What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Michael Martone} ***NOTE: final entry in the series***

Posted by @ 10:32 am on July 8th, 2011

Michael Martone‘s most recent books are Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, a collection of essays, and Double-wide, his collected early stories. Michael Martone, a memoir in contributor’s notes, Unconventions, Writing on Writing, and Rules of Thumb, edited with Susan Neville, were all published recently. He is also the author of The Blue Guide to Indiana, published by FC2. The University of Georgia Press published his book of essays, The Flatness and Other Landscapes, winner of the AWP Award for Nonfiction, in 2000.

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?

Maybe before answering this question, I too will redirect it.  I am not sure what you mean by “experimental” writing at all.  I never use the term to describe my own work nor have I ever used it to describe any work of literature. It is a category I don’t recognize. That being said, I know that others use the term to establish a foil against what is often called the “traditional” (non-experimental?) story in order to create a binary, a conflict.  I think of myself as a formalist, that is I am interested in the variety of ways humans have organized language. For me those forms are established and stable and are only added to through the advent of new evolving technologies (writing, print, digital) and changing content and context. Writing for me is always “experimental” as it is always about the recombination of certain basic elements (and now we are back to the body, I guess) like reproduction and mutation of DNA.  What is usually labeled as the “traditional” story, I regard as narrative realism.  Experimental stories “present” (and I use that term as a diagnostician speaks of a body) as, say, narrative irrealism or lyrical realism.  In fact, the traditional “traditional,” story when considered historically, seems to me to be a very experimental story that is still producing fruitful results from its experiments.  Narrative realism appears when the ancient narrative strain combines with an emergent invention of “deep” character via the psychological inventions of the “unconscious” and “subconscious.”  The stories of Chekhov are experimental as they mutated away from a more traditional story of, say, O. Henry (his contemporary). Writers still writing in the manner of Chekhov could be said to be experimental or, at least, continuing the experiment Chekhov started. One way of looking at it would be in Kuhn’s sense of experimental science. Chekhov established a paradigm of narrative realist domestic short fiction and those writing in that vein now are “mopping up” through further experiments that verify the implications in the initial paradigm.  So maybe before we go on, you need to answer your own question posed to Bhanu Kapil. How do you describe experimental literature?

And as a formalist, I can’t help but think about the form we are now engaged in—the interview.  You have sent me five questions already, and they are in the guise, if I were to complete them and send them back, of conversation, a record of a conversation. In reality the interview presented here is more in the form of an essay exam.  I would like to have in our exchange more exchange.  Also, I assume this is going to be the manner of that exchange—you sitting somewhere else typing and me sitting here typing in response, our typescripts being sent electronically back and forth electronically, your five questions my five answers.  What I am saying is that you dove right in, that you seem to feel that this is a natural transparent form we both share, we both see. All I am saying is let’s experiment with this form or, at least, see this, whatever it is, as a kind of literature equal too those other forms—poetry, novels, essays—that we take for granted as literature experimental or not.

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?

Was it Marcuse who suggested that capitalism is so big that it can contain the revolution within itself? I am very much interested in the largely unexamined historical confluence that finds writing (a subset of it, not all, experimental or not) ensconced in universities.  It seems to me when the modern writerly class moved into the medieval institution in a big way over half a century ago it did so thinking that this new arrangement was benign or at least uncontested.  The prior construction of the author as revolutionary outsider, the antennae of the race, etc, could not be sustained within the hierarchical carnival that is the university.  The university is a cultural cold storage unit where items the larger culture has decided it now no longer immediately needs but doesn’t want to eradicate can be kept safely—studied, replicated, catalogued.  This way poetry and literary fiction and now, it seems, the essay and creative nonfiction can be stored safely, actually taken out of the culture but allowed to busy itself with itself.  It only becomes important if there is an outbreak of some kind outside the university. We do this with anthrax. We do it with poetry and literary prose. The university as controlled containment field. Its main function is curatorial.  It is not a generative space. It does not suffer true innovation easily.  The power of the institution is remarkable not in its overt insistence on compliance but its subliminal persuasive powers to have writers conduct self-surveillance.  One’s larger political content and speech can be quite radical and freely expressed but it is done so in this laboratory like firing a gun into a tank of water in order to better study only the bullet’s lanes and grooves.

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?

Why do thousands of people run marathons?  The thousands who run who run with no expectation of winning the race, why are they running? Would you say that there is value in as many people running as possible with only a few of them interested in winning, of running sub-five minute miles all the way?  Many people believe that there are too many writers and by that they believe that the too many, the surplus, are the writers who are bad writers.  We are biologically born to run.  It is part of our nature.  I think of writing the same way.  Part of our nature.  There isn’t enough writing.  Not nearly enough.  I like to think of that roomful of monkeys and typewriters. Who cares if they could ever reproduce Shakespeare?  I bet somewhere in all that writing there is certainly something that never occurred to Shakespeare to write, something surely different, unlike anything ever imagined, something, dare I say, more Shakespeare than Shakespeare.

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?

Here again I run up against your critical insistence that there be this particular category of “experimental” literature that allows you to say its racial diversity is underrepresented. I see the work of Louise and Heid Erdrich as “experimental.” Sherman Alexie, Gish Jen, Kathleen Tyau, Terrance Hayes, Kevin Young, Rita Dove, Lily Hoang, Lillian Bertram, Phyllis Alesia Perry, Joseph Geha, Osvaldo Sabino, Sejal Shah, Robin Black, Edward P. Jones, Don Belton, the Macondo and the McOndo schools, Jodi Picoult, Ishmael Reed all are experimental.  Maybe it’s a chicken or egg thing here.  A group of white writers are writing stylistically similar things and so the group needs to be named. So you name it “experimental.”  It might have easily been named “white” writing.  An expanded idea of what “experimental” describes expands what “experimental” contains.  I think it is unproductive to worry the inclusiveness of the category when it is perhaps a bogus category, perhaps as race itself is.  For me this is a worry that seems “academic” again, busy work of the cold storage facility I mentioned above.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

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

I’ve got to go with The Book of Mormon, not the new theater piece but the actual Book of Mormon, and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Both are profound works of fiction that work as fact.  As Philip Roth says of reality, one finds these books engender a kind of professional envy.

One sliver of literature I would suggest here as well is taken from this spring’s class called Plagiarism 101.  You might gather I don’t particularly understand “favorites” as a category either.  What follows is an interesting constellation for me not the brightest star.

Kathy Acker / BODIES OF WORK




Robert Fitterman / ROB THE PLAGIARIST

Thomas Mallon / STOLEN WORDS

Paul Maliszewski / FAKERS






These books are a few of many out there that address, I think, the issue of contemporary authorship and its conflict and collaboration with emerging electronic technologies.  What an author is, does, what an author authors is certainly in flux, is more fluid now than anytime since Johnson, literacy, and the invention of cheap mass printing.