Tuesday, 1 March 2011
What Is Experimental Fiction?
Beats the hell out of me.
And yet as a shorthand, sometimes I apply it to my work and myself as a writer when challenged to define myself.
I don't like the term. Experimental always exudes the notion that the work isn't finished. That it's still in progress, still a tad tentative, to be yet further moulded. It also forever defines itself in opposition to what has gone before. It is a break with the past, or at least a deforming of it. If evolution is an unfolding, an opening out, convolution is a rolling back up on itself. I can't help feeling experimental evokes the later rather than the former.
Okay, so even lacking a suitable nomenclature for what it is I write, I still feel reasonably confident over what its constituent elements are. And what maybe they aren't but are often confused as being 'experimental'.
Firstly I believe the fundamental foundation stone is that such literature is to be an art form. It may even prize artistry above more humdrum aspects such as story telling or character. Such artistry is in the realm of the aesthetic, that is reading such a book is an aesthetic experience. A thing of beauty, of spatial conception, both within the book's presentation, but also within the reader's contemplative mind during and hopefully after their passage through the book.
There are the aesthetic possibilities of the book as an artefact. Its visual presentation which shouldn't stop at the covers. It can extend to the typographies, other design features within the book, any visual formalism employed that means the text is not Xpp of block printed text. Having said that, the visual and design elements have to emerge organically from the text, not just be bolted on as some sort of eye candy.
But what writers I feel constantly overlook is the aesthetic of language itself. If the writer hits all the right notes through their sentences, through their word choices, there is an ineffable harmony of and through language communicated to the reader. Poets execute it, but to do so over the length of Xpp novel is far more demanding. It can be a lyricism and a rhythm, but I actually think it's more to do with the resonances of the words themselves. Most words have some sort of spectrum of shades of meaning. Look up their etymologies, see which have deviated from their origins and which have stayed fairly true to their roots. Consider those words that have similar meanings to one another, but how they actually differ. You can set up an almost unending set of reverberations by employing words that manage to intimate both or all of their shades of meaning simultaneously as they occur within the sentence. For example the word 'cleave' has two diametrically opposed meanings of cleaving something together and cleaving something apart. Then throw in the auditory (and when we read, we vocalise at some level inside our heads, we 'hear' ourselves read the words) component and maybe you can also have the c-Leave & clea-n echoes play around too.
So on the one hand you have the formalism, the look of the text. And on the other you have the linguistic possibilities. Both offer up non-linear writing. No longer do sentences have to proceed in orderly fashion, either visually or obeying strict syntactical ordinations. One can equate a sentence with a stem cell, in that all possibilities are still possible, even though the writer has made a selection of words on the page. I would always equate non-linear writing with how our human brains fire anyway. Language is formally linear, but human thought and human emotion are far from linear. They cut across one another, they inform one another, they cause some thoughts to fall away uncompleted, while others more vital tug at our consciousness for expression.
To my mind, somehow our formalist experiments ought to try and get to grips with these structures and represent them. There are new theories of mind, the counter-intuitive logic of quantum mechanics and the like which offer us stimulating models to jump off from in our works.
So what isn't experimental fiction? I think it's where narrative conceits in which certain metaphorical assumptions are laid out for the reader maybe about the irregular passage of narrative time or space in the novel (think magical realism for example), where these are explained in the text rather than emerging formally through the 'shape' of the text. It's where narrative explains itself and its conceits, rather than just have them emerge organically.
What is experimental fiction? At this juncture, it is catching up with the rest of the artistic world. It is revivifying the book by considering its form as artefact (and not as e-reader fodder). It is about reinjecting the primacy, the vitality and the duplicity of our language's plasticity. It's about reflecting on the nature of the relationship of fiction itself, in that menage-a-trois between author, reader and fictional character. And finally it's bringing all these elements together to provide an aesthetic pleasure within the reader as well as whatever pleasures are to be derived from story, from insight into the world, from emotional responses.
It is about returning literature to its pedestal as an art form, with the emphasis on both art and form.