Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“Experimental writing”

My defense of plot as the intellectual element in prose fiction “leaves out nearly every experimental writer and giddy rule-breaking novelist,” Edward Champion complains.

Well, maybe. It is not entirely clear what Champion means by “experimental writing.” (As for the “giddy rule-breaking novelist,” there is no such creature—unless he is giddy at the prospect of his own failure as a novelist. As I observed in this space earlier, the novelist’s job is generally to write a good novel, but inter alia that entails keeping faith with the particular and self-determined rules of his own particular novel. To break those rules is to screw up the job.)

Experimental writing, though, is different. The term was first used by Émile Zola, who advanced it as a synonym for naturalism. “The return to nature, the naturalistic evolution which marks the [nineteenth] century,” he wrote in 1880, “drives little by little all the manifestation of human intelligence into the same scientific path.” An up-to-date novel that was organized on the latest principles of human intelligence, then, would be written according to the “experimental method.”

What Zola understood by the “experimental method” is neither here nor there, because Champion is obviously talking about something else altogether. In the sense in which he probably means the term, it was first given any critical attention by Warren Beck, a first cousin of the New Critics, in a College English essay from 1943. Beck attacks the class distinction between “little magazines,” praised by their champions for having “fostered literary experiment,” and the “prosperous popular magazines,” smeared by their detractors for being afraid of “innovation”:

These distinctions, while honoring progressive achievement, seem to have reinforced clumsy and obstructive prejudices in the minds of certain editors, writers, and readers, who allege that the experimental fiction is utterly esoteric. Yet the vexatiously named “literary short story” is scarcely a separable species. In trade jargon, the quality magazines and little magazines publish literary short stories, slick paper magazines and pulps do not; but, though commerce approximates such classifications, no sharp technical line divides the literary short story itself and the popular short story—nothing like a jurisdictional and cultural boundary between different nations—it is more a matter of natural zones, of gradation in a typical landscape and climate. However, men have always been able, in art as well as in so-called “civil life,” to make war along the border without knowing just where the border is or whether there is one. The opposition of such fighting words as “literary” and “popular” guarantees an exchange of snubs and sneers.[1]Because his quick-witted abuse of my ideas on plot was clearly intended to be little more than a snub and a sneer, Champion merely reinforces the non-existent difference demolished by Beck above.

There is no such thing as experimental writing. With all the respect due to Zola’s historical views, novelists are not capable of engaging in the “experimental method.” The necessary and sufficient condition of scientific experimentation is the replication of results. By contrast, a successful “experiment” in fiction, if I may briefly drop into language of which I am deeply suspicious, would by definition never need to be tried again. (If it were, the result would no longer be “experimental,” but, alas, utterly conventional.)

Here is the proof to my claim that experimental writing is a cryptid. I challenge Edward Champion to name an “experimental writer” from a generation or more ago who is still being read, who is still influencing other “experimental writers,” today. The first “experimental” novelist in Champion’s sense of the term, and the only one who passes the test of my previous sentence, is Ronald Firbank. (Brigid Brophy’s marvelous biographical study of him, Prancing Novelist (1973), offers the best possible defense of something that might be called “experimental fiction.”) But I defy Champion, or anyone else outside the narrow precinct of Firbank scholarship, to pass an oral examination on his fiction—now, this minute, without rereading it.

The fact is that “experimental writers” disappear from critical view long before they have died. Don’t talk to me about John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis (I am not convinced of their staying power, anyway). Let me hear from the fans of Robert M. Coates, Louis Marlow, P. H. Newby, Richard Bankowsky, Rayner Heppenstall, J. P. Donleavy, B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, R. C. Kenedy, Nicholas Mosley, Mack Thomas, William Eastlake, Alan Burns, Gil Orlovitz, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Robert Coover, John A. Williams, Ronald Sukenick, Stuart Evans, Gilbert Sorrentino, A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Brautigan, Gordon Lish, Eva Figes, Ron Loewinsohn, Frederick Ted Castle, Deena Linett, Harry Mathews, D. M. Thomas, and Tom Marshall. Each of these writers was praised by critics as “experimental.” Who remembers their novels? I rest my case.

Or perhaps I don’t. Let me give the last word to the British poet and novelist Robert Nye. He says something that I have tried many times to say, but Nye says it better: “There is really only writing that is alive, and writing that is half alive. Writing that is alive is what we call eccentric (if in English) or experimental (if in French).”[2] I prefer the eccentric, both as style and epithet. It is sound practice, in fact, to avoid French critical terms altogether and stick to a native English.

[1] Warren Beck, “Art and Formula in the Short Story,” College English 5 (November 1943): 56. Italics in the original.

[2] Robert Nye, “The Future of the Experimental Novel in English,” Guardian (Sept. 10, 1970): 10.


Colleen said...

Interesting post. I have nothing much to add, having literally none of the authors you list (!!!), but as a bookseller, I can say that I regularly sell the works of Donleavy and D.M. Thomas. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're either well-remembered or memorable, merely that people keep trying them out.

D. G. Myers said...

I really kind of doubt, however, that any young writer willing to describe herself as “experimental” these days would consent to the description’s being used for Donleavy and Thomas.

Richard said...

You talk about "staying power" (for whom?) and ask, of your longer list of so-called "experimental" writers, "who remembers their novels?" and seem to assume that to ask the question is to answer it ("I rest my case."). I'm not at all happy about the term "experimental"; I find it very unhelpful and generally avoid it at all costs. But I can tell you that people are remembering some of these writers. I can't speak for all of them, because I haven't heard of all of them. But, for example, I vividly remember Ann Quin's novel Three--and readers are still discovering her. Readers are still discovering and remembering B.S. Johnson. And Gilbert Sorrentino. (And certainly from your first list, William Gaddis is always being re-discovered by newer readers. Pynchon never went away, though I'm not much of an admirer. Ditto Coover.)

It could be said that any novel is an experiment, in that the writer must, through trial and error, find the right way, the right form, in which to write--which I would think necessarily means "keeping faith with the particular and self-determined rules of his own particular novel".

D. G. Myers said...

Another way of saying that experimental writing does not exist is to say that all writing is experimental (for then none of it need be described that way).

As for the writers you claim that readers are remembering. Malcolm Bradbury said it best, characterizing one of them. B. S. Johnson’s books, he said, are “ham-fisted attempts to write an experimental novel.”

David M said...

I have to say, this post clarified the use of the term "experimental" for me. I used to be annoyed when people employed the term for anything that was perversely different, and thought that a distinction should be made between works that were "truly experimental", and those that were just showing off. But I think it's pretty clear that writers who are just showing off are either literally experimenting, in which case the required distance of such an experiment means that they care very little about the quality of what they produce, or not experimenting at all, in which case their writing is even more pointless. Writers who are genuinely original tend to consider the value of their work more highly than the success of an experiment.

R. T. said...

I confess! I read everything Richard Brautigan published when it first came out. Of course, I was also falling all over myself to read Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins during the same phase of my life, but I guess I never thought of it all as experimental writing.

Crap! Perhaps I should not have admitted all of that.

I would wager that even a Texas A&M professor has reading skeletons in his closet. C'mon. Confess!

Steven Riddle said...

Dear RT,

Fear not, I was about to confess to Brautigan myself (he was certainly "of his time" and nearly unavoidable). But I wouldn't go out of my way to pick up one of his books in the remaindered bookshop--nor Coover, nor Sorrentino.

I do think the point waged here against experimental as a defining term is probably valid. And yet I wonder what one does with works by Andre Breton, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and others of the ilk (not that I'm necessarily fond of the latter--I must admit to a warm place in my heart for both _Nadja_ and _Precinct 17_ but more from the point of view of embodied manifestoes rather than novels).

Would avant-garde do? What would you call a work that in its time really breaks the rules of the novel--say _Ulysses_ or _Mrs Dalloway_ or _The Sound and the Fury_. They aren't really experimental, and certainly now they are part of the mainstream. But is there an appropriate term for a writer who sets out in a new direction to see if the horizons of fiction can be effectively expanded?



D. G. Myers said...

[I]s there an appropriate term for a writer who sets out in a new direction to see if the horizons of fiction can be effectively expanded?

Yes: “novelist.”

The question of whether she succeeded in expanding fiction’s horizons will belong to the necessary critical evaluation of her.

The ambition, however, does not particularly distinguish her. By definition, a novel is a “new direction.”

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Admittedly the etymology of novel is from noveau meaning "new," however, it is sometimes useful to distinguish between those who are following the classical line and those who are "breaking the rules," whether effectively or not.

To call all novelists is to mash together a lot of different things, effective and ineffective happening in the writing world, and there is a useful distinction to be made.

But then, this sounds like the taxonomists "lumpers and splitters" argument and just respectfully disagree with the central tenet that "novelist" is sufficient to describe the range of new writing, while at the same time agreeing that experimental is in no way an effective or useful term.



D. G. Myers said...


I agree in large part, and said something similar here.

What I don’t like are the terms that are proposed for the self-congratulatory avant garde (to use another term that I detest).

scott g.f.bailey said...

For my part, the thorniness of the term "experimental" comes when it's used in an attempt to define a class of novels or novelists. I think it's accurate, maybe, or at least possibly useful to say that in a certain novel, the writer was experimenting with a certain element or elements. But to call that novel or novelist "experimental" seems meaningless to me.

If a budding writer works with magical realism, that may be an experiment for her. If Garcia-Marquez works with magical realism, it's just his normal style. Do we say he's experimenting? As has been pointed out already here, "Ulysses" was an experiment (or series of experiments), but I don't know if it's of any value to call the novel "experimental" today.

I may go so far as to say that a good writer is always experimenting, or at least tinkering with something new on his workbench.

Edward Champion said...

Well, this is a typically humorless response from you, whereby you have, in a Lee Siegel sophist mode, set the terms of the argument, meaning that we must play by YOUR definitions instead of considering the collective tastes of the reading public.

But my answer to you (off the top of my head) is Mark Z. Danielewski, who not only was nominated for the National Book Award for ONLY REVOLUTIONS, but who sold a considerable number of copies. Sales and acclaim for a very experimental book. So where do I pick up the barbeque?

D. G. Myers said...

Don’t worry, Mr Champion. It only seems humorless because you are on the receiving end of criticism for a change.

As for Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. I asked for an example from “a generation or more ago.” Danielewski’s book was published in 2006.

Perhaps you might enjoy a survey course in the history of the novel?

Edward Champion said...

Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy (SUTTREE -- a quasi-experimental writer who appeared on Oprah!), Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, to name a few. And do you really believe, given the endless classes and the continued sales and reputation, that Pynchon, Barthelme, and Gaddis AREN'T being read today? Are you really that idiotic?

Perhaps you might want to step outside your gutless ivory tower and simply ask what people are reading.

Edward Champion said...

Also David Foster Wallace. Assuming that you're even living in the year 2010, you may recall that he blew his brains out a few years ago. Load of biographies coming out, the recent James Wood talk, the BRIEF INTERVIEWS film, and so forth.

Edward Champion said...

And by "blow his brains out," I include hanging within my own particular definition of the terms. (Also, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews.)

D. G. Myers said...

What would be the opposite of a “gutless ivory tower”?

D. G. Myers said...

The only thing that clear from this litany of names, Mr Champion——beside the fact that you consider name-calling an intelligent and persuasive vehicle of criticism, I mean—is that your conception of “experimental writing” is so utterly incoherent as to be worthless.

What do these writers have in common? Besides the incidental fact, I mean, that they appeal to the vanity of a certain kind of look-at-me-ain’t-I-sumthin critic.

The terms experimental or avant-garde (and their stand-ins) are forms of self-congratulation, not criticism.

The only usable distinction is Robert Nye’s. There is writing that is alive (and goes on living): Beckett and Joyce, for example, and maybe a little McCarthy. And then there is writing that is half alive: probably everyone else on your list.

R. T. said...

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I made the mistake of offering Mr. Champion some advice regarding improvements he could make to his writing style. This provoked a pit-bull response from Mr. Champion, which persuaded me that civility is not his strong suit. I mention this now because I see that A Commonplace Blog has become another forum for his rabid attacks. All I can say is "Hang in there, Professor Myers. Champion's bite is worse than his bark." How is that for torturing a metaphor? And that reminds me of the following: Postscript: I have looked around at my own ivory-tower (my place of employment, which Mr. Champion ridiculed), and I suppose my tower must be much like yours. At any rate, I see no signs of viscus. Perhaps Mr. Champion's own tortured metaphor is part of his style. It is, however, unlike much of his other writing, at least concise.

R. T. said...

If you read this linked article, you might agree with me that this is an interesting new outlook for literary criticism; however, given the discussion the has preceded this postscript, the article--if you read between the lines in the article--may be offering compelling ideas about the psychology of critics and readers rather than psychological implications of texts (e.g., experimental writing).

only words to play with said...

Excellent discussion!

I have a question that is only tangentially related to this post: how much does "staying power" matter for a novel to be a great work of literature? What if the novel is only a beautiful articulation of its own space and time, its microcosmic zeitgeist? Does it still matter if people no longer read it?

Because, in my own personal experience, very few novels have "staying power": for example, my 16-year-old self's love for Dickens has turned to mocking hatred as a 29-year-old grad student. Which reading is better, truer, more meaningful: 16 or 29? And I know it sure as hell doesn't matter to my 16-year-old self whether or not Dickens will still matter when I'm 29.

So "staying power"; why does it matter? What's the big deal?

Please and thank you!

Jonathan said...

There's an indictment of the "state of the field" for you.

He may not be as cool as DFW, Pynchon or Delillo, but I would LOVE to hear what great epiphany leads one to a "mocking hatred" of Dickens. I wonder where so many great readers could have gone wrong, to have missed such an apparently natural progression. Hopefully, in another 13 years, the fear of being unfashionable will have diminsihed, and you can once again admire Dickens.


Martijn Benders said...

The problem, in my opinion, is not so much that the so-called 'experimental writers' deploy unortodox techniques (if you analyse their methods they are usually pretty simple if anything) but rather that they limit their idea of 'experiment' to exist only on paper. It results in the typical self-obsessed novel in which nothing happens, because the author is typically a person for whom any experiment just exists on paper, and not in real. I agree with the person that says any novel is by definition experimental, and the true experiment is to make it interact with reality by any means necissary.

Slacky B said...

My word. I guess Champion never took one of those structuralism in literature classes in which one is taught that every sentence a writer writes contains a narrator and a narrative, the latter of which, I guess, is a plot. It seems to me that plot can be an important or unimportant as either the writer or reader wants it to be. I don't see a problem. Clearly, if I want to experience a great many melodramatic plot turns, I won't be turning to, say, a Robbe-Grillet short story.

Ryan Swofford said...

I agree with David M. This post really clairified my own definition of "experimental" prose/poetry, which I thought I was writing. It seems now that what I write is merely absurd.

Thanks for the wisdom! I will definitely be checking out your blog some more.

-Ryan Swofford,