March 3rd, 2011 / 1:04 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Danielle Dutton}

Danielle Dutton is the author of S P R A W L (shortlisted for the 2010 Believer Book Award) and Attempts at a Life. She designs books at Dalkey Archive Press; teaches in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa; and runs Dorothy, a publishing project.

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?”

Last night on the phone my dad and I were talking about fundamentalisms and the possible future explosion of the planet. He was saying how important it is do be able to dwell in doubt, to assume you don’t know it all, to embrace “the fertile void.” He said, “Certainty is for shit,” which, despite the fact that we were talking about the possible future explosion of the planet, made me feel a bit better about the fact that I really don’t know how to answer this question.

So in the spirit of uncertainty I offer Robbe-Grillet’s idea that “[a]ll writers believe they are realists. . . . each has different ideas about reality. The classicists believed that it is classical, the romantics that it is romantic, the surrealists that it is surreal. . . . Each speaks of the world as he sees it, but no one sees it in the same way.” For some reason, this was one of the first things that popped into my head when I read your question, Chris. Right or wrong, I’ve always thought of this notion as particularly sane. When I first read For a New Novel, I put a little star beside it in the margin; it made good sense to me, perhaps especially because at the same time I was studying Virginia Woolf. For Woolf, stream-of-consciousness writing—a literary experiment if ever there was one—was closer to reality on the page than realism. Of course, this isn’t how many of her readers and critics took the new style, and in fielding some of their criticisms of her work, I appreciated Robbe-Grillet’s peculiar articulation of realism, his defense of the “experimental.” Or, at least, the seemingly non-realist. The thing is, you can’t really point to something and say it’s Experimental with a capital “e.” Rather than a clearly defined category or concept, such as surrealism, “experimental” is an umbrella term under which many, many different styles of writing (and kinds of writers) can hang out (or be forced into) together. I suppose it’s generally thought that “experimental” writing is writing that experiments with (plays with, fucks with, risks) form . . . surely this means different things to different people. Mostly I think “experimental” is a watery sort of term, sweeping, more connotative than denotative, having to do with undertones, implications, context.

Here are a few of the contexts or undertones I’ve encountered:

1) The “this book isn’t for everyone” effect. This is like a running joke around the Dalkey Archive offices. How many reviews have you read of “experimental” books that begin or end with this line? But what book is “for everyone”? There is no such book, of course, yet the comment suggests that there is, and that the particular book under review is not that golden boy. It’s an apology for the book’s perceived difficulty.

2) Shorthand for something like “small press writing.” The undertone here can be dismissive, even embarrassed, or else it can be a badge of honor, community-building, depending on the speaker.

3) Insincerity. A common criticism of writers who are experimenting with form or generally subverting readerly expectations is that they are being difficult “on purpose,” which is sometimes true and sometimes isn’t, depending on the writer’s project, although in the hands of reviewers (a reviewer being a specialized sort of reader), the distinction is rarely drawn. The implication in either case is that this kind of difficulty is somehow insincere, that the work isn’t “serious,” or is too serious, doesn’t take the readers seriously, is “pretentious.” It’s the whole “head” versus “heart” argument, a very reductive way to think. This is the sort of analysis I expect to find (and do find, since I read it at the gym) in Entertainment Weekly. In fact, the best experimental works, to my mind, are those that combine many different elements of experience (head and heart) in provocative and original ways: Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood or Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution or Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God and on and on.

4) Traditions. The only time the term bothers me is when it’s offered as the reverse of so-called “traditional” writing. I don’t know what traditions people are thinking about when they intone the “traditional” as the reverse of the “experimental,” but in the West at least the traditions of the novel, for example, are with books like Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, if not, by now, Virginia Woolf. What I usually walk away thinking people mean, when they use “traditional” in this way, is “normal.” But “normal” to whom? And anyway, of all the things it might be, why on earth do we want literature to be that?

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?

I’m not sure that there are established criteria for determining the value of any work of literature, experimental or otherwise. I suppose there’s always Henry James’s estimation that the only thing we can ask of a work of literature is that it be interesting.

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 haven’t read About Writing, so I’m hesitant to say much, for fear I’m reading into this quote or misunderstanding it out of its context. Likely I am. But, no, on the surface . . . well, it doesn’t ring true for me. “Experimental” writing doesn’t “deal with” crisis as well as . . . what? Some other set of aesthetic values? All art is artificial, is construct, deals particularly with the world (with the world in its particulars). I wish I knew exactly what Delany meant here by “experimental” writing. Is W. G. Sebald’s writing “experimental”? Or David Foster Wallace’s? Or Kathy Acker’s? Or Robert Glück’s? Or Virginia Woolf’s? Or William Gass’s? Is Jean Toomer’s Cane experimental? Or Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo? Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy? Magdelena Tulli’s Dreams and Stones? Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century? Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Heimrad Backer’s transcript? All of these, I think, deal brilliantly with crisis, with crises of faith, or language, or mind, or society, or the body. Or, to cite just a few younger writers who deal with crisis in interesting ways in work that might be thought of as “experimental”: Renee Gladman, Bhanu Kapil, Kate Zambreno, Laird Hunt, Rachel Levitsky, Joyelle McSweeney, Juliana Spahr, Mary Burger.

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?

Well, I recently started a press called Dorothy, a publishing project, and the website states that the press is “dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women,” so I feel like I have a particular stake in this question. In a recent interview at BOMBlog, I was asked both about my interest in “experimental” women’s writing and about why I wanted to focus on women’s writing with the press. In a way, I feel like I deflected both questions. My answer was, more or less: it’s personal. What I meant by this, partly, is that the decision comes out of certain encounters that are specific to me, which I don’t choose to make public. I might even go so far as to call it an artistic decision, implying the decision derives from a mix of intention and intuition and curiosity and hopefulness. I’m still learning how to articulate what I’m doing, and suspect I will be for some time. I can say that what I want to do with the press, at least in part, is investigate this very question you ask. I’m interested in so-called “conventional” books and so-called “experimental” books and in how different kinds of books might form a conversation about what fiction can do and be. And I’m interested in looking at this particular problem primarily through writing by women. It’s not that I think women’s writing is inherently more “experimental” than men’s. To say so seems to me somewhat absurd. I’d feel absurd saying it, I mean. And yet I loved Eileen Myles’s response to the VIDA numbers over at The Awl: “in the poetry scene the women are the ones who are generally doing the most exciting work. Why? Because the female reality is still largely unknown. And language is the thrill that holds the unknown in its vague and shifting ways. That’s writing.” As a culture we’re so attuned to accepting male experiences as “important” and “serious” and “normal” that perhaps female experiences (and relationships to language and form) can come to us with a greater sense of “otherness”?

Question #5

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

The truly impossible question! Well, I do love Tristram Shandy. And Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. The movement of her prose, her webs of narrative, the overall readerliness of her oeuvre. I love Perec’s work. His humor. His sense of play. His crazy genius. And Gertrude Stein’s. She’s tough and funny. Recently I read and fell in love with Kathryn Davis’s novels Versailles and Hell. Both are strange and gorgeous and smart. This semester I’m teaching Amina Cain’s I Go to Some Hollow. That’s a lovely book: meditative and odd. Also teaching Tisa Bryant’s inquisitive, genre-less Unexplained Presence. I just published Renee Gladman’s novel Event Factory and (of course) think it’s amazing. Renee is thinking through narrative in provocative ways.


  1. stephen

      I like your answers, Danielle Dutton. You seem very logical and diplomatic to me.

      Christopher, I don’t understand why authors would/”should” think about what they write and what they read in the manner of or based on the commentary of contemporary academics and historians.

  2. stephen

      i guess you have quotes from authors too… haven’t figured out a way to express my general resistance to this codification/promulgation of “experimental writing” and academic thought about writing in a way that is helpful as opposed to just whiney or obnoxiously dismissive. you know i like you, christopher

      i guess my approach to art is outdated or something…

  3. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Stephen,

      I don’t understand your complaint.

      Who are these academics/historians you keep referring to?

      In my questions I reference: Kate Sutherland — who is a fiction writer and a blogger, Marjorie Welish–who is a poet, Samuel Delany–who is a fiction writer, and Amy King — who is a poet. None of these people are historians and none of these people are “academics” in the sense that their primary role is that of a critic (although I know that some of them do teach writing). I am very specifically asking artists to respond to other artists.


  4. stephen

      yeah, sorry, idk, good point

      i guess to me an artist talking about “experimental literature,” which is an academic classification or a vague marketplace genre, to me, more than it is an artist’s description of their work, isn’t attractive, even if other artists have done so and you can respond to them. but it would make more sense for me to simply be silent, given that that’s what i think

      i think, maybe, “great” art has been created precisely by NOT thinking about these things, or by letting go a bit of these things… “i realized how foolish i’d been… began to write what i feel” [paraphrase] that is my exhibit A in all these discussions, but i will be not-there next time

  5. Scott mcclanahan

      This is great.

  6. drew kalbach

      is there such a thing as easy experimental writing? i want some experimental writing that is easy.

  7. davidpeak

      absolutely in love with the term “the fertile void.” absolutely going to steal it or at least think about it for a while.

      these interviews have been great so far. thanks, christopher.

  8. davidpeak

      absolutely in love with the term “the fertile void.” absolutely going to steal it or at least think about it for a while.

      these interviews have been great so far. thanks, christopher.

  9. Roxane

      This was a great interview. I especially got a lot out of the first answer but the whole thing is great.

  10. stephen
  11. Matt K

      Stephen, I like what you’re getting at, I think, but at the same time I think it’s useful sometimes to have (admittedly problematic) labels like ‘experimental’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘cat mystery’ even though maybe a more universalizing term like ‘literature’ (insert favorite term, I don’t really have a stake in what it might be called, maybe simply ‘texts’) is what we’d prefer. I think both ways of thinking are useful.

  12. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Roxane. Yes, I agree, Danielle really opened up that first question and hung its hidden implications on the mantle.

  13. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, David. Glad you’re enjoying the interviews so far. I feel like I’m learning a lot from the insights provided by all of these amazing thinkers/writers — it’s very rewarding for me and pleasing to know that it’s rewarding for others, too.

  14. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Drew,

      I wonder what you mean by “easy”?

      Does it have to do with one’s level of comfort w/r/t Danielle’s dad’s notion of “dwelling in doubt”? As in, what’s easy for one person may not be easy for another because one person may bristle more sensitively at dwelling in doubt.

      I will sort of take up this question in my next non-five questions post in this series, when I talk about Roland Barthes’s ideas.

      But maybe you mean something else when you say “easy”?

  15. Anonymous

      Never stop these posts, please.

  16. lily hoang


  17. Tim Jones-Yelvington


      “In fact, the best experimental works, to my mind, are those that combine many different elements of experience (head and heart) in provocative and original ways.”

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