Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature!
and Other Myths About Nontraditional Fiction

Cynthia Reeves

My nontraditional novella Badlands was written with encouragement from the few teachers in my MFA program who write outside the prevailing mode of so-called “narrative realism.” Like many MFA programs, mine was dominated by teachers and writers of narrative realism, most of whom were — at best — neutral toward nontraditional modes of depicting reality. Thus I was amused when one Badlands reviewer claimed that I’d yielded to what he believed had become a general problem with all MFA programs: that they taught budding writers to write fiction that did not allow readers to lose themselves

in character portrayals, plot, and peripheral allusions. The current vogue for the literary novel […] is too self-conscious for this to occur, and this is the primary weakness of academic tinkering with the novel form. Technique is essential, as is its evolution, but when the novel loses its transparency for the reader — and the sense of story — it is no longer literature. (Gridley Fires)

Moreover, even while claiming that the prose was “flawless,” the same reviewer faulted Badlands for not containing one of the essential elements of narrative realism — a “storyline.” Never mind that he went on to succinctly summarize the novella’s storyline: a dying woman struggles to decide whether to rectify two grave errors from her past (if only in her hallucinations). I would grant the reviewer this — the plot was sublimated to technique because over half of the book was written from the point of view of a woman on a continuous morphine drip. The challenge I put to myself was to develop a stream-of-consciousness technique that captured the moment-by-moment perceptions of a woman succumbing to cancer under the influence of morphine, while at the same time making the technique accessible enough so that the reader was invited into the character’s consciousness rather than “thrown out” of the narrative because the technique was exceptionally demanding. Stream-of-consciousness techniques, by their very nature, place great emphasis on fragmentary structures and unconventional uses of language (for example, unpunctuated prose; rapid inter-cutting of parallel lines of thought, dialogue, or action; and untransitioned movement from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and scene to scene); hence, the effort required to read such passages is significant. Yet, despite my calling attention to the “contrivance” that is fiction by emphasizing language and structure to depict interiority, readers have told me that they lose themselves in Badlands in much the same way they lose themselves in traditional realism, where writers strive for the opposite effect — that is, to mute the contrivance that is fiction.

Apparently the Badlands reviewer had missed the article by Ben Marcus, published in the October 2005 Harper’s — “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.” In his essay, Marcus acknowledges that the deep engineering of, and complexity possible in, narrative realism is “a brilliant feat” (42). That complexity, he argues, “frequently comes in the form of characterization. Characters are built to be intense webs of plausible contradiction, and their often conflicting desires, which can be emotionally self-destructive, war within them to produce dramatic tension. […This] can be immensely satisfying to read” (49).

While Marcus admires the project of narrative realism, however, he wants to expand its definition to include fiction that makes more insistent demands on the reader than that of traditional realism: nontraditional modes that are formally and linguistically self-conscious. For example, he argues that language can “make a more abstract but no less vital entertainment — subtle, unfamiliar, less wedded to preapproved modes, but exhilarating nevertheless” (39). Such expansion would allow us to become more fluent readers and writers in that “the more various the styles we ingest, the better equipped we are to engage and be moved by those writers who are looking deeply into the possibility of syntax as a way to structure sense and feeling, packing experience into language, leveraging grammar as a medium for the making of art” (40).

Marcus’s argument is not mere theory. He notes that there is an area of the brain — Wernicke’s area — that decodes written language. “Think of Wernicke’s area as the reader’s muscle,” he states. “Here is where what we read is turned into meaning. […] If we do not read, or do so only rarely, the reader’s muscle is slack and out of practice, and the stranger, harder texts, the lyrically unique ones that work outside the realm of familiarity, just scatter into random words” (39). In my own experience as a writing teacher, I’ve found this to be true. One example: In a course I teach on the novella, I had a student who struggled with an analysis of motifs in Joyce’s “The Dead.” While he was working on that paper, the class read what is perhaps the most challenging text I assign: Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész. The week after we discussed Kaddish, my student turned in his revised paper and shared his experience of rereading “The Dead” and rewriting the paper. After tackling Kaddish, “The Dead” seemed to him a “simple story,” one whose craft yielded easily upon rereading. The paper he wrote is one of the best I’ve ever received — and I use it as a resource whenever I teach “The Dead.”

And yet, in my experience as a writer, MFA student, and teacher, I find that the reception for nontraditional realism is at best tolerant. Understanding such work requires a deeper understanding of form than that supplied to us — almost from birth — of the traditional form of storytelling: the conflict-crisis-resolution model. Marcus goes so far as to say that writers of nontraditional modes of realism

are being warned off this ambitious approach, and everywhere there are signs that if you happen to be interested in the possibilities of language, if you appreciate the artistic achievements of others but still dream for yourself, however foolishly, that new arrangements are possible, new styles, new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions — if you believe any of this, and worse, if you try to practice it, you are an elitist […]. You stand not with the people but in a quiet dark hole, shouting to no one” (emphasis added). (40)

In the decade since Marcus’s essay appeared, it has been interpreted and reinterpreted in ways that reflect a growing antipathy toward nontraditional fiction. Indeed, as Israeli American novelist and critic Leora Skolkin-Smith observed in her recent review of the experimental prose anthology Wreckage of Reason II (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014): “[It] feels that the possibilities available to an anthology of experimental literary works for finding visibility and favor in our current ‘literary’ environment is slimmer than it was [fourteen years ago].” Some of this antipathy has to do with a misinterpretation of nontraditional fiction’s objectives and of the techniques used to attain those objectives. For example, shortly after the Marcus essay appeared, I attended a lecture by the New York Times best-selling author Jane Hamilton, during which she stated that Marcus was arguing against the kind of realistic stories that long for “something to explain life, something small and basic.” In fact, Marcus is arguing for the very opposite of what Hamilton claims. Nothing in his essay suggests that the goals of telling a story about something “small and basic” and achieving the “global and virtuosic” are mutually exclusive. The work of Toni Morrison is but one example of what can be accomplished in merging both slice-of-life and larger political context, even when a writer’s language is complex, intensely interior, and often verges on the abstract.

By abstract, I mean writing that reflects diverse styles and techniques that allow a writer to convey ideas and emotions through nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational means. The word “nonrepresentational” would seem to imply the opposite of realistic; however, the nonrepresentational is not antithetical to realism, especially as it applies to the way we engage in or reflect any number of altered psychological states (e.g., dream, hallucination, mental illness) as well as the way we experience time (largely through its forward arrow, but also by seamlessly parsing the present moment with moments of memory and anticipation). In attempting to depict these and other extraordinary experiences of reality, the nonrepresentational might in fact be more representational of reality than traditional modes of expression.

Or, as George Saunders put it in a panel discussion at the 2005 New Yorker Festival, “The material world is only the first order of reality.” Saunders’s comment succinctly mirrors a view elaborated upon by Henry James over a century ago. The noted short story theoretician Charles May summarizes James’s views thus:

[James] urged that we must understand reality as a function of perception and therefore as relative and perspectival. There are other worlds besides the world of physical things or the world of ideal relations […]; there is — in addition to these “subuniverses” — the world of the “idols of the tribe,” or the various illusions common to a race; there are supernatural worlds which encompass not only the various religions but also the worlds of deliberate fables such as those of the Iliad or King Lear; and there are numerous worlds of individual opinions and even sheer madness. Each world, insists James, “whilst it is attended to is real after its own fashion; only the reality lapses with attention.” (1)

In my own work, where I strive to capture realistically a character’s precise state of being as demanded by each story, I’ve been guided by James’s idea that reality is a function of perception and thus “relative and perspectival.” Sometimes my efforts to unite form and content in order to represent a particular perception of reality result in a story that follows the conventions of narrative realism. And sometimes those efforts result in what I consider to be, quite simply, nontraditional realism. “The Punk Test,” my contribution to Wreckage of Reason II, is a case in point. In this piece, I proscribed a “slice-of-life” moment characterized by intimidation and the arbitrary imposition of values by “authorities” by appropriating the limiting structure and constrictive rules and language of a standardized test. Playing with the very arbitrariness and implicit values of this fixed form as it gradually breaks down in the course of my story, I was able to parallel in some interesting ways the story’s intentions.

More importantly, though highly “formally” aware, the story shares several narrative elements in common with conventional realism: It focuses on characters and their development over time. It uses retrospective narration. It moves from stability to instability to a new-but-precarious stability and follows the arc of rising action, climax, and denouement reflected in the traditional Freytag triangle. And, contrary to Hamilton’s claim, the story’s core is an emotionally devastating, slice-of-life moment that has haunted the narrator for thirty years because of her failure to act in that moment. Here is an excerpt from the “climactic” scene:

16.     I’m right behind you, Jane. It’s your turn. The crust of the scab swells to a fingernail’s width as your sleeve folds into itself. Higher and higher, past the crease of your elbow where there is a thin ridge of dirt. But Sister [Thomas Michael Joseph] is not concerned with Cleanliness today. She’s focused on Godliness. When the scab finally tapers into the flesh of your pale, thin bicep, I think, How long, Jane? But I say nothing. Father McCabe takes you away, too. Then they tell us this fad, this punk test, is a mortal sin, a violation of the body. Didn’t they call women by men’s names? Didn’t they know all about self-abnegation?

Likewise, in “Confession of the Ugly Girl,” the appropriation of the manifesto as a form, and the unusual uses of point of view therein, underscore my intention to portray a woman deranged by years of bullying. At its heart, however, is the conventional escalating cause-and-effect progression of linear realism.

How was it that the evolution of the craft of fiction from the late 19th century through the 20th century — from the “objective” nature of Chekhovian realism to the subjective interiority of modernism to the wide-ranging formal and linguistic flights of postmodernist experimentation — seemingly ground to a halt in the 1980s? It would be simplistic to lay the blame on any one actor, but a good place to start would be Raymond Carver’s 1981 essay, “Principles of a Story.” In it, Carver argued against what he saw as postmodernist contrivance:

“No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chichi writing […] puts me to sleep. (32)

Of course, Carver’s argument implies that his set of “tricks” — the conventions of traditional realism — is somehow less contrived than those of the modernists and postmodernists. All fiction is a contrivance, a fantasy. The specific techniques writers choose to create their particular fantasies depend heavily — or should depend heavily — on the worlds they’re trying to create. As Vladimir Nabokov has argued in his seminal essay “Good Readers and Good Writers”:

Literature was born not on the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature. (5)

In creating these “shimmering go-betweens,” a writer should consider the range of forms and techniques available — and how particular craft choices influence and satisfy the intentions of each unique story and its world — rather than “default” consistently to traditional modes of storytelling.

What are these techniques? And how are they assigned to the modes of writing — realism, modernism, and postmodernism — developed in the past 150 years? According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, realism is defined as “a mode of writing that gives the impression of recording or ‘reflecting’ faithfully an actual way of life” (Baldick 212). What’s confusing is that the term “realism” can be applied both to a set of literary techniques which are, among other things, “based on detailed accuracy of description” and a language that is more narrative than lyrical, as well as to a movement that “rejects idealization, escapism, and other extravagant qualities of romance in favor of recognizing soberly the actual problems of life” (Baldick 212).

The Oxford goes on to state that “modern criticism frequently insists that realism is not a direct or simple reproduction of reality […] but a system of conventions producing a lifelike illusion of some ‘real’ world outside the text, by processes of selection, exclusion, description, and manners of addressing the reader” (emphasis added) (Baldick 212-13). Whether describing the realism of the second half of the 19th century, or the new, generally more minimalist realism that supplanted modernism and postmodernism in the later 20th century, a common system of conventions applies. These conventions have been described by Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Tradition as: (1) depicting reality closely and in comprehensive detail, even at the expense of plot; (2) elevating character above plot, rendering characters in complexity of temperament and motive and imbuing them with complex ethical choices; (3) creating events that are plausible rather than fantastic or sensational; (4) employing language of the vernacular, not heightened or poetic; (5) minimizing authorial intrusion; and (6) favoring objectivity over subjectivity (1-2).

These “rules of realism” are defined by Marcus in a more succinct way: using more narrative than lyrical language, foregrounding the consciousness of characters, and livestocking those characters in a recognizable setting (41). Lest we take Chase’s or Marcus’s word for it, we might also look at a very similar definition in the textbook Extreme Fiction:

The set of literary conventions for rendering scene, character, and action that we call realism was first practiced in the 19th century […]. Realism relied on a new literary entity we now call character, which brought greater complexity to the human figure. Where the people of fiction had often been simply a collection of characteristics […] the realist character was all these things, but with depth, with a consciousness expressed through subtlety and nuance in every precisely chosen word, gesture, and action. In effect, the realist’s insistence on the close examination of character shifted the focus of the narrative away from the complications of plot to the changes wrought in the characters themselves and their relationships with each other. (Hemley and Martone 3)

Between the realism of the late 1800s and the realism of the late 1900s fell the long shadow of modernism and the foreshortened shadow of postmodernism. Modernism included movements such as Expressionism, Symbolism, and Surrealism. Postmodernism grew out of and overlapped modernism, and included various forms of experimentation such as metafiction, appropriations, and collage. The main difference between the modernists and postmodernists was that

while modernists [were] mournful over the loss of certainty with the rise of technology in the 20th century, the postmodernists tended to celebrate that uncertainty. Fragmentation, uncertainty, and mystery are antidotes, not poisons, to postmodernists who see the grand narrative of the founding of America on democratic ideals and humanitarian principles of justice and brotherhood as having left out the narratives of millions of people […] who suffered as a result of this world view. Postmodernists look with suspicion on any agreed-upon text and take apart or “deconstruct” it much as one might disassemble a rifle […]. (Hemley and Martone 11)

Some (including me) see modernism and postmodernism as forms of realism, because like realism, they represent other ways of re-presenting reality.1 If a distinction in technique is to be made between realism and modernism/postmodernism, the main point of departure is the difference in the treatment of language. Where realism “employ[s the] language of the vernacular,” modernism uses a different approach:

Central to the modernist aesthetic position is a shift away from the objective reality which the 19th-century realists had attempted to capture as unobtrusively as possible to a focus on the subjective vision of the artist and to the artist’s material itself, which in the case of literature is of course language. […] The […] distinctions between [poets and prose writers] became blurred as prose writers turned their attention to verbal fabric, exploring and exploiting its phonetic, semantic, and syntactical potential through rhetoric and rhetorical and prosodic devices, word play, the use of dialectical, archaic, and other distinctive lexicon, and the incorporation into fiction of all sorts of literary and nonliterary genres and discourses. (Rougle 22)

More succinctly, the modernists attempted to “displace the realist emphasis on external reality” (Baldick 213) by capturing the interior, and especially the texture of different psychological states and experiences of time.

The foregoing argument is not meant to suggest that traditional realists ignore form and language, nor does it preclude those who write nontraditional realism from focusing on the development of character or capturing the events of their fiction realistically. But it is the fabric of language and what language can do, its very plasticity, together with attention to unconventional narrative designs, the conscious molding of shape and structure in each fiction, that distinguishes traditional and nontraditional forms. These attempts to disturb readers by adopting complex new forms and styles employ techniques that go back at least as far as the modernists. Contemporary nontraditional writers are simply extending the evolution begun with Joyce and Woolf and Kafka and expanded by the postmodernists. These experiments include: disrupting the forward arrow of time; capturing the flow of thought and reflecting an awareness of new psychological theories through various stream-of-consciousness styles; and using juxtaposition and multiple points of view “to challenge the reader to establish a coherence of meaning from fragmentary forms” (Baldick 159-60).

Postmodernism, which grew out of but didn’t replace modernism, reflects the “culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality” originating in advanced capitalist societies after the Second World War (Baldick 201). It’s impossible to neatly delineate a set of techniques or characteristics to “contain” this movement; postmodernism resists all such containment. It’s possible, however, to describe certain features within the movement. Above all, it echoed modernism’s

alienated mood and disorienting techniques and at the same time [abandoned] its determined quest for artistic coherence in a fragmented world: in very crude terms, where a modernist […] writer would try to wrest a meaning from the world through myth, symbol, or formal complexity, the postmodernist greets the absurd or meaningless confusion of contemporary existence with a certain numbed or flippant indifference […]. (Baldick 201)

Postmodernist forms include metafiction (fiction that calls attention to itself as a construct), appropriations or fixed forms (fictions which borrow form from other types of prose to use as a framework), and collage (the juxtaposition of images, events, objects, and even pieces of prose to achieve its effects). Some theoreticians include magic realism, neo-gothic and “new” horror stories, and “new” modes of science fiction and fairy tale in the postmodernist mix.2

What if writers considered collectively the intentions, forms/structures, and techniques of each of these three major movements — realism, modernism, and postmodernism — as providing the vast range of craft elements, the toolkit, if you will, with which a writer has to work? And what if, once invented, once employed in works of fiction, these techniques were no longer “experimental,” nor their employment necessarily resulting in “experimental” prose? What if, as William Dean Howells asserted over a century ago, realism is “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material”? As evident from this essay, I prefer to call the fictions that result from the application of our wide-ranging toolkit — if a label must be applied — either “traditional” (realism that employs narrative realism’s conventions) or “nontraditional” (realism that attempt to portray reality in less conventional ways).

The word “experimental,” on the other hand, could be limited to prose that explores truly new ways of putting words (and images) together. In this vein, experimental writing would be celebrated as breaking new ground rather than marginalized as too difficult, or worse, as contributing to the decline of literary readership in America. Otherwise, we find ourselves “in the paradoxical position where radical experimentation [becomes] a predictable norm. [… In] recent years the term experimental has been used to describe an increasingly specific range of familiar and canonical forms that emphasize language over narrative and fragmentation over linearity” (“Future of Experimental Writing” 30).

Conversely, one could broaden the definition of “experimental” so that it does not apply only to a narrow range of ground-breaking writing, nor beg the question of whether such writing is “realistic.” In this vein, all writing that takes risks is experimental. Every writer who “is alive to the possibilities of what the fiction might demand” (Sonnenmoser 36), who “won’t fudge the results to serve some end other than the fiction’s” (Sonnenmoser 38), is experimental. It is this vein that Nabokov is mining when he argues:

Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius […] not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. (2)

Why do these arguments matter? First, it’s important to recognize both that criticism leveled against nontraditional writers actually fosters commercial (and self-) censorship, and that much of the criticism is based on false assumptions and specious appraisals. One such fallacy lies in critiques of the work itself (as in the Badlands review) that reveals limited understanding of unconventional techniques and reasons for their application. Worse, such critique demonstrates what Skolkin-Smith characterizes as a “growing hostility expressed by mainstream reviewers for anything written in a manner or style that isn’t consumer-friendly” (emphasis added). She cites reviewer Lev Grossman’s 2007 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” as indicative of this trend.

Another, more curious and damnable criticism is that those who write outside the mode of narrative realism set themselves above writers of traditional realism and are actually (at least partly) responsible for the current lackluster state of American literary fiction. Marcus enlarges upon this argument and its implications in his essay, taking particular aim at Jonathan Franzen. Marcus claims that Franzen and his colleagues have, in fact, assigned at least part of the blame for the waning cultural influence of literary fiction to these writers. According to Marcus:

Franzen’s notion that a writer leaves behind the conventions of narrative fiction only to seek a shortcut to Status seems to me merely his own reason for straying from tradition with his first two [novels] and, again, not a universal trait. His self-protective argument would have us believe, though, that these cynical motives are universal, that because the literary industry is financially imperiled, “fighting other media for its very life,” to do anything but provide realist narrative is actually to do harm. (51)

That experimental writers have very little clout — that is, they’re generally published by little-known presses, read by very few people, and as such have very little influence on the status of American fiction — seems not to matter to Franzen.

What’s actually harmful in the world that Franzen constructs is that — beyond suppressing artistic innovation and encouraging self-censorship — such attacks are also a form of commercial censorship. Experimental writers are largely excluded from the market created by major American publishing houses because their work doesn’t “sell.” This commercial censorship influences readers and writers worldwide. The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo created a stir at the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival and in a subsequent interview with Reed Cooley when she asserted that the simplistic kind of narrative realism imposed upon readers worldwide by New York publishing houses has actually “stolen and changed” the reading habits in Asia. She, too, likens these inherent restrictions to censorship, stating:

Self-censorship happens not only in China, or Iran or ex-Soviet places. It can happen anywhere. If an artist penetrates a certain taboo or a certain power through their work, he or she will face this problem. I’m always saying that commercial censorship is our foremost censorship globally today. Why do we still pretend we are free? […]

     I had lived most of my life in China, and I didn’t know that political and commercial censorship for fiction existed in the United States. Perhaps I was really naïve, but you could imagine that in China we’re told the West is a free world. (Cooley)

More productive than assigning blame for the diminishment of literary readership in America is exploring the implications of that diminishment and how we, as readers, writers, and teachers should react. Among other issues that the foregoing arguments raise are these:

• Isn’t restricting oneself to a single “form” — the conventionally plotted, linear, character-driven story — restricting what one is able to convey (per Nabokov)?

• Do readers and reviewers recognize the prejudices (and lack of understanding) they bring to judging unconventional work, faulting work that does not suit whatever “standards” they have for fiction?

• Would a different sort of marketing strategy for literary fiction — one that embraces traditional and nontraditional realism — promote a more significant readership of all fiction?

• Would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries, a process which sometimes results in new forms and new ways of expressing ideas, if readers and editors were more liberal in the application of the term “realism”?

• Similarly, would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries of realism if writing programs broadened their training to include a larger portion of, and more rigorous training in, modes and techniques of nontraditional realism?

• Would all of these explorations result in a more vibrant, relevant American literature, literature unafraid of grappling with life’s “true” reality — its complexity and ambiguity, its struggle to achieve something outside of the self, its effort to embrace the “other,” its ability to make the reader feel?

This last point is perhaps the most important of the implications of the foregoing arguments. The writer and teacher Kevin McIlvoy has stated this idea most eloquently in his lecture “The ‘Something There’ Sensation”:

And it may be true that 21st-century American realism has so dedicated itself to avoiding that condemnation — “it is touchy-feely work” — that our work too often merely says instead of sings, articulates instead of expresses. We American writers might assume that our fiction is so rarely openly political and more rarely politically partisan because authors do not wish to make a story a form of intellectual argument, work placed contrivedly at the service of our intentions. Fair enough. In the Updikean mode of American realism that I believe is so absolutely dominant now, we should distrust the ways in which ideas might drive us to coolly, indifferently present figures instead of characters, to give our work use instead of defending beauty that simply is. But all of that could lean on false assumptions, that there is after all one legitimate mode because there is only one dominant mode. There are fairy tales to be written for adults, tales still almost blue, Breton says. It could be that we have been so fearful of the touchy-feely for so long now that our stories are, always and finally, more thought than felt, that we no longer know how to make readers actually feel physical revulsion about torture and the isolation of prison, and we no longer know how to make readers feel contempt in their very flesh for those who want to devalue same-sex love and ask us to ignore our fierce physical loyalty to the Earth’s body.

Although Marcus doesn’t address this implication as specifically as McIlvoy, he does suggest that the real reason literature “is fighting for its very life” is not because of the “experimental” forays into realism but quite the opposite: that conventional realism’s “powerful pundits have declared a halt to all artistic progress, declaring it pretentious, alienating, bad for business” (52) and “allowing the whole movement to soften and become false” (42). This is roughly the same argument that Donald Barthelme made twenty-four years ago in his essay “Not-Knowing”: that critics of postmodernism believe that “this kind of writing has turned its back on the world, is in some sense not about the world but about its own processes, that it is masturbatory, certainly chilly, that it excludes readers by design, speaks only to the already tenured, or that it does not speak at all, but instead […] sits in the center of a ring and Knows” (15). Barthelme challenges these assertions:

The problems that […] define the writer’s task at this moment […] are not the kind that make for ease of communication, for work that rushes toward the reader with out-flung arms — rather, they’re the reverse. Let me cite three such difficulties […] all having to do with language. First, there is art’s own project […] of restoring freshness to a much-handled language, essentially in finding a language in which making art is possible at all. This remains a ground theme, as potent […] today as it was a century ago. Secondly, there is the political and social contamination of language by its use in manipulation of various kinds over time […]. Finally, there is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense — I mean our devouring commercial culture — which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of the reader from the writer. (15)

Barthelme’s three difficulties remain today, perhaps made even more pronounced by the advent of the internet, by its attendant proliferation of “published” content, and by the intrusion of “commercial culture” into our lives in ways that Barthelme could never imagine — reality television, cable, video streaming, YouTube, and the like. How can literary fiction compete with so many different modes of visual and verbal stimuli, many of which are much more accessible and easily digested? And what are the consequences of pandering to such “consumerism”?

One consequence is that, even with the rise of multiculturalism in literature that has taken place in the last three decades, certain voices remain underrepresented in literary fiction and criticism, or, at the very least, these voices are relegated to the margins. Skolkin-Smith points to the “troubling statistics” — well-documented by VIDA on its website — “testifying to the glaring inequality in attention given to women writers in comparison to their male counterparts,” let alone the even-more marginalized women writers of experimental prose.3 She goes on to ask more generally:

How do experimental literary writers continue to foster their literary legacy, to offer up profound depths, language, and soul, to grow as writers willing to risk and to toss up, around, and about meanings and connections in ways that rise above entertainment? In other words: to do this thing we still call “prose” and “story” as it evolved during the decades before it was oppressed by the omnipresent forces now censoring writing and writers? (emphasis added)

In a similar vein, Rick Moody has argued that at least some of the fallout from this sort of pandering to the marketplace is the very mendacity we see in the literature that is being published: the trumped-up stories of its practitioners to gain a foothold in the market, and the trumped-up stories of those writing memoir. Moody laments:

[W]hat I blame the culture for is its phobia at the sweet labor of reading […]. Reading requires a persistent, engaged, long-term relationship with a book. It requires passion and commitment and patience, that most unfashionable of contemporary virtues. Books that are slapdash and careless about these ideals of the reading experience, books that are made for television markets, or in order simply to be review-worthy, do not, in my view, have much in common with the kinds of books that lie around for decades and contribute to history. But books that are anything less reek with the perfume of mendacity. (14)

Moody’s assertions have been underscored in the recent argument over “relatability” in literature and its relationship to the ease of identification with a given work. In late July 2014, for example, Ira Glass provoked controversy with his tweet over a performance of King Lear, opining, “Shakespeare sucks.” The reason? “No stakes. Not relatable.” The “relatable” contingent argues that literature has long excluded certain voices and thus leaves the readers who might relate directly to these voices feeling left out. Thus this contingent celebrates “relatable” work that, in today’s parlance,4 means reading about lives that mirror one’s own. But what does restricting literature to this kind of reading experience mean for the greater good, at least as it applies to creating a vibrant verbal art? The answer has to do with the whole project of literature and the difference between identification and relatability. In “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” Rebecca Mead points out the difference between literature’s broader historic goal of “identification” and the contemporary call for “relatability”:

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

     But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism. (emphasis added)

Literature can, and should, serve both purposes: readers should have the opportunity both to find themselves represented but also to find “the other” represented as well. Why? While it may be more difficult to engage a work that inhabits the consciousness of an “other,” it is crucial to literature’s most urgent project (as Marcus, McIlvoy, and others suggest): to discover the many-shaded truths of what we are living through in our contemporary world, especially those with which we have no direct experience.

Moreover, there isn’t a single set of truths, and that’s why a single dominant form and a dominant set of voices — or a kind of literature that strives more (or even exclusively) for relatability rather than identification — cannot hope to capture all of the relevant experiences of contemporary society any more than, say, using a single point of view for all of literary fiction could adequately capture all potential character perspectives. How do we get readers to truly see and feel — for example, to be repulsed by the degradation of prisoners-of-war, or to glean some understanding of the motivations and feelings of their torturers, or to be caught in the nether world of the drug addict who desperately seeks to gain a foothold in the mainstream? What if time in a story is meant to happen at once and over and over again, as some of the recurring nightmares of our age — terrorist acts, false or unjust imprisonment, genocide — seem to happen at once and all over again? What if we simply want to juxtapose “blocks of stuff with such force and volume that the reader finds the wreckage inhabitable” and further, that the effect truthfully captures “our age of stuff, an age of no context where everything matters” (Martone 128)? What if the truth is that the language itself is what creates the costume we want our characters to wear? What if a story wishes to “radically juxtapose the linear narrative of experienced time with the recurrent time of memory, so that we learn how the casual cruelty of time” (O’Rourke) affects characters twice over, as Alice Munro does in her story “Tricks”?5

And what if all of these attempts at re-presenting reality on the page were equally valued, were all considered realism, instead of having some of the modes of expression within realism elevated and some marginalized, some called pleasurable and others dismissed as “tricks”? Would we not, then, come closer to the human understanding that Chekhov so highly prized? Isn’t the alternative a form of censorship?

To a large extent, all of these arguments and counter-arguments depend on why we read and why we write. While many readers prefer traditional fiction that may be “pleasurable” to read, that may be “merely” a slice of life, and which reflects their own lives, or that may be socially and politically relevant as long as it is not argumentative — fiction, especially nontraditional fiction that exploits the full plasticity of language to capture psychological states and experiences of time, can be much more. In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, the French feminist writer Hélène Cixous calls for reading and writing that is a “mortal act,” that figuratively kills us, and laments that “very few books are axes, very few books hurt us, very few books break the frozen sea” (18). The axe and frozen sea echo Kafka, who reproached a friend for reproaching him for not answering his letters. His excuse? He was reading a book so important he couldn’t stop, the kind of book that “wounds and stabs us.” In the letter to his friend, Kafka elaborated:

If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. (Kafka qtd. in Cixous 17)

To create fiction that “wounds and stabs us” is antithetical to making literary fiction more reader-friendly in an attempt to compete for readers from the pool of those who prefer mass-market entertainment. Why dilute the potential for what fiction can convey in a vain attempt to seduce these readers? Instead, we should train readers and writers — at the very least in our high schools, colleges, and MFA programs — to engage in the “sweet but difficult labor” of reading and writing challenging texts, to pursue the truth of what we are living through in our contemporary world, and to seek out the most fruitful ways to express that truth.

  1. It should also be noted that none of these “isms” belong squarely to a particular literary generation. One has only to look at the fragmented narrative of Tristram Shandy (1767) or the early 19th-century stories of Gogol, or the early 20th-century stories of Daniil Kharms, for example, to find the forerunners of postmodern appropriations, metafiction, absurdism, magic realism, collage, and neo-gothic. Furthermore, postmodernism didn’t die with the advent of the “new” realism in the late 20th century. Despite commercial pressures against such writing, nontraditional writers continue to find new ways to mirror the “fragmentation, uncertainty, and mystery” of our contemporary global society.

  3. Interestingly, for a movement whose origins lay (at least partly) in embracing the narratives of millions of people left out of the “grand narratives” of previous eras, the names typically associated with the mid-20th century pioneering of postmodernism are men — Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, William Burroughs, William H. Gass, Kurt Vonnegut, Jerzy Kosiński, and Thomas Pynchon, among others. A more accurate representation of these pioneers should include as well a diverse group of women from varied cultural backgrounds: Muriel Spark, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Anaïs Nin, Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Marguerite Duras, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Grace Paley, Clarice Lispector, Ursula K. Le Guin, Giannina Braschi — to name some is to leave out many others.

  5. Nava Renek’s project to find an outlet for these writers through the Wreckage series is an attempt to “recognize experimental writers, not as marginal guests at the buffet but as essential contributors” (Skolkin-Smith).

  7. Rebecca Mead in “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” gives us a short history of the idea: “Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was ‘relatable,’ she meant that it could be told — the Shakespearean sense of ‘relate’ — or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as ‘relatable’ began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of ‘relatable’ — to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected — first was popularized by the television industry.”

  9. O’Rourke sees the reader’s resistance to such “tricks” as attributable to the fact that “we’re so accustomed to realism we bridle at Munro’s insistence that storytelling like this has lessons of its own — what’s spelled out in the final paragraphs seems unfamiliarly overt, and it’s difficult to sort out what seems facile about this ending from its disorienting power to jar not just [the character’s] expectations, but ours” (2).

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