What I wrote after (finally) reading Ben Marcus’s piece in Harper’s on Jonathan Franzen and experimental fiction

Published by SGJ on January 2nd, 2007 - in bookish, select

[ the title and the whole piece here may not make much sense--it may not anyway--without cueing into TheValve.org, which, it looks like, may have the orignial Marcus article in PDF ]

Just what is experimental fiction, then?

The easiest definition for experimental or innovative or non-conventional fiction is fiction that, both at armslength and upon closer inspection, doesn’t look or read at all like standard, mainstream, commercial fiction. A more biased definition would be ‘fiction that takes chances.’ The other side of that, of course, would be ‘fiction that doesn’t sell.’ Take them both together, and what you have is ‘Fiction that plays enough with form or language or narrative syntax that, quite often, it loses the audience altogether.’ The ‘innovative’ writer’s response to this will often be that it’s not their job to spoonfeed their story out in easily digestible bites—that the real corruption here is an audience that feels entitled to ‘easy’ stories; the ‘mainstream’ writers will counter that, really, it’s not all that hard to make your story difficult to swallow. The hard part, actually, is making it not only edible, but sweet enough that the reader will want more and more.

So you prefer ‘innovative’ to ‘experimental,’ it sounds like.

When Detroit pulls the curtains away from their ‘concept’ cars each year, ‘innovative’ is usually a more enticing term than ‘experimental.’ The idea of getting behind the wheel of an ‘experiment’ suggests that this might work, and it might not. ‘Innovative,’ however, suggests that this is the next step, that inevitable surprise we all want but haven’t been able to articulate, quite.

Then you’re biased?

I like to drive things I’m

Part two of Question 1: Why is experimental innovative fiction?

Innovative fictions are, simply, the mutations without which fiction as a whole couldn’t adapt to the changing world. To put it differently, those innovations of ‘experimental’ fiction which turn out to be apt or effective or economical or eye-catching tend to get adopted by ‘mainstream’ fiction. To put it even simpler, the moment a work which is innovative in form or mode or manner or delivery is successful in terms of sales, that work by definition becomes ‘commercial,’ a status which, due to its dependence on the market, is usually brief, if not ephemeral. Thus, without the innovations experimental fiction offers to mainstream fiction, the audience would drift away, as commercial fiction would only be capable of engaging the audience that was, not the audience that is. The market for fiction would then dry up. So, the argument that innovative or experimental fiction is essentially intellectual masturbation, often not even recouping the cost of its own printing, isn’t taking everything into account, as, without all those poor sales, those beautiful failures, the mainstream books would have only each other to draw on for innovation, in which case, as mainstream fiction is market-driven and can’t really afford to take chances, fiction that can both engage and entertain—satisfy—would wither away, die on the shelf.

Sounds a bit prepackaged.

I thought about setting it to music.

But you’re not uncomfortable summoning natural selection, shoehorning it into the world of books?

All a mutation is is an accidental little error in a big mass replication process. So, get ten thousand of us hammering away on keyboards, trying to stamp out the same best-sellers, there’s bound to be some variation. And some of those variants are bound to be more successful than others. Some might even be so fertile and aggressive that they turn the tables, come to dominate.

You know what it leads to, though, don’t you?

What what leads to?

This whole Darwin angle.

Application to other stuff, yes, to see if it’s a valid model. Like this: ‘As there would be no radio hits without garage bands, no summer blockbusters without independent cinema, so there could be no best-sellers without small presses, always trying new things.’

Yet you didn’t include that in your answer. When you obviously had it ready.

Because if you extend it out of the traditional arts, to, say, sports, then what you end up with is farm leagues feeding into the majors—a hierarchy. Which isn’t something I want to push. Innovative fiction might be passing things to conventional fiction, yes, but by no means is it passing it up to conventional fiction.

So now ‘conventional’ is part of the indictiment.

‘Compliment’ is the word I would choose. Working within genres, within the oftentimes delimiting constraints of inherited conventions, it’s tremendously difficult, but, too, sometimes, tremendously rewarding. I’ve heard poets refer to the strict forms—sestinas, villanelles, sonnets, etc—as ‘baffles’ or obstacles or distractions: things which, if you’re lucky, can occupy your critical faculties to the degree that, while you’re giving all your attention to a rhyme scheme or line order, something good and pure can slip through, find its way to the page. Fiction writers, especially so-called ‘literary’ fiction writers, could learn a lot by filtering their ‘free verse’ through science fiction or horror or romance or the western or erotica or mystery, or any of the other genres or genre-hybrids out there.

You put quotes around literary.

Because it presupposes a hierarchy—that, because it pretends not to serve an audience, that is, not to shape itself according to a rigid set of conventions, it’s essentially ‘other’ and probably even ‘above’ fiction that isn’t just base enough to think of, but to actually go so far as to target an audience, to traffic in a tightly-fenced area which is supposed to be so well-trod that nothing could ever possibly grow there.

‘The Aesthetics of Junk Fiction,’ yes?

Check out what Stanislaw Lem had to say about Philip K. Dick’s body of work. It’s in a book called Microcosms. And now you’re using quote-marks to escape.

Just anticipating your name-dropping.

Well then.

While you’re at it, though, perhaps you could provide some examples to support your previous claims about innovative and conventional fiction.

Yeah, split the camps, get them properly arrayed on the battlefield. That’d be just real helpful.

But you’ve got to have a villain, at least.

Thanks. You could have said ‘nemesis,’ I know. How about the other side of that question instead, though? One person I keep agreeing with is Michael Chabon, when he’s saying that contemporary fiction has let ‘entertainment’ fall by the wayside. That the audience that considers itself ‘literary’ has been conditioned to feel guilty for enjoying what it reads.

Now it’s contemporary fiction vs. ‘literature?’

I hope not. Though, yes, in the past, before writers could insulate themselves in universities, fiction kind of had to be more market-driven: if your words didn’t find an audience, you couldn’t buy groceries.

Or pay your gambling debts, yes. Kind of an old saw.

To say nothing of how it chips away at what I was saying before, about how non-nutritional it would be for commercial fiction to feed solely upon itself.

Yeah.

I know.

But what you’re saying, it seems to be something along the lines of ‘Are the good times really gone,’ all that.

I think the rest of that line is ‘Or are we rolling down the hill / like a snowball headed for hell,’ right? Have we strayed far enough off the course Hemingway and Faulkner set that we’re just spinning our wheels in the soft dirt, not just not going anywhere, but not even able to see the road anymore, where all the important stuff’s sweeping past?

Next you’ll be conjuring Kafka’s hunger artist.

Not anymore, I guess. But I don’t worship much at the altars of Hemingway and Faulkner, either. I mean, I appreciate what all Joyce gave to fiction, but reading “The Deadâ€? is nothing like what I think a good reading experience should be, either. It’s no wonder the NEA is able to pronounce doom, how their polls or numbers or whatever say literacy’s lower than ever. If it is, it might have something to do with teaching writers that mattered, not writers that matter.

And with Chabon’s statement about ‘quality’ fiction no longer stooping to entertain.

You’re taking notes. Good. Though I don’t much care for replacing ‘literary’ with ‘quality.’

It just seemed you were about to conjure Robert Pirsig.

Give me room, I will.

I don’t doubt it. It is kind of surprising that you’re able to go on this whole little rant without indicting movies, though.

That they’re the new novel, what people talk about on the corner now, instead of books or politics or religion? Well, if that is the case, then I don’t think movies have shouldered fiction out of the way or anything. All they’re doing is filling a hole. I mean, humans, us, we’re programmed to engage ourselves with ‘story’—without personal narratives which change from day to day, we wouldn’t be able maintain anything like an identity, a self. All the tricks you see on the page—selecting this event over that event, fast-forwarding, mirroring images, cyclical stuff, dropping into the past to better understand the present, etc—they’re all just the same instinctual stuff we do in our heads, to remain sane and whole. But we need training, too, I’m pretty sure. Reminders. To go the Globe and watch the players traipse through a story we can see all at once, from beginning to end—a story in which there’s no extra, nothing left over, a story in which everything means something, everything matters to the characters. If we’re lucky, we can walk out of an experience like that and our eyes will retain that same focus for a few steps, and our world will be momentarily re-enchanted: everything will matter.

And here I thought you were talking about movies.

I’m talking about story. Whether we get it on the stage or the page or the cineplex doesn’t matter, really. Just that we get it. And, yeah, right now maybe movies, because they’re so box-office driven, are providing the audience with tighter stories. For about half the price of a hardback book.

But you get to keep a book.

Or a DVD, yeah, which costs the same. Forget it.

You were finally working your way up to an indictment, though, it sounded like.

Just . . . the chain bookstores, I suppose. Granted, innovative fiction’s not exactly designed to fly off the shelves. All the same, though, if there could be a section for it in the bookstore, where you could browse the crazy shit, and it would actually stay there for longer than the standard three-month rotation, then something good might happen. Not saying those writers would get rich or anything, but that the audience which had maybe been slipping away from fiction might return. Singly and then in pairs, and then in mass. There’d be a section of the bookstore that wasn’t boring, I mean.

Like you don’t know that boredom is just an expression of narcisism?

Like it’s not narcissistic to walk out of a story experience and, for a few steps, think that everything around you matters in this story you’re in, this story that you’re suddenly starring in?

There’s a point of course where narcisism crosses over into the paranoid delusion.

Things aren’t cheap. I know that, yeah.

You obviously have something else ready, to bring us back to the original discussion.

I wasn’t fidgeting. But yes. Just that there’s an important distinction between an ‘innovative’ writer taking a risk and failing and an ‘innovative’ writer taking a risk and failing and then blaming the audience. It’s one of—

Wait, wait: isn’t there a middle ground there too? I mean, paint this as black and white as you want, we’re still going to suspect some greys.

Okay, yeah. There’s always the chance that an innovative work fails to find an audience simply because the publisher’s marketing engine wasn’t revved up enough, or because, I don’t know, world events were conspiring against its success somehow, each of which is maybe valid, sometimes. As is the case when a work is so ‘innovative’ that its audience is only just then learning the alphabet. However, applying the ‘test of time’ to fiction is a bad idea, I think, as you end up with a lots of works ‘written for the ages,’ etc, and probably never end up connecting with any audience anywhere.

Where ‘connecting with an audience’ is another way of saying ‘plugging into a market,’ yes?

I suppose. But you don’t get the sales unless your stuff really communicates, really and properly connects.

All right. But I interrupted you. Let’s see . . . there’s an important distinction between an ‘innovative’ writer taking a risk and failing and an ‘innovative’ writer taking a risk and failing and then blaming the audience. It’s one of—â€?

I was just saying it’s one of the first things you should learn, writing: if nine out of ten people don’t get what you’re saying, then it’s more likely that you’re not saying it well than that they’re all stupid (the ‘tenth’ person there is most likely related to you, or living with you). The audience, really, is much more sophisticated than most remaindered writers would argue—which is probably why those writers are remaindered in the first place: their fiction may be going too slow for that audience . . .

Yet you’ve been remaindered yourself . . .

Thanks for the reminder.

‘Because you took chances’ is the next part of that, yes?

How about we just move on?

Lead the way.

Okay. Still talking ‘innovative’ fiction. Note that I’m escaping that word, yes. Because there are two kinds, really: the first, which I wholly support, is fiction that ‘experiments’ with form or language or whatever because it’s attempting a more pure honesty, a more immediate or effective or just ‘better’ method or mode of storytelling. In this same vein, some stories, you can extract them from a place so deep within you that, in the light of day, on the page, they look all squiggly and wrong—alien; ‘innovative’; pure. The second kind of ‘innovation’ I don’t agree with, but have seen a lot more of than I ever wanted to: tricks for the sake of tricks. Games. Cleverness. In the same vein as this, of course, is fiction that, at armslength, would appear to be ‘innovative’ but is actually either pirating its ‘innovative’ characteristics from some other work, or, more likely, is just the product of a writer who simply can’t tell a compelling story, can’t control the basic elements of storytelling, or at least corral them for a few pages at a time, and is trying to mask that shortcoming under the umbrella of ‘innovation,’ which is supposed to make a piece too slippery for real criticism.

Funny you’d say that.

Why?

Because I know something. The only reason you’ve structured this whole thing Q&A-style is because you have no real idea how to write an article, much less an essay.

I never said I wasn’t a fiction writer.

Not even going to follow that up, as it insults just about everybody. Getting back to your answer to part two of question one, though, to wrap things up: a corollary of the relationship you suggest between innovative and conventional or commercial or mainstream fiction would seem to be that the writers who actually sell are essentially leeches, drawing everything good from the writers out in the farm leagues.

Nice metaphor-control there. But, without going so far as to acknowledge the whole farm-league hierarchy thing, which I think I’ve already answered, let me resist this ‘leeches’ angle as well: if the commercial writers weren’t out there on the best-seller list, then chances are the editors who are selling those books wouldn’t have any extra money to take chances on books that maybe aren’t such a sure thing. That’s a sidestep, though, I admit—using the specter of finance to deflect your bullet. And yes, that ‘I admit’ itself is of course a rhetorical device for gaining your trust, becoming a ‘reliable’ narrator, and this digression itself is something of a stall, etc. A necessary one, though. Because—and this is maybe where the garage/radio band comparison breaks down even more: the guys practicing in the back room of the house every weekend, looking for, as Springsteen calls it, ‘that million dollar sound,’ they’re doing that after flipping burgers or whatever. Whereas the ‘garage band’ writers, they tend to be in the university, have an HMO card, all that. Which is another digression, I confess, and even probably pushes that myth of the struggling/downtrodden/outcast writer more than I think’s really or even remotely helpful, but still, there’s something there, I think. I mean, maybe that security, it’s skewing things somehow. Not that hothouse flowers aren’t beautiful, just that they’re usually fragile as well. And sterile.

‘Specter,’ ‘bullet’: glad to you see you’re so much better with your figurative language.

We can’t all be you.

And of course you never really answered that question about leeches.

Because I don’t agree with it—what it’s saying I’m saying—but I don’t want to be tricked into saying that, in a perfect world, the innovative writers would pull down commercial dollars, either. Because that would destroy fiction as fast as anything, I think.

Now you’re rationalizing.

I do work in a university, you know. That’s what you’re really trying to get me to say here? That, if I were ‘honest,’ I’d be flipping burgers, writing in the utility room at four in the morning, all that?

Those who can, do, those who can’t—

I’d like to think it’s possible to do both.

Of course you would. That’s so cute.

Thanks. But—that’s all you’ve got? One easy question about experimental fiction, then a half-assed follow-up?

You sound like you have somewhere to be.

It’s 3:28 in the morning, yeah. I still have a half hour to write.

—stephen graham jones, 2.11.06

© stephen graham jones