What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Lidia Yuknavitch}

Posted by @ 10:39 am on April 1st, 2011

Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the memoir The Chronology of Water, officially released TODAY! from Hawthorne Books. Order from Amazon.com, Powell’s City of Books, or join the Rumpus book club.

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?”

I’ve always hated that term.  I mean, on the one hand, ALL writing is experimental, in that writers must dive into the unknown ocean and pull up pieces of words and things…it’s a grand experiment to “be” a writer and claim a writer’s life…

“Avant Garde” writing is slightly less troubling to me, but if you use that to describe yourself you reveal yourself as someone who secretly wishes they’d been born between world wars and wants to sit in a dark mohagany bar drinking absinthe with your hipster friends…

Avant Garde is a good term though, because in French it means “advance guard.”  Like a first pushing.  The pushing in this case means against the grain of what is perceived to be the literary and cultural norm.

Still, there is a something else to the present, and often the phrase “Innovative Writing” gets airplay, so I suppose that’s less obtuse than experimental, since it’s pretty clear what “innovative” means:  “featuring new methods; to make changes in the established; to alter.”

Sorry to get all caught up in words.

I have that tendency.

To be honest I wish we, and by “we” I mean the beautiful tribe of fellow writers I have had the astonishing good fortune to get to write and collaborate with, could come up with a term for ourselves that was a little more orgasmic and distinctive…

The new methods, changes in established orders, and alterations most characteristic of innovative writing most often take one of two forms:  innovations at the formal level of language and narratology, and innovations that make cross-genre modes of artistic production.  There are many other micromovements to innovative writing of course.  But those two modes are most frequent.  What is being moved against culturally are all the dominant modes of artistic production that feed the mass market, the consumer culture, the literature as shiny pretty thing culture.

For example, Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames, Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel, Lily Hoang’s Parabola, Steve Tomasula’s VAS.

The best innovative literature also makes you feel like a book happened to you.  And gets under your skin enough to live in your body in a way that makes you see the entire world differently.

Question #2

A few years ago,  Marjorie Welish wrote an article for the 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?

Why would we want to do that to this kind of writing?

What I mean is, what if we move the question from WHAT is art, to WHEN is art?  Because the kinds of books I’m talking about create readers who literally feel different inside their own bodies.  Their eyes and ears work differently.  Their brains re-route.  Sometimes they shake.  Like Quakers.

“I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”

Emily Dickinson on poetry.

If you look at the books listed as most esteemed in the established literary culture of the present, you will find a pile of books that appeal to a large amount of people and make them feel very good about themselves as readers, very good about themselves as owners of the books.

Innovative writers are a chafe at the groin of culture, where its very sex sits.  They do not aim to create the comfortable reader or reinforce the comfortable culture.  They aim to shake it to its very center.

Let England Shake.  The new CD by PJ Harvey.

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?

Not really.

Though I very much like to read his books.

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?

Yes I just wrote an article related to both that VIDA pie chart as well as the cover of my forthcoming book called “About a Boob, or The Hermeneutics of a Woman’s Body.”  It’s up at the RUMPUS.

I think women writers fair quite a bit better in the realms of innovative writing and independent press publishers.

For example, if you pick up a CHIASMUS PRESS book written by a woman, the first thing you will think is: this is weird. You might be frightened. You might be intrigued. You might rub the book on your belly. You might even close the book and go do something else. But you’ll come back. Because you’ll want to know what the hell it is you just looked at.

Inside a CHIASMUS PRESS book you will find fiction writing. The fiction writing on the page won’t look like other fiction writing. For example:

Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel is a triptych of modern-day America set in a banal Midwestern landscape, inspired by Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. There is a “mommy,” a “Maggie,” and a family romance that pretty much fucks Freud right up the ass. Intellectually, I mean, in addition to corporeally.

Lily Hoang’s Parabola weaves through genres, mathematical formulas, and photographs, all while following the curve of a parabola, stopping at various points to pick up strands of intersections or stories, and offers readers tender snapshots of an Asian-American girl coming-of-age juxtaposed with the Pythagorean belief in numerology placed right beside a physical manifestation of dark matter contrasted with interactive IQ, personality, and psychological tests.

Two points:  at CHIASMUS PRESS we are not afraid of women writing with all of their intelligence exactly how it feels right to them, and we publish books requiring a brain.

The Mingo and I use our own personal income and our own labor to make CHIASMUS—with collaborations from a handful of UBER COOL people over the years. So when people begin to throw their hands up about the dreaded “market” or the “danger” of the death of books, we just smile.

We smile because we don’t care about the market. At least not in the missionary position.

No, that doesn’t mean we don’t care about the authors or their astonishing books.

It means instead that we are not market driven. We are not market drooling. We are not market delusional. We use our own money and our own labor and our own hands to make books that smart and odd people have written.

It means that while we DO work to get authors and their words circulating within commodity culture, we do NOT do it to promote commodity. We do it to infiltrate consumer culture with radical little art attacks.

Question #5

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

Besides the ones I already mentioned, I’d add perhaps one of the most important innovative books ever written by anyone, one that happens to have been written by a woman:  Nox.  By Anne Carson.

[Why Nox?]

Because from the moment you hold it in your hands you experience the book as “aura” — and I mean that in the Walter Benjamin sense — the book as something sacred and beautiful and retaining the aura of the original object in spite of it being a product not only of the age of mechanical reproduction, but technological speed.  And because when you “read” it you become a “reader” who is restored corporeally — the body is how you read it.   For me, and given the labor of my own writing, this is profound, and made more so because it is a book, a kind of reading, and a reader entirely invented by a woman.