What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 2}

Posted by @ 2:37 pm on December 15th, 2010

Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess:
Having commenc’d, be a divine in shew,
Yet level at the end of every art,
And live and die in Aristotle’s works.

— Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604)

One way to think about experimental literature would be to consider it in relation to conventional literature. Which begs the question: what is conventional literature? The answer to that question is much easier than the answer to the titular question of this post. The answer is this: conventional literature is that which follows Aristotelian prescription. Plain and simple. So if you want to know what experimental literature is, you might begin by considering it to be that which deviates from Aristotelian prescription.

Brian Evenson illuminates the problem of Aristotle’s suffocating influence in this great essay called “Notes on Fiction and Philosophy” in this amazing collection of literary criticism called Fiction’s Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation (SUNY Press, 2008), at the beginning of which he suggests:

[T]o move to an understanding of late twentieth- early twenty-first-century fiction, the first step is to move out of the fourth century BC: to let go of the Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today…Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, and so on, their parameters derived from Aristotle, seem hardly to have advanced beyond New Criticism’s neo-Aristotelianism; and when a workshop student says “I didn’t find the character believable,” usually the model for believability is firmly entrenched in nineteenth-century notions of consistency that have probably less to do with how real twenty-first century people act (not to mention nineteenth-century people) than with specific, and often dated, literary conventions.

I’d like to use this quote from Evenson as my jumping off point.

What Evenson is pointing out is that western literature is predicated on a master narrative, a collection of assumptions that have become naturalized to the point that many forget that the conventions with which we take to be self-evident are actually the product of intellectual construction. The most basic of these assumptions is that a story requires a beginning-middle-end. This ternary structure is not a truism, it is the codification of a concept written by Aristotle. Likewise, the seemingly fundamental idea that literature is inherently mimetic is again not a product of some transcendent truth, but the product of Aristotle’s inscription in the opening lines of what is inarguably one of the single most influential texts ever written: Poetics.

Should you find yourself unfamiliar with this text, I highly recommend spending the two hours it will take you to read it cover to cover. I think anyone who is or wants to be a writer owes it to themselves to know where their assumptions about what makes for “good writing” comes from. They come from this book. Here are just a few examples:

Show don’t tell
Avoid the deus ex machina
Kill your darlings
Characters should be recognizable, unified, consistent, believable and relatable
Plot should be unified
Plot is the most important aspect
The difference between story and plot (causality)
The need for a reversal/recognition in which the character changes (epiphany)
Should evoke fear/pity (i.e. rely on emotion)
Story consists of complication and resolution (conflict)
Clarity over ambiguity in language
Plausible impossibility is preferable to an implausible possibility

As I say, these are just a few of the conventions that pop out at me as I flip through my heavily marked up copy of Aristotle’s Poetics (I use the Malcolm Heath translation, the Introduction to which is quite helpful for understanding how Aristotle’s concept of poetry as imitation is consistent with that of our concepts of fiction.)

I believe experimental literature presents an alternative-discourse to Aristotle’s master narrative. Notice that I have very specifically chosen the word “alternative” to modify the word “discourse.” This is because I do not believe experimental literature to be reactionary, which is to say negative. Experimental literature is not Against Aristotle, not anti-Aristotle, not Anti-convention, not Non-Aristotelian. All of those ways of rendering experimental lit place it in a subordinate position. I do not believe experimental literature is subordinate to conventional lit. I believe they are mutually affirmative positions with differing affinities, desires, impulses. They are not in binary opposition because placing two items in binary opposition suggests a thesis/antithesis or positive/negative dialectic. Again, I do not view experimental lit as negative or antithetical.

What I am proposing is that one way to think about experimental literature is to conceive of it as that which experiments on/with Aristotelian prescription. For example, Aristotle suggests “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end” (13). Joyce takes this model into his laboratory and experiments on it, the product of which, Finnegans Wake, suggests that a whole can actually exist without those clearly discernible chronological markers.

Many more examples could obviously be offered. As well, a history of how Aristotle’s Poetics came to such prominence could also enrich this discussion. I hope in future additions to this series to elaborate on the lineage that brought Poetics through the ages to our doorstep this morning: from Horace to Hegel to Freytag to John Gardner to Jonathan Franzen. But, for now I’ll stop here.

As I mentioned last time, the goal with this series of posts is to start conversation not conclude conversation. I want to raise awareness and get people thinking/talking about a subject I care about. My intention is therefore to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Most importantly, I do not pretend to be right; I only pretend to have ideas worth talking/thinking about. Perhaps next time I will take up the issue of meaning and its relationship to literature: the ways in which conventional literature rely on meaning and the ways in which experimental literature resist meaning.