March 11th, 2011 / 12:39 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Miranda Mellis}

photo by Eirik Steinhoff

Miranda Mellis is the author of The Revisionist (Calamari Press); Materialisms (Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs); and None of This Is Real (forthcoming, Sidebrow Press). The Revisionist, illustrated by Derek White, has been translated into Italian and Croatian, was the subject of a 90-foot mural at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis, and was short-listed for The Believer 2007 Book Prize. Mellis is a founding editor at The Encyclopedia Project and a recipient of The John Hawkes Memorial Fiction Prize, The Michael Harper Praxis Prize, The New Voices Sudden Fiction Prize, and an NEH Independent Research Grant. Her writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Cabinet, Fence, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly, Context, Modern Painters, Post Road and elsewhere. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Mills College. She also teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at the California College of the Arts, as well as the Language & Thinking Program at Bard College.

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?”

Experimental writing, as a category or concept, seems fraught with widespread confusion and misunderstanding.

Perhaps mainstream or genre fiction leads to more confusion and misunderstanding than experimental writing in the end, to the extent that confusion and misunderstanding are a result of not thinking for yourself. Rather than being confusing and misunderstood, I think experimental writing offers the possibility of ending mental states of confusion and misunderstanding. On the other hand perhaps that confusion you refer to is prophylactic – literally preventing pre/conception and reproduction of narrative formulae. The category, “detective mystery” (a genre that itself enacts the resolution of questions) doesn’t confuse us. If  “experimental writing” does, why? Because rather than re/solving its own riddle, it enacts indeterminate opportunities for thought. It has a drive we can’t take refuge in: an analytical aesthetic. Under the sign of “experimentalism” we can come at the detective mystery such that its philosophical terrors, traumas of class, gender, and power etc. etc. are tricked out, materialized at the level of form – cf Gail Scott or Laird Hunt – to heighten the genre’s metaphysics: affect and aporia. The etymology of write, btw, is not without its violence. Words for write originally mean “carve, scratch, cut”. Disambiguating a narrative mechanism or technique, as some experimentalists do, and really exploring it to exhaustion, to see what its features, functions, and effects are, to find out what it can do, as Robbe-Grillet did last century with description, is carving, cutting, scratching. Or, try to listen to the sounds outside your window without ramifying or extrapolating (i.e. x amount of traffic means its x o’clock; this or that song signifies this or that bird; I react in such and such way to that grinding/bellowing machinery…). Isolating the faculty of hearing in this way could lead to discoveries about space. We might have an aesthetic, emotional experience of place, mood, atmosphere, and we may be very moved by the interplay of sounds, without there being a narrative attached necessarily. In some of Beckett’s writings, when characters describe experiencing speech as incommunicative noise, that cordoning off of sensory experience from context reveals mind. John Cage’s merging of theorization and practice, his enacting of chance-as-score, provides a model for experimental processes in all the arts. All of which is to go back to the first point, that “experimental writing”, rather than being confusing, can be revelatory and clarifying.

How exactly would you describe “experimental writing”?  Or, to borrow a question from Kate Sutherland,”What’s Experimental about Experimental Writing?”

Experimental prose fiction, in its contemporary manifestation, as distinct from its historical one (experimental literature is a category whose received and conjured meanings morph in ways that other literary categories don’t seem to, or at least not as radically) indicates that I will encounter something I’ve never encountered before. Often it will make me conscious not only of the fact that I am reading, through its ideas or form or movement, but also of the historical/discursive conditions that make possible this moment of reading via all kinds of reflexivity, either authorial, or cultural, or formal. Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa. Experimental prose fiction will tend to be thoughtful, un-solipsistic, non-normative, and can be informed by altered states, theory, political problems, history, poetics, literary criticism, and art although not necessarily consciously. It will tend to be emergent and obscure. It might be self-critical, or comment on the conditions of its own making. It doubts the conversion of person to character, courts digression and challenge. It will tend to be committed to the idea that rather than reflecting, writing conjures/makes realities. The ethical valence is clear: representation acts upon reality. Rather than constructing a “realistic” character, like a Frankenstein out of scattered, potentially functional, arbitrary parts, a given text itself could be understood as something like a person, or a monster (see Bhanu Kapil’s work). A text could resemble a city, a place, not because it describes one (though it could) but because reading is vividly being somewhere, or perhaps being (described as) someone/else. In “The Person and Description” in The Language of Inquiry Lyn Hejinian asks, “But is it, the self, a person?” Or as Pamela Lu quips in Pamela: A Novel, “the history of our lives was always the history of something else…there was no way to find “I” without by definition losing it, and therefore losing ourselves.”

Later in the same section she writes, “And our greatest fear was…that ‘I’ had been someone else all along.” Here “I” is not given but composed, inherited, historical, ontological, and weirdly serial, propositional. What becomes of the mechanism of first person, or character for that matter, if a given fiction lays them bare as mechanisms?

There is a canon of the university market. There is a canon of the supermarket. And there are those cunning writings that get made and circulate somehow in spite of markets. The writings themselves change positions, moving contingently through these spaces, they flow in and out of the sightlines of various demographics. To go back to etymology, the term ‘experiment’ in English originates during the Renaissance and constellates practical knowledge with trials and pedagogy, the term is highly refractive, from L. experimentum it relates to “a trial, test, proof, experiment,” and is a noun of action from experiri (experience) “to test, try”. Experiments, then, seem always to be connected with potentials, possibilities, the emergent. I take to heart Percival Everett’s point that all writing begins as experiment. Experiments are hypo/theses; wagers; fermentations or useless admixtures; mud pies and blood pies. You can waste a lot of time experimenting. Writing – even taking inventories which is how writing started – involves oscillations: losing and finding, locating and dislocating, delay and arrival, sleeping and waking, tracking and losing track. Experimental writers think of language as a medium and therefore do not ignore the fact that language, even univocal and transactional language (maybe even especially so) is imbricated with political life and systems: not neutral, after all, its what laws, mortgages, curses, roles, and rites of institution are made of.

Zola thought science offered literature the best possible model for achieving naturalism and [proto] realism via objective description. This will always be, in principle, a fruitful approach to writing: can we try to approach the object without preconceptions, in the spirit of curiosity and discovery? After new physics and quantum mechanics, however, it becomes common knowledge that the observer affects the observed (did she, before we knew of it?); experiments must then account for the experimenter. Thus 20th century meta-fiction, though of course that insight into the intersubjectivity of subject and object was present in literature prior to empirical confirmation. Perhaps the composer of rigorous and playful fiction has always intuited the ‘multiverse’. Rather than making religions out of alternate realities, imposing beliefs, we fashion provisional, imaginative prolepses that can be put to infinite and unknown uses. We don’t necessarily read stories in order to become more certain about things, but for a range of (sometimes incipient) reasons, among them perhaps to come undone, or become other, or elsewhere, to “think our way into the being of another” (as Coetzee’s anti-heroine/avatar Elizabeth Costello put it). One of my students said yesterday that Moniru Ravanipur’s collection Satan’s Stones which we read this week made her uncomfortable but that she found she passionately cared about what was happening in the stories, about the characters, even as she lost her way temporally and wasn’t convinced as to what the “plot” was; she was fully alive in her reading, absorbed in the places Ravanipur conjures, made curious and hungry by the work. She said, “There was something new to understand and I sensed I could never exhaust that.” Pure joy to discover a book you could never exhaust, like finding a profound love.

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?

If Glenn Beck is telling you to buy it in preparation for the end times, if grave robbers rip out the teeth of corpses to get it, if rich people store it in vaults, it’s gold. If poor people have it in their pockets, if it’s said to cure arthritis and yet cause PMS, if its essential to fiber optic infrastructure, its copper.  That being said, may I rephrase the question? What is the ratio of rigor to pleasure in any given text? Why should we only learn to read once and then stop? Why not keep learning to read all the time forever? Even an unconsidered, mindless grub of a text can yield some amusement or spark an inquiry; just ask any teacher. Perhaps we ought to be wary of our metaphors of value and currency. What if instead of “criteria for evaluation” (is that corporate speak?) we turn to ye olde garden metaphor? What if rather than using gold and copper as our metaphoric representations of gradations of value, we used seeds in all their various potentials? In “The Succession of Forest Trees” Thoreau writes that seeds are “Perfect alchemists I keep who can transmute substances without end, and thus the corner of my garden is an inexhaustible treasure-chest. Here you can dig, not gold, but the value which gold merely represents.” If you wanted to compare hypothetical literary experiments, metaphorized as ‘seeds’, you would do so based on what the seeds encoded. If you wanted something that grew fast right away for commercial purposes, you’d mono-crop GMO seeds; what are the problems with that? Certain seeds require long periods of darkness before they can germinate. There the metaphor is, whatever you’re trying to make will require patience and darkness to metabolize, so while it may end up at the market, that’s not going to be market-driven.

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?

This thought seems to point to the fact that formal disjunction or derangement is not what it used to be. The avant-garde aesthetic shenanigans of the 20th century were linked to liberation movements and political desire. However, to describe “recuperation” straight forwardly, capitalism makes effective use of anti-capitalist aesthetics. In the US, art doesn’t get you in prison, though censorship is always afoot and seems on the rise (I’m thinking of the censorship by the Smithsonian of David Wojnarowicz’s ‘A Fire in My Belly’) but it does elsewhere, because of content. For example a writer like Shahrnush Parsipur’s work is banned in Iran not because of her fabulism per se, not inherently because of the dynamic complexity of her writing, but because her work makes visible the corrupt illegitimacy of the patriarchal regime. She uses her skills to transmit that trauma of living under that boot, so she is persecuted because of the political content of her work, the impacts of which, however, are certainly heightened and intensified by her mastery of her medium. And in this case, Parsipur’s writing, her daring at the level of form and content precipitates her into crises: the crises of imprisonment under two regimes (both the Shah and the Islamic Republic) followed by the crisis of exile.

With regards to aesthetics and crisis, the extent of impact re-conceptualizing a cultural practice or social institution will have depends on how willing the parties involved are to open up to the “unlived” parts of their practice and thought (where the crisis has become a callus, or the wound masked in pretense or unconscious ideology). At Encyclopedia Project, where I am a coeditor with Tisa Bryant and Kate Schatz, we decided when we started that wanted to do something with our publication that wasn’t already being done. One approach was to appropriate the gorgeous architecture of the canonical encyclopedia and to turn it inside out, privileging art and literature as expressions of expertise and knowledge, publishing excellent work in an unprecedented way. Another desire was to proactively publish writers and artists of color. We decided our books would be comprised of, at the very least, 50% people of color. Percentages/quotas are a fraught heuristics, on the one hand clinical, and on the other vulgar. However… whatever! – “50%” was a tenet that would enact our values and actualize our principles and hopes. We don’t assume that fashioning pluralist institutions is being done sufficiently by government or academe. What one writes, teaches, or publishes has effects. As I once heard Anne Waldman say to a group of students, “It’s not just you and the void.” Conceptualizing and making inclusive syllabi, editorial structures, and reading series’ is crucially important on multiple levels.

A couple of scattered thoughts on the crisis of money. Guy Debord made the point that the commodity has colonized social life. This is worth thinking about in relation to literary production. For many of us who come from poor families and backgrounds, literature has a built in poverty clause. (And let’s acknowledge the obvious, that poverty is insanely relative. To quote Hejinian again, from The Beginner, money “is both signifier and signified, and poverty is like the notorious gap between them.”) Perhaps people are equipped to “deal with crisis”, when they are perpetually in one of an economic nature. There’s everything to be gained by getting rid of zombie structures of life and thought (habits; dictators). We see all over the world precarity linked to acts of revolt, self-determination, and solidarity while luxury, entitlement, and the rhetoric of “security” goes hand in hand with police states, violent immorality, and highly exclusive muddle-headedness. To borrow post-Freudian psychoanalyst Adam Philips’ syntax, what kind of object is crisis, and what is it being used for? Etymologically it refers to a border, the turning point in the course of a disease, as well as “shut-door-panic”: fear of being on the wrong side of a closing gate.

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?

I’d characterize the relationship between women and experimental writing as one of reciprocal forms. I myself was first initiated into “experimental literature” – experimental forms in all sorts of mediums – by queer culture and among women. As a young person understanding of aesthetics was shaped by political, avant-garde and underground films such as Marlon Riggs Tongues Untied or Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege. I saw films like that in my neighborhood at the Roxie Cinema and I just absorbed this sense that composition was open, you could invent your form/ form could follow content, and/or content could be at once represented and analyzed by means of form. I was on tour with Sister Spit in 1998. Sister Spit was and is an important institution for young women writers experimenting with form. As a teenager discovering the irresistible Les guérillères by Monique Wittig (in a since-closed women’s book store) led me to the French feminists and the Situationists, then later on my understanding of the relevant work was shaped by the writings (and in some cases pedagogy) of authors like Thalia Field, Eileen Myles, Renee Gladman, Bhanu Kapil, Carole Maso, Rikki Ducornet, Gail Scott, Joan Retallack, Juliana Spahr, and others. I also learned a tremendous amount from male teachers/writers Anselm Hollo, Steven Taylor, Brian Evenson, and Robert Coover. All of which is to say, to try to answer your question and get out of this autobiographical vortext, that I tend to think of experimental writing in its contemporary manifestations and inflections (or, as we currently seem to identify it) as ecologically contiguous with performance art, queer theory, feminist, anti-racist, and anarchist discourse, as well as activist “identity politics” of yore (which, it is perhaps worth recalling were as much about questioning, dissolving, conjuring, and performing identities and self-descriptions, as about claiming rights and protections). I wouldn’t say the above epistemologies are universally required equipment for reading experimental writing, but I would wonder what meaning such writing could have divorced from these genealogies.

Question #5

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

Grant me that it’s corny question to which I can only supply corny answers! One answer is, the ones I haven’t read yet. The second answer is a question: when you’re reading a fabulous book, isn’t it your favorite book while you’re reading it? One great book isn’t in a hierarchical relation with the other, they’re like friends, they exist together in a field, a feast, a gathering, a library, a commune (book prizes notwithstanding).

But here are some books I’ve taught recently that I’d love to recommend, and that will narrow it down: Touba and the Meaning of the Night by Shahrnush Parsipur, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Denny Smith by Bob Glück, Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin, Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, Beckett’s Trilogy, Jacob von Gunten by Robert Walser, American Genius by Lynne Tillman, Learning Processes With A Fatal Outcome by Alexander Kluge, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, Alma, or The Dead Women by Alice Notley, The Activist, by Renee Gladman, Bird Lover’s Backyard by Thalia Field, Season of the Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih, and Khirbet Khizeh, S. Yizhar.


  1. letters journal

      ‘Season of the Migration to the North’ is an intense book. It basically destroyed the last reading group I was in.

  2. davidpeak

      i’m definitely going to get a bio like that when i move out of my parents’ place.

      this was a great interview

  3. darby

      “What is the ratio of rigor to pleasure in any given text? Why should we only learn to read once and then stop? Why not keep learning to read all the time forever?”


  4. darby

      “What is the ratio of rigor to pleasure in any given text? Why should we only learn to read once and then stop? Why not keep learning to read all the time forever?”


  5. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      So much to love here. Among my favorites: the seeds image (for so many reasons) as an alternative to gold and copper, and the reminder that early identity politics were also about flexibility and experimentation.

  6. deadgod

      #2: Is every piece of experimental writing equally successful a “seed”? That is, does all experimental writing equally germinate-at-all?

      That’s one thing the question of “criteria for evaluation” asks: is it enough to say that a piece of writing is ‘experimental’, because that is all that can be said, or is one’s experience of that piece of writing communicable in ways that admit of degree?

      – as well as asking ‘are all “art plants” to be tended and, if so desirable, harvested equally?’, which is not more subtle, in my view, than asking ‘are all “art metals” to be refined or alloyed, as desirable, and used equally?’

  7. King Wenclas

      Truly experimental writing today would demonstrate clarity of expression and thought, something extremely rare at the moment when literary people are wrapped up in the “disambiguities” of the academy.
      The uncomfortable fact is that everything which passes as “experimental” writing today has been done, 50 and 100 years ago. What’s experimental about it? As I’ve posted in a couple places recently, including here–
      we’re seeing a lot of recycling of old ideas, but nothing revolutionary.
      This is shown by the fact that all the other comments on this post are in total agreement. Which is usually the case at almost all literary sites– everyone is in total agreement.
      What should that tell us?
      It tells me that there are in fact no new ideas, only people regurgitating what they learned in the academy– never the first place to find “the new” in any art, by the very nature of an institutional bureaucracy. Complete conformity.
      Try this experiment: Substitute the word “contrary” for “experimental” in your discussion and then see where you come out.
      It’s long past time for new art in the realm of literature. But that means authentically new. Shockingly new. The kind of art and ideas which generate instantaneous outrage.
      Is this happening anywhere in the world of literature?
      I don’t see it.
      Thank you for your time.

  8. Tantra Bensko

      fantastically articulate answers, thank you.

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      What is Experimental Literature? Five Questions: Miranda Mellis | HTMLGIANT