What is “Experimental” Fiction?

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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/.

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10 thoughts on “What is “Experimental” Fiction?”

  1. Reading works that do not follow the conventions of the expected narrative story arc might be a challenge and joy that readers can cultivate. “Experiential” might also be a good label in that readers can explore worlds that don’t work according to the patterns that we expect in our daily lives. I return from a visit to Murakami’s hard-boiled wonderland and Pynchon’s Vineland with a fresh set of senses with which to appreciate my daily life.

  2. Recently I discovered a pot of gold: “The Threepenny Opera.”
    It jolts the credulous and passive state of mind into a stimulated and critical thinking state.

    “What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions
    Are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed.
    Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
    In keeping its humanity repressed.
    For once you must try not to shirk the facts:
    Mankind kept alive by bestial acts.”

    In the sense that most of the characters are repulsive, does “The Threepenny Opera” qualify for Experimental fiction?

  3. @Ken,
    Definitely. At least at the time it was written. Brecht went out of his way to shatter audience expectations, both as to content and technique.

  4. I love Kafka’s works and have enjoyed several of Vonnegut’s, but although they are distinctive, I’m not sure I’d class either as experimental.

    Then again, such labels are useful for categorising, but the subjective element means they can rarely be rigidly applied.

  5. I hope your happy. Now I have to look into this, and see if I’ve been writing it all along or if it’s a form of writing that I want to pursue because this is too good! Please touch up on this a little more, because I’m curious. This type of fiction seems to correlate the best with my thought process, so….

  6. Experimental writing also goes by a variety of other names: avant-garde, innovative, hybrid, etc. Certainly, the writers you name were experimental, but these forms have moved to quite another level over the past decades. There are hundreds of U.S. experimental/innovative writers publishing today. They explore language and its nuances as it relates to the way we live now, in the 21st Century. You’ll find multimodal works of fiction, hybrid novels that are difficult to categorize, memoirs that include fiction as a metaphor of memory, text combined with images wherein the images are not illustrations, per se, but rather additions to the text narrative.

    I just presented yesterday at the Associated Writers Programs Conference here in D.C. on “Fiction’s Future,” and discussed primarily how new and forthcoming technologies like Brain Computer Interface may change the future of fiction. You can be sure that experimental/innovative writers of the future will be using this technology a medium in which to write new novels.

    Thanks for this terrific article.

  7. Thank you for helping me assign a genre to my brand of fiction. I want to write in first person, third person, include poetry, some intercalary chapters, include doodle drawings, and end the novel at a place that does not allow the reader to ever know 100% for sure who is the guy the main character names in the prologue. With the Experimental Fiction label, I can do all this and more. Thanks much for a helpful article.

  8. Someone asked what Experimental Fiction is today, and I had to look it up. So glad you had the answer!

    I’m thinking this must be a royal pain for editors. A *royal* pain. How could you possibly prepare to critique such a work written by 21st Century authors?

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