06 October 2004

Experiment and Fiction 2

During my recent pause from blogging, I realized what I like most about this medium is not the opportunity to spout out my own questionable opinions, but rather the opportunity to participate in conversations. In the comments to my previous entry, a wide variety of people offer valuable thoughts, arguments, and clarifications.

I like Jeff Ford's first comment so much I want to draw a bit more attention to it by quoting it here:
It's my belief that when most of the writers you mentioned wrote their works, they were not "experiments" but instead passionate expressions of each artist's vision. A good reader can smell an "experiment" a mile away. When the vision dictates the form and the form no matter how different must be itself, that's not an experiment, that's writing a story. Much value is placed on "experiment" these days but less is placed on the true expression of a vision. Some of the greatest of these appear completely traditional, devoid of a recognizeable style, clear as water. An experiment is a test, as a reader I want the thing itself.
Also, I should point you toward Derik's marvelous blog MadInkBeard, which is devoted to literary constraint (e.g., what the members of Oulipo have done). Derik has been writing a lot about Gilbert Sorrentino, a writer who certainly deserves more attention (in fact, I quoted him myself one day a few months back -- a passage somewhat relevant to this discussion).

I should also point your attention toward Ray Davis's marvelous site Pseudopodium. In fact, Ray even has a great post that continues this very conversation.

In the comments, David Reilly disagrees with my characterization of Dubliners, noting that, indeed, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Maupassant had written similar sorts of stories before Joyce. I was thinking of a different context -- the context of Irish literature and society at the time Joyce was writing. According to Richard Ellmann's biography, Joyce read any Irish writer he thought might be doing similar work as he was, and ended up disappointed that no-one was actually doing so (at least to his standards. He also claimed not to have read Chekhov at the time he was writing his own stories). Whether something is "experimental" or "innovative" often depends on the perspective you choose and the contextual filter you apply. David Reilly and I don't particularly disagree, we're just choosing vastly different points of comparison.

Over at his blog, Alan DeNiro has some interesting posts about poetry: innovation, generations, teaching, reading. I particularly like the idea of mixing incompatible manifestos to discover new paths to explore, as I generally find myself attracted to movements that seem mutually exclusive. Even though I love the idea of bizarre, mind-busting, tradition-killing innovation in writing, the truth is that most of what I read and like to read is pretty traditional, and I have less patience with half-successful innovative writing than I do with half-successful traditional writing. But I know few joys greater than watching a writer accomplish something that seems, in concept, impossible or foolish. A recent example is Stepan Chapman's story "The Revenge of the Calico Cat" in Leviathan 4 -- in a book where some of the more obviously experimental stories didn't work for me (explanation forthcoming in a month or so at SF Site), Chapman's story is an example of a brilliant writer making a story work that has absolutely no right to work at all. It's an existentialist tale starring toy stuffed animals, told through multiple narratives and viewpoints, and it manages to be funny, sad, moving, and stunningly complex. (Toy stuffed animals!)

Since not enough women have joined the conversation here, let me end with another quotation from a contemporary writer who happens to be female, Suzan-Lori Parks, from an essay at the beginning of her book The America Play and Other Works:
Playwrights are often encouraged to write 2-act plays with traditional linear narratives. Those sorts of plays are fine, but we should understand that the form is not merely a docile passive vessel, but an active participant in the sort of play which ultimately inhabits it. Why linear narrative at all? Why choose that shape? If a playwright chooses to tell a dramatic story, and realizes that there are essential elements to that story which lead the writing outside the realm of "linear narrative", then the play naturally assumes a new shape. I'm saying that the inhabitants of Mars do not look like us. Nor should they. I'm also saying that Mars is with us -- right on our doorstep and should be explored. Most playwrights who consider themselves avant-garde spend a lot of time badmouthing the more traditional forms. The naturalism of, say, Lorraine Hansberry is beautiful and should not be dismissed simply because it's naturalism. We should understand that realism, like other movements in other artforms, is a specific response to a certain historical climate. I don't explode the form because I find traditional plays "boring" -- I don't really. It's just that those structures never could accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me.

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