Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What's experimental fiction? And do I like it?

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.


Anonymous said...

To me, regardless of whether the fiction is experimental or conventional, it all comes down to whether or not the author has crafted an interesting and compelling story. All the innovative structure in the world is utterly meaningless if, underneath all the typographic and linguistic bells and whistles, there isn't a good story. Too many writers, while focusing on being innovative and unique, neglect the story they're trying to tell.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, but what's a "good story"? I know that I THINK I know what it is...until something comes along that isn't it, and I love it anyway.

Paul said...

When I was a bookseller I remember someone trying to return a copy of Madison Smartt Bell's Washington Square Ensemble on the basis of it being an unbelievably badly written book. At the time it was one of my favourites. Though I expected some people would not be as enthused as I was, never in my wildest imaginings had I thought that someone could actually hate the book.

Since then, and because much of that time was interacting with readers, I always ran across at least one person who liked the same authors I did. (The more common experience was me abhorring some massively popular work).

After all if they made it into publication, they've already convinced a few readers.

Anonymous said...

As a short story reader, I shy away from the kind of thing I think you're referring to when you talk about "experimental fiction" (I'm guessing you mean stories that don't proceed along the usual realist lines). It's for the same reason non-representational art makes me nervous. I feel like there might be a whole other code, or set of rules, that I should know but don't, and so I never even go there, afraid I'm locked out already.

That said, when I was reading this post I thought about how much I like Pale Fire, because it's funny and weird, and I also like Moby Dick and To the Lighthouse, although for different reasons, and none of those novels are conventional realist fiction, and I "got" them and liked them all the same. For what it's worth, Pale Fire is great because of how beautifully Nabakov writes, how sly and funny he is, how much I love unreliable narrators, and the footnotes are the best literary footnotes ever. I loved Moby Dick because it so vigorously explores how many ways there are to tell the story of the whale and contains a good yarn. To the Lighthouse is good because it is beautifully written and composed and it gets to the truth of something in a way I find very appealing, because it is very subtle.

What I look for in all fiction is something beautiful -- the writing mostly, and something true. Now the last thing, the "something true" is hard to put your finger on, and not something I've ever really articulated. But I think it has to do with a writer's ability to observe the world and tell you something about it that seems inevitable, but somehow surprising. You can do that as a writer working in the realist tradition and you can also invent new ways to deliver that. But deliver it you must. I mean, for me to like it, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Although I can't claim to understand every word he wrote, you (or I) gotta give it up for John Hawkes. His work has that human, swampy reek of honesty I believe you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, count me in for Hawkes. Or rather, he's like Ben Marcus to me...I don't love him, but I deeply respect him.

bloglily, I think you're selling yourself short. If you can read To The Lighthouse, you can read whatever. I think Woolf was basically an experimental writer. And you can look at abstract paintings, too.

There may be a code--I am certain such codes are being generated with gusto in art and lit departments all over America--but there is no need for you to follow it. Bring to the party whatever you've got, and see what you can do with it.

And if, in the end, you still don't get it, maybe it's just bad art--or maybe you just won't get along with it.

Anonymous said...

A work of fiction, however "experimental," should create its own laws that help the reader turn the page. Markson's novels are a good example. They're comprised of seemingly random epigraphs, comments, and observations, yet they create a self-contained world governed by an internal logic. After awhile, you sense the patterns of loss, self-doubt, etc., and the narrator's thoughts come to the fore, though at first they may appear oblique. You also intuit what the narrator is leaving out.

Jay Livingston said...

"Experimental fiction is the art of telling a story in which certain aspects of reality have been exaggerated or distorted in such a way as to put the reader off the story and make him go watch a television show." George Saunders in the Guardian last October, reprinted in the August '08 Harper's. Read the rest here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2007/oct/13/weekend7.weekend1

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I got a huge kick out of that Saunders piece!

Pale Ramón, that's as good a rule of thumb as any...I often tell students they can get away with pretty much anything, if they set some guidelines and stick to them. I think even that rule has exceptions--"Ulysses," for example, makes up new rules as it goes along. But in that case, the establishment of a new rules becomes, in itself, a kind of rule.

When I occasionally do my improvisational-electronica thing, I always follow the edict: if you make a mistake, just make it again. And then it isn't a mistake anymore.

Anonymous said...

You know, now that I think of it, there is an element of "experimental" in the new book by Andrew Davidson, The Gargoyle. It comes out on the 5th of August - check it out at Doubleday.

The reason I say experimental is that it's hard to really put one's finger on why it is so good. I almost tossed it aside at 25 pages, but - boy, am I glad I didn't!

Great post.

E. said...

Jesse Ball is a writer whom I greatly admire for making his own rules: rules of language, syntax, setting and time, even logic. He's a poet; maybe that has something to do with it. Anyway, his first novel, "Samedi the Deafness," is extraordinary, and his short story in (I think it was) the Fall 2007 Paris Review, "The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr," absolutely thrilled me.


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Moving between past and future, revolutionary Russia and post-apocalyptic America, the novel explores the universal desire to create meaning in the face of senseless destruction and reaffirms the enduring power of art. The site uses found objects (text, sound, image) and combines elements of historical fiction, science fiction, poetry and the detective novel to create a radically different literary form. If you enjoy it, please consider posting a link on your site or blog. I look forward to all reader comments. Thanks.

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