What is “Experimental” Fiction?
In cruising the Writer’s Market and similar references, you will come across the “experimental” genre:
Fiction areas of interest: Action/Adventure, Experimental, Family Saga, Glitz, Historical, Humor, Literary, Mainstream, Mystery/Suspense, Religious, Thriller, Women’s.
One definition of an “experimental novel” might be “a novel without much story.”
Writers of experimental fiction are more interested in being innovative than in being understood. One commenter on a writing site writes:
I love experimental fiction. But, I never bring it to the beach with me.
Experimental fiction may be intellectually challenging, but it is not comfortable to read because it clashes with the reader’s expectations.
Most readers of fiction expect novels to adhere to certain conventions:
at least one sympathetic character with whom we can identify and root for
a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end
a narrative style that draws us into the fictional dream
language that conforms to standard rules of syntax, meaning, and punctuation
typography that conforms to printed conventions regarding margins, etc.
Experimental fiction breaks one or more of the conventions that the reader expects to find. All the main characters may be depicted as hateful, disgusting human beings. Instead of delivering a discernible story, the writer may ramble on about this and that, piling digression upon digression. As the reader attempts to settle into the fictional dream, the writer may intrude by addressing the reader directly. The writer may play with language, wrenching meaning and syntax in unexpected ways. The printed page itself may open up with unexpected white space; the text may reel with different fonts and faces.
What’s “experimental” to one generation of readers may not be to the next, as innovations become conventions.
In its most bizarre forms, experimental fiction is not gibberish for the sake of gibberish. Like Picasso, who had mastered his craft well enough to be able to paint conventional portraits before he started distorting the human form, writers of experimental novels master the writing conventions before shattering them in pursuit of innovation.
Experimental fiction is not for everyone, neither writer, nor reader. I’m an experienced and intrepid reader, but I’ll admit that it took me several attempts and a lot of determination before I finally got through James Joyce’s Ulysses. I started Thomas Pynchon’s V once, but did not get past the first couple of chapters. I don’t much care for the stream-of-consciousness writing of Virginia Woolf. On the other hand, I enjoy the work of Kafka, Vonnegut, and Beckett. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, shunned by many an English grad student, is on my list of the most entertaining novels I’ve ever read. At the moment, I’m reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’m finding the characters pretty repellent, but I admire Thompson’s masterly command of language.
You’ll find an informative essay and a suggested reading list of experimental fiction in order of difficulty at Writing.com/.