacterial DNA, movies made of molecules, and sonnets written by algorithms). If you think Experimental Writing ended with the Postmodernists, you’re sadly mistaken.

      BTW, the word ‘problematic’ is for people who make vague, semantics based criticisms and post anonymously on blogs. Grow a pair. I mean, even Deadgod has a twitter account…

  134. Pairofballs

      Thanks for your response a month later. I look forward to your next reply on July 1st. Who cares if today’s writers use the technologies of their time to generate texts? That’s a given in any literary period. Way to overstate the obvious.

      BTW, “Rawbie,” nice vague handle and lack of a link to any personal info of your own. Take a seat next to me if you’d like.

  135. rawbbie

      Sorry for the initially late reply, I have a “life” sometimes and it was less than two weeks, not a month.

      It is NOT a given that any writer who uses the technologies of their time to generate text is going to be the Avant Garde OR Experimental. Are you being experimental by changing your handle to “Pairofballs”? Are you part of the Avant Garde by using a computer?

      And it’s NOT a given that all the writers of a certain time will use those technologies at ALL. Last time I checked, Mary Ruefle still types all her correspondence, poems, and prose on a typewriter.

      If you’re sad that you don’t know who I am, you can use the technologies of our day, and Google me.

  136. Pairofballs

      It is a given, relatively speaking. Even the writer who uses anachronistic technology is aware she’s using anachronistic technology as a response to current technology or during a time when that technology is clearly dated.

      And, not a “technological example,” per se, but Dickens’s novels echo much of Darwin’s work–and vice versa–and the two never met or referenced each other explicitly in their work, so you can extend this cultural point to ideas too. Of course , if you have a simple-minded, rigid-ass definition of “experimental” that you merely use to oppose a foil or bogeyman to give yourself permission to be different, then ignore me and and work on your so-called “experimental” literature. I fully endorse writers doing whatever it takes to convince themselves to write, and I include self-inflicted delusion in this category, especially for writers under the age of 30. Take heart and do what you gotta do to generate text!


      You can use the technologies of our day and Google me, “Pairofballs,” too. It’s up to you to figure out who I am, based on your own standards for non-anonymous posting.

  137. rawbbie

      First, let’s be real clear: I googled balls first. I gave you your screen name; you’re welcome. You are Pairofballs, welcome to HTMLGiant.

      Second, I have made no claim to be experimental and wouldn’t unless I truly believed I was doing something that attempted to present or generate literature in a way that had not been done before as a test of it’s viability as literature. I know where my work is situated in the grand scheme and it’s NOT experimental. To “experiment” is not even near the cause of my impulse to write. If you think I’m delusional, you’re fucking wrong and you should put your head down and STFU.

      Third, Darwin’s work was not Experimental, but Theoretical. He didn’t ‘test’ anything, but observed. Much like Einstein…

      My definition of the word is simple, but not simple-minded; I’m not applying the word willy-nilly to anything that’s weird or different, but to clearly defined set of literature. You’re definition is the reason Flarf became a poetic mode in the first place: to mock people who value and praise anything that’s weird and different.

      Judge writers under 30 all you want, but they’re gonna fucking bury assholes like you.

  138. rawbbie

      You keep calling this anon “Michael”. Is this a famous Michael? or just a rando michael?

  139. A D Jameson

      We are all famous, in God’s eyes.

  140. Pairofballs

      It’s funny how much stock you (and others) put into this issue of whether or not someone uses a name, or uses fifty names, etc. Focus on the ideas, not this cult of personality or trying to trace a comment to a personality or persona. When I read your posts, I don’t immediately care about your personality, personal life, where you live, what you eat for breakfast, etc. I’m focused on what you’re writing in your comment.

      PS–nice work, Sherlock. Feel better now?

  141. Pairofballs

      Darwin’s work was experimental on the page…according to numerous Victorian scholars who’ve studied his prose, ’cause that’s what literary critics study–prose (prosody).

      There are numerous passages in Origin of Species about writing and writing process that contributed to the development of the novel as we know it today and plot. Two books I highly recommend are Gillian Beer’s “Darwin’s Plots” and George Levine’s “Darwin and the Novelists.”

      I think all writers should strive to bury the competition; that’s a noble goal and I hope you (and/or your friends) are that ambitious. I’d think much less of you if you weren’t! I think T.C. Boyle has a similar quote that stems from Iowa rejecting his application for funding, so he told himself from then on that he’d “bury his enemies.” I encourage you and others to do the same.

  142. columbusmatt

      What happens if one of your Betters proclaims a novel/poem experimental?

      Is it suddenly NOT experimental because it has been called such, instead of having been labeled “not a novel”?

      If only that which has been called (by your betters) “NOT a poem/novel/play” is experimental, that leaves them (and you) a rather empty sand-box to play in, eh?

  143. A D Jameson

      Hi columbsmatt,

      I think of it as contextual. If it’s experimental to me, then it’s experimental to me. Like, if I write a poem by drawing words out of a hat—let’s say I come up with that idea myself, and don’t know others have done it. But then if I go to my Modernist poetry class and my professor tells me that Tristan Tzara did that same thing nearly 100 years ago, and that many others have repeated the idea since then—well, then my poem is no longer as experimental as I thought. Knowledge does count for something (although you might have meant something different by the word “Betters”?). That said, my poem may still befuddle people plenty back in my dorm room, where Tzara’s work remains comparatively unknown.

      In other words, I think of experimental as a relative value, not an absolute one. (Works are experimental in relation to other works.) (And I’m proposing this as one way of defining “experimental.”) I do think a lot of people use the term “experimental” to mean “unfamiliar to me,” and that that approach is substantially different from declaring works experimental because they contain particular genre features (although there can also be a lot of overlap, no doubt).


  144. Another way to generate text #7: Gysin & Burroughs vs. Tristan Tzara | HTMLGIANT

      […] them, but generative techniques haven’t been on my mind. However, my post last week, “Experimental fiction as principle and as genre,” generated a lot of text (haha), in the form of comments. Some people who chimed in […]