by Fourth Wall
A look at the other side of the coin...
Take any class or pick up any book on creative writing and chances are you'll see the same basic argument being asserted. It goes something like this:
"A story MUST HAVE 1) a clear beginning, 2) an introduction to the conflict, 3) rising action, 4) a climax, 5) falling action, and 6) a clear and concise resolution. Characters MUST BE real enough to be believable, but quirky enough for the reader to be interested in their fate. Characters should either undergo a psychological change while the situation around them remains the same, or they should be steadfast while the situation changes."
To be sure, this is a very successful formula. Just take a look at any book on the bestseller list and you'll see this basic formula being put to (very effective) use.
I would argue, however, that this formula is not the be-all and end-all of fiction writing. This is only one type of writing. It is a type where structure and style are refined to the point where they blend into the background and become incongruous, or even invisible. It is a kind of writing that tends to be more accessible, and thus tends to enjoy more broad-based popularity.
But just as poetry can be rhymed or blank verse, as painting can be concrete or abstract, and as music can be tonal or atonal, so too can fiction focus on content OR on form.
Imagine a spectrum with opposing poles: on one end, we have "mainstream" art, and on the other, "experimental" art.1 There isn't a very clear line demarcating where one ends and the other begins; instead, they blend together quite smoothly, with elements of one often intermingled with the other. Most artists, whether they are painters, sculptures, musicians, photographers or writers, will fall somewhere along that line between those two extremes.
What's the difference, you ask? Well, mainstream, or content-driven, fiction is what we are all familiar with. Toni Morrison, John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling...
And the list goes on.
These writers have perfected the art of narrative, dialogue and storytelling. Their aim is to tell a provocative, compelling tale based on characters and situations. As readers, we are drawn smoothly into their worlds, are quick to identify with their characters, and our eyes glide easily over their prose.2 They have a story to tell, and they do not want the mechanics of storytelling to get in the way.
Experimental, or form-driven, fiction, on the other hand, is fiction whose aim is not necessarily to tell a story. For this type of fiction, it is the structure, the mood, and/or the effect which is equally, if not more, important. Writers who write in this style might want to challenge our intellect, they might want to question our presumptions regarding fiction, or perhaps they just want to "play" with language.
Some examples of form-driven fiction.
From the latter-half of the 1890s up until the Second World War, the experimental scene was dominated by a variety of avant-garde movements that have since been lumped under the general term of "High Modernism."
Although they are grouped under one heading, the various styles within High Modernism are by no means homogeneous. For example, there's the unintelligible sound-forms of Dada. There's Surrealism, which attempts to duplicate the seemingly chaotic nature of dreams. The Futurists tried to infuse their work with "machine-sensibility." Symbolists focused on the sensual effects of words in a text.3 Authors like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner tried to reproduce the non-linear nature of thought in their stream-of-consciousness narratives.
Although very disparate in many ways, one feature that is often shared by the many flavors of High Modernism is the tendency towards elitism. This is, after all, the artistic age that gave birth to the concepts of "art for art's sake" and "life imitating art." Many of the Modernist artists felt that true art was too complex for the ordinary man to understand. It took a natural genius to create a work of art, and true art exuded a palpable "aura" that set it apart from banal entertainment for the masses. Art was seen as a direct conduit to the Truth (with a capital T), and as such, approached the status of "divine."
Current Trends in Experimental Writing
Today, however, experimental writing tends to be more critical of the ability to even communicate Truth, if it exists at all. Language is generally distrusted by these writers (Burroughs once called it "a virus"), and so the flowery, poetic, Maximalist style of Joyce, Woolf and Yeats has been abandoned. Instead, these writers focus on narrative play and cut-and-paste borrowing from Pop culture, all in an attempt to show that language is a tautology and that every story worth telling has already been told.
The general title usually given to authors who fall into this category is Postmodernism. Whereas the difficulty in reading Modernist work often resides in the thick prose and complex structural arrangements, the difficulty in Postmodernism is its self-reflexive and eclectic nature.
If those two terms don't make much sense to you, then suffice to say that a narrative is self-reflexive when it constantly draws attention away from the story to the act of storytelling itself.4 And a narrative is eclectic when it rejects rigid genre boundaries and/or elitist categories such as "Pure Art" and "Pop Art."
A Quick Sampling of a few Postmoderns
One of the more popular and well-known Postmodern writers, John Barth writes stories that have traditional conflicts, climaxes and beginnings and ends, but whose ambiguity and interior play often draw the reader's attention away from these elements to the act of storytelling itself. For example, in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, the main character's identity is constantly shifting, with the narrator alternately referring to the main character as "he," "I," "somebody," "nobody," "Sinbad," etc. The boundaries between narrator and main character are constantly built up, only to be torn back down again.
Another popular Postmodern is Kurt Vonnegut, who often tells seemingly mainstream, content-driven stories, but then breaks down the illusion of plausibility within his stories by engaging in irreverent dialogue between reader and narrator. "You shouldn't believe anything I say," the narrator/Vonnegut warns in Breakfast of Champions. "I'm completely immature," whereupon he goes on to show us his line drawing of a rectum.
The French counterpart to Postmodernism is the Nouveau Roman, best represented by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet sets his fairly typical plots against innovative and challenging narrative styles. Many of his stories repeat the same scenes over and over in a slightly different way each time. Time is difficult to keep track of, and his characters will often encounter future or past versions of themselves. And rather than psychoanalyze the main character, objects and people are typically described from a very impersonal, exterior perspectives. This is taken to an extreme in Jealousy. It is a fairly standard story of a jealous husband driven to violence, but told entirely from the first person POV, without the narrator ever referring to himself. The words "I," "me" or "mine" are never mentioned - a disorienting technique, to say the least.
Something of a Conclusion
I could go on for ages with this essay. It is quickly turning into a book (hmmm....). As a word of closing, I would like to say that although experimental fiction can be quite confusing and frustrating at first glance, it can also be quite entertaining. When picking up an experimental text, however, you need to suspend your prejudices that ALL texts need to contain the stock, formulaic elements of beginning, middle, climax, end, etc. Using words as tools to transmit a story is one possible way to write fiction, but to restrict words to this status is to waste so much of their potential. Fiction really is capable of so much more.
A Suggested Reading List
For Newcomers to Experimental Writing:
For the Relatively Experienced Readers:
For Those Who Want a True Challenge:
William S. Burroughs
I wouldn't recommend getting a book on Modernism or Postmodernism itself, as they tend to be dryly and obtusely academic.
It does help, though, to learn a little bit about the author and their style before tackling a new writer. This website has some good info on a very large list of writers:
Wikipedia is nice, too, for its concise descriptions. When reading definitions, you can also follow hyperlinks to names and movements that you've never heard of.
If anyone has any suggestions of writers to add to the suggested reading list or of reference web pages, feel free to email me.
1) In academic circles, these are often referred to as "Pop" and "Pure," respectively, but I don't like the elitist attitude these terms carry.
2) Unlike this sentence.
3) I.e., sensual as in "the five senses," not "romantic" or "sexual" sensual.
4) To get an idea of self-reflexivity in a narrative, imagine a passage that reads something like:
John said "That's my wife."
John often spoke in italics when he got angry.