All Good Things Must End: Jenn Sums up Our Summer of Experimental Fiction

Now that our Experimental Summer is over, Jenn wonders if maybe "Experimental" wasn't quite the right word to use. But we've already bought the beaker....

Brian and Jenn made it their mission this summer to open up their reading lives to the weird, the odd, the curious, the avant garde, and the totally out-there in the world of fiction. We’ve reached the end of the series. Jenn is here to sum it all up for us.

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Post by Jenn S.

Alas, alack our Experimental Summer is at its end—despite persistent high temperatures here in Texas. Looking back over our posts, I’m pretty sure it’s time to scrap the term experimental altogether. Because while experiment suggests tinkering, in a lab, wearing some kind of protective gear, more often than not experimental writers aren’t just tinkering with the rules of traditional fiction; they’re ignoring them, imploding them, or creating something utterly different. They’re definitely not wearing gloves. How else could we account for something like Anne Carson’s multi-genre Autobiography of Red or Georges Perec’s computer-generated How to Ask Your Boss for a Raise?

I’m not the first to notice that the term doesn’t work. If you took a look at any of Htmlgiant’s “What Is Experimental Fiction?” interviews, you probably noticed that just about none of the authors they asked accepted the term or readily called their writing experimental. Some opted for a new category, “innovative fiction.” For more on that, pick up the new anthology Blake Butler and Lily Hoang compiled, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers. It’s an awesome introduction to the future of fiction writing that you may not know about yet.

Still, “innovative” isn’t that much better; it just focuses on the outcome of the experiment, right? It sounds like writing that leads to the generation of some new product, like an innovation in technology. And, as it happens, not all experimental fiction does that. I think if this summer has taught us anything, it’s that these texts don’t easily fall under any category—and that’s what makes them similar. Every one of them surprised us. So how about surprise fiction? Okay, it’s not a term that’s going to catch on, but each author offers us something not all writers do: the unexpected. They require a new category and perspective, because these works are united by what they do to the reader, not by how they were made or whether they fit traditional molds. These are all authors who surprise us on a more or less continual basis. I have no idea what Anne Carson is going to write next, or if it’s going to come in a box or fit on a shelf or what.

Another way of saying this is, these writers aren’t coming out with many sequels. They aren’t doing the same thing twice, because to do so would be, well, expected.

Here’s to some notable surprises and the end of our summer of experiment:

1. Generally, an author photo with a cat means great fiction is in store.

2. Experimental/surprise fiction can be really fun to read.

3. But not all the time.

4. Some books experiment more than even I can handle.

5. (Remember when I said I would review Ben Marcus’ Notable American Women? About that…)

6. Other books pose a challenge, but reward the readers who make the effort.

7. Many books involve animals in totally surprising ways—some that talk (like Amelia Gray’s penguin), some that don’t (Lydia Davis’ inscrutable cows).

8. The animals usually survive, which is more than other genres can say. Lookin’ at you, literary fiction.

9. Ghosts appear frequently, sometimes naked. They can be funny, sad, or both. The ghost itself tends not to surprise anyone in the story.

10. Books can be really good without making a whole lot of sense (see Carole Maso).

One thought on “All Good Things Must End: Jenn Sums up Our Summer of Experimental Fiction

  1. I’ve been following (and sharing) this series with great interest. As one of those Experimental Fiction writers interviewed at HTML Giant, I may be the “almost none” who accepts that term. I try to mix it up with “innovative,” and “non-traditional.” But “surprise” is great fun, and I like it.

    This is a delightful summation. Thank you.

    In my story, the ghost sees the main character naked, who sleeps on top of her, as she is lying in the family bed. Surprise isn’t exactly the word for it. The ghost does survive.

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