July 8th, 2011 / 10:32 am

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

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.


  1. Karl Wenclas

      Golly, maybe all academy approved literary writing is experimental?
      If you’re winning AWP awards, how experimental can your work be??

  2. gavin

      I liked the answer to #2 so much I just stuck it over my desk, here in my office, at the college where I work.  It seems an important reminder of what can happen in this place.

  3. gavin

      I liked the answer to #2 so much I just stuck it over my desk, here in my office, at the college where I work.  It seems an important reminder of what can happen in this place.

  4. Fructidor

      Great interview! Each question was so pretentious and overly qualified, and Martone’s answers were so direct. (Maybe that was the experiment with the form that Martone was hoping for?)

  5. Scalise

      Hey: does anyone know if this is the final entry in this series?

  6. MFBomb

      Martone absolutely obliterated these questions and their ubder-conservative attempt to make “experimental” a safe, branded literature. 

  7. Nicholas Liu

      It’s funny that you pick this interview–the one where the dude being interviewed says the category “experimental literature” is bunk to begin with–to post this comment. Were you just worried you wouldn’t get another chance? Chill, there’ll be other threads.

  8. Anonymous

      You should probably read some of his stuff. It’s not hard to find… 

  9. Tummler

      I’m pretty sure that it is generally impossible for the notion of “experimental literature” to become safe or branded, and I’m also pretty sure that Christopher’s goal with these questions is to develop a solid forum through which people can discuss and ponder what experimental literature is and heighten/strengthen such discussion by implementing numerous aspects that would be significant to consider (the politics of experimental literature, the correlation between experimental literature and sexuality [and race and gender], et al).

  10. Matt

      I love Michael Martone.

  11. MFBomb

      “I’m pretty sure that it is generally impossible for the notion of “experimental literature” to become safe or branded”

      I’m pretty sure you’re right; however, the tone of the questions and many of Chris’s comments lately have suggested that he is in fact seeking to establish “experimental” as a category, which I find problematic and limiting, and which Martone picks up on right away in his first response. 

      Now, in fairness, I do believe Chris means well; also, one could argue that his approach allowed for such a provocative and charged exchange to occur in the first place, in which case, I commend him. 

  12. MFBomb

      Actually, wait a minute: 

      “I’m pretty sure that it is generally impossible for the notion of “experimental literature” to become safe or branded”

      How do you figure? 

      Any literary category can be branded. 

  13. Tummler

      My basic contention is that experimental literature cannot really be branded or gentrified (at least not as an idea in and of itself) because literary experimentation is about attempting to avoid or to pivot safeties, labels, and conventions. Whenever I add a new book to my Goodreads profile and I am not sure how to “shelve” it, that’s when I usually tack on the “experimental” or “avant-garde” or “abstract” shelves because I’m not sure how to categorize the book otherwise. Because it’s attempting or accomplishing something that is difficult to define or harness into a safety, so the term is used as a kind of blanket for whatever we cannot objectively define but only subjectively discuss. We can’t create an ultimate sort of brand and solidify what it means for a work to be experimental. We are sharing interpretations. I say it is “generally impossible” because I suppose that certain branches of experimental literature or certain “experimental” literary movements could be branded for purposes of identification, but not necessarily exploration or comprehension…if that makes any sense (which it probably does not).

      And although Martone’s response is more direct (that’s why I like Mike), it is not the first of its kind in this series. Plenty of other interviewees have started off with a statement against using such terminology, and as thorough as Michael is in clarifying that for himself, I do not believe that that thoroughness is accusatory of Christopher trying to conservatively compress the notion of experimental lit into a neat box of qualities and conceptions.

  14. Josh

      What Matt said.

  15. MFBomb

      Sorry, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on Chris’s intent and the idea that, in a capitalistic society, “experimental” writing is somehow above branding, though it seems to me that you are talking less about “experimental” as an actual category–unlike Chris–and more about experimentation in general. 

      As for Chris’s intent, he even said in a previous comment thread that he didn’t understand responses that were essentially like Martone’s in #1.I agree with you, however, that Martone wasn’t the first to take him to task on the matter of categorization.

  16. lily hoang

      Great interview! More please. Michael Martone is phenomenal. 

  17. Tummler

      Yeah, I remember when Chris destroyed William Trevor’s statement that was posted on this site. Good times.

  18. deadgod


      to create a binary

      No:  to describe an experience.

      Martone himself describes that experience as more and less “traditional” – O. Henry and Chekhov, respectively. 

      In making of “experiment” an Everything Word, he also describes the dichotomy between ‘experiment within and “continuing” a paradigm’ and ‘experiment by establishing a paradigm’.

      Many are vexed by the category “experimental” and a distinction like “experimental/conventional”, but these terms sure seem useful with respect to talking about concrete experiences people have when reading . . .

  19. MFBomb

      No, many are vexed that Christopher Higgs rarely, if ever, questions the limits of categorization, something that was made clear in his post a week or so ago; also, you made a similar point in that particular comments’ thread about the usefulness of binaries, but most of us already understand that categories are useful up to a point and aren’t vexed by this obvious concept. 

  20. deadgod

      Ha ha; yes, he – and most of the others, in my view – has/ve answered (pretty) directly.

      Martone says “let’s experiment with th[e] form [of a submitted-question interview]”.

      – but neither he nor any other correspondents of either of the two series of five “What is Experimental Literature” questions have actually experimented formally or substantively in these interviews.

      ——— and why should they? . . .

  21. deadgod

      The power of the institution [of the “university”] is remarkable not in its overt insistence on compliance but its subliminal persuasive power to have writers conduct self-surveillance.

      Substitute scholars for writers and that would look great (next to GEOMETRY) at the entrance to the Academy.  — Plato + Foucault

      (- though one would want not completely to short “overt insistence on compliance” and not-so-“subliminal” persuasion.)

      – but how else can an “institution” be? is that description of “power” not definitive of “institution”??

  22. deadgod

      Not “no”:  several of the “experimental” correspondents have disliked the adjective, and many commenters, too.  Non-dogmatic descriptions of dichotomies must feel “obvious” to you, now that the idea of them has been explained so many times.  Who are “us”??

      Higgs has said repeatedly – for example, as long ago as here:  http://htmlgiant.com/random/what-is-experimental-literature-pt-1/ – that he “strive[s] to identify tendencies, not truisms”:

      These two tendencies [conventional and experimental], dualistic as they may seem[, are ill-advisedly considered] as binary poles[.]  Rather, I like to think of them [as] independent forces that push and pull but never settle at a maximum polarization.

      Your comment, from “No” to “concept.” is a laudable experiment in Hyena Realism.

  23. deadgod

      Well, I was too inattentive to catch either the Selah Saterstrom responses or some indication of their absence.


  24. MFBomb

      “Not “no”:  several of the “experimental” correspondents have disliked the adjective, and many commenters, too.”
      What correspondents and commenters have disliked the adjective? Or, are you confusing “adjective” with “noun”?

      “Non-dogmatic descriptions of dichotomies must feel “obvious” to you, now that the idea of them has been explained so many times.  Who are “us”??”

      I will not apologize for others’ need to have such a basic concept–the non-static nature of categories– “explained” to them, nor have I ever needed extended lecturing on the matter. 

      “Us”=the “many” you have made this point to twice now, but perhaps you were talking about “many” of the general population and we should assume that your initial post was not in any way a response to previously authored posts on this thread (or previous others) that addressed the topic of binaries/categories.
      “Higgs has said repeatedly – for example, as long ago as here: http://htmlgiant.com/random/wh… – that he “strive[s] to identify tendencies, not truisms”:These two tendencies [conventional and experimental], dualistic as they may seem[, are ill-advisedly considered] as binary poles[.]  Rather, I like to think of them [as] independent forces that push and pull but never settle at a maximum polarization.Your comment, from “No” to “concept.” is a laudable experiment in Hyena Realism.”


      That’s an interesting find from Thanksgiving-season that completely contradicts his article from last week.

  25. MFBomb

      So, yes, I speak with confidence that most of “us commenters” don’t need more Captain Obvious posts that point out the basic pros of categories/binaries. 

      I’m confident, yes, that others are okay with me speaking for them on this elementary matter. 

  26. deadgod

      Your slow absorption of obvious concepts is to be celebrated, and your confidence in the existence of an “us” to speak for must feel artistically fruitful.

  27. MFBomb

      My slow absorption of obvious concepts and confidence in the existence of other commenters? Ha ha ha! You’re too cute.

  28. alan

      “Was it Marcuse who suggested that capitalism is so big that it can contain the revolution within itself?”

      I believe it was Horkheimer.

  29. M.G. Martin

      His answer to question #2 blew me up

  30. deadgod

      Not “other commenters”; “us”.

      Well, now that the sterling of my generosity has been assayed, what of the criticism I have?  Martone is short with the word “experimental”, but doesn’t he retain the idea (of an ‘experimental/conventional’ dichotomy in writing) in a couple of – to me:  interesting – ways??

  31. Leapsloth14

      Holy fuck I have been WAY out of town but thanks for this welcome-back-home. Hell yes! Love it.

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