March 21st, 2011 / 6:01 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Tantra Bensko}

Tantra Bensko, MFA, teaches Experimental Fiction Writing online. Naissance Press published her chapbooks Watching the Windows Sleep, and the tiny Swinging on the Edge of Day. Her book Lucid Membrane has been accepted by NP. She has over 150 creative writing pieces in magazines. She edits her own magazine, Exclusive, and runs the resource website, Experimental Writing. She is the inventor of Lucid Fiction. She lives in Berkeley.

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?”

[Marc] Lowe’s distinction between literary fiction and experimental [from Sutherland’s article], being so black and white, does show up where confusion lies. I think of post modernist literature, for example, as being experimental, though it’s been around for so long. Much famous fiction taught in University settings had something innovative about it at the time it was written, no matter how long ago. It may just seem “how it is” today, and without the chronological context, we may miss how it was experimental at the time.

Most people out there haven’t  heard of those adventurous writers, such as Borges, or Cortazar, and all they know about is maybe something more like Gone with the Wind, or Huckleberry Finn style, realistic, with a predictable plot arc, told straightforwardly, as Lowe describes. The books that fit the term “Traditional literary fiction” is what I suspect the majority of people still think of as epitomizing literature; a concerted effort to educate is necessary if we want to remedy that. I think if Lowe had just used that qualifier, his article would have been more clear. People’s concept of literature may not qualify as a problem in dire need of a cure, but being able to expand the mind to think in new ways, which the more playful elements do, is useful for evolution of consciousness, thus society. And enjoyment!

No matter how much we go on about it, most people who read, who are the vast minority of the population (!) if they read fiction at all, will probably remain interested solely in genre fiction, in another world from experimentalist fiction.

(! fewer than 15% of American’s read books regularly. 1/3 of HS graduates never read another book EVER. 42 percent of college grads never read a book after graduation.80 percent of U.S. families in the US read no books last year, all according to Jerold Jenkins.)

I do feel it’s useful to discuss the terminology, and to get it out to the public, which is why I have my website and magazine, where the writers themselves provide commentary on the experimentation of each creative work. The topic is so little known, any discussion about it at all tends to be  educational. For those of us obscure folk who live within that world all the time, it seems pretty obvious, so much a part of life, it may seem silly to even try to explain how we think.

You shuffle, and distort, bend back on yourself, undercut and collage, and life becomes one found object after another banging against itself. The way we tell our stories to others becomes fresh, creating something new, and this can retrain us to tell our life stories to ourselves in more vibrantly present ways too, rather than dully repeating in our heads the mundane events we experience. It creates cracks between things for profundity, fun, magic to spew out of, and for linear expectations to fall into.

There seem to be an endless number of ways fiction can experiment as long as it isn’t required to seem very much like a story. It can be a list, for example, with no semblance of plot. It can try to capture mystical states of mind through unique uses of language that cause the reader to go into those states.  It can make use of an entirely new sentence structure. Look at Harvey Thomlinson, for example, who somewhat Oulipo-like, created his own use of syntax to represent interactions between past, present and future. His taxonomy however, doesn’t restrict, like actual Oulipo, but opens up.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about how language affects our thinking and perceptions, and opens us up when we know more languages, applies as well to the language of the avant-garde, and we become more than we were before when we learn to read it. Here’s a quote from Harvey that shows the delightful floating sensation of language in fluid suspension, not required to be organized in the “correct” way.

“Mrs Zhang was depressed scattered purple leaves along austere avenue because the wind was strong few of her friends were in the park. She went every morning although this winter was severe to do her exercises required great suffering. Walking with her bag of vegetables east of the crematorium there was a wilderness.” Published at Tears on the Fence, number 39.

Mrs Zhang’s depression as she walked is mixed with the leaves in by the way the sentence is written, and that integration of the two couldn’t have happened any other way. It would have been talked about from more of a distance. When we’re depressed, the world around us takes on a completely different tonality, color and texture. And the austere wind blowing the leaves also could contribute to her depression. In the way of looking at the world as one thing, there really is no separation. In the way physics tells us to look at time, there really is no clear cause and effect.

I don’t expect each piece to do something never done before in order to be experimental. That would certainly take a lot of research to prove, an old, old man in a collapsible attic full of mirofilm of everything experimental ever written, filed away according to each little trick. Rather than require some new gimmick, I  give it loose parameters, and go by feel. It can throw out plot, for example, and be a list, but each story will do that with a unique method and concept.

I would say ultimately, I feel similarly to Lowe, that if it isn’t the usual straightforward “reg’lar” it is probably going to quality as experimental. If it does do something most likely never done before, and does it well, that does get my attention. Even if I don’t like it personally, I want it to find a public. There’s no way for me to answer your question, as each piece answers the question in its own way. I guess that’s what makes it what it is.

Look at this — I mean, a narrative in the form of a maze, probably not done yet. But if so, I’ll still count it as Experimental. And hope I can find my way out of it.

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?

Well, I love copper, literally, more than gold, partly because it doesn’t have the association with power and leadership and manipulation, but also because I simply think it’s prettier. Maybe because it’s made more often into wacky art or handmade vases and loved by people who can afford it, rather than made into boring jewelry that all looks the same to me, flashy and conventional. And evaluation of beauty is so subjective and quirky.

As a teacher and magazine publisher, as well as a writer, reviewer and theorist, I am called on all the time to evaluate the success of innovative texts. But I have yet to find any one criteria, as each piece contains its own goals to accomplish. Sometimes it’s a matter of questioning the goals themselves, but always a matter of whether it works with its own set of rules. If the rules seem intelligent, worthwhile, even to simply entertain with the ridiculous, that’s a start.

Often the rules are not as stringent and obvious as in Oulipo, so explanation by the author can be helpful in determining if it has succeeded. To ask the author to explain them is important to me for the benefit of the readers, and I also feel it’s important to the author to be able to reach down inside herself and find the reasoning. Many authors have never even considered doing that, and just write from the heart. I wholeheartedly agree with writing from the heart, but feel it evolves the self to intellectually get to the bottom of why we speak as we do, whether it’s in fiction or normal life.

I grew up as interested in literary criticism as in the literature itself. My idea of fun as a teenager was going going to a University library and reading everything on the French New Novelist Claude Simon’s techniques, for example. It felt very relevant to my own life, deeply emotionally moving, to consider the style in which he wrote. If someone’s experiments do this to me, enrich my way of thinking and feeling and perceiving as strongly as being in a hurricane, I consider them a great success. The stories themselves weren’t so moving, certainly not sentimental, or even memorable, the characters flat, the plot fragmented, all on purpose of course. But the way he did something in a new way, which expressed my desire for space in between things that could then be rearranged changed my life by expressing it. “Scissors of arrested motion” was the term I gave it. When his characters  cut film strips into sections, I went into paroxysms of glee. Glee is a good indicator.

Putting a book down at the end of a story and repeating exclamations out loud, eyes wide, mouth open, shaking my head, staring at the ceiling. Another good sign.

I love it when the style someone writes in potentially contributes to improvements in society. For example, if it is anti-drama, then maybe it leads to our world thinking more along those lines.

If it creates a sense of excitement in how we’ve just spent our time, reading, and in how we’re going to spend our time living, that’s good. We may see the horrors of life more clearly, but at least our horror is filled with more life force. Maybe life force is what it boils down to to me. Does it engender more of that in me, and in our society, or does it take it away? Reading something that isn’t experimental tends to take it away, for me. If it’s predictable, a story with no metastory, anti-story, combination of perspectives, stretching what’s possible and reinventing what a character or a plot is, it has a kind of glutinous feel to me. Normally, I have that life force exciting my bones. Each moment is fresh. If a story makes one moment just roll out from the last one like yet more gluey bread dough— blah. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t want it.

I want the space in between each moment to have that cut in it like the filmstrip in Simon’s Triptych, that lets the light show in between. I like the story to be there if it wants to, sure, but the realm behind the story to show through continually. And each of us will have what we require, but we’ll have it avidly. It’s a personal taste, as long as the story has all the elements that make any piece of writing decent.

Traditional fiction is drama based, and thus rather than adding to life force, as a health supplement would, it often takes it away as an artificial stimulant would. Because it’s based on adrenalin, fear, suspense. And that depletes the adrenals. Some experimental writing is based on intense drama too, too, yes, but it usually provides the counteracting supplement as well that nourishes. We don’t just get caught up in believing some violent thing, but maybe we get to laugh at ourselves for believing in it until it all falls apart and we fall out laughing.

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?

I absolutely think it is effective! Well, maybe activism in more direct forms may make more obvious changes than little, out of the way books relatively few people read, sure. But I feel experimental writing is much more effective for engaging and reflecting and changing our world than traditional fiction, which also does have that potential as well. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be passionately writing away about Lucid Fiction, for example, which I see as vitally useful for improving our way of thinking, and thus acting, as a society.

The very experimentations in fiction have the chance to make us question how we approach the world. If we just keep approaching it in the same old way by default, thinking of it like traditional fiction, and thus writing, and reading that, nothing changes at the cognitive level. I feel strongly that cognitive changes that come about through writing that influences how we see ourselves, others, nature, the ethers, and the relationship between them are vital if our planet is to survive.

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?

Heavens, what an effect it creates to see those numbers represented so clearly, the disparity not only in what’s published but in what’s reviewed.

I read that people who fill out applications with more “male” words relating to aggression and assertiveness and such, are far more likely to be hired than those who use many “female” words that imply nurturing, flow and fluidity, appreciation, multi-tasking. Maybe that works for publication too.

I’m 52. In my precociously young formative years, I immersed myself in reading the well-known writers such as Faulkner, who seemed experimental to me, and thus excited me greatly. I listened to composers like Sibelius, and read avidly about their lives. Same with artists like Rothko, artistic film makers like—well, luckily, the genius Maya Deren got in the mix. When I saw the film of Cunningham’s dance troup move out of sync to John Cage’s music around Duchamp’s Big Glass, in the high school auditorium, I was ready to run off and go BE that, immediately. Even in my dreams, I was very often male. I think part of the problem now must be a kind of habit we’ve continued to some degree in our education system that imprints young minds with so many models of male greatness, and so few of female, though they are clearly out there.

That’s what made me who I am, and my role models were nearly all men. So, the creative voice in my head took on a somewhat male quality. I’ve never identified myself as a woman particularly, maybe because of that, but mostly because I am a spirit, happening to have innie genitalia this lifetime.

But I do think people who are younger than me have an advantage. Though the ratio is not good, there are still a lot of women in the arts now to inspire them. Unfortunately, I don’t think the ratio of women to men is any better at all, maybe even worse, in anthologies of experimental writers. Some have zero.

If you Google Experimental Literature, you get Wikipedia’s definition first, which in the course of the discussion lists 36 men, and 2 woman. Woolf and Stein—enough said.

The next thing you see is my Exclusive Magazine. It has many women in it. So, as if people are looking this up, the women represented in that magazine will take on some large significance, yes? I’ll draw from this for the next question.

Question #5

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

Thank you for using the term “works” instead of “books.” People tend to forget about other things like the obvious short story. But there are also broadsides, pieces scrawled in public places, pieces of paper stuck in a hat to put out at one’s leisure. A note coming out of the mouth of a dog in a sculpture. The Exquisite Corpse we make with our mothers on napkins while waiting for food at a restaurant. They can become the favorite in the moment, in the flux.

Though I do love novels, like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Calvino, and books by Paul Auster — who reminds me of Claude Simon, House of Sleep, by Jonathan Coe, anything by Tom Robbins and John Crowley, and books I’ve been writing reviews of lately because I love them so very much, like Voices by Kyle Muntz, I’m going to write about shorter forms, because they tend to be ignored. I like books of great stories, like Matt Bell’s How We Were Found, and anthologies of them, like Paraspheres. Just as women are ignored, short stories are ignored in lists like these. Not all short story writers write books, so they fall by the wayside. I also prefer to look at writers who aren’t on the usual list of luminaries that occupy the pedestal so solidly there isn’t room for others up there.

These pieces may not be my favorite writing of all time, but considering my favorite may be novels by the usual luminary men, I’m resisting. I like to find new fresh favorites all the time. A lot of great stuff is coming out now, whimsical, boundary pushing, conceptually forward thinking. It’s an amazing time for fiction right now, so I’m not holding onto the old standbys. I’m lucky enough to say honestly my students, and some of the people I publish, are undeniably among my favorite writers of all time, but I’ll avoid inundating you with them. I love a lot of stories in print, but I’ll give you some examples of short stories I like that you can read quickly, and immediately. Online short stories. Instant gratification.

I will include one of many I adore from Exclusive Magazine, “TO CONJURERS” by Tamar Hrahat Stepanyan, in issue 2, includes: “Your clothes vanish and melt away like candlewax, your make-up is washed away. I love Your nakedness.” and it ends with “Rip this letter to shreds. Words are not fit to convey Absolute Truths. I have no desire to fabricate a new deceit out of the old ones, at least right now.”   Reading the story puts me into the New Wave Fabulist state of the magical and experimental in a way that rips the covers off the story and lets the light shine from inside as it leaps out of bed naked, and explodes.

“Cirque Psychologique” was just published by Cezanne’s Carrot, a magazine that I feel has the best interests of our world at heart with its choices of literature to expand our sense of self, the connections that flow between us all, the life force that exists in every molecule consciously and lovingly. They are a good example of using literature to engage our cultural situation, not necessarily head on with the symptoms but more at the core of what causes those symptoms, cognitively.

This delightful story by Nancy Stebbins is about a woman who can’t be insulted, which is the subject of her sideshow. “Once you asked if Erdly was his first or last name, and he said he didn’t know. ‘Names don’t matter here,’ he said. ‘We have different ways of thinking about ourselves.’” That kind of statement really grabs me. Anything that gives us the chance to define ourselves differently, or read about others who do, going beyond the usual labeling, is off to a good start for me.

Another character juggles ids, egos, and superegos. The main character begins to forget his own name, and like the other story, moves out of the story and into the namelessness behind it.

“Finding the Words” by Michael Constance, in Paraspheres 6, is one of the stories from the printed book available online, as a sample. I enjoy New Wave Fabulism, literary, experimental similar to Magical Realism, though not Latin based. And I like works that delve into consciousness itself, play with it. And the story ends up being meta-fiction too, pulling the rug out from under us constantly. It’s hard to get a footing in the story, which I like, as when we take like for granted as being obvious and easy to understand from one mundane viewpoint, we’re probably wrong. There are ads in the story, subtle intrusions the main character writes and rewrites, due to another character’s editing. And she, Connie, is not what she seems, oh no. The endless twists and turns are not about plot so much as undercutting our assumptions. And underneath it all is a warm and breathing animal, that hidden part of the self that ultra-modern society thought it had moved beyond totally.

I get tired of stories that are just plain action, trauma, one story after another, on and on into eternity. I’m very fond of stories that use stories to take us out of them. To help us see beyond the stories we tell ourselves all the time, and into the silence. I crave them. Words that take us beyond words. Take us out of the need for a story, into the non manifest world beyond it all, into just being. I don’t find enough of those, so I promote what I call Lucid Fiction, to encourage more of it. Medulla Review is going to have an issue that includes that style, so I’m some of those will be my new favorites.

Thank you for an extraordinary set of relevant and intelligent questions and for asking me to answer them.


  1. Tummler

      I’ve been especially anticipating this one. Thanks, Chris. Tantra Bensko’s work in Owen Kaelin’s Gone Lawn is just fantastic.

  2. Anonymous

  3. Tantra Bensko

      Oh, thank you, how nice to hear.

  4. kb

      “I grew up as interested in literary criticism as the literature itself.” This may be the key thing that divides people into camps. I’ve traditionally considered criticism/theory as an accoutrement, an ornament. Something that revolves around the work itself but never penetrates. Thefore, secondary. This may or may not be an epistemological error, I have been interrogating myself lately about it.

      I suppose am highly skeptical of any description / explanation to be able to adequately demystify pure aesthetic experience, rather, I think 9 times out of 10 (at least) it muddies the waters and creates a cognitive gap between the subject and the work. Also, I do not want a novel I love to become a purely intellectual exercise.

      I don’t really consider myself as residing in a “camp” but I am perhaps too critical of “experimental” works sometimes. Though, a lot of the time I hear that word and I read the book and I say “Well, really, this is nothing new.” Or, worse: “This is just an intricate joke or an irony, except its not even funny.”

      Faulkner and Beckett were overtly “experimental”, I guess, in their day, but what they did still “worked”. A lot of it today doesn’t actually… work. I find. Vague…

  5. Steven Augustine

      As a writer who has been “experimenting” for 25 years (and reading the “experimental” for 40), I’d like to add that the fundamental problem of “avant garde” or “experimental” as descriptive terms is that, unlike, say, “Cubism” as a description, they are purely relative. That is: contingent on factors which aren’t intrinsic (to the artifacts) for definition. Which undercuts the ability to discuss the “avant garde” or the “experimental” on a technical level (or as a matter of technique).

      Which opens the door to identifying the terms (explicitly or not) as matters of Lifestyle (ie, “if you like this, you’ll probably hate…”) more than specific technical developments in Literature as an artistic practice. Witness the fact that any discussion of technical “development” as an literary-historical trend is usually torpedoed when someone mentions the relatively-ancient “Tristram Shandy”… the notion that it’s “all been done before” when, in fact, Shandy can be read as a “conservative” text to the extent that anything fabulous or “experimental” about it can be put down to the whims of a narrator (traditional device) telling a story (traditional practice).

      If the literary “avant garde” can finally be defined specifically enough to take on shape, we could, for example, highlight the point at which Henry James develops the aesthetic of the sentence-as-performance as an end-to-itself (whether or not James was the “first”) or trace the symbiosis of film-and-lit as they made sudden leaps in the art of narrative compression, around the turn of the previous century. But the defining, as an act or right, needs to be taken out of the hands of the audience (which is the consumerist tendency) and put in the hands of the practitioners. Which would be another step towards shifting the practitioners away from an Accommodationist stance (again: the consumer-friendly default) towards being wonderfully *challenging* again.

      So much of what’s considered “avant garde” or “experimental” at the moment strikes me as mere whimsy or whimsical satire or decoratively-weird-as-an-expression-of-lifestyle… too easy to down in one gulp or create in one blurt…not a plausible next-step in the technical development of literature as an artistic practice. Caveat: I don’t mean “development” in the value-judgment sense of “progress” (storms can be said to “develop”, despite the absence of intended goals). But it feels to me that the sense of the “experimental” in Lit is now trapped in a fatal eddy in the current, in which the déjà vus, now, are of previous déjà vus.

  6. Steven Augustine

      erratum: “…as A literary-historical trend…”

  7. obfuscation is the new black

      yay! you’re alive!

      where the hell have you been?

      this place has gotten [CENSORED] since i last saw you around these parts.

      please don’t tell me it was guantanamo…

  8. Steven Augustine

      Alcatraz, actually… nobody told me it was obsolete! Trained some birdies to dance, though…! Srsly: I’ve been commenting almost exclusively at mimi’s place. Like a commenter’s Zen retreat.

  9. Steven Augustine

      (I’m just making a cameo here, courtesy of Facebook)

  10. Deedeeking

      hasn’t he just been serving up his typical brand of greek salad as deadgod?

      jesus, dont tell me theres 2 of em!

      ps – you actually missed this bore? are you his mother?

  11. Steven Augustine

      Ha ha! Fun!

  12. mimi


  13. obfuscation is the new black

      imma just a mother from a different brother, here..

  14. deadgod

      I’m not sure what you mean by “epistemological error”, but I think finding literary criticism to be mere “ornament” is certainly an aesthetic error. Kenner, Perloff, Sontag, Blanchot, Carson’s Simonides/Celan book, Gadamer’s and Derrida’s Celan books – all ‘literary-critical theory’, but all illuminating beyond “accoutrement” and, to me – surely many have their own lists – , all artistically successful. (I make this list despite (fatuously? – if not, why not ha) disagreeing quite strongly with, for example, Gadamer’s general Celan-interpretation; the virtue of some particular piece of literary criticism can’t depend on its confirmation-bias usefulness.)

      ‘Whether it “works”‘ is an excellent pragmatic criterion for evaluating “experimental” literature, but, like pragmatism in general, it begs the ontic question of ‘evaluatory criteria’: what “works”?

      I wonder if one thing that characterizes what’s “experimental” about “experimental writing” is that ‘working’ itself is a different thing than with “conventional writing”.

      – which makes it hard to evaluate even ‘how to evaluate “experimental writing”‘: the vocabulary and process of criticism of it are already conventionalized.

  15. Tantra Bensko

      Excellent points! yes, determining what is working becomes itself a kind of experimentation. requires exploding the self a bit, and chasing around what’s left and putting it back together, and saying, hmm….

  16. Anonymous
  17. deadgod

      Not “obsolete”!


  18. mimi

      the commute sucks

  19. wmtwalsh

      Experimental is the better term–instead of innovative. Experimental includes the possibility of failure. Experimental writing can fail and still have value. Innovative means new and better. Some writing described as innovative is not, in fact, new, nor is it better than some contemporary conventional writing.