March 25th, 2011 / 11:41 am

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Amelia Gray}

Amelia Gray is the author of AM/PM (Featherproof Books) and Museum of the Weird (FC2). Her first novel, THREATS, is due Winter 2012 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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?”

Trying to describe experimental writing by linking certain forms to it, like stream-of-consciousness or changes in point of view, is like trying to describe a protest by noting that the protesters were carrying signs and shouting or walking arm-in-arm and singing. Linking that protest to other protests is an attempt to describe what the protest is when it would be more useful to look at what the protesters are actually protesting, the government or business or individual. I would most broadly describe experimental writing as a kind of response, and from there I couldn’t define it without looking at the individual piece. Any experimental piece responds to a mode of writing or a specific writer or a specific book or story or idea. Choosing to write in a certain style (for example, “modernist”) comes with a set of guidelines one can follow or ignore. Experimental writing, on the other hand, reacts to those guidelines (or writers or books or stories or ideas).

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?

All literature is ultimately judged by the individual, regardless of criteria for evaluation. I have a problem with suggesting that a failed experiment is synonymous with error, anyway. When a scientist conducts an experiment perfectly and the result isn’t as planned, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the experiment was performed in error. The failure becomes an opportunity to look closer, to question why it failed, how future experiments could succeed. Every reader comes to the experiment with their own criteria for gold and copper.

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?

It doesn’t ring true with me, but I’ve never tried writing such a simultaneously broad and specific crisis as AIDS. It seems like with such a crisis that has a real past and survivors and is an issue that still affects the world in a very real way, it becomes difficult to look at language and subvert expectations and tease and reward in the way that experimental writing tends to do. There’s just too much that needs to be said directly and it feels like there’s not enough time to say it.

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?

In establishing that experimental writing is a kind of response, a literary kind of protest, it makes sense that there’s a long list of brilliant, wild, experimental women writers long standing against the established form: Eliot, Woolf, Austen, Gilman, Chopin, Wollstonecraft, to name a few. You could go down the list of women writing in America before suffrage (to choose a random time when a certain group was a distinct Other) and pick out reasons why each of them could be considered experimental. Writing on the fringe lends itself to experiments. I can understand why women trying to make it as modern traditional realists would want a more gender-neutral editorial board but for anyone trying to find a mode to work from, there’s no easier mark than the patriarchy. The more experimental members of VIDA, if there are any, should be thanking The Atlantic for giving them such a clear target.

Question #5

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

Lolita for its bold and funny criticism of armchair Freudian analysis; La Medusa for its brilliant successes with dialect; Molloy for its play of revealing or concealing or subverting knowledge; Ulysses for pushing language into sound and sound into language; Infinite Jest for its successes against cliché.



  1. Andrewworthington

      This was is my favorite of the experimental lit interviews, probably. I liked the first question and the last question. Q#4 was great too, the last line.

      I would have liked more detailed explanation for the answer to q #3.

  2. Alec niedenthal

      Great little interview–Amelia’s answers are deeply intelligent, especially for #s 4 and 5.

      Also, I’m in that picture! Cool.

  3. Afternoon Bites: Howard Jacobson, Amelia Gray, Literary Hype, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

      […] “Trying to describe experimental writing by linking certain forms to it, like stream-of-consciousness or changes in point of view, is like trying to describe a protest by noting that the protesters were carrying signs and shouting or walking arm-in-arm and singing.” -Amelia Gray, interviewed about experimental literature at HTML Giant. […]

  4. Anonymous

  5. DiTrapano

      Jesus. Are we still talking about that thing in #4? I am going to say something that might piss some people off but here goes. “Gender neutral editorial boards” and “Let’s make sure there are as many women writers in this issue as there are men writers” is basically saying that there should be one woman for every one man which is basically saying, “Fuck gay people and all of their rights.” If you can follow that, great. If not, think about it.

  6. DiTrapano

      And I just happen to say those exact words all of the time. But that’s because I like my freedom just out of reach.

  7. Matt

      OK, not trying to be a dick about this but… I really don’t follow your point. Please explain further?

  8. Amelia

      Hey thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

      Delany’s whole quote can maybe contextualize my response more: “But if writers are going to turn to the experimental today, they’d best be aware that not only do publishers distrust experimental writing, but many writers who have just the sense of crisis that, a decade and a half ago I had (when I decided I had to write a novel about AIDS), no longer see experimental writing as a way to deal with it aesthetically.”

      (There’s another quote in his response, from Norman Wong, who says “No experimentation! Experimental writing is just bad writing … it mutes and muddies your ideas, makes for dull reading, and loses your audience. So don’t do it.” Dang dude.)

      If my writing is responding to any kind of crisis, it’s the shared, slow kind, the “we’re all going to die alone and it doesn’t matter how you live” sort of bad news that we’ve all more or less known for a while. I think that a piece of writing that experiments with form or structure works best when the crisis/subject is so broad or internalized that the reader has it memorized before they even read it. Meanwhile, all of the details of a specific crisis — such as revolt in Libya — might not be so immediately close to the reader’s heart, which is where powerful realism can do the best work from a practical standpoint. With a specific crisis, there are too many details required to create the reality to bring your reader along to add in a bunch of obfuscation.

      This is sounding pretty prescriptive and is also utter speculation, which is why I didn’t put it in my initial response, but it’s how I interpret Delany’s idea and how I personally operate. Let me know if I got detailed in the wrong direction.

  9. Andrewworthington

      no yeah i understand better now…i like the “shared, slow” crisis bit the most

  10. Olga Zilberbourg

      Really enjoyed this interview. Susan Lanser’s “Fictions of Authority” is a theoretical book (Feminist Narrative Theory) that goes a long way to explain the necessity of women’s experiments for Q#4.

  11. Paul Cunningham

      Bravo, Amelia! :)

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      […] Gray, who was a top-notch member of my SXSW panel, was interviewed about experimental literature by HTML Giant earlier this week. They’ve been running a bunch of these lately, but […]

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      […] is in its use of the unusual and the unexpected. In her response to HTMLGiant’s ongoing “What Is Experimental Literature” series, Gray compares experimental fiction (EF) to a form of protest, reaction, or response to something. […]