What is "Experimental" Literature?
T.C. Boyle describes being a young man taking a class from a 61-year-old John Cheever in 1973:
I had read his stories—most of them—in a desultory way, but in that era of scintillating narrative experimentation they struck me as being somewhat antiquated, solid stories of a bygone era. The term “experimental” was my mantra, but John was having none of it. His own stories were experimental, he insisted, as was all good fiction, but I didn’t believe him. In the blind and arrogant way of the young, I felt I knew better.
I recognized this feeling in myself, and I also recognized the regret in hindsight that my earlier self had been wrong. As I suspect T.C. Boyle did, I spent my late teens and early twenties huffing the fumes of Pynchon and Barthelme; I considered them “experimental” writers, and still had an adolescent distaste for what I thought of as mundane, “realist” fiction until I grew up a little and started giving it an honest try. It’s true that John Cheever was an experimental writer, if one defines “experimental” as “not realism”: although he never made a shtick of it, Cheever sometimes drifted into the fantastic, including in one of his best known stories, The Swimmer. And if it’s true, apparently according to Cheever, that all good fiction is experimental, then the word becomes meaningless as a distinguisher.
I have a hard time with the word “experimental” as applied to literature. I’ve come to mistrust it, especially when someone uses the word approvingly. I thought I knew what “experimental” meant when I was young and not thinking too clearly about it, but the more thought I give it, the less I understand exactly what it means.The clearest way I can begin to think about the word “experimental” is to trace it back to the realm in which experiments are most important: science. The scientific method is essentially, “Let’s see what happens when we do this. And then, hopefully, we will learn something about the nature of reality from whatever it is that happens.”
Unlike a scientific experiment, a literary experiment isn’t likely to bring any new information into the scope of human knowledge. A scientific experiment is a means to an end, and that end is to gain knowledge, whereas literature, like all art, is an end in itself. Therefore, the component of utility is lost when we move the word from science to art, unless the answer to the question, “Let’s see what happens if I do this?” is: a pleasurable work of art.
(I am, by the way, an unapologetic hedonist when it comes to literature, as I am with most other things as well. I have heard many answers to the question, “why read literature?”: I read to be moved emotionally; I read to be entertained; I read to learn; I read to be caused to think about interesting ideas. All of these are perfectly good reasons to read literature, and I think they can all be gathered under the umbrella of “pleasure.”)
I suppose the purest literary experiments are the ones in which the author has imposed some radical, extrinsic, formal restriction on the text. A clear example that comes to mind is Georges Perec’s La disparition, which he wrote without using the letter “e,” and Gilbert Adair’s English translation of it, A Void, which also doesn’t have any “e”s in it, which sounds to me like the more difficult feat. Perec was a member of the Oulipo group, which also included Raymond Queneau (whose novel Exercises in Style is well worth reading) and Jean Lescure. These mad scientists of literature came up with some funny tricks; one of them was Lescure’s word game that he called N+7: replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after that word in the dictionary. It’s a good recipe for making amusing nonsense. The last three sentences become:
These mad scopes of livelihood came up with some funny triggers; one of them was Lescure’s workhouse gangway that he called N+7: replace every nuance in a thaw with the seventh nuance after that workhouse in the differential. It’s a good recognition for making amusing northerner.
I just got that by copy-and-pasting my sentences into an online N+7 generator—I guess it doesn’t know what to do with proper nouns and other words that aren’t in the dictionary, like “Lescure” and “N+7.” There’s Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, for which he apparently shuffled a deck of Tarot cards and wrote the narrative around them as they turned up. In Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, the scenes unfold in backward chronological order. My former professor William Melvin Kelley once wrote a novel, A Drop of Patience, about a blind character; it is written entirely without visual information.
If the question we ask about such formal experiments is, “Did this result in a pleasurable work of art?” the answers vary by degrees. As for the most extreme and seemingly arbitrary experiment, Perec’s: out of curiosity I have attempted to read Gilbert Adair’s English translation of his e-less novel, and personally, my vote on that one is “no.” Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies is readable but far from his best work, and both Betrayal and A Drop of Patience I consider great works of art, but in both cases, the formal experiment being done is less extreme, less arbitrary, and most importantly, it actually does something interesting to the story being told.
Oulipo’s linguistic monkeyshines resulted in funny little oddities hardly undeserving of being brought into the world, but the pleasure I get from them is a light pleasure, like a snack. They don’t have the power or the weight to make a meal. I tend to think things like that are worth doing in the same way a crossword puzzle is worth doing, and that’s about all.
I want to move on to the more interesting literature that gets called “experimental”—and from here on out, I’m focusing on narrative art, and since narrative verse (though it was popular in 850 B.C.E.) is now incredibly out of fashion, for us today that mostly means prose fiction, film, and theater.
In a “traditional” prose fiction narrative (I put that word in quotation marks because the tradition didn’t cohere until the late nineteenth and early twenties centuries; that is, right before the Modernists decided the tradition had grown stale and was in need of smashing up), a reader (or viewer, or audience member, but I’m mostly thinking about stories and novels) reads a text and imagines a story. The job of the text is to provide the reader with information that allows the reader to imagine the story, and the reader’s part is to pay attention. The reader agrees to believe the story if the writer agrees to write a story the reader can believe.
It seems to me that all the fiction that deliberately breaks this contract is what’s called experimental fiction. Some of the earliest novels—most notably Don Quixote, Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy—were already not doing this. Cervantes, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne didn’t know they were “breaking the rules” because there were no “rules” yet. Traces of this happy ignorance of novelistic convention lingered on in English literature as late as Dickens.
All the fiction that does obey this contract seems to be called “realism,” or, if the reality of the story happens to include magical phenomena, “magical realism.” Fantasy, like J.R.R. Tolkien, could also be called magical realism—or maybe “alternate realism”—and science fiction could be called “future potential realism.” All these deviations from reality are essentially consistent within their own systems: these stories occur in a physical universe that has laws, even if they aren’t the laws of our own.
Leaving aside these narratives set in alternate universes—even though the same rules of realism apply to them—I want to examine what we call literary realism. Perhaps “What is experimental fiction” is the wrong question. Perhaps the question should be, “What is realism?”
Here’s one potential answer. The reader enters the story, following along as action occurs or information is revealed, and from beginning to end never at any point doubts what is happening in the story couldn’t or wouldn’t happen in the world she lives in. As John Gardner liked to put it, the reader is “in the dream.” Anything the reader does not accept as potentially real interrupts the dream, and breaks the illusion. The strings are showing, and suddenly the reader does not see a character, but a person-shaped object with a face painted on a wooden ball. The spell is broken.
Sometimes that’s possible to do and remain within the realm of realism if the story is being told in the first person: a first person voice can lie to you, and you are free to believe it or not; if not, another, unwritten layer of action and information begins to form between the character’s voice and your understanding of the reality of the story.
But in a third-person narrative, the writer herself assumes the mantle of an objective and omniscient god. Because it is impossible to experience another person’s consciousness with certainty, it must be assumed that all third-person narrators, if they are to be believed, are omniscient. Third-person narrators who only divulge what’s occurring in the consciousness of one character are simply more focused.
When the reader begins to doubt the (potential) reality of realism as told by this god, the reader comes to question the perfection of the god’s craftsmanship, and the believer loses his faith, often with the result that he puts the book aside and goes searching for a more perfect creator. These aberrations in reality are not intentional lies, they are mistakes that need to be weeded out. They are the moments that make a reader think, “I don’t believe this.”
To reiterate: realism, executed perfectly, is fiction in which the reader believes everything that happens in it could and would happen in the same world he inhabits. And in order to determine what that world is, we have to go one step further back and ask: “What is reality?” There is an astonishingly wide variety of opinions on the answer to that question, just within the human species alone. I personally believe that responsible scientific inquiry is the best hope we have of filling in the answers to that question, but it is far from the only one commonly employed. What reality is to an atheist is different from the reality that someone who believes in a God or gods lives in. The reality of a Catholic is different from the reality of a Muslim. The reality of someone who believes in ghosts is different from the reality of someone who doesn’t. There’s another reality for a person who believes in astrology. All of these conflicting or overlapping and harmonious understandings of reality are equally valid in the consciousness off the individual who believes them.
And then there are realities still further inaccessible to us, even if all five of our input sensors are fully functional: that whistle is too high-pitched to register in our reality, but it’s real to a dog, whose hearing range is greater; many birds can see wavelengths of light outside the bandwidth of the color spectrum available to us, and some birds we perceive as dull brown or gray in fact have brilliant marking patterns that are truly for their eyes only.
Nabokov once said in an interview,
Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.
To be clear, I am not a relativist. I don’t think truth is a construction and all viewpoints are equally valid. I think viewpoints are valid only insofar as they can be supported by evidence in the form of falsifiable data. I believe that (one) the universe exists (I know that’s a controversial position), and (two) we perceive it incompletely and imperfectly with our senses.
The other day I came across this beautiful passage in an essay Rilke wrote on sensory evocation in poetry, worth quoting at length:
If the world’s whole field of experience, including those spheres which are beyond our knowledge, could be represented by a complete circle, it will be immediately evident that, when the black sectors, denoting that which we are incapable of experiencing, are measured against the lesser, light sections, corresponding to what is illuminated by the senses, the former are very much greater.
As the lover’s danger consists in the non-spatial character of his standpoint, so the poet’s lies in his awareness of the abysses which divide the one order of sense experience from the other: in truth they are sufficiently wide and engulfing to sweep away from before us the greater part of the world—who knows how many worlds?
The question arises here, as to whether the extent of these sectors of the plane assumed by us can be enlarged to any vital degree by the work of research. The achievements of the microscope, of the telescope, and of so many devices which increase the range of the senses upwards and downwards, do they not lie in another sphere altogether, since most of the increase thus achieved cannot be interpenetrated by the senses, cannot be “experienced” in any real sense? It is, perhaps, not premature to suppose that the artist, who develops the five-fingered hand of his senses (if one may put it so) to ever more active and spiritual capacity, contributes more decisively than anyone else to an extension of the several sense fields, only the achievement which gives proof of this does not permit of his entering his personal extension of territory in the general map before us, since it is only possible, in the last resort, by a miracle.
I think what he is saying is this: there is a universe out there that we experience imperfectly and incompletely. Science and technology can artificially extend our understanding of reality outward by bringing things otherwise insensible into the realm of our perception with instruments like microscopes and telescopes. But do we really fully experience an amoeba or distant planet these machines make visible to us? We can’t experience these things with any sense but vision, thus they don’t count as fully experiential phenomena. But an artist can use imagination to, for instance, try to know what it is like to be a panther in a zoo. So, in a way, art is more able than science to light up more of the dark part of the world beyond the reach of human perception.
Rilke was personal friends with Jakob von Uexküll, a biologist, philosopher, and polymath whom I’ve become a little obsessed with lately, whose contribution of the concept of Umwelt heavily influenced Martin Heidegger. The two first met in 1905 at the estate of Luise von Schwerin, one of Rilke’s many artisocratic patronesses, who happened also to be Uexküll’s mother-in-law. Apparently they took a lot of long walks around the estate, talking about Kant together. Uexküll was eleven years older than Rilke, and Rilke may have seen him as a mentor, as he had with Rodin and Lou Salomé. The friendship remained, and the two exchanged letters now and then throughout their lives. In one letter, Rilke, who wanted to know as much as possible about everything, asked Uexküll to teach him all he could about biology. Uexküll responded, “[Y]our poem ‘The Panther’ proves that you possess an outstanding talent for biology and comparative psychology in particular. The observation that you develop [in the poem] is masterful … I believe that you are already too much of a master to still be a disciple.”
I can clearly hear Uexküll’s influence on his thinking when Rilke describes his sort of Venn diagram of reality as a vast black circle representing all the reality out there—all the information and phenomena in existence—with small circles inside of that circle of lit-up areas representing the things in the universe that human beings are capable of perceiving and knowing. The big black circle Uexküll called the Umgebung, and the small light circle inside it is a being’s Umwelt: the part of a being’s environment that it is capable of perceiving and affecting, which is everything that is relevant to that being. “The biologist,” according to Uexküll, “takes into account that each and every living thing is a subject that lives in its own world, of which it is the center.” His worldview marries a very Kantian desire for objectivity—there is a totality of reality, even though all organisms perceive only a very small part of it to varying degrees—with the acknowledgement of the problems of subjectivity, without letting subjectivity take over completely and collapse the whole systems of knowledge and ethics, as I feel it does in relativist philosophies.
But that’s another issue, mostly irrelevant to the one at hand, which is realism in narrative literature, where relativism does hold water because it’s all made up anyway, and realism is defined by the subjective opinions of the reader. We’re not talking about real reality—we’re talking about what individual readers subjectively believe to be reality. And, historically, that vision of reality is defined by power. (This is where Foucault is useful.) By far extending the reach of his senses with his telescope, Galileo perceived that the earth revolves around the sun, but that fact is not reality in 1615, when the Pope has the final word on what revolves around what.
(In the centuries that followed, the Church’s power waned, and the power of scientific empiricism grew, and it now has a much more widely accepted claim to define reality. The growth of this power occurred simultaneously alongside the enlightenment and the emergence of global capitalism, which set in motion the slave trade, the industrial revolution, and colonialism. That the rise of science is interconnected with these things makes strident nonbelievers like myself trepidatious of defending empirical rationalism, as it should. Science is by no means a force for moral or utilitarian good by itself, though it certainly can be used toward those ends. I simply believe that it is the only way we have of lighting up as much as we can of that big black circle, the Umgebung, the universe, reality. But it is limited, and good science knows its limitations. At the line where science draws to a halt, art, as Rilke argues, is free to pick up the torch and continue on into the darkness.)
I imagine subjectively, collectively defined, perceived reality as radiating outward from wherever power is centered. In early seventeenth century Europe, this center was the Pope. And let me be clear that this perception of reality has nothing to do with reality—the emperor is wearing clothes in the Umwelt, and naked in the Umgebung.
So, when we talk about realism in fiction, what we mean is fiction that someone at the reality-defining center of power would accept as realistic. Unfortunately, this could mean that “realism” could be defined as “that which would be believed possible by a white, educated, English-speaking, heterosexual, middle-or-upper-class, agnostic or Judeo-Christian, heterosexual, male Homo sapien sapien.” The less well that describes a writer—the further she is from the center of power—the more that writer will find herself writing toward that hypothetical man’s opinion of reality. Everything that man doesn’t accept as possible in reality is either a mistake or is something other than realism: magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, surrealism, and so on, and if it doesn’t fit into any of these categories, it’s called “experimental.” (It is no coincidence that “magical realism” is associated with cultures and places this man considers foreign and exotic, such as Colombia and Nigeria.) What is real is what the emperor believes is real.
This, of course, is where camels come in. In his lecture,“The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Jorge Luis Borges, addressing other Argentine writers at a conference, advised them to back off of local color in their work. Argentina is a relatively small country, viewed as a rustic, backwater place by the rest of the world (if that’s not true now, it certainly was at the time he delivered the lecture). Argentine writers knew that the rest of the Spanish-reading world, and Americans and Europeans reading them in translation, would be reading them as Argentine writers. Foreign readers would come to their work with ready expectations of what they thought they would find in it, which were things connoting, for them, Argentine-ness: rugged terrain, gauchos, knife fights, twisted codes of machismo honor, cattle, wine, steak. And Argentine writers, knowing their readers were expecting and hoping to find these things in their literature, were happy to supply them, and indulged them liberally with local color. “The Argentine cult of local color is a recent European cult that nationalists should reject as a foreign import,” Borges wrote, and went on to deliver this gem:
A few days ago, I discovered a curious confirmation of the way in which what is truly native can and often does dispense with local color; I found this confirmation in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon observes that in the Arab book par excellence, the Koran, there are no camels; I believe that if there were ever any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page! Mohammed however, as an Arab, was unconcerned; he knew he could be Arab without camels. I believe that we Argentines can be like Mohammed; we can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.
Borges knew that literature from a place regarded as far outside the center of power that abounds in local color is the literary equivalent of a tourist trap: a place perceived as exotic that deliberately provides and emphasizes the signs of its exoticism in order to satisfy the preconceived hopes and expectations of short-term visitors from the center of power. And by its complicity, this literature gives that center its power, or at least bulwarks it, by acknowledging that it has the power to define reality. As Rousseau writes in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, the question of “whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey” is “a question fit perhaps to be discussed by slaves in the hearing of their masters, but highly unbecoming to reasonable and free men in search of the truth.”
A problem is that the center of power does have real power over the people in the margins: the conferral of its approval can translate into worldly advantages for those people. The marginalized person wants some of the tourist’s money, and in the case of literature, his approval and patronage, his readership, his respect, and his prestige. The marginalized person wants to gain some of her own power. This behavior is self-interested, and it is completely understandable and forgivable why someone would do it, but it is parasitic and ultimately only reinforces the power at the center. The people at the center of power want the people in the margins to need and want power badly enough that they are willing to accept small portions of power from the center rather than working towards decentralizing the power.
I hope that we can eventually decentralize the power to define reality, as far as literature goes. I wish for a world in which the villagers do not tell their story to—or perhaps rather for—the emperor, but simply turn around and tell their stories to and for each other, which is what the emperors are already doing amongst themselves—when they’re not on vacation. If we could democratize the power to define literary “reality” then “experimental literature” and “realism” would come to be recognized as the meaningless terms they already are.
 This reminds me of one of my favorite controversies of co-authorship, about the early Muslim scribe Abdullah ibn Sa`d Ibn Abi Sarh. Of major religious texts, the Koran is the youngest and the one whose composition we know the most about: the prophet Mohammed dictated it to scribes as it was revealed to him by Allah. Once, Mohammed trailed off in the middle of a sentence, and Abdullah suggested an ending. The prophet liked his suggestion, and told him to write it down. Afterward, the scribe had a crisis of faith. According to Al-Baydawi’s commentary on the Koran, Abdullah said before he apostatized from Islam, “If Mohammed is truthful then I receive the revelation as much as he does, and if he is a liar, what I said is as good as what he said.” Abdullah fled to Mecca, and various sources report that Mohammed ordered the execution of his former amanuensis, but when he was caught, the prophet let him go for unknown reasons.
 For a fuller version of Nabokov’s thoughts on reality, check out his gorgeous essay on Kafka in Lectures on Literature.
 One absurd reason I love Rilke so much is that I think I would have liked him personally. The first half of his biography seems to be that of an eager and attentive student of the universe, a humble person of infinite curiosity. It’s the very opposite of the snide braggadocio I feel when I read Ezra Pound: that repellent, adolescent mixture of cynicism and naïveté.