What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Debra Di Blasi}

Debra Di Blasi (www.debradiblasi.com) is founding publisher of Jaded Ibis Press and president of Jaded Ibis Productions. In addition to her publishing role, she is a multi-genre writer and artist whose books include The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions; Drought & Say What You Like; Prayers of an Accidental Nature; What the Body Requires, and Skin of the Sun (forthcoming). Awards include a James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, Thorpe Menn Book Award, Cinovation Screenwriting Award, and Diagram Innovative Fiction Award. She teaches and lectures on 21st Century narrative forms.

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?”

My use of the term “experimental writing” remains specific to my needs as a writer; I let other writers use it as they wish, including my Jaded Ibis Press authors like David Hoenigman who categorizes his novel, Burn Your Belongings, as “experimental.”   Nearly all of my recent writing results from an attempt (Montaigne’s essai) to utilize scientific theories and their implications in creating the literary experiment.  I always begin with a question, much in the same way a scientific experiment begins with a hypothesis to be dis/proved.  In the case of The Jiri Chronicles – a book without boundaries that now contains over 500 individual works of prose, poetry, music, interviews, visual art, video, websites, performances, consumer products – the primary question and thus the experiment could be framed thusly:  “What is Systems Theory as it relates to literary fiction, and vice versa?”

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?

The experiment of The Jiri Chronicles began in 1998 and will culminate at a real funeral in 2011.  Until then, the conclusions resulting from the experiment cannot be fully addressed.  So, you see, my definition of “experimental” also concerns discovery.  And I agree with Welish: “error” is always an aspect of experimental writing, just as it is in scientific research. The “errors” may not be discovered until long after the experiment ends.

Individual readers have always determined the “success” or “failure” of any literary work, based on individual preferences and parameters.  Book critics – and plenty of lit professors – aren’t necessarily erudite enough to pass judgment on experimental writing; they haven’t made the effort to develop nuanced reading skills.  Here’s the problem with literary evaluation; indeed, it’s the problem in contemporary literature as a whole:  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.  Now that I’m also a publisher, I attend cocktail parties at both houses but never make the mistake of inviting them over to my house at the same time.

It’s interesting that you used gold and copper as metaphorical standards.  Gold is intrinsically linked to monetary markets, while copper often suggests functionality, as in plumbing, telecommunications, utilities (wiring) and architectural design.  As publisher and reader, my personal solution to this convolution remains the investigation of intents: the author’s and mine, which are not always the same.

I should add that one of my goals in founding Jaded Ibis Press was to create a “play” space for writers & artists, a place in which they could tinker with forms, experiment without the usual limitations imposed by the publishing industry and its sales reps. The word is getting out.  Writers who had given up on their gloriously inventive projects ever seeing the light of day now have hope.  And because the boundaries of publishing have expanded, so have the parameters of their experiments.  There’s some truly fabulous writing coming out in the near future, and I’m proud to be part of the big experiment.

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?

No, not at all.  Some of my new work thematically explores the divide between First World and Third World cultures, and also the crisis (or rather grief) of personal and global extinction.  The only way for me to fully address the complexities of these issues is through image + language experiments.  Each essay in my experimental memoir on personal and global extinction (a work-in-progress) uses biological, physics or other science theory as its foundation, then corkscrews grammar and syntax in an attempt (again, essai, or trial) to express the ineffable.  The idea of a critic like The New York Times’ Janet Maslin comprehending, let alone writing about the structure of these essays is laughable.

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?

This is an irrefutably broad and complex question, and I doubt I can sufficiently address it here.  Nevertheless:

If you’re taking about the amount of women who write experimental literature, now and historically, I’d say that, first of all, there are a helluva lot more women penning experimental literature than any of the publishers’ catalogs or media suggest, and I include in that media more “progressive” disseminators like blogs, journals and reviews that focus on independent presses.  Nava Renek put together Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary Xxperimental Prose by Women Writers because a lot of stunning experimental writing by women came across her radar screen but never made it into print.  I’ve had to discover experimental women writers through my own publisher, FC2, and the &NOW Conference of Innovative Writing.  From those, it’s been a six-degrees-of-separation hunting party.  Now that I’m receiving manuscripts at my own publishing venture, Jaded Ibis Press, I have more insight into just how many amazing women experimental writers exist, who’s declining their writing, and why. Some of these rejections must concern gender issues, because the manuscripts are masterpieces.

The expectations of women writers are still unconsciously aligned with gothic romances, chick lit, and domestic novels.  This is not necessarily the dullard direction most women writers would choose if the market and media expected from them the same aesthetic and socio-political-economic explorations as they do from male writers. (I should note that a similar notion could be posited about literary expectations in general, but to a lesser degree, for men writing experimental literature.)

That said, I suspect that male writers simply don’t read female writers to the same extent that they read males. I pay close attention to those “Best Books” lists by men and typically see nary a women’s tome on them.  Nor will you find women reviewing frontal-lobe books or participating in literary group blogs in equal numbers. Beautiful exceptions to everything I’m stating exist – and I hope those men know how much I appreciate them.  In fact, some of my finest supporters have been men – Doug Rice, R.M. Berry, Davis Schneiderman and Lance Olsen, in particular.

The neglect of women experimental writers perhaps stems in part from the history of literature itself: the relatively short time women have been allowed an education, and then an equal education, and within that period experiencing minimal representation. Women only recently attained the right to intellectually comment via the power of literature and therefore politically, economically and socially influence their times.  It is about power, and it is about human rights.  Please let us never forget that while the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, justly allowed black men – who the U.S. Constitution considered three-fifths human – the right to vote, no women were ceded that right until 1920, in the 19th Amendment.  Women must have been considered one-fifth human.  Recently in South Africa, where I spend a great deal of time, a critical news topic was the inequality of salaries of black men versus white men.  And yet, the salaries of white women and black women combined were one-quarter that of black men. This is the world in which women writers – and particularly experimental women writers – still try to find a voice.  And if you are a man who is, while reading this, rolling your eyes or feeling a surge of combative adrenaline, I rest my case.

History gave women readers plenty of time to comprehend male narrators and characters but denied male readers an understanding of female narrators and characters.  A few years ago I heard some dumbass on NPR talking about how women writers never portrayed their male characters accurately while male writers always portrayed their female characters accurately. Really?  Says you?  Such a flatulent statement came from a male critic who once hit on me at a writing conference and never deduced that I was creeped out by him and his assumption that I would fuck him because of his literary status.  Again, this is the world in which we live.

And yet. And yet. I’m optimistic because I think we’re going to find increasingly more women, like me, taking hold of the publishing reins to try to balance an out-of-balance world.

Question #5

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

Rather than give you a list, which would take me a month to organize in a way I feel would be accurate, I’ll provide an overview of my preferences template:

1.     MEDIUM & MESSAGE:  What is the relationship between form and content?  That is, does the text, visual elements, aural motifs, and/or physical medium reflect in some way cultural significance and literary meaning?

2.     FRESHNESS: Have I seen this particular manifestation before? If not, why is this evolution interesting to me as a writer and reader?  If so, why is this reiteration worth iterating?

3.     INFLUENCE: What questions arise from this writing that are worthwhile answering in relation to (a) contemporary society and aesthetics and (b) my own writing explorations?

4.     ATTEMPT: What was the author attempting, regardless of “success”?  And is that attempt something that should be published so that other writers might attempt the same experiment?

5.     BONUS:  Does the writing improve with multiple readings?  In other words, is the writing so nuanced that it, like perfume, contains top, middle and base notes?

6.     DOPAMINE:  Does the writing exceed my expectations, thus giving me a delicious boost of dopamine to which I am addicted? Does the focus of the lens through which I view the world thereby shift?