January 24th, 2011 / 7:19 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 3}

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.


  1. Dreezer

      Very interesting piece. I wonder whether one problem is in the word “experimental.” Perhaps we should find a different adjective for it. After all, most experiments fail. Who wants to be considered a writer of something that fails more often than it succeeds? (This being HTML Giant, perhaps several people will raise their virtual hands.)

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  6. rd'ac

      see, e.g., the intro to badiou’s COMMUNIST HYPOTHESIS for some encouraging thoughts on the persistent potency of failed experiments

  7. deadgod

      Art – or any kind of action – that controverts or ignores convention will be found unfamiliar (or intrinsically antagonistic) and called somehow ‘difficult’. While the advantages of some particular strategy or piece of work, not being obvious, remain unrecognized, that effort will be attacked (or neglected – a subtler form of hostility than overt polemics).

      Opening the door to something by foregrounding that it’s unfamiliar might be a practical way to get the thing at least recognized for being intentionally, and therefore (possibly) usefully or pleasurably, ‘different’. That thing would still be peculiar and difficult, but a sensitivity to these parameters of engagement wouldn’t need to obstruct the reader (say) from getting past the first page.

      ‘Experimental’ is an easily understood – ironically, a conventionalized – description of much unconventional effort; ‘this writing (say) is an attempt that departs from conventionalized expectations,’ the tag says.

      – which is why ‘experimental’-as-opposed-to-‘conventional’, while perhaps a “problem”, is both not the “problem” and a “problem” worth having.

  8. Evan Lavender-Smith

      I also found Marcus’s “This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me” depressing. The difference between the experimental — which, to my thinking, refers to a type of writing in which allegiance to convention is not assumed — and the non-experimental — in which allegiance to convention is assumed — is a very real and important difference when thinking and talking about writing and art. While it is certainly true that some writers hide behind the experiment because they don’t have the chops to engage with convention — a category in which a self-deprecating Ben Marcus places himself in that interview — it is much more common to find a writer leaning on convention because he doesn’t have the guts or the imagination to do anything else. When Marcus insinuates that it would be crazy for someone to self-identify as “experimental,” he is recapitulating the conservative critic’s pejoration of that term, is he not? How many times did Marcus himself use that word, in earnest, in his infamous Harper’s essay? That Marcus, of all people — the same dude who argued, only like 5 or 6 years ago, on pretty much the biggest stage available to a U.S. fiction writer, for the relevance of experimental fiction — should now suggest that it’s not even worth talking about…. I like Marcus’s writing, but that interview left me feeling a little bewildered. (Especially that rote MFA crap about eschewing conventions out of fear, “for no good reason.” I’ll give you one good reason: THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING.)

  9. Anonymous

      woah… is that a posthumous Markson blurb on the “The Novel: An Alternative History” webpage?

  10. Colin Winnette

      Marcus’ response, it seems to me, comes from a personal place of discomfort at being pegged as an “experimental” writer, simply because his early books were not conventional. Upon the release of more conventional work, he was met with the complaint that his work was “not experimental enough.” While these terms (experimental, conventional) are useful within a greater discourse of the modes and functions of fiction, I believe Marcus was really trying to talk about his own work and his own personal reaction to the limitations dictated by his being labeled an “experimental writer” from early on. I think Marcus meant to say that the label is hollow, or has lost definition, for him. His language might have been extreme, and he has apologized for extending his own predicament on to others, “does anyone…?” But what I admire in Marcus are his efforts to write work that is new and surprising and challenging for him, and not just to write unconventional work. Has anyone here read “The Moors?” It’s a great story, and Marcus’ writing is full force, but it is also a very conventionally structured narrative. In the interview, he says, “In the end I want to write things that I don’t know how to write, because this seems to command the most energy and desire and attention from me. It makes me sort of sick with anxiety. When I’m uncomfortable and confused and curious I tend to try much harder to figure things out.” It is this attitude that leaves me confident he will continue to make work worth reading, work that is unlike what has come before, even if it dabbles in conventional narrative structure and rejects being type-cast as experimental.

      Another thought, I think what’s truly outstanding about Moore’s “Alternative History” are his efforts to establish the novel as “the most elastic of forms.” He is carving out a space for contemporary unconventional fiction by revealing how traditional it is for novels to break with tradition. Elsewhere, Ben said to me, “I don’t have prejudices against any techniques in fiction, and, frankly, I’ve already written two very abstract, strange, conceptually-driven books. I have no interest in repeating that work.” “The Flame Alphabet” will be Marcus’ third solo book. There’s a saying, I don’t know who said it, but I’m remembering it from somewhere as I write this, “Once is happenstance. Twice a coincidence. Three times, it’s tradition.” Maybe happenstance and coincidence aren’t the best way of looking at the “The Age of Wire and String” and “Notable American Women,” but the rest seems appropriate, at least for the purposes of wrapping up this post. I’m excited to see Marcus break with his own tradition, regardless of how severe that break may be.

  11. William Owen

      Its a neat concept the moment we first hear that “progressive” might be insufficient to describe certain political or musical constructs, but it only sets the argument against the objection – it can never make a case. The “such and such word is the problem” argument doesn’t open space, it doesn’t expand the possibilities and inflate the measurable area within “experimental”, doesn’t explore what that body is – in which the universe is expanding into – might actually be.

  12. Erica Mena

      I’m gearing up to teach some (as I think of it) experimental poetry in translation, and this series of posts has been proving extremely helpful as I prepare my syllabus…especially useful is your way of positioning experiment as an alternative but not necessarily antagonistic engagement with literature, and the potential reading strategies it requires.

      I’m intrigued to see that so much of your thinking about experimental fiction both comes from and lends itself to poetry and translation. I wonder how these rather traditional genre models that I still find myself assuming are implicated in these conversations…

  13. deadgod

      I have no interest in repeating that work.

      One doesn’t want to have to be “experimental”, nor to have to be seen as “experimental”, nor to be seen as having to be “experimental”. – such that “experimental” is a zone of rote response, of conventionalization, of domestication, of obedience.

      This resistance isn’t an argument against the reasonableness of perceptions of “convention” and its discontents.

      Perhaps this resistance performs the argument – without ‘winning’ it – that “convention”, in the sense of pattern, can’t be “experimented” outside of, that particular conventions can be ridiculed, defied, or ignored, but not in a way that is in no way “conventional”.

      It’s ordinary that one doesn’t want to be discarded as ‘uninteresting’ because one had been predicted.

      Is there a “way” for a determination to be unpredictable to succeed?

  14. Wvandenberg12

      Looking at this argument on a success/failure spectrum mucks the entire system up. Attempting to judge an experimental work of lit, which is actively engaged in creating new, self-sufficient rules, is difficult. It requires a full and total understanding of the rules, often a task in and of itself. Judging something conventional by established rules is much easier.

      Slight aside: In an author focus course on Willa Cather, I had to evaluate an article from the 50s judging My Antonia as Cather’s version of Virgil’s Georgics. The author concludes that Cather fails, but his method of judgement is flawed, as Cather never intended to write her version of Georgics. It’s like evaluating a fork as a spoon- the fork fails by virtue of it’s form.

  15. Tummler

      As soon as I am not so tired or exhausted, and as soon as I am finally done with all of the work I have to do, I’d love to prepare a well-thought-out response to this post, but until then I will simply write, Great job! You have yet again provided some great insight on a subject which I hold so dearly.

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  18. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Dreezer,

      Sorry for the delayed response. Thanks for your interest. I think the fact that failure is an inherent aspect of experimental writing is part of the value of it. Success is only one value. Failure is also a value/there is also value in failure. To take this a step further, I’m not sure I would know what it means for somethign to succeed or fail…wouldn’t that depend on the criteria?

  19. Dreezer

      That’s a good question, Christopher. I can see the value of failure — though, as a reader, I’m not sure how much of someone else’s failure I want to read. Of course, there are interesting failures and uninteresting ones. I continue to be unsure about the “experimental” label — what is the “experiment” in a given piece of unconventional writing — can the reader even agree on what that experiment is? Is the writer clear about what is “experimental” about it? (To him/herself if not to the reader.) Yes, criteria are important.

      As for the examples, the paragraph from Marcus was clear in its way and intriguing. The Maso excerpt reads more like poetry. I would like to read more of both. The Grafton is a terrific example of hooking readers in conventional fiction — that opening is rich.

  20. Christopher Higgs

      Hey, Evan.

      Thanks for responding. I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one. And YES to this:

      When Marcus insinuates that it would be crazy for someone to self-identify as “experimental,” he is recapitulating the conservative critic’s pejoration of that term, is he not?

  21. Christopher Higgs

      Hey, Evan.

      Thanks for responding. I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one. And YES to this:

      When Marcus insinuates that it would be crazy for someone to self-identify as “experimental,” he is recapitulating the conservative critic’s pejoration of that term, is he not?

  22. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Erica.

      Sorry about my delayed response.

      I wanted to thank you for this comment. You have made me very happy to know that these posts are helpful. I sometimes get discouraged, sometimes think I’m having no effect, and consider discontinuing this public display of my thoughts re: experimental writing. So, thank you. I appreciate your encouragement.

      I’ll give some thought to how these categories might intersect with poetry and translation. Have you read Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator”? It’s in his book Illuminations. I found that to be a pretty good thought machine.

  23. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Tummler. Thank you very much for your kind words. I completely understand the overwhelmingness of work and whatnot, but I look forward to your thoughts.

  24. Ken Baumann

      As this series moves, it gets clearer and clearer. Can’t wait for the next additions.

  25. Evan Lavender-Smith

      After giving Marcus’s interview another couple looks, his intention has become clearer to me. I do think he’s talking pretty specifically about his own process and experience; and I don’t know that much of what he says in that interview has relevance beyond its specific relation to his own writing. Marcus’s struggle with the word “experimental” is his own, not necessarily mine. I seem to have stupidly conflated the two.

      My main struggle with the word “experimental” is political, not artistic. It’s a word that is regularly used as weapon by people who would exclude a certain type of writer from certain types of things. It’s a word that many people, including myself, feel the need to be very careful about using in reference to themselves. I still think it’s a good word, though, as it accurately describes a kind of restlessness about form that I deeply admire in artists, and I’m very glad to see you using it here accompanied by its positive — rightful — connotation; it is due some reappropriation.

  26. Erica Mena

      Yes, “Task of the Translator” is a pretty seminal piece for translation studies, though I find its usefulness limited since it still seems trapped in the “faithful/free” dichotomy which hinders really inspiring thought about literary translation. I think the most interesting thing about it is that it’s the translator’s introduction to his translation of Baudelaire and that despite it’s importance to scholarship, most translators are still not given the space to write about the work they’ve done. But that’s a publishing problem, more than a theoretical one.

      I think my real problem with Benjamin is his very restrictive idea of ‘pure’ language – as though all languages share an essential feature which can be shattered (to use his image of the jar) and then reassembled in the new language, meaning roughly the same thing. This relies far too much on Biblical concepts of divine originality for me. And then what do you create? A broken semblance of the original. All creative work is a broken semblance of the creative work of God, and by extension the creative work of literary translation is a broken semblance of the divine-authorial original work. The insinuation of loss troubles me, but the implication that the ‘task’ of the translator is to attempt to re-create a faulty reproduction of the original is the part I take most issue with.

      Not to turn this into a treaties on Benjamin, who I think does provide a jumping off point for some really fruitful ideas about literary translation (wounding the text, translation as an act of literary violence, the reproducibility of the text, and the problem of authorial originality). I think Venuti does some interesting thinking about these issues.

  27. Ben Marcus

      He is not.
      In some sense it’s almost marvelously insane to find myself cast as an enemy of innovative writing, siding with conservative critics. Well, maybe not so marvelous. But insane and wrong and also not true.

  28. Ben Marcus

      So just a little thing here. In the interview I was explicitly asked to locate myself aesthetically, and it just seemed highly arrogant to call myself ‘experimental’. Just as I wouldn’t call myself innovative or original or radical. Hasn’t it been at all even a tiny bit clear what kind of writing I’ve championed, and isn’t that forgivably different from making great grand claims for oneself? Anyway, I hope the writing itself can be judged, when it comes down to it.

  29. Anonymous

      Wikipedia claims Moore brought Markson to Dalkey, so he probably got a very early read.

  30. Anonymous

      Wikipedia claims Moore brought Markson to Dalkey, so he probably got a very early read.

  31. alan

      Christopher, Was Sebald an experimental writer?

  32. alan

      Sorry, but I find this disingenuous. To call a piece of writing “experimental” (as opposed to “innovative” or “original”) does not entail approval. And in fact it can carry quite pejorative connotations (“inaccessible,” “pretentious”).

  33. alan

      Sorry, but I find this disingenuous. To call a piece of writing “experimental” (as opposed to “innovative” or “original”) does not entail approval. And in fact it can carry quite pejorative connotations (“inaccessible,” “pretentious”).

  34. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Ben.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      It is certainly clear to me that you champion experimental writing — my literature students just finished reading and discussing your Harper’s article in conjunction with FC2’s response to it in symploke. I did not mean to imply that you were, by any stretch of the imagination, the enemy of experimental writing. That would, as you say, be marvelously insane.

      I reacted negatively to what I interpreted as your exhaustion with the issue: feeling hollow about the category, implicitly conceding the negative (pejorative) connotation rather than ardently defending the affirmative connotation. I realize this interpretation could be massively off base. My sincere apologies if I overstepped or overspoke here. I meant no disrespect or ill will.

  35. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Ken.

  36. Anonymous

      sweet avatar

  37. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Alan.

      Unfortunately, I think I’ve only finished one Sebald book, The Emigrants, so I wouldn’t feel too comfortable making a solid claim one way or the other. That book was certainly experimenting in very interesting ways: blurring fact/fiction, history/imagination, blurring genre distinctions, incorporation of mixed media, polymorphous and disjunctive narrative structures, etc.

      I assume you’ve read a lot more of his work than I have. Would you consider him to be an experimental writer?

  38. Colin Winnette

      “Is there a “way” for a determination to be unpredictable to succeed?”

      I’m not sure the issue here is predictability. Especially not with regard to audience (critical) reception. I think Marcus is talking about being determined to make work that is new to him, strange to him. And the reasoning behind that determination doesn’t seem to come from a desire to stay “novel,” but, as he explicitly says, it is a motivational technique determined by the high level of investment required, and resultant estrangement, in such a pursuit.

      “It made me feel vulnerable and confused and completely unskilled, and this drove me crazy enough to bring everything I had to bear on the writing of it.”

      I like this approach/idea. I think a lot innovative work comes from this kind of dogged pursuit.

  39. Tim Horvath


      I appreciate what you’re saying in this post and your examples make it fairly clear what you’re driving at. In that sense they are well-chosen examples…but they are also, maybe, too discrete to fully convince me. It seems to me that a good deal of so-called “literary fiction” falls somewhere between these, where the writer is attempting to find some sort of balance between what Grafton’s piece is doing (setting into motion character, motivation, a causal chain of events that is designed to engage the reader in some sort of empathetic relationship, anxious suspense) and what Maso does, which is to invite the reader into the lyrical, into “a kind of infinity,” introducing randomness and chance and impression and, as she puts it, “music, meditation, narrative, philosophy, more–all at once.” I love Maso, by the way, and I think she assuredly identifies as an “experimental writer”–her book Break Every Rule is outstanding and uncompromising as its title makes it out to be. But so much of the interesting stuff happens when causality and association rub up against one another, when character persists even in the process of breaking down or vice-versa. Maso’s The American Woman in the Chinese Hat is a lovely example of this–there are many elements of conventional narrative and love-story here, though it is refracted through Maso’s painterly-linguistic dabs and jabs. That’s where I resist the clear demarcation of these boundaries. They may serve a good purpose in terms of orienting us, but I guess maybe they’re like that first round of Google maps that pops up, and I worry that the Street View is what is liable to get obscured, where Conventional Avenue and Experimental Boulevard wrap around one another in a traffic-snarled outer-boroughs ouroboros arrangement that will be under construction, one hopes, for centuries to come.

  40. alan

      Hey, Christopher.

      Are you saying that’s not enough to make him one? Or it’s hard to decide? You’re the one drawing these boundaries.

      For my own part I feel like your notion that there are these two distinct types of literary writing which can be defined independently of context and by which any particular specimen can be classified seems a little too Aristotelian.

  41. MFBomb

      Interestingly, mid-Victorian realists like George Eliot, Dickens, and the Brontes are some of the most experimental writers in the canon. Too often, these discussions fail to account for the experimental nature of realism; “realism” is now mere shorthand for a bunch of things that might or might not have anything to do with realism when considered in its proper historical context.

      In the 19th C, “experimental writing” was an urgent response to Darwinian theory; these writers were among the first to challenge linearity and convention by taking a scientific (re: “experimental”) approach to writing and viewing form as varied, fractured, and blurred–they paved the way for writers like Wilde, Woolfe, Joyce, and the American modernists who are always credited with ushering experimental writing into the canon.

      But “Bleak House,” “Wuthering Heights,” which is an an absolutely insane book, “Middlemarch,” with its subversive use of genealogy, and “Jane Eyre,” which actually subverts the traditional marriage plot, are all amazingly “experimental.”

      Honestly, none of this stuff is lost on most literary critics, who seem to have no problem locating the “experimental” in a wide-range of work; this issue only seems to come up when writers get together and start throwing around labels as shorthand to describe writing that simply bores them.

  42. Christopher Higgs

      Hey, Tim.

      Thanks for your response.

      I want to make a distinction between borders and boundaries. Following Deleuze & Guattari’s example, I think of borders as rigid and discrete, whereas I think of boundaries as porous and malleable. Borders draw a line in the sand, while boundaries establish fluctuating zones of determinacy. My project has been and always will be to map the boundaries of these categories rather than mark the borders. I agree with you: they are not either/or categories. They are not always clear cut. I have been saying this from post #1, and for whatever reason I must not being a good enough job convey this fidelity. Maybe that needs to be the focus of my next post. I think you are right to point out that I am, for the most part, using as examples what could be described as limit cases. I did this on post #1 also, using Pollock and Hopper. My reasoning was to show clear cut examples from either end of the spectrum, in order to orient the trajectory of division. But, I appreciate your comments because they remind me that it would probably be beneficial to include a boundary-straddling case study: a text that wobbles from one end of the boundary to the other. I also think you are right on to identify the literary text somewhere in the middle. And high five for mentioning Maso’s Break All The Rules, a book near and dear to me.

      Thanks, Tim.

  43. Tim Horvath

      Chris, right on, I was using “borders” and “boundaries” interchangeably. I should add that I like what you’re doing with these posts, that I think using these clear delineations has its purpose, which is what I was getting at with the Google maps analogy. Sometimes you’re going to want to rely on one scale, sometimes another. So long as you (meaning “one” not you) don’t think you’re getting the full picture from the distant shot–as long as it is a first step, I’m cool with it. And with someone like Marcus, I’m guessing that he’s been down navigating at the street view long enough that things are likely too entangled and overlapping to see them that way, and hence the resistance to the border term. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing your zoom into a wobbly text/painting/etc…

  44. alanrossi

      i don’t know. in many (but not all) circles, being “experimental” is seen as the height of supercoolness. also, you seem to be supporting his point: as soon as one says “i’m an experimental writer” that person is seen as pretentious and in floaty above land, so seems like it’d make sense why he’d avoid such a categorization. pretentiousness being making grand claims about oneself, as he says, etc.

  45. Evan Lavender-Smith

      Your championship of innovative writing is clear; I never intended to question that and I can’t imagine Chris would, either. And I do very much appreciate the bind that the writer is in when he’s asked to locate himself aesthetically.

      I don’t usually think of the word “experimental” as a measure of the quality of a work, but instead as a categorical measurement. I believe that this has become the term’s most common definition in reference to writing. (I believe that “innovative” has come to refer to either quality or category, depending on who is using it in what context. “Original” would seem to refer specifically to quality.) So I wouldn’t necessarily perceive someone calling him- or herself “experimental” as a grand or an arrogant claim so much as a categorical one. (If I heard someone describe his or her writing as “radical,” yes, I would probably raise an eyebrow.)

      I would reiterate, because I think it’s really important and worth our continued attention, that the word “experimental” is — in my experience — more often used negatively than positively in relation to writing. I am very afraid to use that word myself — even though I often feel it is the appropriate word to use — in relation to my interests as a reader and writer because there are many people in positions of power in the community of publishers and writing programs in which I occasionally find myself engaged who, upon hearing that word, will immediately close their ears. But again, this is specific to my very limited experience as a writer, editor and teacher, and I’m not entirely sure as to the extent of its generalizability.

      While I’m excited to continue following Chris’s discussion of the aesthetics of experimentalism, I believe it is important to keep in mind that one possible answer to his question, “What is Experimental Literature?” is “A bag of hurt.”

  46. Michelle

      These are excellent articles, thank you, Chris. I have a question that I’d love to hear your thoughts on…I like this idea that a reader needs to be prepared for a text which tends toward the experimental, simply because our default reader settings are usually more conventional than experimental. This makes a lot of sense to me. My concern then is that it seems to me that all the responsibility for the writer/reader experience falls on the reader. If I cannot engage with a text, for example, is this simply because I don’t have the tools to understand it? I can imagine where this could be true, and maybe even, often true, unless I work hard to develop an awareness of the different codes and moods that influence and shape experimental lit, but I would hate for it to be absolutely true. It strikes me as problematic that this provides a nearly failsafe response to any criticism of an experimental text. What are your thoughts on how to create a critical approach to experimental lit?

  47. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Michelle.

      Thanks for your comments!

      With regard to your concern “that it seems to me that all the responsibility for the writer/reader experience falls on the reader” — my short answer would be yes. I do not believe a writer has any sort of responsibility to a reader. If a reader cannot engage with a text, the problem should not be located in the text, but rather in the reader. I do not think, however, that this provides a failsafe from criticism. But that’s a much bigger can of worms than I have time to open at the moment. I do appreciate your question about how to create a critical appraoch to experimental literature. That is such a good question, I will attempt to address it in a full post sometime soon.

      Thank you!

  48. Michelle

      This is really interesting to me, thank you for your response. So then would you locate experimental literature near art brut, for example? I suppose I would agree that in the absolute, the writer should have no responsibility to the reader. Or at least, I want to agree with this statement. But I see this idea too often used as a shield for criticism, and so I get stuck. Fair enough if the criticism of an experimental text is lodged in the discourse of conventional lit. That obviously doesn’t work. But that just brings me around to the same question about finding an appropriate critical approach…I’m researching this at the moment, so I look forward to a longer post when you’ve got the time! Cheers.

  49. Rgaston

      I think it’s important to think of the experiment here, maybe in terms of science. What is controlled and uncontrolled? What are the results? Where does play intervene?

      Is this what we should talk about when discussing experimentation? Or are we trying to understand some other thing, the label of “experimentation” as it has come to be “conventionally” used?
      I guess what I’m saying is, is “experimentation” the right word? It’s obvious you understand this. But if it isn’t, what should the word be?
      I think part of this discussion should be about the use of the word “experimentation” in its various forms.

      Words that keep coming up are, convention, tradition, common, normal. It seems to me much of what is being talked about is conventionality/ unconventionality. So in that sense, maybe reactionary isn’t a far fetched thing. I understand your want to say experimental has it’s own place unobstructed or unaffected, but this doesn’t jibe for me. Sometimes what is considered experimental may be “anti.” Would it be so terrible to identify experimentation as reactionary, possibly, as you say, dialectic…without the negative connotations?

      Because these words have appeared, what is conventional and unconventional? What has become conventionally unconventional?

      That said, I think “experimentation” is something that has been going on for some time in the poetry world. Begin, say, with Stein’s “Tender Buttons.” Move toward, Norbese Philip’s “Zong.” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee.” Edwin Torres’s “All-Union Day of the Shock Worker.” I bring these up because from the early 20th century till now there are countless poets, especially after the “language” folks that set up particular tropes, conventions, norms, patterns, which have recurred in various shapes and conditions over the years.
      There’s also a nice anthology of conceptual writing: “Against expression” that may be interesting to look at.

      Chris, I would ask you to define specific criteria for experimentation, both historically and currently. If fiction…what are they? If poetry…what are they? If non-fiction? Hybrid is also now a category. Are there really criteria that make works particularly experimental? Are we really talking about “avante-guarde?”
      For example, pronouns with unidentifiable or or ambiguous antecedents? The use of tense indicators that blur temporality? Interrupted syntax or incomplete syntax? No pronouns? Multiple definitions and redefinitions of a noun/ idea by use of repetition?

      Of course, I think, going back to my first point, if we look at this in terms of a science experiment. Any of these criteria could be part of conventional lit, but are they being used for experimentation, as variables. The variables don’t have anything necessarily to do with product but process–experimentation. In this definition of experimental, I think the author, her action in making the product, is really the thing to look at.

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  51. a little afraid of experimental lit: Giraffes in Hiding by Carol Novack « pieces

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  52. J Lorene Sun

      How do we read this passage when the conventional and the experimental are merged into one?

      My name is Kinsey Millhone. Each holiday [is] celebrated with real extravagance. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. Birthdays. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. Independence days. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. Saints’ days. I’m a nice person and I have lots of friends. Even when we were poor. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. With verve. 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.” Come sit in the morning garden for awhile. I don’t have pets. Olives hang like earrings in late August. I don’t have houseplants. A perpetual pageant. I spend a lot of time on the road and I don’t like leaving things behind. A throbbing. Aside from the hazards of my profession, my life has always been ordinary, uneventful, and good. Come quickly. Killing someone feels odd to me and I haven’t quite sorted it through.

  53. Experimental Media