A Case for the Experimental

In a Harper’s Magazine article, author Ben Marcus rages against the judges of the National Book Award in fiction, saying their quick dismissal of low-selling works is “a clear announcement that the value system for literature [is] tweaked to favor not people who actually read a lot of books but a borderline reader…who might read only one or two books in a year.”[1]  Marcus’ argument is based on a premise that contemporary readers are not interested in being mentally challenged, and that the publishing elite cater to this by marginalizing economically any writer “interested in the possibilities of language…[who] appreciate artistic achievements of others but still dream for [them]selves …[and believe] that new arrangements are possible…new connections of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions.”[2] From his article, the reader can obtain three certain “Marcus Truths:” language that challenges the brain is not only fun, but healthy; artists who experiment with language and form push literature forward; and this progression is a good thing.[3]  I’ll add to those truths that experimental writing also fills a niche that other forms do not. It provides inspiration to authors and readers alike, enriches the database of forms and gives new life to the literary world.

“Every nation,” T.S. Eliot said, “has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind,” and this creative and critical thinking simultaneously functions in, and propagates the dominant ideology.[4] If we subscribe to Eliot’s contention that this mind is “oblivious to the shortcomings and limitations of its critical habits,” then it would stand to reason that cultural and literary critics may very well be unaware of the extent to which they create marginalization and homogeneity in their pursuit to feed the perceived desire of the public.[5] This public, likewise, is most likely not aware that alternative options are available. And if they are, may not have the time or presence of mind to engage with them. “Print [media],” Diana Crane notes, “creates distinct social groups ranked in terms of their capacity to decipher specialized linguistic codes.”[6] It is decipherability that many current critics of literature say makes experimental writing elitist—its accessibility is limited.  Popular literature, on the other hand, “uses a simple code that is accessible to everyone and consequently breaks down the barriers between social groups by making its messages accessible to all members of the audience, regardless of their social status.” The publishing house numbers support these assertions, ensuring that—much to the dismay of Marcus and others—experimental writing, from the avant-garde to the postmodern, will never hold the dominant interest. While this may disappoint, the reality is that this marginalization is specifically a condition of its existence. As long as mass-produced and formulaic literature exists, there will automatically be marginal groups addressing the crises and conflicts internal to literature itself. This should not be dismaying, though. There are many benefits to being on the fringe.

The term “experimental” has been found problematic by many, including Kathy Acker, who openly complained that it invalidates the finished work and creates an illegitimacy that more traditional forms do not have to deal with.[7] She saw the label as “another way of sticking people in the corner.” This defensive position is more damaging, however, than the marginalization itself. It suggests a reactionary position, rather than a position geared toward discovery, confusing those who are unsure of what experimental really means. Unlike formalist approaches, experimental literature begins by setting up rules for itself; rules that do not coincide with the conventions of tradition or with which readers have understood to constitute a proper work of art. These rules can be as simple as Christine Brooke-Rose’s decision not to use the verb “to be” in her novel Between, or as complex as Georges Perec’s choice to follow complicated mathematical equations and chess moves in Life A User’s Manual. Though all writers use constraints in one form or another, the limitation of one rule rather than many—lipograms, anagrams, mathematical formulas—removes the constraint as an obstacle and instead attributes it as “an incentive, a stimulus” through which the possibilities of literature can be explored and great work created.[8] The rule, once set, then becomes the only initial constant—it is the sole framework within which the author will create.

A key factor in experimental literature that separates it from other groups is the element of randomness. Randomness is one of the easiest ways of breaking down the pre-programmed language structures that condition our experience and expression, and subsequently one of the easiest ways of creating something new: it “allows the author to lay down the burden of clichés…[to abandon the] immediate expression of one’s intimate feelings and opinions” that often lead to predictable story-lines.[9] By its very nature, randomness requires a lack of intention on the part of the author, and it is this lack of intention that many consider an invalidating point for experimental literature. What is often ignored, unfortunately, is that the randomness within the constraint is the initial approach to creating a text. It is a compositional approach, just like automatic writing or Madlibs.[10] The author does the work of content accumulation under constraint, and arrives at a point where all of the elements are ready to put into a composition. Other approaches, such as OuLiPo (Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle) force this constraint to be present through to the finished work, often at the expense of the piece, so as to make the finished piece about the form and not the content: the author “consents to write only what the chosen constraints permit or demand.”[11] Experimental writing at its best is a mid-way point between OuLiPian agendas and formalism, using the former to create unique and engaging texts that are accessible to the wider public. Unlike the trangressive or avant-garde, the experimental is not about rebellion or political agendas. It is about finding new combinations of things, new ways of expressing and seeing, and using those combinations to create. [12]

The classic narrative has a beginning, middle and end. Aristotle teaches us that causation, goals, and story lead to plot.[13] The events at the beginning fuel what happens in the middle, which determines the resolution at the end.  Narrative is the “fundamental instrument of thought;” it is “indispensable to human cognition generally,” and is our means of “looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining.”[14] Not a fixed form, narrative depends on “basic processes of pattern recognition, including the ability to recognize objects and events….[and the] patterns by which we relate to the world around us.”[15] These patterns are projected onto one another to create parables, and form the meta-narratives (and metaphors) that structure society.[16] Narrative impact is independent of comprehensibility, and is mainly related to the narrative image base.[17] The totality of facts that make up the texts, or their semantic representation, is what matters. The ultimate source of impact is in the structure of the plot, not the content of the elements. The plot of many folk and fairy tales, for example, are incredibly similar: Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel have an almost identical plot structure.[18] Though the content is different, the structure is the same.[19] Experimental work, though, abandons the concept of narrative plot as a focal point, in favour of movement. Grace Paley once noted that “plot is movement that is extremely deliberate,” and can be constraining in an unfavourable and hindering way.[20] Adhering to movement rather than plot allows for an experience that is different from what is normally expected when one opens a book.

According to Andrew Tolson, in so far as they are formulaic, “narratives reduce the unique or the unusual to familiar and regular patterns of expectation.”[21] They provide structure and coherence; a satisfying conclusion to any disruption that may have already happened. Experimental writing, however, does not provide cohesiveness in this sense. By creating a disjunctive narrative—disrupting the linear flow and the semiotic representation of a series of events connected in a temporal and causal way—there is a state of suspension that is created and continually maintained throughout the work. The temporal condition created is one of stasis—the reader is stuck in the present, waiting, wondering how all of the puzzle pieces fit together. According to R. M. Berry, one of the challenges put forth by experimental writing is this demand of present-ness: “Whenever the present achieves expression, those living in it will find it annoying, irritating, unnatural, ugly.”[22] This is simply due to the fact that the experimental forces the reader to confront the current conditions of existence, which is usually an uncomfortable experience. At the same time, this present-ness moves the reader from a potential state of empathy to one of sympathy.

Empathy is the emotion that most conventional authors, whether they are aware of it or not, strive for in their audience. This “vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect, can be provoked by witnessing another’s emotional state,” regardless of how that witnessing occurs.[23] Reader’s feel that they have had a worthwhile experience if they can connect with the characters in a text; author-skill is often judged by how real the characters come across on the page. Experimental writing subverts this to a degree. Where more traditional stories may draw the reader in so far as to make the reader believe they are actually feeling what the character is experiencing, experimental work will maintain a barrier through its use of form to allow readers a more objective experience.[24] Formalism’s structure “conceals certain assumptions about that pre-existing order and its role in creating the possibility for human action and critical theory,” and can easily reinforce the framework of society so that readers do not consider re-evaluation of their circumstances.[25] Moving from the formalist empathetic approach to the experimental sympathetic approach means that the concealing veil is lifted and the reader is made more aware. It is in this sense that experimental writing provides a strong foundation for transgressive and avant-garde work.

The distinction between the ordinary man and the artist, I. A. Richards stressed, is that “the ordinary man suppresses nine-tenths of his impulses, because he is incapable of managing them without confusion.”[26]  Plot and language are typically the way that authors organize ideas to convey meaning; disrupting this allows experimental authors an opportunity to show new ways of seeing the mundane. Not only does the artist organize their thoughts in an unconventional manner, they are then able to convey those ideas to the rest of society so that the veil standing between ordinary men and the Universe is “lifted and [they can feel] strangely alive and aware of the actuality of existence.” The forms and structures of traditional writing limit this veil-lifting, but the new semantic representation from experimental approaches can cause many readers severe discomfort because of the underlying ideological belief that there is meaning in everything. Meaning, like coherence, is created on the reader level, not the writer level.[27] Experimental writing, according to Marcus, “[desires] to create meaning where we might not think to find it, as if it is burning synaptical pathways, and this is a very different pleasure than the kind [a reader] might get” from popular writing; “It’s a poetic aim that believes in the possibilities of language to create ghostly frames of sense, or to prove [to the reader] that rational sense might be equally unstable.”[28] While this is certainly true, it must be emphasized that due to the random nature of experimental composition, meaning is not necessarily always present, and believing that it is can serve to alienate readers by insulting their intelligence. This form, more than anything, tends to lend itself to synaesthetic experience. Rather than read the work with our mind, we can read it with our senses. Paul McCormick’s prose poem “The Clone” shows how this can work:

To slice his life into meat he had to use sounds and even parts of sounds the particulate nature of wolves say being focused through a lens he walked out of the meadow and with each step so too every step before it goldenrod and more goldenrod summer’s best show yet his presence watered down to what little they could find his tent flap a repetitive hieroglyph of the wind and like other elements his was basic and sought a like bronze in a way it reminded him of how his father mistook tiger lilies for something to be removed leaving his mother alone.[29]

In the poem, McCormick constrains himself by removing punctuation and traditional sentence transitions. His alternative syntax and diction, as well, is distinctly unique, effectively creating a disjointed account of one man’s experience walking and thinking. The semiotic representation of goldenrod, meadows, and nature are disrupted to an extensive degree, giving the reader the feeling of random images being flashed before them on a screen. Engaging with the same metonymic play on word organization, the stanzas that follow give a sense of experiencing the past, present and future at once. While there is no prescriptive motive behind the poem—the reader does not feel pushed to think or feel one way or another—the experience of reading it inspires a realization that words can convey synaesthetic rather than intellectual information. McCormick speaks to our senses; the poem is felt more than it is understood.

McCormick’s example presents the experimental in the finished form, but not all experimental work is so extreme. John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World” was constrained twofold: through the use of the diary entry as form, and through the use of a coin-toss to determine the number of words to be used in each entry. The text that composes the diary, though seemingly random statements, is organized in a way as to support traditional semantic understanding:

XXI. Everywhere
where economics and politics obtain
(everywhere?), policy is dog eat dog.
Take taxi tolls between cities. Those
in one town higher than those in the
other must drive home alone. Relaxation
of rules, ties (Take marriage), is
Now that we’ve got the
four-lane roads, we won’t have any use for
them. (Good for roller-skating, he said.)
Refuse value judgments. Since
time lags were inordinately long,
change’s now welcome. Advertising’s
discredited itself. When they
advertise something, we avoid it.
There’s nothing we really need to do that
isn’t dangerous. Eighth Street
artists knew this years ago: constantly
spoke of risk. But what’s meant by risk?
Lose something? Property, life?
Principles?? The way to lose our
principles is to examine them, to give
them an airing


The traditional diction and syntax arrangement here supports the intended meaning, though the nature of the sentence arrangement, the fragmentary aspect, creates a boundary between Cage and his reader. The form draws attention to itself so that the meaning demands more attention. Here is a case where the experimental supports avant-garde, political writing.

So what does all of this mean for the case of experimental literature today?  By destabilizing structure and language, experimental writing works to free both the writer and reader from prescribed narratives. When all expectation is removed, the opportunity for new constructions of meaning is present. For the writer, this means the potential creation of forms that do not exist; for the reader it means the possibility of an altered world-view. The former enriches the existing world of literature by providing writers with possibilities of language that have not been actualized into larger works or the mainstream; the latter offers the individual the occasion for growth. And while it is disappointing that titles like Fashionably Buff: Essential Workouts for Looking Great in Anything You Wear and Actually, It’s Your Parents’ Fault: Why Your Romantic Relationship Isn’t Working, and How to Fix It garner the attention of CBS News and Oprah Winfrey, in the end, these are creating ephemeral works that will be obsolete within the year. What matters is the art, and the art comes from the fringe groups and those outwith the fringe that are dedicated to creating lasting work.

Lately, I’ve been wondering: What would be the result of doing a nora/data-mining project that involved 1) looking at the types of book genres published each year (specifically comparing literary fiction and non-fiction to brain candy), and then 2) plotting the sales of these texts. And THEN, 3) plotting these different genres over time to see if trends develop?

Though it could be controversial, it would be interesting to see if there are trends in the genres people read by region, by country, over time…and how that relates (if it does) to the societal situations of each respective place/time.



[1] Ben Marcus, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.”  Harper’s Magazine (October 2005): 41

[2] Ibid, 40

[3] Ibid

[4] Thomas Stearn Eliot, “Tradition and Individual Talent,” Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1919): 3; Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”  Critical and Cultural Theory Reader.  (Eds.) Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2002): 54

[5] Eliot, 3

[6] Diana Crane, The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992): 4

[7] Kathy Acker, The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9.3 (Fall 1989)

[8] Jan Baetens, “Free Writing, Constrained Writing: the Ideology of Form.” Poetry Today 18.1 (Spring 1997): 1-14.

[9] Baetens, 10. This is also an important aspect of OuLiPian art, but where OuLiPo holds fast to the constraints and makes them apparent, the experimental does not necessarily do the same. Experimental writing is more about the creation of new ideas and forms than the adherence to structure.

[10] Automatic writing, quite basically, is a stream-of-consciousness approach to getting what is in the mind onto the page. It could be considered experimental in the sense that there is a constraint: continuous writing for a specified period of time. Madlibs involve applying randomly chosen parts of speech to fill the blanks of an already existing story. Both are cognitive approaches to writing.

[11] Baetens, 3

[12] Christine Brooke-Rose, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 9.3 (Fall 1989)

[13] Aristotle.  Poetics.  (Trans.) Kenneth Telford (Chicago: Henry Regnevy, 1961): 1-37

[14] Mark Turner, The Literary Mind. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 4-5. Turner gives an excellent account of how narrative works ontologically and biologically, discussing why the human brain is incapable of not projecting narratives onto one another to create parables. This helps support the claim that experimental writing’s subversive nature in this regard helps readers to view the world through a new set of eyes.

[15] Richard van Oort. “Cognitive Science and the Problem of Representation” Poetics Today 24.2 (Summer 2003): 247

[16] See both Turner, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)

[17] Alex Argyros, “Narrative and Chaos.” New Literary History 23.3 (Summer 1992): 659-673.

[18] Yigal Zan, “Toward a Functional Approach to Narrative Structure,” American Anthropology 85.3 (Sep 1983): 650

[19] This explains the success of author’s like John Grisham and Maeve Binchy who have found it possible to tell the same story over and over again, with different characters, and still be successful. The pre-programmed structures of language are adhered to faithfully, which makes for a satisfying, if not predictable, read.

[20] Grace Paley. “All My Habits Are Bad: an interview with A. M. Holmes.” Salon Books. (online access—see works cited)

[21] Andrew Tolson, Mediations: Text and Discourse in Media Studies (London: Arnold, 1996)

[22] R.M. Berry, “The Avant-Garde and Question of Literature.” Electronic Book Review.

[23] Suzanne Keen, “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” NARRATIVE 14.3 (October 2006): 208

[24] Ibid

[25] Jim Hansen, “Formalism and its Malcontents: Benjamin and de Man on the Function of Allegory,” New Literary History 35.4 (Autumn 2004): 663-684.

[26] I.A. Richards,  “The Imagination.”  Principles of Literary Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959): 243

[27] Gregory G. Colomb and June Anne Griffin, “Coherence On and Off the Page: What Writer’s Can Know about Writing Coherently.” New Literary History 35 (2004): 273-301.

[28] Marcus, 49

[29] Paul McCormick, “The Clone,” Ninth Letter 1.2 (Fall/Winter 2004): 43

[30] John Cage, from “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” X Writings: ’79 – ’82 (Boston: Wesleyan University Press, 1983) Original italics and page formatting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *