Experimental writing

The Literate Kitten asks: “What do you think about so-called ‘experimental’ work? What types of experimental fiction have you read, that you would recommend to one who does not prefer to be working in the laboratory?” (This last bit refers to a Robert Frost sentence, “Experiment belongs to the laboratory.”)

As to what I think about experimental writing, I’d say it depends; I’ve read some things I’ve liked and some I haven’t. I suppose what I really think is that it’s dangerous to praise or dismiss a type of writing wholesale, as though it’s all exactly alike. Experimental writing does have a reputation for being intellectual at the expense of the emotions, but is it all like this?

For me, whether I like something or not often comes down to whether I like the authorial sensibility coming through in the writing. Now that’s a very vague thing to say, I know, and I’m not entirely sure what I mean by authorial sensibility. It’s sometimes the narrator or the speaker, but not always. But as far as experimental writing goes, this sensibility is crucial. One of the first things I think of when I think about experimental writing is Tristram Shandy (which will surprise no one who reads this blog — I know I write about that book, like, once a week), a book that has such a lively, energetic, and funny voice I find it irresistable. Yes, Sterne plays around with form, the book is idea-driven, it’s a story about not being able to tell a story, but I don’t find it particularly heady and it’s full of emotion.

And then there’s another book I write about frequently, Pale Fire, surely fitting the definition of experimental, and one that I found rather sterile the first time through, but on a second reading I managed to get into its spirit, and now I find it beautiful and full of feeling. I feel similarly toward Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot — it’s experimental, surely, but doesn’t dwell solely in the brain. And Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is the same. All of these books have a certain zest to them, a love of language, that I’ve come to find immensely appealing.

Other experimental books haven’t worked for me, though. As much as I love Virginia Woolf, I had a hard time with The Waves. It was a while ago when I read it and perhaps I should try again, but it was too abstracted from a story, too hard to follow, for me to enjoy. I tried to read H.D.’s novel HERmione once, and I found it tiresome. I love H.D.’s poetry — I had a great time reading Trilogy and Helen in Egypt — but my enjoyment didn’t carry over into her prose. I wouldn’t say these books took themselves too seriously, but they did have very serious tones to them, and I’m realizing now that the other books I’ve listed that I liked have a certain amount of humor in them, or at least a playfulness. I like my experimental fiction on the light and playful side, I suppose.

As for experimental poetry, I love Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and I liked William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, although I’m grateful to have read both of these for a class where I got lots of help in understanding them. For this same class, I was asked to read Harryette Mullen (her books Muse and Drudge and Trimmings), whom I liked a lot, and Leslie Scalapino, whom I did not. With all of these books I was able to follow some of what was going on, and the rest I was either willing to enjoy on another level besides the logical one (I’d enjoy the sound of the words, even if I wasn’t sure of the meaning they were supposed to create) or I wasn’t willing to do this and I decided I didn’t like the book. As to why I was willing to make in some cases and not in others, it came down to whether I liked the voice or not.

So for me, I prefer to take experimental writing on a case-by-case basis.


Filed under Books

11 responses to “Experimental writing

  1. I think you’re on to something. The experimental works I like all have a buoyant element of self-irony: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, House of Leaves and, yes, Tristram Shandy.

    I’m also glad you put experimental in quotation marks. It seems to me that by the time a successful work comes to publication, the author has already made a decision as to its effectiveness, so that it no longer really qualifies as an experiment. I don’t like the implication that I’m being used as a test subject for some mad scientist of a novelist, and I wonder if we couldn’t come up with a more accurate word.


  2. LK

    Good post, Dorothy! You are making drool over Tristam Shandy — I have a classics reading month coming up — that might make the top of the list.

    I loved Pale Fire when I read it, though I should revisit (been a long time). (Funny, I guess when I read it I didn’t think it experimental — now I must revisit and see.)

    I think you hit on something that is very important — to me, anyway: the authorial voice. Voice may rule over form, if the voice or authorial sensibility is strong enough, “likable” enough (whatever that subjective term may entail), trustworthy.


  3. What writing does not begin as an experiment? The author, when s/he types the first words–as I’m typing now–may have a scheme or, God forbid, an outline or the first nudges of an idea. But s/he will not truly know where the words are taking him or her until the trip has begun. Perhaps it will be all for nothing and will end up in the trashbasket. Perhaps others will read it and each of them, once the trip has begun, will bring into the story with themselves their entire lives, lives the author never dreamt of, and these readers will end up where they will, but in a different place than the one who first typed the words. It’s a grand chain of multidimensional events, don’t you think?


  4. I don’t think I have really read anything experimental unless you count To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway and both were so long ago that I don’t remember details. I want to read Tristram Shandy and may have to check out a few other authors that you listed as well. I have a feeling I am pretty conventional in my reading, but I like the idea of playful or light experimental writing.


  5. Cam

    I read your post and thought: Tristam Shandy, I bought that book last year. I wonder where I put it? A little Nabokov might make for interesting reading. I think I have a book of Barnes’ somewhere nearby. Skip H.D. Check out William’s book. etc. etc.

    Your posts always add to my growing TBR list!


  6. I’m so so glad you did this post Dorothy. Now I have a list of books I can try.


  7. Dark Orpheus

    Would Umberto Eco be considered experimental? Or do we just call them postmodern? “Foucault’s Pendulum” took me 2 years to complete, and I did not enjoy it.

    Had to read “Swim Two Bird” by Flann O’Brien and “Pale Fire” for class a long time ago, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the books. In fact, most of the class decided we needed to go back to REAL novels – real novels being a trusty, wholesome Charlotte Bronte.

    Nabokov, while he was very fun with language and obviously clever – I just had a feeling he was trying to hard to be smart, a clever puppy doing the same tired tricks over and over again. It gets stale. But that’s just my personal opinion about Nabokov.

    A lot of the experimental fictions out there seem to be doing similar things – the self-referential narrative, the hyper-consciousness – and in the process they often forget the story.

    I get that they are more interested in experimenting with the process and technique of story-telling, but I am a reader who wants THE STORY. Some writers are more successful than others, definitely.

    Still not a fan of Nabokov.


  8. Well, I’m boring. Haven’t read any of these books. Think when I finally decide to visit the lab, I’ll have to start with Tristram Shandy. And I’ve already decided Pale Fire has got to come at some point, since I’ve been listening to Lolita lately (stay tuned for more on that in my blog).


  9. I am of the same feeling as Knightofwords in thinking that all writing is experimental in one way or another, though I do understand what is meant when the term is applied to a type of writing. I wonder though if the term doesn’t do more harm than good in some ways by scaring people into to thinking the book is too difficult or too different for them? That said, my taste in the experimental is much like yours, I enjoy best the works that have a sense of playfulness about them.


  10. Very interesting post, Dorothy. I have to say I find myself divided. There is a distinct experimental school in French lit that I love to study and discuss (the nouveau roman, theatre of the absurd, Oulipo) but I could not possibly read it in my leisure hours. I suppose I love to think about it, but I’m lukewarm with the concept of it as pure experience.


  11. Amos — thanks for reminding me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — I love that play! And I have House of Leaves on my shelves, which I’d really like to get to. I agree that another word would be better — not least because “experimental” has negative connotations for a lot of people.

    Thanks LK; I agree with you about authorial voice — it wins out over form every time.

    Knightofswords, I agree with you, and I like the way you show that there’s no real distinction between “experimental” and “non-experimental.” Perhaps we’re really talking about degrees of experimentation or different types of experimentation. But any good piece of writing is going to be doing something new, right?

    Danielle, I think people would consider Woolf experimental (recognizing the term isn’t always useful!) — her stream of consciousness psychological kind of writing was doing something new. And yes, I’d like to find more playful kinds of writing — I’m a very serious person, but I like some lightness now and then 🙂

    Glad to help Cam 🙂 I do hope you like Tristram Shandy when you get there.

    Glad to help you also Imani!

    Dark Orpheus, I’m not sure if Eco would be considered experimental — probably though. I’ve read The Name of the Rose,and it’s certainly playing around with fictional rules. But this gets back to the idea that “experimental” is a difficult word to pin down. How crazy do you have to get to be considered experimental? And it’s interesting what you say about story — I like stories too, definitely, but I’m not quite as adamant as about it as it sounds like you are — I’m happy with an interesting voice even if there is no story. These differences are always fascinating …

    Emily — I’m looking forward to your post on Lolita! And you’re not boring at all — I know you have a wealth of great recommendations to give.

    Stefanie, I agree that the term “experimental” can do harm, because it does send people running, I’m guessing. Experimental doesn’t have to mean difficult, although it often does (and I like difficult now and then, although I know not everyone does).

    Litlove, I see what you mean, and I’d probably feel the same way — some books are fun to think about, perhaps more than to actually read them.


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