What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Brian Evenson}

Illustration by Dave Crosland

Brian Evenson is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg, published by New York Tyrant Press in 2009. In 2009 he also published the novel Last Days (which won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009) and the story collection Fugue State, both of which were on Time Out New York‘s top books of the year. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Slovenian. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he directs Brown University’s Literary Arts Program. Other books include The Wavering Knife, Dark Property, and Altmann’s Tongue. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.

Question #1 – The Body

In the first volume of “Five Questions,” when asked to describe experimental writing, Bhanu Kapil redirected my question to the body: “Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line?” She then went on to discuss “the diasporic body” -and- “the language of somatic experiencing.” I find this provocative line of inquiry very interesting because it draws our attention away from the role of the mind in creating literature and instead compels us to pay attention to the role of the body. What thoughts do you have about the relationship between the body and experimental writing?

I’m fairly skeptical of the idea of a mind/body split to begin with; minds don’t function without bodies and bodies don’t function without minds. I think, since we live in a culture still dominated by Cartesian notions that favor the mind, that correctives such as the one Bhanu gave can be very useful for shaking us out of our unexamined habits. I’d also say, though, that for me the most productive path in terms of thinking about these relationships is phenomenology, one of the few philosophical disciplines which takes seriously the task of thinking of consciousness as beginning with the experiencing of one’s own body as a kind of lived body and then building up from there. That notion of the lived body seems to me a very important one since it can be read as suggesting that the joining of body and mind is essential to consciousness.

Thomas Metzinger argues that we don’t really experience the world but experience a representation of the world that we simulate in our head. But of course we create this simulation by moving around in the world and taking it in with our physical body, and if we don’t create our simulation with a sufficient degree of accuracy we run into bodily trouble in the real world.

There’s an essay by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called “The Brain” in which he starts with the idea of a brain floating in space without stimulus and suggests how thinking might develop in such a brain as a way of simply fighting against nothingness, and how that thinking might lead to imagining a good part of the world as we know it. But ultimately, for Dürrenmatt, in the middle of the 20th century, with Auschwitz, we reach the unthinkable, something that cannot be conceived by the imagination but terrifyingly comes to happen nonetheless. However, I’m not so sure that a brain in a void would reach even a rudimentary stage of imagining: imagination is always embodied imagination (I have a story directly about this, called “Legion,” but in one way or another many of my stories are about this). Without a body, everything might be unimaginable, though even an incomplete or damaged body can give us enough sensory input to bring us into a compelling, even unique, form of consciousness.

A lot of my work is very visceral, even about damaged or mutilated bodies, about people or creatures who suffer through something and have to learn to adapt differently. These characters–and most of my characters in fact–have a hard time thinking of the world around them as real; they are incredibly suspicious of reality (often justifiably so) but they can’t be suspicious of reality without also being suspicious of their own sanity. They mistrust their perceptions and sensations. They come to feel there’s really no way to know for certain if something is wrong in your head or if something is wrong with the world, that ultimately you can’t really know anything for certain.

Question #2 — Politics

In describing experimental writing, Miranda Mellis suggested, “Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa.” I’m interested to learn your perspective on the political potential and/or limitations of experimental writing. Additionally, in what ways do you think experimental literature can engage with politics differently than other forms of literature?

On one level writing of any kind is a very inefficient form of politics. Anything literature does it does over a long period of time, whereas a speech or a thrown rock or a political rally can have an almost immediate effect. On the other hand, over time and subterraneanly, writing has the ability to change not only the way people think but the structure of how they think, and that can have a subtle but powerful effect. When I read someone like Thomas Bernhard, I find my way of putting together language in my head changes; it’s like a contagion.

I do think there’s a danger, though, in beginning with a political idea and trying to write fiction that conforms to that. I read Miranda’s statement as suggesting that the politics and aesthetics of a given piece have to be interdependent and develop from one another if they are to succeed. Its starting point is not all that different from what Henry James calls organic form or Beckett’s statement about Joyce that “form is content, content is form,” but it moves beyond that to become differently emphasized and particularized.

I guess I would add that the kind of fiction I like to read, experimental or no, feels like it has something at stake to it, that there’s some sort of necessity to its having been written rather than it being a replication of patterns or traditions that have come before or brain fodder. I think a lot of stuff that gets called experimental, particularly within the American tradition, is in fact very staid, very predictable. Often that’s the stuff that gets praised, at least in the short term. At the same time there’s great work out there if you’re willing to look for it.

I think of my own work as philosophically engaged, as trying to provide ways of approaching certain sorts of philosophical issues that I feel haunted by. But also as engaged in an assault on religious extremism and patriarchy, an assault which I think of as political. In some of my books, and in my forthcoming novel Immobility in particular, those two engagements merge. I think from any rational perspective it’s hard not to think of humans as a very bad idea: the planet would be much better off without us; every other species would benefit from our destruction, except maybe cockroaches. Cockroaches would miss us. Pubic lice might miss us as well, but they’d probably eventually get along just fine. At the same time, as a human, and as a human who is generally pretty happy, I can only have those thoughts from within an embodied (lived) human body, and I recognize that if one is not careful they become a kind of luxury, a game with no stakes. That’s why I so greatly admire a writer like Antoine Volodine: he seems to be able to think about the end of individuals and of civilization, even the end of humanity, in a very clear-sighted and sincere way that I find at once moving and uncompromising. That strikes me as the heart of innovative writing: necessity and seriousness (even if it’s a comedic seriousness) inextricably bound to a real attention to language and form, whatever the specifics of that attention might be. All the other things that we might find in innovative writing–typographical experimentation, sexual transgressiveness, narrative disruption, verbal bedazzlement, etc., etc.,–all of which are readily identifiable and can be very good things in the right hands, they all come secondary to that. But since those things are much easier to talk about, we tend to think of them as characterizing innovative writing. But such characterizations are faulty, maybe even lazy, and I think end up missing the point.

Question #3 — Economics

Debra Di Blasi responded to my question about how we might evaluate the success of a work of experimental literature (in light of the seeming lack of established criteria) by arguing that the act of “Determining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ shifts literary significance to product rather than process, to a means to an end rather than a means to a means to a means, i.e., evolution. Product concerns itself with marketing, process with art. They remain antagonistic neighbors.” By shifting my question away from the realm of aesthetic judgment and toward the discourse of commodities, Di Blasi raises interesting economic considerations. How might we begin to think about the use value of experimental literature? Or, to put it another way, what does experimental literature offer society or the individual that cannot be accounted for elsewhere?

I think use-value is a very bad way to think of literature of any kind. It’s the sort of idea that leads to bestselling books like What Proust Can Teach You about How to Walk Your Dog, clever and often enjoyable books that utterly miss the point about the books they claim to elucidate. The only genuine use value for a book, at least that is consistent no matter who the reader is, is as a device to press flowers or to support a table leg. I also think your question swerves too far from Debra’s statement: she’s right, I think, about art and marketing being antagonistic neighbors, and I think that as soon as you move your gaze from process to product you’ve moved out of the realm of art. I think a lot of promising books are ruined by thinking in terms of product, and I also think when it happens with innovative literature it’s the death knell of innovation.

I’m also, as you might have gathered by the way I rarely say it, hostile to the term “experimental literature,” which for me brings too much scientific baggage with it and also brings expectations from another realm. It brings with it images of mad scientists and beakers, and also the binary idea that experiments either succeed or fail, and thus forefronts the notion of success. I prefer “innovative literature” since it’s a somewhat more neutral and non-discipline specific term and more likely to keep us focused on process.

I don’t care if a book I like (or even a book I write) is read by the larger culture. What I care about is that it’s read by me, that I have a way of finding it and that, once I’ve found it, I have ways of recommending it to people who I think will like it. I love to read, and I still find it a thrill when I find a great book. But rarely do I find out about those books from The New York Times or another big review organ. Friends tell me about them, students recommend them, I stumble onto them, some great blogs recommend them to me (I won’t name them for fear of missing one), I find them in Rain Taxi, Bookforum, Time Out New York, etc. Sometimes Amazon.com recommends them to me, but Amazon.com sometimes has good taste and sometimes has taste like my religious uncle (and it also is relentless in its desire to try to get me to read Jonathan Franzen). But it’s actually much easier for me to find the books I want to read than it was ten or fifteen years ago. That’s partly because it’s become easier to put out a book with very little capital so there are more possibilities, partly because book culture has become very positively decentralized in a way that has begun to give at least a little of the power back to the readers. That to me is the only economics that we should be concerned about: what can we do to help ourselves and others like us find the books that we want to read? How do we bring books to the people who have given up reading after having assiduously tried to follow the New York Times Editor’s Picks for ten years with increasing despair?

One answer for me has been simply to irreverently cross lines that are generally left uncrossed by literary writers. I personally think there’s a lot more connections between innovative fiction and the best stuff that’s going on in genre fiction than most people think, and when Peter Straub edited the New Wave Fabulist issue of Conjunctions I suddenly realized that I had a lot to learn from people that I’d dismissed in advance, out of ignorance. It’s caused me to do things like write video game novels and film tie-in novels since I feel that one place the battle for reading should be fought is there: getting people who sometimes read only a book or two a year to start believing in reading again. There’s an ethics behind doing that that I believe in. I still remember when I was twelve and mostly reading pretty predictable genre fiction what it felt like to stumble suddenly onto Gene Wolfe or Peter Straub or J. G. Ballard, who were doing things that I just didn’t realize could be done. That I suppose should tie in to my definition of innovative fiction: innovative fiction is fiction that can change your life. If it can’t, why bother?

Question #4 – Race

When asked about the relationship between women and experimental literature, Alexandra Chasin responded by asking, “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?” Since this sentiment was echoed by various of the previous “Five Questions” participants, and because it strikes me as true that discussions about race and representations of racial diversity tend to be underrepresented in the field of experimental literature, I think it’s important to pursue answers to those questions. What are your thoughts?

I think this question goes back to what Debra says about process and product, and is probably defined most clearly and cuttingly in Percival Everett’s book Erasure. I think the New York publishing industry is intensely discriminatory, with editors having ideas about how people of color should be represented. That’s not to say that good books by people of color don’t get done by New York houses, only that there’s a tendency for editors and reviewers to key in on books that are seen as representing or encapsulating, say, the African American Experience, or the Cubano Experience. And even very good books by people of color often get overdetermined by critics to fit into those models, in a way that sometimes obscures the strengths of the books themselves.

In innovative literature the problem is different: there seems at times to be too little conversation between different groups of innovative writers, so the people reading FC2 writers aren’t necessarily aware of what’s going on with fiction at Atelos or or Leon Works, say, and vice versa. I think there’s starting to be some cross-pollination, but we’re still far from having made a recognizable place for innovative writers of color.

Having said that, I think the other crucial thing that we need to do is stop thinking about it as U.S. innovative literature. Dambudzo Marechera suggests, rightly I think, that writers not only occupy their own nation, but also occupy a country entirely their own, a country of writers both living and dead. Innovative writing in this country would be much more interesting if we began to pay more attention to what’s going on throughout the world; indeed, the most important authors in the last few years for me have largely been writers living outside of this country, as well as writers who are dead.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

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

I hate these sorts of questions, since as soon as the interview goes online you think of all the things you should have said… I’m very fond of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy which is one of the few books I reread with any regularity, and which I still find astonishing. Kafka’s story “The Country Doctor” has been exceptionally important to me and probably always will be. Dambudzo Marechera’s story “The Slow Sound of His Feet” I think quite astonishing–it’s one of the few stories whose effect on my fictional style I can actually measure. I like the first story in Janet Kauffman’s Obscene Gestures for Women very much. Percival Everett’s The Water Cure (among others). Pretty much all of James Purdy’s work, especially “63: Dream Palace.” Muriel Spark, pretty much every single thing–and I’m convinced that her novels often categorized as her least experimental are as innovative as the so-called more experimental ones. William Melvin Kelley’s Dem. Peter Straub’s story “Bunny is Good Bread.” Dennis Cooper’s work, especially Try (maybe because I read it first). Diane Wiliams’ work. Antoine Volodine’s work–everything, I wish more of it was translated so I could share it with more people. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Diana George’s Disciplines and Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars. Renee Gladman’s Juice. César Aira’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Literary Conference, Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (among many other things). Tarjev Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, which is simple but nearly perfect. Nicolas Mosley’s brilliant Impossible Object. Marie Redonnet’s Nevermore, Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Called Shayol”, China Miéville’s Embassytown (which says some very interesting things about language and meaning), Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. Stacey Levine’s Frances Johnson. I could go on and on, and would still leave too much out…