Arguably what has over the past 50 years been called “experimental” fiction is inherently a “conceptual” fiction. The efforts among such postwar American writers as John Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Raymond Federman to question established norms and to extend the formal possibilities of fiction challenged readers to put aside the assumption that a work of fiction is identical with its “story,” which in turn enlists “character,” “setting,” and “theme” to give it substance. Not all readers would necessarily describe their expectations in this way, or cling rigidly to them, but even the innovations of modernism (which arguably only altered perceptions of how plots could be organized and characters presented) did not finally overturn assumptions about the centrality of narrative as the default structural principle of fiction.
Writers like Sorrentino and Federman contest these assumptions by disrupting complacent reading habits and substituting for the formal structure provided by narrative (a structure that pretends to be no structure at all but instead the embodiment of fiction in its natural state) an alternative form created for this particular work, whose “concept” the reader must ultimately grasp in order to affirm the work’s aesthetic integrity. Inveterate experimental writers such as these essentially attempt to reinvent “form” with each new work, requiring that readers regard literary form (at least in fiction, although the stakes are the same in poetry as well) as perpetually unsettled, always subject to revision and re-creation. Most readers of fiction, of course, remain unwilling to relinquish their inherited conception of form as something already known, an established paradigm by which to judge the work’s “success,” and so experimental or adventurous writers must still attempt to break through ingrained reading habits by, if necessary, rudely interrupting them.
Perhaps it is the persistence of these passive reading habits, despite the efforts of various outlaws, absurdists, metafictionists, and other assorted postmodernists, that accounts for the appearance of a more direct form of conceptualism in Davis Schneiderman’s [SIC], as well as his previous novel, Blank (2011). (INK, the third book in a conceptualist trilogy, is scheduled for publication in 2014.) Both books bring to fiction the programmatic conceptualism that has featured prominently in American art since Joseph Kosuth’s 1969 manifest, “Art After Philosophy,” and that more recently has been rather flamboyantly adapted to poetry by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Blank is a series of pages that are, well, blank except for a few pages with chapter titles on which the blank pages refuse to elaborate. Schneiderman has said of the book that it “takes as its starting point that there is no starting point… this is literature that exceeds its frame and grows to encompass and then process its own discussions” and that it is “a conceptual work that allows you an entry point into a world beyond realist and experimental/innovative literature. This is conceptual work that responds to the at-times alienating character of contemporary art.”
While such remarks surely do manifest a kind of post-ironic glibness that warns us not to take them altogether seriously, finally we have to accept that the provocation of Blank is indeed directed toward the purposes Schneiderman describes here, or the book threatens to become merely a joke (although we should not underestimate the extent to which it is indeed intended partly as a joke). No doubt Schneiderman does want us to think of his book as going “beyond” both “realist and experimental/innovative literature” and to regard its “content” as radically indeterminate (if it can be said to have content). That the book is meant as a response “to the at-times alienating character of contemporary art” is somewhat vague—What kind of response? To what feature of contemporary art that makes it “alienating”? But more generally this notion that art is fundamentally a response to the nature of art is one of the controlling ideas behind conceptual art going back at least to Kosuth (who himself argues it goes back to Duchamp). Presumably Schneiderman wants us in particular to have in mind the “character” of contemporary fiction (especially in its “literary...