On Experimental Writing
I think sometimes that if I had the decision to make again I might have majored in Biology. I could have gone on to be a doctor, or maybe a lab scientist. Then I would have clarity on what this experimental thing is all about. It would make sense to me, and more importantly to others. I wouldn’t be asked to define what it meant to be experimental. I could wear a white labcoat. No one seriously asks anyone wearing a white labcoat to explain themselves or what they are doing – not the way experimental fiction has always seemed to have to explain itself. I am doing experiments, I could thunder back at such questioners. Leave me be! I am a man of science! You are thwarting progress! Stand aside! Give me that grant! No, not that one, the BIGGER one! Yes, that’s the grant for me, nice and roomy. I could really stretch out in this one, for the sake of my experiments. I am taking us places, into the unknown. I don’t know where this is going. That’s the point!
What is the next thing I’m going to write going to turn out to be? Let me examine this experiment I have under hand. I am so glad I decided to be a Biologist. I can map the genome. I will be able to tell what you were going to do before you even do it.
Hey, I knew that was going to happen.
Oscar Wilde wrote the best defense of the imagination that I know in his amazing essay, “The Decay of Lying,” presented in the form of a dialogue, mocking Plato and Socrates, mocking as well the realist authors of his day, defending the spinning of stories as the greater truth. I present two quotations from this work as a catalyst to get reactions going in my own experiment:
One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delighting fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction. (480)
The crude commercialism of America, its materializing spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature. (487)
Where is experimental fiction today? It is in refusing to join that crowd. But here is where I wish people would respect my labcoat, because saying you are a writer of experimental fiction is like saying you are a lab rat, because they lock you in the basement and you never see the light, and you run round and round and round on the wheel – and then one day you escape! And you sneak into peoples’ offices at the university and you nibble on their important papers and you scratch holes in the bags of potato chips they put in their closets and you strew them all over the floor because why try to evade detection, no, let them know you’ve been there. Wait behind a crevice in the corner molding in that stately office in Old Main Hall in Founder’s Plaza for the star faculty member to arrive, the one who has just written that new book on how fiction is dead and nonfiction is now so much more important because we live in a nonfiction world and fiction by comparison is slight and ephemeral versus the plights of nations and the wars of cultures and watch this guy frickin lose it shrieking Ahhh! Ahhh! when he sees his potato chip bag dragged all over the floor of his office and his manuscripts shredded and, well, you just couldn’t help yourself, little rat turds all over the floor! And the star faculty member runs down the hall because his office is nearby the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters because it’s in his contract that he should enjoy such direct access and he bursts into the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and grabs the Dean by the arm, yelling, Gertrude! Gertrude! We’ve got rats! It’s those damned rats and their experiments in the basement! They’ve escaped! And he pulls her by the elbow down to his office to show her the potato chips scree, the manuscript shreds, the little unmistakable rat shits on his beautiful carpet and he opens up his door to do this and… none of that is there! No potato chips. No shreds of paper. No signs.
Ha ha! It was the doing of experimentalists, who don’t have to play by the rules! All evidence has vanished!
Dean Gertrude walks back down to her office, chuckling silently to herself. Dean Gertrude is played in this talk by Gertrude Stein, in a cameo role.
It’s hard to believe that Oscar Wilde wrote that stuff about America – crude commercialism, materializing spirit, indifference to the poetical side of things – 124 years ago, in 1889. They killed Oscar Wilde – not Americans, but the forces against the imagination, who forced a man to lie until he made an art and a positive value out of it. They didn’t kill him for lying, exactly, of course, they killed him for homosexuality, and they didn’t exactly kill him, they locked him in jail and stole his life and made it impossible to earn a living and deprived him of the ability to remain in England, the nation of his fame, forcing him to flee to Paris where, broken, living under an assumed name, lying still but without the flamboyance, he became destitute and lied, no died, died.
Wilde didn’t write what we would call experimental fiction, though I suppose the case could be made for The Portrait of Dorian Gray, in the way it suddenly incorporates the fantastic into the everyday of the story, like a fifth wall, and in the way that fantasy is not happy but unsettling. That’s more the experimental/postmodern sensibility than the modernists that a more fortunate Wilde might have lived to see pin fishes to their coats in Zurich. Modernists weren’t really about magic, were they? Modern novelists – Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Proust – were more architects of formal explosions. The fantastic, the magical, the fabulist, the return to fairy tales and tricksters are more of what we refer to when we refer to experimental writers. Wuthering Heights, to me, is an experimental novel in this light. It’s anachronistic to say so, but we’re just talking, right? This isn’t a published rate of return at which I am asking you to invest money. I write fiction; it’s the bankers who live it. Bankers, brokers, Bernie Madoff – now that guy could make fictions! But even short of him – the GDP that lost a percentage point one day, then is recalculated a few days later to show we gained a percent, the unemployment rate that doesn’t count people who “stopped looking for work,” these are big fictions. This is what experimental fiction writers tell you as well, that fiction is never far from your life; you are enmeshed in fictions. Experimentalists court the magical because we see fictions everywhere and we respect their strange and wondrous powers, including the power to get you up in the morning and get you to work.
Wilde, in any case, experimental or not as a fictionist, did argue in his own day what experimental writers argue today about the realist mainstream: that it is boring, and that it is all-pervasive.
I will corroborate him with a story of my own. Some years ago, the press I direct, Starcherone Books, had our most significant triumph when Zachary Mason’s debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, was nominated for the Young Lions Prize, sponsored by The New York Public Library. Mason’s novel is metafictional in the extreme: it would not be possible with the traditions of literature. It is a rewriting of The Odyssey, as if the Odyssey that we know, by Homer, were only one out of many versions of that story. Mason’s novel purports to show us all of the alternate episodes that the version we know left out. The novel additionally provides us with another origin story of its own composition, creating the alternate tales via a chance-composition strategy of combining and recombining thematic and subject headings, much resembling Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
I was invited to the awards banquet, along with the author and our guests. Ethan Hawke and fellow actors Billy Crudup and Zoe Kazan would be reading passages from the books before the awards were given. I was asked to write a short introduction to the book to be read before each of the dramatic readings.
When the evening arrived, I was proud to be sitting at a table nearest the stage with Mason, several of his friends invited for the occasion, and Rebecca Maslen, Starcherone’s graphic arts editor. The room was stately and spacious, entered into through a side door at the landmark, 42nd St. Manhattan library, a hall of burnished panels and opulent chandeliers, and agents, editors, literary judges, and library officers all in evening dress. I was happy I had appreciated the grandeur of the occasion in my description of Mason’s book, where I had compared his accomplishment to great works of Nabokov and Robert Coover, elaborating new tales out of an inherited literary structure, a grand feat of imagination repurposed from an edifice of the classical tradition.
Ethan Hawke was on stage and said the name of our book, and then grimaced as he looked at the card with the words I had written. “I’ll just read what they have here,” he said, and he grumbled his way through my text for Mason’s book. I don’t blame Ethan Hawke here. He actually said to me later, “All art” – and he said it with a big A – “All Art is noncommercial.” But as I heard the other books introduced, it became clear that I had not observed a form that I was supposed to have known. I was supposed to have provided plot summary, as in the following, adapted from a dust jacket of a random book recently sent me by a mainstream publisher, whose author and title I will leave anonymous in this context, as I do not wish to call any particular realist author the enemy, but rather observe a structural assumption of our contemporary literature –
Name of character is untroubled by his net, contented bachelor life in bustling New York City, filled with sophisticated friends, an undemanding lover devoted to her own career, and his wise brother, a psychiatrist who is the only one who sees and understands him completely – just the way Name of Character wants it. Then, on an ordinary day, First Name arrives home to find a letter awaiting him with a postmark from an unfamiliar town: Shady Grove, New York…
Title of Book is a gripping and evocative novel that resonates on every page with joys and pains of being alive.
This form assumes, in its structure, a realist work, or at minimum, a non-metafictive one. What should I have said of Mason’s book, which not only modeled itself on Homer but sometimes repeated episodes with variations.
A Greek sailor, hero of numerous bloody battles, many long years away from home, encounters myriad strange obstacles as he attempts to return. Meanwhile his faithful wife, beset by men seeking to fill the shoes of her departed husband, vie for her attentions, while she knows not whether he lives or dies. Sometimes episodes in their lives bear uncanny resemblances to things they have experienced before, in this tale unlike anything you have ever read, unless you’ve taken a sophomore-level Introduction to World Literature class.
Experimental fiction today can partake of many different strategies, including the fabulism and reflections on the processes of fiction-making alluded to before, but experimental fiction always presupposes this: that you know what you are reading is made up of words, and that,
a) acknowledging itself as being made of words, there is an element of artifice in the work that is deliberate and thus allows possibilities other than what might appear in straight reportage or nonfiction, and/or,
b) there is an art form that creates its objets d’art from words that has already existed for many years, and is called literature, and the work under hand is conscious of itself within that art form.
Regarding b, I have observed for many years on the part of experimental fiction writers a tendency to be more aware of traditions of literature in their work than writers who themselves practice traditional forms, whose works may appear to be wholly unaware that there is anything called literature. Perhaps this is because a great many books these days are written for the purpose of desiring to be converted to film or television, and American film and television has for many years pretended that literature does not exist. It is unnerving, though, when our literature pretends our literature doesn’t exist. Here are two cases in point from books out this season from Starcherone – and with this I will end – which practice what I have sometimes called pastmodernism – the tendency on the part of innovative books to reference other books and the traditions of art, literature, and the humanities generally, a tendency that perhaps reaches one (though not the only) logical end in the work of David Markson, a writer whose late books were comprised of collages of other books. Gretchen Henderson’s The House Enters the Street is a novel comprised of discontinuous stories, including the saga of several generations of an Iowa family whose progenitors emigrated from Sweden, and a California mother and daughter who attempt to move on from the effects of a devastating house fire. But the novel itself is also a house, and the house is that of modernist Umberto Boccioni’s futurist painting “The Street Enters the House,” where activities and characters enter and exit until there is no distinguishing what is inside or outside, or for that matter, whether a meaning has been constructed by art or literature or music or all three at once. The novel moves back and between plots, arts, and approaches, and is fundamentally and radically a construction, a work. Another pastmodernist work from Starcherone is Kent Johnson’s notorious A Question Mark Above the Sun. Positing that Poet Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” was actually written instead by O’Hara’s friend and literary executor Kenneth Koch, Johnson’s book is simultaneously a work of conceptual poetry, literary criticism, and a multi-genre anthology centered around a novella comprised of book reviews. Johnson has a very good circumstantial case to make for his thesis; he delves into the typefaces signifying various typewriters, who owned such typewriters, who took them to which apartment and when and how we know. He follows the very real and autobiographical questions O’Hara’s roommate Joe LeSeuer has about the poem’s sudden appearance after O’Hara’s death, though it had allegedly been written many years before. But then he has many of the most major revelations of these facts made by characters acknowledged as fictional creations. Story is front and center, and if the secrets of poetry are not actually protected by a cabal of well-positioned poets and critics led by the powerful and enigmatic Jeremy Prynne, you half suspect those denying it are only doing so because someone got to them.
There is no one one way to write experimental fiction, and that’s the point. As an editor who reads and publishes the stuff, I say “Surprise me.” When I write it, I say to the paper, to the pen, to the computer, “Surprise me.”
I still wish I could wear a lab coat.
Ted Pelton is the author of four books, including the novel Malcolm and Jack (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006) and the novella Bartleby, the Sportscaster, and recipient of National Endowment for the Arts and Isherwood Fellowships in fiction. He is the founder and publisher of Starcherone Books, and Chairs the Humanities Department at Medaille College of Buffalo, New York.