There is an interesting article in the October Harper’s by Ben Marcus on experimental fiction, publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it. The argument is essentially that the novel is certainly dead if the leading novelists (such as Franzen) intentionally avoid trying anything new, (and attack those who do). “The notion that reality” he says, “can be represented only through a certain kind of narrative attention is a desperate argument by realists themselves, who seem to have decided that any movement away from their well-tested approach toward representing the lives and minds of people would be a compromise. Because of the deep engineering of realism (a brilliant feat, I agree) has already been accomplished, we must either sign up to practice it or work in exile under slighting names and increased marginalization. Never mind that it already has been accomplished, and that ambition, or even sheer curiosity, would ask us to forge something new.”

But, alas, “calling a writer experimental is now the equivalent of saying his work does not matter, is not readable, and is aggressively masturbatory. But why is it an experiment to attempt something artistic? A painter striving for originality is not called experimental. Whether or not originality is a large or small myth, an outsized form of folly or a quaint indulgence, a visual artist is expected at least to gun for it. Without risk you have paintings hanging in the Holiday Inn. But a writer with ambition is now called ‘postmodern’ or ‘experimental’, and not without condensation.”

This debate, I imagine, has a lot of commercial implications for professional writers such as Marcus (and Franzen). But, from a purely literary point of view, agreeing with Marcus only gets you so far.

As noted my Is the Novel Dead? piece, “I think that Strong Motionis a great book. I think Baudalino is a great book. I think Seven Types of Ambiguity is a great book. But I’m not sure if they are great in some novel way that books have never been great before.”

Yet, on the other hand, I’m not sure that the “lyrical” effort of attempting to “look deeply into the possibility of syntax as a way to structure sense a feeling, pack experience into language, or leverage grammar as a medium for the making of art” (as Marcus puts it) is necessarily, in and of itself, novel, much less good.

I don’t know about William Gaddis, but I, too, would probably in many cases rather watch The Simpsons… (particularly one of the better episodes from one of the early seasons, such as the Daredevil episode or the David episode, which were both pure genius; the David episode possibly one of the best half-hours in television history).

I love As I Lay Dying and Moby Dick and A Child’s Christmas in Whales, but that doesn’t make every “postmodern” or “experimental” or “lyrical” book good, much less enjoyable.

While I’m not sure I can say whose work ultimately “matters”, I don’t think I would hesitate too long before pronouncing an “experimental” book “not readable” or perhaps even “aggressively masturbatory”.

And, while I’m not sure I can always put my finger on it, I feel, instinctively, when I read (Franzen’s) Strong Motion, for example, or Baudalino, that I am reading “literature” that is qualitatively “better” than virtually everything packed onto the shelves of W.H. Smith and other airport bookstores.

On the other hand, the likelihood that they will be remembered in the same vein as “experimental” masterpieces like The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses which are truly novel and revolutionary is virtually nil.

The challenge, for all of us, is getting beyond mere “experimentation” to something that is truly novel, in terms of the narrative, while at the same time grounded in the fairly eternal essentials of character and mythology with such an integrity that the reader will feel, instinctively, that he or she is reading literature that is an order of magnitude better than the experimental books that are simply not readable or aggressively masturbatory.

Whether that possibility, at this point, is a large or small myth, a quaint indulgence or an outsized form of folly, remains to be seen.


[Note – The Marcus article is “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” Harper’s Magazine, October 2005, p.39.]