March 14th, 2011 / 11:31 am

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Kate Zambreno}

Kate Zambreno is the author of O Fallen Angel, which won Chiasmus Press’ “Undoing the Novel—First Book Contest.” Another novel, Green Girl, will be published by Emergency Press in Fall 2011. A nonfiction book revolving around the women of modernism, Heroines, will be published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents series in Fall 2012. She writes the blog Frances Farmer is My Sister. She is also an editor at Nightboat Books. Currently she is curating a series called Prose Event for the Belladonna* Collaborative, which examines the intersection of fiction and the essay. The next Prose Event will be on May 17 at Dixon Place in NYC and will feature Amina Cain, Danielle Dutton, and Renee Gladman.

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?”

When I once tried to explain to someone that my first book coming out—O Fallen Angel—was a work of “experimental literature”—he was like “You mean like a tree is really a person?” I think it’s a scary term for the layperson—“experimental literature”—it makes it seem like there’s no intense pleasure potential in the reading, and that the difficulty level for a reader is like cracking a series of codes, which of course some experimental literature is, but some isn’t. I’ve stopped using the term, actually. I just use “fiction” or “prose” or “literature.” Some people use the term “innovative literature” which I tend to also find kind of hygenic, like something produced at an inventor’s conference. I would say maybe that for experimental prose the goal is more than just story or narrative, more than just representing things as they are—more than the language equivalent of “Wow, that bowl of apples really looks like a bowl of apples.” What is that word? Verisimilitude.

But in the 20th century up to now—since modernism—literature has been experimental and has engaged with and broken with the past. Stein obviously was an experimentalist and many writers now still engage with her (and the now model of the “realist” writer, Hemingway, viewed her as a mentor, and Hemingway’s minimalism at the time was a sort of experimentalism, as was Jean Rhys’)— Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Anna Kavan. I think in the States we have this category of  “experimental literature” as really a distinction from market forms, it’s our indie category, but it’s just literature. Elsewhere this is not the case. I mean, I read somewhere that they sell Clarice Lispector novels in cigarette machines in Rio. The New Novelists were big fucking deals in France. The Vienna Group—Ingeborg Bachmann, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard, also big fucking deals in German-speaking countries. Has someone won the Nobel Prize in Literature, recently, who has not been an experimentalist? I mean, maybe but look—Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Coetzee, Jelinek. All I would argue experiment with forms, language, etc, in their writing. Aren’t all interesting artists in general always experimenting? Trying to find the form to  accommodate the mess, to quote Beckett? I think we allow our poets to be experimentalists in their coteries and communities that exist mainly within academia—fiction in America is supposed to sell well. Not always  the same as trying to do something new and interrogate and break down boundaries. To me experimental is about the overthrow—how to break the novel, how to make something new—this has been happening for a long time, what was once very avant-garde becomes the tradition, etc. Hmm. I mean is it experimental vs. realistic writing? Don’t some works of realism have some aspect of experimentalism? (I’m thinking Flaubert insiting on the absolute of realism, on the mot juste, I think there’s certainly an innovation/experimentalism in that.)

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?

Again, isn’t this what process is? What literature is? Maybe experimental writing shows more of the process (didn’t Clement Greenberg say that about the avant-garde in general?) I like this idea of failure in literature, I tend to often think of my projects as failed projects, I tend to like the idea of interesting failures more than tight and well-crafted texts that bore me, like beautiful well-put together corpses. I like to read texts that are attempting to find the form. The attempt—Montaigne’s essay—I like works of literature that have that essaying to them, that maybe are in a way non-novels.  I think Vanessa Place really talks about the notion of failure in all of her work on conceptual writing. And yet: I don’t think there aren’t established criteria—we’re still dealing with literature, and I have not yet really read a work of so-called experimental writing that is not still writing from a past tradition or somehow fucking with or engaging with that tradition (whether it be the metafictionalists, the nouveau roman, modernism, Acker-itis, New Narrative, etc.) Just because writing is experimental doesn’t mean it’s particularly new or interesting, and many times it can be derivative. I would say these established criteria for evaluation have been in place since the criticism of modernism—mostly TSE’s New Criticism—to look at the work itself, evaluate the work in the context of past forms, etc. For me I’m interested in coming up with new criteria for evaluating writing—I’m most interested in how a work makes me feel, like Emily Dickinson talking about a good poem making the top of her head feel like it’s going to rupture or something, I’m interested in the emotions produced, in a sentence, in a form, in a work, I want to be broken when I read and put back together again. But I would like to question the idea that we don’t evaluate experimental forms—I think in the popular media, that is true, but the history of the literary avant-garde up through Burroughs and Acker no up through Pynchon and DFW has been the subject of countless Ph.D dissertations I’m sure.

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, that rings false for me, absolutely. When I think of crisis I often think of mess, or a dialectic, something complicated that cannot be documented or analyzed in more straightforward ways. In terms of a book about an emotional/marital/personal crisis I think of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, but it isn’t simply a literary documentary finely wrought on a marriage gone awry, a folie a deux between the married couple for this lone-wolf rock-star academic. Instead of the classic triangulated structure of a novel, or memoir, she brings in all of these other narratives—Simone Weil, the narrative of the film she’s producing. It’s a mess and it’s wonderful and fantastic. I think we live in a  culture now with many mediated forms thrown at us constantly—our lives are in crisis, often—a straightforward rendition seems impossible to really communicate anything. Or Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s novel set post-war-time, about madness and imperalism, it took a level of experimentation for her to realize the form the novel could give her in order to really write crisis, this tunneling behind other character’s heads to show both their communion and alienation from each other. Someone recently told me that the shell-shocked soldier’s Septimus Smith’s fragments in Mrs. Dalloway—that I ape from in O Fallen Angel in my character Malachi—are the first incidences of the fragment in the English language novel. So absolutely experimentation can be a means of addressing crisis, although of course now Woolf is canonical so not considered experimental.

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 don’t actually think women are underrepresented as innovative or experimental writers published by small presses—in fact maybe there are MORE women who are innovative or experimental writers published by small presses. So many women writers run their own presses—Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place at Les Figues, Lidia Yuknavitch at Chiasmus, Debra DiBlasi at Jaded Ibis, the authors published by Fiction Collective are at least half women now if not more, there are wonderful female editors like Amy Scholder and Chris Kraus. That said, I still think there’s an underrepresentation in terms of the big New York presses and women writers who are experimentalists—I still think for whatever reason it’s easier for experimental male authors to “break through” and get the agent, the book deal, get nominated for the prizes—I don’t think this used to be as true, in that Carole Maso, Lydia Davis, Rikki Ducornet were or are agented and published on major presses. But in terms of this idea of the experimental novel, in the States at least, fewer women “experimentalists” are being picked up and published by the major publishing houses. (I can think of Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, and then kind of stop.) Perhaps because there is still a distinction in major houses between “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction.” And then yes I’m sure women are published less by the major journals, but I don’t pay that much attention to that. And so if less women are published in general, we can be sure less women experimentalists are published, and, most importantly, are probably written about less and taught less, because people are less exposed to their work, they have less visibility. (I think this is true for experimental fiction writers who are women but really not at all from my vantage point for experimental poets who are women.) How many female experimentalists are getting their archives bought at the Ransom Center at Texas, like David Foster Wallace or even someone like Michael Joyce? Or another question: Would Kathy Acker be published now on a major press? That perhaps is some sort of litmus test. My instinct would be “no,” but I don’t really know the answer. Of course Grove Press as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe Dalkey would publish her? I don’t know.  But perhaps this is a sign that the old model of publishing is becoming obsolete—we cannot always look to the big NY houses anymore—perhaps what’s happening in more of the underground is a return to the structures and publications and canon-making of modernism, with their little magazines and even self-publishing, etc.

Question #5

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

Oh—this is way too hard! I don’t feel I can answer that! It would go on too long and I resist the urge to just shout out names like at the tailend of an award acceptance speech—I’d like to thank—Bernhard, Jelinek, Sebald, Ann Quin, Djuna Barnes, Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker, etc. I can tell you what I’ve been really thinking about lately—works that do something really transgressive in terms of what is a novel and what is an autobiography, works that really break the novel. And subvert the form of the notebook. So the tradition of New Narrative, like Gail Scott’s My Paris, both an essay on Benjamin’s Arcades Projects and modernity as well as a diary/notebook in Stein-like clipped sentences. Or Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, that brings in these different forms, the letter, the essay, the aphorism, to tell the life of a woman named Elizabeth who is and is not the author. Bhanu Kapil’s gorgeous notebook Schizophrene we’re publishing at Nightboat, a work that nonexplicitly circles around the question of mental illness and migration, also her Notes on Ban, a novel that never appears. Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece—these fragments/essays/diaries that begin aboveground and unravel and descend to a sanitorium setting. For a book project I am working on now, I’ve been meditating on works like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood or Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein or Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies or Elfriede Jelinek’s Piano Teacher—are they experimental, in that they innovate with language and sometimes our notions of plot and character? Yes. But I read them because they thrill me and move me and every new read I discover something new.


  1. stephen

      I like your responses, Kate Zambreno.

  2. Jack M

      The answer to Question #1 really nails it for me. Thanks, Kate Z!

  3. Tom Beckett

      Great interview, but too short.

  4. Kate

      Thanks all and Chris! Now I really wish I could have posted more of my favorite experimental writers – I feel I didn’t even grasp onto so many works that I really love- it’s an almost impossible thing to do I think. The list would change and changes every day.

  5. beardobees

      Go right ahead. That’s what the comment field is for.

  6. Kate

      It is so difficult to have a complete list, and then the question is: Is it experimental? For there are novels I LOVE I would not classify as such. Like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I recently read Mary McCarthy’s first story collection The Company She Keeps and fell madly in love with it – I wouldn’t classify it as experimental. Would Blue of Noon or Tropic of Cancer be experimental? Or Jean Rhys? Or Unica Zurn’s Dark Spring (gorgeous mad twisted coming-of-age story by the woman writer who was Hans Bellmer’s lover and muse). Or Colette’s The Pure and the Impure? All these might be – in terms of attention to language, or what they’re doing in terms of autobiography or persona, or how they’re framing the work, or fucking with character. But more books that would be considered more explicitly experimental that I love: Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, everything Woolf, Jelinek and Bernhard, Claude Cahun’s Disavowals. Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert. Catherine Mavrikakis’ A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning. Vedrana Rudan’s Night. Deborah Levy’s Billy and Girl. Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds, a New Narrative text reissued at Nightboat. More recent prose-novel-texts: Danielle Dutton’s SPRAWL, Pamela Lu’s Pamela, Renee Gladman’s TOAF, Amina Cain’s collection, Blake Butler’s Ever, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendys. Douglas Martin’s Your Body Figured.

  7. stephen

      If you feel like answering, Kate, what do you recommend by Lispector after Near to the Wild Heart and The Hour of the Star? Loved both of those. (Fan of Tropic of Cancer, Rhys, Woolf, Rilke, as well)

  8. Kate

      I would recommend her cronicas, these fragment/observations/columns she wrote for a Rio paper. New Directions publishes it as Selected Cronicas. I would also definitely recommend her work The Passion of GH – it’s brilliant – you have to be in the right mood and time to dip into it and really exist inside of it – but definitely worth it. Then The Stream of Life. I guess except for the cronicas I have only read her novels – but I want to get into the stories.

  9. stephen

      Thank you

  10. beardobees
  11. Roz Ito

      I’m totally down with this idea of the experimental as the overthrow, the mode that pushes the novel, pushes the reach of writing itself–something that can’t always be neatly defined in terms of form or language or whatever. I mean, writing that appears to be working in recognizably experimental forms can also be conformist, orthodox. And this notion that the term experimental is a U.S. invention, a term invented to describe & potentially domesticate/delimit what isn’t described by the commercial market. (But there are other markets too, academic ones for example.) But most of all I want to thank you for calling out Gustave as an avant-gardist.

  12. Anonymous

  13. Kate

      that’s where I was introduced to her writing as well!

  14. deadgod

      for experimental prose the goal is more than just story or narrative, more than just representing things as they are

      I think this is a useful way of getting at what’s conventional about conventional writing: it bodies forth the intention to represent without formal complication “things as they are”.

      And, to the extent – I think: pretty much – that ‘experimental’ is a contrast to – a challenge to – ‘conventional’, an ‘experiment’ is an attempt either to represent formal complication, or to body forth “things” somehow without representing them (or with the “things” presented and not re-presented).

      That the story of the story is not – or not simply – its (paraphrasable) plot, and that the ‘representation’ – to the extent that there can reasonably be said to be one – is a presentation of a challenge to or defiance or neglect of conventionalized reception — that sounds to me like what people mean by “experiment”.

  15. alan

      Best answer yet to the question posed by this series: experimental literature is where “a tree is really a person.”

  16. Kate

      Yeah, I think this is very useful. I also like Ben Marcus’ intro to his Anchor Book anthology – not what is the plot, but what is the story plotting for? How does it do it, not what is the story?

  17. Kate

      Thanks Roz! Gustave is totally an avant-gardist – he was all about bringing down the Romantics – and his Realism I think is quite experimental for its time.

  18. Anonymous

  19. Roz Ito

      Yes totally, Gustave was all about exploding convention through creative misuse of conventional forms (letters, the encyclopedia). Well, I thought some more about your responses, and it seems to me that your aesthetic, when it comes down to it, is really rooted in the radical. The radical as in the anti-complacent, anti-institutional, anti-controlled. The radical as in a Bernhard or Jelinek who wants to seize the slumbering, complacent world by the shoulders and shake it violently, wake it up. I love this because I see the radical as the component that’s explicitly missing from many discussions about the experimental, even though there’s always this implied historical bravado, this implied equation that experimental=radical. I think this is a sloppy, mistaken equation, because something can appear experimental on the surface yet be complacent and status quo in its substance. That’s why your reading list cuts across the grain of genre, style, form, because those aren’t the things that really matter. What really seems to matter is that the writing speaks to you as a reader, that the writing activates a core of radical sympathy, radical fury within you as a reader. And I think when writing does this, it gets carried forward by the passion & enthusiasm of readers who in turn keep the writing alive, and the enthusiasm of readers has the power to elevate an author or work to cult status, despite what the canonical tastemakers say.

      Of course, there’s also something to be said for the enthusiastic reader/critic who has access to institutional resources, the radical enthusiast who can throw some of their choice favorites over the transom to an unsuspecting public.

  20. Kate

      Roz- it seems strange for us to be having this conversation outside of our blog homes – like a performance. But yes – the radical. I think I am more drawn to the “radical” as opposed to the “experimental” – the “experimental” to me is a case of style, “radical” is about the social overthrow. For instance I do think of Gustave as a radical writer – one of the most radical. I like Dolce and Gabbana’s idea of the minor writer as well, I think that is situated in the radical, the idea of speaking and subverting the language of the homeland, or writing as a foreigner, as the alienated. I think D&G use Kafka because they talk about him not writing in his mother tongue – but I think this can be connected to the idea of writing in opposition to or in reaction to one’s society.

      Perhaps that is why I do get a bit sleepy about some experimental writing – however exquisitively wrought – I do look for some sort of agitation – intense empathy or intense alienation.

  21. Anonymous

  22. Tantra Bensko

      yeah, that made me smile really big. but then, of course, i think a tree is a person.

  23. Tantra Bensko

      yeah, that made me smile really big. but then, of course, i think a tree is a person.