What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Dennis Cooper}

According to his official bio, Dennis Cooper was born, he grew up, he wrote, he attended, he transferred, he was expelled, he met, he attended, he then attended, he studied, he founded, he lived, he moved, he began. And now he currently spends his time between Los Angeles and Paris. Harper Perennial will release his newest novel The Marbled Swarm in November 2011, and next month they will be republishing Horror Hospital Unplugged: his 1997 graphic novel collaboration with artist Keith Mayerson. He blogs at denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.com.

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?

Well, since experimental writing gives an author broader and wilder access to his or her imagination, the prose should ideally have greater contact with the writer’s overall needs or priorities or dictates.  So, emotion, for instance, should have a chance of being represented within the writing in a far less restrictive manner than it is in conventional fiction where it’s generally isolated as a character trait or employed as a tonal gotcha.  If you see narrative or plot as just an optional propellent or fuel for your work, and if you think of your characters as important fractions of your work rather than as its most realistic and intimate vehicles, you’re no longer called upon to just repopulate and spin a linear parade of words while always making sure it’s still a parade.  In conventional fiction, bodies are usually preset depictions that quickly become givens of the characters.  Those bodies can be sexy or comical or repugnant or whatever else but they always need to be some degree of sympathetic and maintain their status as text-based human doppelgangers. Then those bodies travel and emote and fuck or whatever their way through a story that is intended to represent their lives and wherein readers are allowed to play god — do the fly on the wall number and sometimes read their minds.  But if you approach the writing of fiction as an unmitigated experiment, and if you don’t just try to rearrange the same old strictures abnormally, you don’t have to reduce the body to a series of finite illustrations, at least in theory.  I tend to find recorded music really helpful as an alternative role model for writing because it can achieve a full body effect without limiting its emotional or sensual intentions to a singer’s voice or to the lyrics or to a lead instrument. That effect can come from everywhere in the mix, and all the elements that compose a piece of music are ostensibly equal, and it’s up to the artist and his or her technicians to modulate and organize them until the song is most powerful. I don’t know that it’s possible to just translate those principles into writing in a literal way — play sentences like they were keyboards or a bunch of guitar strings or whatever — but I’ve found that thinking of the obligatory components of fiction as fragments of an unpredictable constellation is useful as a way to try to flush emotion and eroticism and tension into my writing and not just nitpick them with my head.


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?

I can’t remember ever having found myself persuaded by a work of fiction’s politics, but I tend to concentrate on the style and systems of the fiction I read. I’m mainly interested in how writers choose to communicate, and if their constructions are dictated in some formal way by their politics then I pay attention, but otherwise when a piece of fiction is addressing or pressing a political bent in an overt way, I guess I tend to see it as part of the shape of the fairytale. My own politics, which I identify as anarchist, are fundamental to how I make work, and I don’t think I could have written my novels without employing anarchism’s structuring principles and philosophy on the level of aesthetics in a thorough way.  For instance, I’m really interested in exploring highly charged and confused/confusing situations where characters are obsessively coupled and mismatched, and where the distinction between predator and victim is dangerously clear cut.  By diagnosing the problem as a power imbalance and seeing that issue as part and parcel of a fundamental societal current in which all the characters are being victimized, it allows me to create a moral ambiguity whose resolution preoccupies the reader and hopefully results in a more penetrating, uncertain response to a narrative/character-based configuration that, under normal circumstances, would trigger a censorious judgement call. That’s a specific example, but, in general, approaching, say, the writing of a novel with an anarchist viewpoint makes the idea of creating a revolution within that form not just an ultimate narrative goal but an obligatory and organic first step.


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?

Well, literature is a very special medium because the relationship between a work’s artist and its recipient is uniquely private and collaborative. A writer writing is entirely alone with his or her text, and reading a text is an equally solitary experience.  That in and of itself isn’t entirely unique because you can listen to music on headphones and watch a DVD when alone and arrest that music and film for yourself, and so on.  But what’s unique in the case of literature is that the text isn’t the finished work. A novel or short story isn’t a solid object.  It’s just groundwork, and the reader’s imagination and reference points revive its content, extrapolate from its clues, and finish the work individually.  In a way, when you’re writing a novel, for instance, you’re actually writing an unpredictable number of novels at once, and that number depends on how many copies end up being read.  No other art form that I can think of involves that level of collaboration between artist and audience and disrupts the passiveness of being a work’s receiver with so much freedom and creativity.  The high degree of interaction and codependence that the writer/reader axis makes possible is gorgeous and offers such a great opportunity to experiment with how text reacts when it comes in contact with the imagination.  And writing allows you to play with the crapshoot decision of when a work is finished or, rather, when something is ready to be placed outside of your control and then finished by other people in largely unknowable ways.


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’m not sure that I fully understand the question.  Is the idea there that an experimental writer’s race is a determining factor in his or her ability to get published and, once published, to receive appropriate recognition, and that the community of experimental writers is more racially diverse than the arbiters of experimental writing have acknowledged? Or is the question more about how excessively white the characters in character-based American experimental literature tend to be given the diverse racial make up of the country’s citizens?  I don’t really have an interesting answer to either of those questions.  If the first is true then, yeah, that’s a real problem. As for the second, I’m not particularly interested in experimental literature wherein replicating the real world is the primary goal, and I guess I don’t think writing experiments should be restricted by the real world’s rights and wrongs.  My main reaction to the question is to want to recommend some books of experimental fiction off the top of my head that I think are fantastic and whose American authors aren’t white: Darius James’ Negrophobia, Lawrence Braithwaite’s More at 7:30 (which is being published next year, I think), Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution, R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s, Will Alexander’s Diary as Sin, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Ishmael Reed’s The Freelance Pallbearers, Bhanu Kapil Rider’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Clarence Major’s My Amputations, …


Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

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

The works I’m going to list are all favorites for the same reason.  Their effect overwhelmed me at the time that I read them and made me study how they worked, and what I found made me question and rethink my own strategies and goals in their light.  Other than that, I don’t really know why they’re especially important to me. Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence, Robbe-Grillet’s Recollection of the Golden Triangle, Robert Pinget’s Fable, Agota Kristof’s The Book of Lies, Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites, Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, Pierre Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden, William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, Raymond Roussell’s Locus Solus, Claude Simon’s Triptych, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s The Present and the Past, Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations, DFW’s Infinite Jest, Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters, … If it’s okay, I’d also like to mention a handful of favorite books by American experimental writers who are roughly in my age group and whom I consider to be writer comrades. Dodie Bellamy’s The Letters of Mina Harker, Kevin Killian’s Shy, Robert Gluck’s Jack the Modernist, Lynne Tillman’s No Lease on Life, Eileen Myles’ Inferno, Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds, …