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”:
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).” 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.
 Warren Beck, “Art and Formula in the Short Story,” College English 5 (November 1943): 56. Italics in the original.
 Robert Nye, “The Future of the Experimental Novel in English,” Guardian (Sept. 10, 1970): 10.