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.