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  • What Do We Mean by "Literary Experimentalism"?:Notes Toward a History of the Term
  • Paul Stephens, Independent Scholar (bio)

The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Formerly, whenever anyone said that the music I presented was experimental, I objected. It seemed to me that composers knew what they were doing, and that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances . . . . Now, on the other hand, times have changed; music has changed; and I no longer object to the word "experimental."

John Cage, Silence

Avant-Gardism/Postmodernism/Experimentalism: Synonymous Terms?

Ben Marcus's cover article in the October 2005 issue of Harper's brought the term "experimental fiction" to an unusually broad audience. Titled "Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it," the article primarily takes the form of a jeremiad against Franzen. Marcus describes Franzen's unusual hostility toward experimental writers at great length, and he makes a strong case against those who would deny that literary innovation is still possible or significant. But a curious feature of Marcus' article is that he seems not to define what he means by "literary experimentalism"—or rather he implies a definition. Perhaps [End Page 143] the term has become so ubiquitous as to not need defining. Nonetheless, I find myself asking: Is literary experiment simply synonymous with literary innovation? Is literary experiment in any sense truly systematic? To what extent does it entail a notion of literary progress? Is literary experiment simply a term relating to literary form? Or does it confer a kind of epistemological privilege on a humanistic activity?

I offer such a barrage of questions not in the hope of answering them definitively, but to suggest how complex the term may be. I often use "literary experimentalism" myself when describing the kind of literature I study, and I am not sure I always give good explanations to readers who are unfamiliar with such writing. As is now common practice, I often use "avant-gardism" interchangeably with "experimentalism."

Marcus' article made me wonder if the terms should be used with more care. While the term "avant-garde" has been the subject of intense debate among scholars, "literary experimentalism" has remained more amorphous. Matias Veigener suggests that "'experimental writing' is a grab bag, which refers to the great variety of texts, methods and authors that generally fall outside of mainstream publishing. It is notable that the term is never historical" (71). This essay recognizes that here can be no comprehensive history of a term so broadly used.1 At the same time, I argue that to overlook the history of the term literary experiment is to ignore the influence of literary institutions—particularly universities, but also publishers, journals, and communities of writers—in shaping literary production and literary value. This essay attempts to historicize the term "literary experimentalism" as a concept central to contemporary literary form as well as to the ways in which postwar writers have defined themselves. My effort to historicize literary experiment is not meant to suggest that institutions rigidly determine the content of experimental writing, but to suggest that experimental writing's continuing relevance depends, at least in part, on an understanding of its contexts and aims. One contribution of experimental writing, I suggest, is that it provides what Christian Bök calls a "surrational" critique of scientific and humanistic discourses and institutions. Another contribution of experimental writing—and this is perhaps the most consistently agreed upon theme by those who use the term—is that it implies a critique of the subjective ego of the writer, and correspondingly requires the development of new forms and methods. Perhaps ultimately what is being experimented with are received notions of what constitutes [End Page 144] literary value. It is to these themes that I return at the conclusion of this essay.

Ostensibly Marcus's goal is to champion literary experiment, and yet I agree with Matias Vieneger's assessment that...