March 18th, 2011 / 11:08 am

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Susan Steinberg}

Susan Steinberg is the author of the short story collections, Hydroplane (FC2) and The End of Free Love (FC2). Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, Boulevard, The Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Columbia, and elsewhere. She has held residencies at The MacDowell Colony, The Vermont Studio Center, The Wurlitzer Foundation, the Blue Mountain Center, and Yaddo and was recently Scholar-in-Residence in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. She received a BFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA in English from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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?”

I’m finding that a lot of writing is categorized as experimental simply because it looks different on the page.  Too often, this work, while embracing a certain textural playfulness, still reads as either conventional or self-indulgent.  I think that truly experimental writing embraces innovation, a relationship of form to content, a consideration of the real possibilities of the text; it’s not just pyrotechnics, opacity, an attempt to shock, or a formulaic display of what certain writers and readers think experimental writing is supposed to seem.  I wonder if it’s too simplistic to say that truly experimental writing has behind it a writer who wishes to conduct actual experiments.  For some it’s structural, for some it’s rooted in content, for some it’s a conscious subversion of the mainstream.  For me, it’s formal and syntactical.  And too often the result is a series of failed experiments, which, in my opinion, is more satisfying than successfully following a formula.

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 do believe that experimental writing is often about trial and error — it certainly is for me — but I don’t believe we’re without established criteria.  I should preface this by saying that I’m no fan of the notion of the “best” in art; I don’t care for the lists.  That said, I think it’s useful to have a discussion about what makes a work of art successful — to its audience, in a context of art like it, in a context of art unlike it.  Perhaps it’s futile to ask questions about plot of a plot-less narrative.  Or to apply the criteria reserved for a formulaic genre piece to a piece which resists narrative.  But I would make the argument that this type of criteria won’t get us very far anyway in a discussion of art.  In a discussion of sales, however, we’ll get somewhere.  So how does one determine the strength and/or success of the work of Virginia Woolf or Djuna Barnes or Lydia Davis or Ben Marcus?  Perhaps we begin by confronting such works — even the most innovative and intimidating — in the way we would any art which truly pushes the boundaries of its own discipline.  And if we can’t find a way in through the usual methods (speaking aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally, contextually, historically) we can always ask what it’s asking to be asked.

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 the book, but I would like to.  It rings true that other writers no longer perceive experimental writing in this way, but for me it is absolutely, in part, “a way to deal with [crisis] aesthetically.”

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?

As the Chair of the Board of Directors of VIDA, I have been in dialogue with a lot of writers over the past year, most recently with Carole Maso, about this very thing.  And I’m discovering that for many of us, there is a close relationship:  that is to say one is often doubly marginalized if one is both female and writing experimental fiction.  It’s simultaneously very limiting and very liberating.

Question #5

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

Novels — Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway.   Novella — William Gass’s The Pedersen Kid.  Short stories — too many to list, but I would include Denis Johnson’s “Dundun,” Victoria Redel’s “A Day in the Park,” and Ander Monson’s “Bowling Balls Sent Down Through Windows From Overpasses That Stretch Like Spiderwebs Above.”  Because beyond the brilliant line-by-line writing, the formal invention, the “crises” of the stories themselves, these pieces, as great, careful, urgent, considered, fearless works of art, respectfully say fuck you to formula, convention, laziness, and a market that embraces it all.


  1. Ben Jahn

      I wonder if Steinberg would say a self-indulgent experimental story is one that doesn’t attempt to express its aesthetic as part of its crisis. I find that her fiction maintains a narrative momentum that I process as non-experimental even though I’m aware that what’s building that momentum, her syntax, is experimental.

  2. Rackham

      The questions and answers highlight some interesting propositions. I think that we can classify literature as innovative or experimentalist, however, we must remember that literature is an extension and articulation of the individual self, as an entity and expression of a cumulative set of experiences of the creative individuals observations. This leads us to the hypothesis that literature is purely a mirror and/or sharing of the individuals thoughts (an extension of ones own mind). How we chose to interperate the literature produced by another individual must surely depends on ones own experience and point of view. The resonance of the literature (innovative or experamentalist) is aligned to the individual circumstance at the point of reading. Individuals should be encouraged to experiment and innovate in literature if fo no other reason than to capture unique and precious thoughts created in a moment of personal reflection that could otherwise be lost.

  3. Tim Horvath

      I like how Steinberg opens up the tent of experimental to encompass someone like Denis Johnson. Also, her story “Cowgirl” is amazing; she rescues the semicolon from the kitsch-oblivion of emoticon winkland and has it punctuate the flesh instead and lodge near the rawest of nerves.

  4. Michael Goroff

      Whoa. That was amazing. Thanks for the link. I’ll have to check out more of her work.

  5. Anonymous

      Crazy awesome! Tweeted about it @dragnetmag (& mentioned yr name)

  6. Anonymous

  7. Anonymous
  8. What is Experimental Literature? {Recap: Five Questions Vol. 1} | HTMLGIANT

      […] Susan Steinberg […]

  9. Swirling Wheelnuts

      Boing! All right, to the point, zip, so I got the books!

  10. This, this | Paul Jessup

      […] From- this place […]