Experimental Fiction: What is it?
The brief definition offered by a book I am about to recommend says it is “the intention… to experiment and create fiction that sets out to break new ground and deviate from traditional realist fiction. ”
Such deviations have taken countless forms over the years which is one of the reasons why experimental fiction is often described in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. And it is not new, in the sense that art is always innovating but in the 21st century we are now able to bring new ideas to more people, more quickly than ever before.
I have wanted to learn more about experimental fiction for some time and put what I already knew about it, into context. Coming across new ways to structure stories excites me and I am always impatient to try them these out for myself. However, having recently written one short story backwards and another one in numbered sections that jump across time, I get the feeling that experimental fiction is probably a whole lot more fun to write than it is for others to read.
Despite this, I do feel that linear realist novels and traditional plots now come across as tired and a tad formulaic, and this is especially true of short fiction, so I am interested to come across growing numbers of writers (and not just the big names) deviating from old patterns to demonstrate what stories can be capable of.
At the same time I can’t help feeling feel caught between a sense that some forms are no longer the best fit for our contemporary world and that we should be open to something that may be a more appropriate fit, and finding many of my recent discoveries difficult to appreciate, understand even, let alone enjoy, a consequence of being asked to experience something in a way that traditional readers and writers are not prepared for or equipped to do.
Here are some of the things you might expect to find in a work of experimental fiction; often the opposite of what is accepted as essential in a classic story:
- No epiphany
- Characters that don’t grow or change; that are replaced by what Philip Stevick calls “a perceiving mind” rather than a character.
- ‘Plots’ that are fragmented, non linear, cyclical, mosaic, shapeless, jump around in time, are anti climactic, exploratory and/or without any single overriding idea or theme
- Interruptions, commentaries and asides
- Anti real or fantastical
- A resistance to introspection, to action even.
- Extremes of experience and behaviour.
- A disappearance of plot altogether. This is seen as too contrived as life is not shaped in such a way.
- Includes multiple texts such as letters, lists, emails or song lyrics
Its a good starting point; a non academic book of less than two hundred pages for the reader or writer, who wants to know more about major themes in 20th century experimental fiction and where the novel might be headed in the new era, beyond postmodernism.
The book is called Experimental Fiction by Julie Armstrong and is published by Bloomsbury. It is organised into four parts, Modernism, The Beats, Postmodernism and the New Era and these are preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. Each part includes five or six chapters in which the author discusses Realism, Anti Novels built from scraps, Electronic, Hyper and Interactive Fiction, the Gender Crises and much more.
I particularly like the two columns in the introduction that clearly list what Traditional Realist Fiction attempts to do, against what Experimental Fiction attempts to do. Some of the writers referred to are Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Proust, Ellison, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Calvino, Winterson and up to a dozen more, yet though although their work is discussed and some quotations provided, in the main it is up to the reader to find examples of their work elsewhere. At first I thought this was an oversight; I wanted to see examples to better understand the points the author was making, but each section is followed by a reading list which does allow you to follow up these points and to make further discoveries of your own. In retrospect this is probably more valuable. You may also want to check out ‘Anti Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction’ by Philip Stevick that gives a flavour of the work of a range of experimental writers.
The Down Side:
Sadly there are an awful lot of typos, missing letters and other mistakes in the book, as well as short passages that are repeated at the beginning of each section, which is rather off-putting, but I urge you to try to ignore those if you can, as the content is broad ranging and engaging.
When I saw there were exercises, I was delighted, especially as each exercise is designed to elicit a particular kind of writing, but of the exercises are difficult, like this one:
“Imagine you are one of the Beats in a club listening to jazz and engaging in conversation” (p67)…..This is “learning to create writing that mirrors Jazz.”
A jazz club in America , in the 1950’s, where conversations were likely to be about music, politics and drugs? Would most people find imagining themselves into this world do-able off the cuff? It requires quite some imagination, prior knowledge or research, I think.
What about this one on Twitter Fiction? You are asked to write a complete story in up to 140 characters. Challenging maybe, but more do-able
There are around three exercises per chapter, so there is plenty to choose from.
Just before I close I want to tell you that The Wigtown Book Festival, (Scotland’s National Book Festival)
is just around the corner, at the end of September, and I have a ticket to a work shop on Non Linear Fiction. I can’t wait to see what that is all about and I will of course let you know anything I learn that is of interest. I will also be writing posts on various other aspects of the Festival too, which I hope you will enjoy. Perhaps I will see some of you there? You can find the Festival Programme here in case you would like to see what’s on offer….