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.


Jen said...

Fascinating definition. The first time I tried to call something "experimental," I remember, you helped! It was the only genre tag in the FF list that somewhat fit, and I was uncomfortable with the idea because I didn't really understand what it meant. You said, "Welcome to my world." :) Well, you go a long way to explaining it here.

Sulci Collective said...

Ha thanks Jen. I remember it well! It seems to be forever mutating in my own mind

Dan Holloway said...

I will go away and ponder at some length because this is a fascinating topic, but I want to wind up the spring a little, er, pose a simple question to start - do you think the emphasis on form, in prising apart literature and story, is separating two things that should have always been distinct, or fracturing a unity? And do you think this is in any way comparable to the decoupling of form and content in art that we associate with Modernism?

I agree literature is a *long* way behind art. And the things the media refer to as cutting edge alternately make me sob and howl in derision. But do you think that pushing literature towards art is actually retrograde in the sense that it somehow gives up on literature as a separate enterprise (I know you have feelings about the interrelation of text and object so I'd love to know if you think *art* as a term can be broken down) rather than pushing it to a limit in its own terms?

These are genuine, not rhetorical questions, btw

Sulci Collective said...

I guess I take 'interesting'-cum-'engaging' content as a given. Doesn't matter how you dress up uninspiring content,it just fails to engage.

Do I see form and content as divisible & separable? Not really. Language is the DNA of both for a start off. And any formalism must emerge from the text, that is it must have a contextualised reason for being there, not just as a pretty visual flourish, or even one to wrench your eye from the page in pain/disgust.

Art, what is it good for...? Um this is a question that involves so many levels, many to do with the market which is old ground for you and me and which I don't want to clog up this particular discussion with. But there has to be a pleasing aesthetic aspect to all art and as said above, that includes literature (that doesn't of course mean a novel can't be ugly, nasty etc). There is a raft of authors using the harmonies and hermetically sealed language of mathematics in order to produce 'harmonious' and aesthetic texts. They may or may not work and I haven't read them, but the concept and approach is one I can understand and relate to.

I've always said language is both the marble and the chisel as far as literature goes. So no, the two cannot be separated in my mind. That they almost overhwelmingly are at present, is a failure of the writers to engage with their chosen art form. And by this I don't mean people who write vampire novels and all the pop culture genre stuff. I mean the literary fiction mob. Who seem unreflective about their relation to both fiction and literature

Anonymous said...

To me, experimental fic is to pop lit like the difference between a bunch of OAPs at a life drawing evening class sweating over getting Betty's boobies 'right' V Tracy with her legs apart pulling out the dosh. Slot shot! On the money.... carefully, hush, hush, tip-toe politely. Pussies eye the imaginary jackpot :)

great post marc.

Dan Holloway said...

I think it's your use of the word "artefact" that made me think you were wanting a separtation of form and content - in part because I know you're fascinated with how things appear on the page. But I guess by artefact you mean something more like "construct" - otherwise you would be eliminating oral literature altogether (and that predates the creation of "books" so it can't be "inspearable" from them)

Sulci Collective said...

I'm not sure I'm in favour of artefacts, but it seems to be the last resting place for the scoundrel 'book' in the face of overweening virtuality. When we speak our parol words are vaporous upon the air. Does our considered literary output have to go the same way upon the ether? Seems that way.

Matthew Temple said...

Love this article .

John Wiswell said...

Ted Hoagland used to tell me that experimental fiction is whatever fails. If it succeeded, it wouldn't be called an experiment anymore.

The tidbits of definitions you give in the second-to-last paragraph just sound like reflections of a sliver of postmodern fiction to me. Maybe you view experimental fiction as essentially responding to form. For me experimental fiction is simply working with whatever you don't yet understand and aren't certain will function (or aren't certain how it will function). Hoagland's old principle is correct insofar as whenever you know the effect you've moved beyond experimenting and into knowledge.

Sulci Collective said...

Back to words again in a way John. It's a circular, self-referential definition, but I have a certain sympathy with it, simply in that the terrain is constantly shifting.

Post-modern? I don't even know what qualifies under that banner. It does not interest me. Another diminishing label I feel.

writeanne said...

Fascinating insight, Marc into how you view your writing and writing in general. Some great comments too.

I love how language is capable of complexity and a 'spectrum of shades of meaning' - and yes the auditory impact of words as well.

I wouldn't describe storytelling or character as humdrum - but I take your point that there's more to the whole artefact of a book than these elements alone. I also wouldn't dismiss books produced in e-reader format as lesser creations - althought they are certainly experienced in a different way.

I'm not at all sure what experimental fiction looks like. I suppose all writing is, at some stage, experimental.

I try to write from the heart and offer my best efforts to any readers in good faith. At that point the experiment ends. I guess art is in the eye of the beholder.

Sorry for rambling on - hope some of it is coherent at least.

Thanks for getting the synapses firing.

Sulci Collective said...

Anne I'm probably guilty of poor word choice re character and story, but I do personally reject them as the central organising principle around which my novels are based. Yet clearly they contain both story and character, although being language-led, I prefer 'Voice' to character.

The ultimate goal of any literature I think is to yield an emotional response from the reader, so we are very much of one accord there. I just think that since the world and our knowledge of it and ourselves has moved on since the inception of the novel, yet the novel form itself has barely changed in 200+ years, we are faced with wholesale challenges as to how to encompass the greater complexity and base knowledge of ourselves within today's fiction.

Sonia Lal said...

I don't think I ever thought of an experimental piece as unfinished, like you say. I mean, experiments can end and still stay experiments, you know? I supposed I thought of it as whatever breaks the mold, in terms of grammar and structure and style. Your mold and/or the mold the larger, more mainstream world uses.