What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 3}

Posted by @ 7:19 pm on January 24th, 2011

In part one, I proposed that one way we might begin to think about experimental literature is in terms of open and closed texts, using Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure” as the jumping off point.

In part two, I used Brian Evenson’s remarks about the suffocating influence of “Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today…Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, and so on,” as an opening for thinking about the origin of convention, i.e. the counterpoint to works of experimental literature.

This time around, I want to use Ben Marcus’s recent interview to make some remarks about the differences between reading practices and writing practices in order to show how those two roles impact the creation and reception of experimental literature.

Marcus asks the question: “Does anyone self-identify as experimental? Anyone?” Which I assume is meant to be read as a rhetorical question. Marcus himself has, on numerous occasions, resisted the label for himself. In the comment section of the interview, Marcus mentions that neither David Markson nor Diane Williams – two seemingly obvious examples of experimental writers – consider(ed) themselves as such. I would add that plenty of similar examples of writers resisting this label abound, including my comrade/our fearless boss editor Blake Butler, who I consider along with Marcus and Markson to be one of the great experimental writers of our time. Blake has been asked about experimental writing in various interviews and he tends to respond akin to Marcus: he dislikes the categorizing, the labeling, the pinning down. And from the position of the writer, the maker of the work, I can fully empathize with this position. It makes sense to me that someone might not want to wave a partisan flag or wear some categorical identity on their sleeve. It makes sense to me that a writer might like to think of themselves not as an “experimental writer” but instead as “a killer artist” (as Marcus suggests in his comment). Furthermore, I fully identify with Marcus when he admits “I don’t write with a separate, conscious awareness of where my work fits into the aesthetic continuum. I tend to be pretty instinctive and emotional.” For most writers, I would venture to say, this is how the making is done: not as a conscious decision to sit down and “write conventional literature” or “write experimental literature” but instead to sit down and write “badass literature.”


And it’s quite a big but.

There is the writer writing, and then there is the reader reading. And whether or not a writer considers his or her work to be experimental or not, the public will pass judgment. The public will pick up a work of prose like The Age of Wire & String and they will read the opening lines:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels.

And for many, they will be lost. I say this having taught Marcus’s book now to well over a hundred humans. Without question the most common response I’ve received is something in the range of “what the fuck?” This is usually followed by frustration, confusion, and anger.

Why this near-unanimous response?

The answer is: because they are being asked to engage in an unfamiliar kind of literature, an activity with which they are wholly unprepared to engage, because experimental literature is different than conventional literature and therefore requires a different set of reading strategies.

Most American readers have been taught that works of literature should have clearly identifiable plots, characters, settings, and themes. They have been taught Freytag’s triangle, which suggests (in accordance with Aristotelian principles of unity) that a novel has a beginning, middle, and end, with a rising action that builds to a climax and then resolves. Even the suggestion of the possibility that a work of literature might deviate from this familiar model seems anathema to many humans’ very idea of what constitutes literature.

Here the disconnect between author and audience comes into focus: regardless of the author’s intention to write or not write experimental literature, the outcome is the outcome. In other words, Marcus and others can think of their work however they want to think of it, but once that work is published it is the reader who engages the work and therefore the reader who determines the appropriate label or category for classifying the work, based, I would argue, on the particular reading strategy he or she deems necessary to enact in order to enjoy a fruitful engagement.

To illustrate, I’ll offer two examples:

first, the opening of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a nice person and I have lots of friends. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. I’ve lived in trailers most of my life, but lately they’ve been getting too elaborate for my taste, so now I live in one room, a “bachelorette.” I don’t have pets. I don’t have houseplants. I spend a lot of time on the road and I don’t like leaving things behind. Aside from the hazards of my profession, my life has always been ordinary, uneventful, and good. Killing someone feels odd to me and I haven’t quite sorted it through.

Right away, notice the clarity. Notice the way in which the text tends toward a closed rather than open system (in Hejinian’s terms). Notice how it seems to embrace Aristotelian principles: we are introduced to a character (Kinsey Millhone), a setting (California), a plot (via the revelation that he is a private investigator we might easily infer that this book will be “about” solving a case), and themes (right vs. wrong, the role of women in law enforcement, dealing with death, etc.). By identifying these basic characteristics of conventional literature, a reader can quickly and easily determine the particular set of reading strategies required to enjoy a fruitful engagement with the text. For the most part, these are the strategies they are familiar with, strategies they have learned through their formal education.

Compare that with the opening of Carole Maso’s Ava

Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance. Birthdays. Independence days. Saints’ days. Even when we were poor. With verve.

Come sit in the morning garden for awhile.

Olives hang like earrings in late August.

A perpetual pageant.

A throbbing.

Come quickly.

Right away, notice the ambiguity. Notice the way in which the text tends toward an open rather than closed system (in Hejinian’s terms). Notice how it seems to challenge Aristotelian principles: we are introduced to an unclear speaking subject (identifiable by the use of the first person plural), an unclear setting (someplace with a garden), no identifiable plot, and vague themes (more emotionally evocative than categorically identifiable). The reader who brings to this text the particular set of reading strategies required to enjoy a fruitful engagement with conventional literature will likely find those strategies to be incompatible with, or at least inadequate for, this text. What is required for this text is a different set of reading strategies. A different way of reading, a different approach, a different set of criteria.

Carole Maso may or may not think of herself as an experimental writer; but nevertheless, the outcome of her creation exhibits the characteristics of experimental literature. Sue Grafton may or may not consider herself a conventional writer; but nevertheless, the outcome of her creation exhibits the characteristics of conventional literature. For each of these texts, readers will need to enact different reading strategies. For the former, what may prove to be invaluable might be a close attention to patterns of repetition, rhythm, connectivity and gaps between words and phrases, the moments of caesura, the sites of tension, the magnitudes of intensities, or the ways in which the text unsettles the limitations of genre and convention, subverts familiarity, articulates emotional states for which there are no nouns, or enacts the reader’s sublime. Whereas for the latter, these strategies may seem superfluous.

It is my contention that reading strategies can either grant or limit access to texts. One’s ability to fruitfully engage a text is predicated on one’s ability to employ the most effective strategy. If one’s only strategy for engaging a text is the particular strategy that privileges the criteria imposed by conventional literature, then an entire library of experimental literature becomes mute. And as Steven Moore has recently (brilliantly!) shown in his book The Novel: An Alternative History, the history of experimental literature is vast, thus it is truly the loss of a Borgesian library of material.

My point, if there is one, revolves around the idea that there is a difference between conventional and experimental literature, and that mapping the boundary zones of these categories is a valuable endeavor. In this post, my goal was to show how these distinctions impact reading practices. The idea is that we might benefit from acknowledging the substantive evidence for this distinction in terms of our role as readers, if not in terms of our role as writers. I’ve never tried to present this material as a kind of prescription, but rather as a means of description; which is to say, I have noticed these striking differences, like those between the Grafton and the Maso texts, and have thought it important to investigate and worthy of sharing with others. The hope is to further conversation, to build on these ideas and raise awareness.

To be honest with you, I find it depressing when writers I admire like Ben Marcus say things like “This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me.” I must say, my experience is different. To me, the issue of experimentalism is not hollow. It is rich and valuable and worthy of conversation.

Perhaps in the next edition I will take up the issue of meaning, which I threatened to do last time. Or maybe I will discuss form and content. Or maybe I’ll do something else entirely different. Either way, hopefully you’ll join me.