March 28th, 2011 / 1:37 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Alexandra Chasin}

Alexandra Chasin is the author of Kissed By, a collection of short innovative fictions (FC2) and Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market, a nonfiction/scholarly book (St. Martins).  Chasin’s creative work has appeared in print in Unsaid, Hotel Amerika, Post Road, AGNI, Denver Quarterly, and Chain, and online in Exquisite Corpse, elimae, Diagram, and Big Other, among other places.  Relevant bibliography for this piece includes inclusion in Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers, edited by Nava Renek.  Chasin has a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford, and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College.  She teaches at Lang College, The New School, and currently serves as Co-chair of the Literary Studies Department there.

Question #1

Experimental writing, as a category or concept, seems fraught with widespread confusion and misunderstanding.  How exactly would you describe “experimental writing”?  Or, to borrow a question from Kate Sutherland, “What’s Experimental about Experimental Writing?”

The key to describing “experimental writing” lies in the quotation marks there.  In other words, who is being quoted?  Or, how is the moniker mobilized?  Who wants to use the term, and for what purposes?  On the one hand, the term sounds like a genre, and as such may function as a claim to legitimacy by writers who feel marginalized by and within institutions, like publishing, bookselling, and academia, that appear to value what they (marginalized writers) think of as NONexperimental writing.  Nonexperimental writing, in this context, may mean more mainstream literary fiction, canonized “classics,” genre fiction, noncreative nonfiction(!), anything with a market, with significant numbers of editors inclined to print, post, or anthologize it, a cadre of reviewers trained to read it, professors willing to teach it, and/or other forms of institutional legitimation.  Even though writers marginalized in these zones by those gatekeepers may feel like The Mainstream is a club they don’t want to be part of, they (we) could nonetheless suffer, in material and psychic ways, from being excluded by it.  Self-described “experimental writers” evidently seek legitimation, and may feel that perpetrating a nameable genre is one way to claim it, even if they disparage the literary values by which they are marginalized.

On the other hand, but by the same token, the term “experimental writing” may be used in some places to disparage certain kinds of writing thought of, by nonexperimentalists, as difficult, willfully inscrutable, gimmicky, non-realist, cerebral, derivative of avant-garde traditions – this list could go on and (n)on, but why would we go on with it?  The list is very familiar, and it is bound to fail as a set of descriptors.

Which is to say that the term “experimental writing” cannot possibly describe any category-wide features or characteristics that are intrinsic to texts.  It’s no accident that every definition you’ve seen breaks down, which is not just because the exception proves the rule, and not just because hybrid writing is the rule:  genre and other categorical ascriptions to text serve social functions rather than purely aesthetic or formal functions. There is no such thing as a purely aesthetic or formal function, no place or practice in which aesthetic or formal qualities operate, or are manifest, distinct from social meanings and values.

Writers don’t sit down to write something “experimental.”  At least, I don’t.  Like Marx, “je suis pas Marxiste.”  I write to and from formal questions, throwing into crisis everything from punctuation marks to meaning; I am motivated by ideas and by political conviction; I play with the sonic, visual, and tactile properties of language, and the white space it swims in; I imagine texts that exceed margin, page, and book; I tend not to lead with plot or character and often don’t even end up there; I am speaking to, with, and against various avant-garde literary traditions, as well as any number of Western literary conventions… but I make no truck with “experimental writing.”  Not because it’s a club of which I don’t want to be a member.  I’m crass enough to know that it is a club of which I DO want to be a member.  But that is largely for institutional reasons, and not because there is some formal or aesthetic property that obtains in my work and also in the work of Gertrude Stein, Jorge Luis Borges, Kenneth Goldsmith, Samuel Delaney, Kathy Acker, Jack Kerouac, Djuna Barnes.  Bhanu Kapil.  Lidia Yuknavitch.  Any or everybody classified as experimental.  We’re all wacky, but that is too general to be very useful.  And anything more specific breaks down.  And the breaking down is where it’s at.  And round and round we go.

I know that some thinkers use “experimental” to modify artistic process, and that is indeed one way out of trying to establish some commonality intrinsic to all products (texts) labeled as experimental.  But I think the same problem obtains.  Processes differ as widely among so-called “experimental” writers as they do among “nonexperimental” writers, and we would find overlap between the processes of writers in both groups.  “Fuck with language” is too general to be very useful.

While I am, personally, infinitely interested in the aesthetic issues at which this question gestures, I just wanted to take the opportunity to look at the institutional zones within which the question is meaningful.  Publishing, bookselling, academia.  Because unlike Marx, I am a marxist.  Writers may like to flatter ourselves that we live, write, and think outside of those boxes, but those are some very big boxes.  Luckily, so is the prison-house of language.

Question #2

A few years ago, Marjorie Welish wrote an article for Boston Review about Raymond Queneau, which she concluded by claiming, “Experimental writing is by definition its own adventure, a way characterized most definitely with error yet also with discovery and potential conceptual originality, which in time may well prove significant.”  If we accept Welish’s suggestion that experimental writing is inherently connected to error and discovery, how are readers to determine the success or failure of a particular work of experimental writing?  Without established criteria for evaluation, how can we differentiate between gold and copper?

Once again, I would look at the frame of the question.

Assessing success or failure, distinguishing between the copper and the gold…. these are the practices at the core of canon building.  Canons shift according to their historical moment: today’s copper is tomorrow’s gold and vice versa.  In the modernist West, Beckett’s failure is now paradigmatic.  And what about place, or culture?  Remember the culture wars, the war between Western Civilization and multiculturalism, the opposition of relativism to solid moral and aesthetic standards?  Remember the apocryphal allusion to the nonexistence and impossibility of  “the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans.”  If this famous quote is apocryphal – and not directly attributable to Saul Bellow – it is nevertheless instructive about the stakes of canonization.  Regardless of the rubric under which a canon is built, canon building is an exclusionary practice, though it may have some advantages.  And while – in fact, because – canon building may be inevitable, it is imperative to understand that engaging in value judgments about aesthetic products – or systematizing, and then mobilizing institutional authority around, such judgments – has destructive effects.

Multiple forces are enacting aesthetic distinctions all the time.  Professors do it, critics do it, booksellers do it.  And individual cultural consumers, or unlicensed critics, make aesthetic judgments.  Many people read for pleasure, and pleasure takes different forms for different readers.  This might seem to be a matter of individual taste.  But taste differs less according to idiosyncratic subjectivity, and more according to background, training, and aspirations.  By “aspirations,” I mean that people often like what they think they should like, and they like what they are told is good, and most of all, people like what people they want to be like like – educated people most of all.  The sociology of culture tells us so.

Additionally, readers read for all kinds of reasons, apart from “pleasure,” guided by all kinds of authorities beyond their sense of their own personal taste.  In other words, many readers give serious weight to the judgments of authorized literary critics, those degreed or positioned to distinguish between copper and gold, those degreed or positioned to establish criteria for distinguishing.

In these ways, the questions of standards governing the aesthetic assessment of experimental literature differ not at all from the questions of standards governing a huge range of social practices that involve evaluations, including job interviews.  And as with job interviews, when the judges (prospective employers, like critics) are unselfcritical about the nature of judging, they will hire people like themselves.  Which, given the facts about who occupies the seats of judgment, tends toward discriminatory assessments, often unconsciously.

Again, I am not saying that the aesthetic questions don’t interest me.  They do.  But that probably reflects my training and background and aspirations, unless I’m somehow magically different from everyone else.  And since the aesthetic ground is covered, and so stimulatingly, by others here, I consider my best contribution to the conversation to be the reminder that literary standards usually operate in the institutional interests of those in the seats of (literary) power, and that the vast majority of judgments made according to such standards will tend to reproduce those institutions.  The relatively marginalized position of “experimental writing” bears this out.  But there is a lot of writing that is, effectively categorically, much more marginalized than that.

Please see Question 4.

Question #3

In his book About Writing, Samuel Delany suggests that many writers (himself included) “no longer see experimental writing as a way to deal with [crisis] aesthetically” (226).  Does this sentiment ring true for you as well?

Having explained my nonattachment to the rubric of experimental writing, I don’t know if I deserve to answer this question.  But I will say that I do see radical interrogation of form and content as a way to deal with crisis, just as I see it as a way to deal with noncrisis.  In the face of breakfast or brutality, with the collapse of markets or the collapse of hope for revolution in the United States (or even very thoroughgoing social change), of baby-go-boom on the living-room rug or the inertia of homeless man with the gap between his two front teeth, into whose cup I drop a few coins every evening as I walk out of the bodega and keep walking, radical aesthetic practice is indeed a way to deal.  But it depends what we mean by “deal with.”  Will radical aesthetic practice soften the street for that man?  Please.  No more and no less than I do when I smile at him and keep walking, no more and no less than if I wrote genre fiction.  Not that my smile, my coin, and my radical aesthetic practice don’t make a material difference to the world.  They do; they are necessary but insufficient to make the world a more humane place.

Question #4

Given Amy King’s recent VIDA article on the under-representation of women in major literary publications, it seems extremely important to acknowledge the fact that gender issues continue to problematize the field of literature.  How would you characterize the relationship between women and experimental literature?

I cut to the chase:  Inarguably, women are still underrepresented at the gates and inside them.  Underrepresented in greater proportions as we look up the ladders of power in the institutions in which we work.  With some exceptions known as tokens.  But if I spend too much time proving that a handful of us break through and apologizing that a handful of them help us along, I might not get to this:  textual representations of humans of all genders are still beset by sexist, heterosexist, misogynist, gynophobic, woman-hating values, or is it vagina dentata to say so?  Or is it just boring?  It’s boring, sure, but the facts are even more boring than the recitation of the facts.  The facts are also enraging.  Ho hum.  With what color can I dress up the same boring old bogeys, and why must I?  With what dressing drape the glass ceiling? A strange lassitude strikes my fingers as I try to type this.

I’m tired of this question because I’ve been a woman for a long time and a girl before that.  I’m tired of answering this question because I just addressed it recently in another venue:

“Gender and Writing”

Why don’t some self-identified men answer this question for a while, so I can write my books?

Yet, if we’ve got a failed relationship on our hands, at best a work in progress, at least we’ve popped the question.  What about the relationship between people of color and experimental literature in the U.S.?  What about representations of race and racial Others?  Can we talk about that?  Can white people talk about racism, exclusion, virtual segregation, along racial lines, textually and institutionally – address ourselves to these questions and to our social practices – so that people of color can write books?

Question #5

Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?

I have to go iconoclast on this one:  Joyce Carol Oates.  Seriously, and Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf (speaking of failures, like The Waves, what makes the world go round, failed experiments).  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, and Nella Larsen.  L. Frank Baum.  Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Vladimir Nabokov.  Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison, and Toni Morrison.  Octavia Butler, William Gass, Salman Rushdie.  Joyce Carol Oates, seriously.

The history of literary canonization in the West, from the vantage point of a post/Modernist aesthetic that values innovation as a mark of the individual genre-, form-, and medium-changing artistic genius, yields us a canon of innovators.

Funny, I read the question as asking about authors. Here are some works. I don’t love all of them equally, but they equally pose a challenge, that of confronting constant change, of accepting the fact that language lives in usage and usage constantly changes. These works point to the ephemeral, transitional, non-authored forms that shift writing and reading paradigms every day. Canons are provisional; even spelling comes undone as we try and try and keep trying to bend language to our purposes: texts, tweets, twitters, feeds, IMs, my high score in Word Bubbles, erased when I refresh the page, the anemic bookplate in a book I saved from childhood, the correspondence warped beyond recognition in the flood, contributions to complaint boxes, comments in the memory book at the front desk, the improvised saxophone riff at Akilah’s memorial service, my daughter’s every new wish list, and the course schedule for 2011-12, which undergoes constant revision, like the most hyper-, most ideal, most unfixable and unfixed of forms, which will never ever be finished, even after next fall’s term has begun.

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  1. stephen

      “There is no such thing as a purely aesthetic or formal function, no place or practice in which aesthetic or formal qualities operate, or are manifest, distinct from social meanings and values.”

      “While I am, personally, infinitely interested in the aesthetic issues at which this question gestures, I just wanted to take the opportunity to look at the institutional zones within which the question is meaningful. Publishing, bookselling, academia. Because unlike Marx, I am a marxist. Writers may like to flatter ourselves that we live, write, and think outside of those boxes, but those are some very big boxes.”

  2. stephen

      I like a lot of these responses. I like this idea: “accepting the fact that language lives in usage and usage constantly changes.”

  3. kb

      The best one can do is make a bigger box that contains (and negates, partially!) previous boxes. “Marxism” as it is today, for instance, contains a multitude of boxes and is ever-growing, and it’s not even as though Marx himself is the center box. Hegel is within Marx’s box, for instance. But all the boxes are interconnected and going in different directions… ? (question mark because I am thinking out loud)

      “Experimental” means to me, then, that you are trying to make a bigger box, rather than working within a given box. It can be rejected, however, and relegated to box purgatory…

  4. kb

      “Christianity” is wholly other than Christ, negates much of Christ, but certainly also contains Christ. And Paul, Aquinas, Luther, etc… whether people are conscious of it or not…

  5. kb

      The continuous process of box-destruction is also its own box-lineage!

      When will the boxes ennnnnddddd!

      Haha, sorry about always making more boxes with my comments and everything. I’m beginning to come around to the POV that anyone that tries is in the right… writers, philosophers, activists, etc.

      HTMLgiant is a fine resource, sometimes (we) get so caught up in the infighting that (we) do not realize how much in the minority (ANYONE) who cares about the stuff posted here are… I appreciate HTMLgiant.

  6. marshall

      experimental author photo

  7. deadgod

      that’s a photo of the ‘space between’ a gate and its keeper

  8. Cole Anders

      This is the best post so far of this “what is experimental writing” series. Though I wonder why Joyce Carol Oates, “seriously,” twice.

      Too bad the comments are so few. Maybe this experiment is finished.

  9. Anonymous
  10. MFBomb

      Nice to see a writer cite “classic” writers who are typically not associated with “experimental” writing. Too many contemporary writers are under-read in classic literature.

      See, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and The Individual Talent.”

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  13. Samuel Delany

      The passage from my book About Writing has been several times (miss-)synopsized: “In his book About
      Writing, Samuel Delany suggests that many writers
      (himself included) ‘no longer see experimental writing as a way to
      deal with [crisis] aesthetically’ (226), as it is here. What I actually wrote was that in the early 90s I heard this attitude expressed by some members of a panel of politically involved gay writers and then applauded by the young people in the room. I went on to say, I found this sad–and that it suggested to me that their reading experiences had been very different from mine, in which again and again “experimental writing” (despite whatever problems of definition we have) had been the most effective way to deal with politically important material. To me, experimental works (such as Russ’s The Female Man or Ellison’s Death Bird; The Sound and the Fury vs Light in August, both very good novels, but the former, “experimental” work far more readable and far more immediately powerful) regularly packed a far greater emotional wallop than traditional narrative attempts to deal with the same material. Unfortunately people have been quoting each other, rather than going back and looking at the actual text. As I said in the fairly long interview from which that distorted soundbite is taken, having the entire intellectual armamentarium of rhetorical devices at your beck and call is far preferable to having to limit yourself to tradititional narrative tropes, when writing about truly important matters. To me, that’s just simple logic. 

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