Experimental Fiction, Part Two: in Defence of Literary Games

17 Feb

Experimental fiction – difficult, isn’t it?

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t have to be. While works such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or James Joyce’s Ulysses have given it that reputation, it’s by no means a requirement that experimental fiction must be impenetrable. Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual remains eminently readable, I would argue, while playing a host of literary games. The same is surely true of Ulysses itself. Personally, I have always found myself drawn to the experimental aesthetic, to that sense of otherness to be found in such works. So I’m fond of the music of Schoenberg, for example, and the paintings of Max Ernst. Is it all just a question of taste, then? Perhaps. I once joined a reading group – I’m not sure why – and when my choice came around, I suggested Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a beautiful and strange but admittedly, somewhat experimental book. It was slated, almost universally. I made no further suggestions. I’m still tempted, though, to join another and when my choice comes around to pick Finnegans Wake

Experimentation isn’t modernism. Nor is its successor, post-modernism. Think of Tristram Shandy. Think of Nightmare Abbey. It’s about an approach to writing that says a novel can be more than just a narrative with a plot and characters. Sometimes it can be less than this and yet somehow more (think of Beckett’s Molloy). In my view, fiction has to aspire. Just as the development of photography (no pun intended) forced painting to raise its game, so film and then television asked questions about the purpose of fiction. To paraphrase something I once read, if most TV programmes were any good then the novel would be dead. The writer was striking a position, of course, but you can see what he meant. There will always be that beauty of language and clarity of thought to be found among the greatest writers, qualities sufficient in themselves but all too rarely found. Experimentation is one way to lift writing above the mundane, to create a point of genuine interest. And let’s not forget, while the experimentalists labour away in the literary laboratory, many of their ideas come to be incorporated into the mainstream in time. After all, Hemingway’s bold narratives were once considered experimental before a legion of imitators got in on his tough-yet-tender act.

Literary experiments take many forms. There are those metafictional games, challenging the artifice of the novel (Martin Amis appearing  as a character in Money – the precise moment, according to the novelist, when his father, Kingsley threw the book across the room). There is the so-called stream of consciousness, that experiment in dialogue and thought, flowing from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay”) via Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to James Kelman. Constrained writing is another playground. And so we have an entire novella written using just one vowel (Perec’s Les Revenentes) or the same, simple story told over again in 99 different ways (Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style). And for an example of constraint in my own writing, see Extract 2 from ‘The Great English Novel‘. Only the human imagination limits the possibilities. In the wrong hands, of course, such experimentation can be tedious, excruciating and quite possibly both. There’s a field day to be had by clowns and hoaxers. One has only to think of much of the free-form verse composed in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, perhaps the best comparison is  with the visual arts. In the progression of Picasso’s art from the figurative to the semi-abstract, we can see that the great modernist was also a supremely skilled craftsman who’d have been capable of producing sublime representational works had he not been blessed with one of the twentieth century’s finest imaginations. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, on the other hand, have exposed the opposite in moving from ‘conceptual art’ (i.e., Duchamp recycled 70 years after the event) to attempts at traditional representation.

crawford painting

Abstract painting by Simon Crawford – see more at http://simoncrawford.net/Artist/Home.html

Commercial pressures have resulted in a considerable degree of dumbing down so far as the novel is concerned, particularly here in the UK. The demise of the independent publisher and bookshop through the relentless logic of business efficiency has led to an overwhelming conservatism in the trade. Everything it seems these days must be clothed in grey and sniff around after money – even our imaginative space. The condescension with which the British reading public is treated puts me in mind of those book-writing machines in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pumping out their pulp for the proles. What passes now for experimental fiction would never have been classed so in the past. I haven’t managed to finish reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but it strikes me as a pretty conventional book, its ‘nested’ structure aside. Good stuff still occasionally gets smuggled through, but I suspect it won’t be long before we’re returning to our samizdat typewriters or committing books to memory Fahrenheit 451-fashion merely to keep alive the idea of writing that aspires.

Anyway, I’m off to the writing den to fix the guttering and to work on one of my two current fictional projects. Ah, the prosaic and the profound… Happy reading and/or writing!

All text © PSR 2013, image © Simon Crawford

4 Responses to “Experimental Fiction, Part Two: in Defence of Literary Games”

  1. Mari Biella February 17, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    I agree with you entirely, Paul. ‘Invisible Cities’ was marvellous (though I have to admit, to my shame, that I’ve never managed to get through ‘Finnegans Wake’). I haven’t yet read ‘Cloud Atlas’, but I’ve heard good things about it.

    I agree that ‘fiction has to aspire’. Sadly, I’ve found that my own willingness to be experimental has become somewhat atrophied in recent years, which I put down in large measure to my having followed the advice that is often handed out to aspiring writers a bit too assiduously. One ‘how-to’ book I read actually began with the words – I kid you not – ‘Do you want to be the next Dan Brown?’ I should have thrown it across the room then, but for some reason I didn’t. To my shame.

    Which leads me neatly on to ‘dumbing down’ – it’s infuriating. Some people may say that the publishing trade is just responding to existing public tastes and preferences, but I find myself wondering if they don’t in fact help to create them, at least in part. I certainly don’t object to popular, conventional fiction per se (and my own writing style is, to be honest, far from being deeply unconventional), but it’s very worrying if this is the only thing on offer. The ease of self-publishing may help in this respect, but there too writers are at the mercy of big businesses, most notably Amazon. And, I have to admit, many self-published authors have adopted the business mindset without question. It’s depressing, and to be honest I’ve no idea whether it can be turned around. But then again, I’m heartened by the fact that there are many talented and passionate writers who just keep on writing away, despite the odds being stacked against them. I hope, for their sakes, that the tide turns.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves February 17, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Thanks for your comments, Mari.

    ‘Invisible Cities’! Books like that are the reason that I read and the inspiration for my own writing, though inevitably, what I write falls very far short of those standards. For myself, I simply refuse to write a middlebrow, straight narrative. I just wouldn’t be able to sustain the interest in it. I write to entertain and challenge myself (though I listen to what trusted writing friends have to say to me). Money has nothing to do with it. And if that means my fiction won’t be published then so be it.

    For me to be interested in reading a book, it must have something about it. I don’t mind if the structure is conventional or the style traditional so long as the ideas seem original or the language is beautifully used or the story has resonance. If there are games or wordplay involved, then all the better, from my point of view! It seems to me that it’s becoming harder and harder to find such works and the more monopolised the book trade becomes the worse it’s going to get. I still discover interesting new authors, from time to time. A few years back, Edward Carey wrote a couple of deeply strange books that fired my imagination. Such works still make it through, occasionally. Much of what I read is literature in translation from countries where the writing scene appears less moribund.

    As for your books, Mari, I’m sure that they are intelligently and meticulously written, despite your modesty about them. The self-appointed experts in how-to-write books and on creative writing courses place writers in a straitjacket. I pay them no attention. There are no rules except those that you impose upon yourself, if you choose to do so!

  3. PK Read March 8, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Good post, Paul. For what it’s worth, I doubt that David Mitchell would classify Cloud Atlas as experimental himself, as it is really a series of novellas, vaguely linked, and then nested. The writing itself, which I confess I really enjoy, is straightforward prose.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves March 8, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Hi PK and thanks for your comments. You may well be right about Mitchell’s view of his own work. The prose is indeed straightforward, and that’s not a bad thing per se. I know that a lot of people have enjoyed his work. I was using the fact that ‘Cloud Atlas’ has been trumpeted as experimental as an indicator of the lack of adventure in the UK publishing mainstream. Things are much better in France, I believe!

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