Reviewing some of the stuff I've written here over the past month, it occurs to me that I might, of late, be coming off as an opponent of experimental fiction. I've come out, at any rate, against the high-falutin', the confusing, the obscure.
But, thinking about the stories I love, it's rather surprising to me how many of them could be filed under that slippery title: the short fiction of Donald Barthleme, Lydia Davis, Stephen Dixon; the novels of David Markson, Katherine Davis, Lynne Tillman (well--the one I've read, anyhow). There are other writers whose work I can't seem to warm up to, but whose intelligence and verve I admire: Ben Marcus, for example.
And so I started thinking--what makes experimental fiction good? With traditional fiction, it's much easier to explain why it works--a gripping plot, convincing characters, interesting situations, vivid settings. But how do you judge, say, a novel made up entirely of anecdotes about literary figures, delivered in a quasi-psychopathic deadpan? Or a short story in which all the words relating to sex are amusingly misspelled? Or a book with a table of contents, introduction, foreword, author's note, index, and acknowledgements, all bookending hundreds of blank pages?
The answer, at least for me, lies in the most fundamental of literary values: honesty. By honesty, I don't mean not lying--I mean, very simply, being true to one's own vision, in the face of all possible criticism, in the face of all probable unmarketability. There are writers of popular fiction whom I have praised here, who I think fit the bill: the thriller writer (thrillerist?) Lee Child, for instance, or the maddening, uneven, but eye-rollingly lovable Stephen King. Their talents, of course, also happen to shift a hell of a lot of units. There are writers of semi-conventional literary fiction, too; if you read this blog regularly, you know who they are, at least in our opinions. And experimental writers apply as well. These are people whom you feel, obtuse as their writing may be, are trying desperately to express something that is deeply important to them, in the only way they know how. All these writers are the same kind of writer, to me anyway--I see in them the desire to write the thing they wish existed, the thing they wish they could sit down and enjoy reading. At times, you might wonder why they would enjoy reading such a thing--but then again, think of your own tastes, the things you like that disgust your husband, the things that turn you on which, in some places, would land you in the hoosegow.
But of course, how do you tell? How do you know who's earnest and pure of heart, and who's a poser?
Well--you just know, of course. And then other people disagree with you and ruin your day, because, in the end, it's all a matter of taste. That said, though, for nearly every obsessive reader, there is somebody too wacky for prime-time whom they adore and understand, whom nobody else does, and that reader hangs on that writer's every lunatic word.
Ultimately, in my view, every piece of fiction that's any good was once an experiment. One man's experiment might be another's thin broth, of course--but it isn't the originality that matters, it's the personality. It's the sense that a writer is laying it on the line for her dumbass, fucked-up vision. It's the feeling that a writer is cackling as he types, thinking, "This is never going to be published, NEVER!" It's the sensation, thrilling and vertiginous, that a writer is doing something simultaneously pointless, vital, and frightening.
Do you adore some crazy shit everyone else regards as gobbledygook? I dare you to explain why.