The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature: Introduction and table of contents

Edited by Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, Brian McHale

just out from Routledge

Table of Contents

 1. Introduction
Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons and Brian McHale

 Part I: The Historical Avant-Gardes

 A. Modernist-Era Experimentalism

 2. Italian Futurism and Russian Cubo-Futurism
John White

3. The Poetics of Animism: Realism and the Fantastic in Expressionist Literature and Film
Richard Murphy

4. The Surrealist Experiments with Language
Peter Stockwell

5. The Literary Absurd
Joanna Gavins

 B. Postmodernist Experimentalism

 6. Spontaneity and Improvisation in Postwar Experimental Poetry
Benjamin Lee

7. The Nouveau Roman and Tel Quel
Danielle Marx-Scouras

 8. Lettrism and Situationism
Tyrus Miller

 9. OuLiPo and Proceduralism
Jan Baetens

 10. Metafiction
Ralph Berry

11. Postmodernism and Experiment
Brian McHale

C. Experiments with Identity

12. Sexing The Text: Women’s Avant-Garde Writing in the Twentieth Century
Ellen Friedman

 13. Experiments in Black: African-American Avant-Garde Poetics
Aldon Lynn Nielsen

 14. The Limits of Hybridity: Language and Innovation in Anglophone Postcolonial Poetry
Priyamvada Gopal

D. The New Experimentalism

15. Avant-Pop
Lance Olsen

 16. Post-postmodernism
Robert L. McLaughlin

 17. Globalization and Transnationalism
Liam Connell

 18. Altermodernist Fiction
Alison Gibbons

 19. Manifestos and Ars Poetica
Laura Winkiel

20. Post-criticism: Conceptual Takes
Gregory L. Ulmer

Part II: Experiment Now: Printed Matter

E. Experiments with Language

21. The Expanded Field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
Charles Bernstein

 22. Concrete Poetry and Prose
Joe Bray

 23. Found Poetry, “Uncreative Writing,” and the Art of Appropriation
Andrew Epstein

 24. Words in Visual Art
Jessica Prinz

 25. Hoax-Poetry and Inauthenticity
Philip Mead (University of Tasmania)

F. Experiments with Narrative and Fiction

26. Unnatural Voices, Minds and Narration
Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen and Brian Richardson

 27. Impossible Worlds
Marie-Laure Ryan

 28. Experimental Life Writing
Irene Kacandes

 29. "Rotting Time": Genre Fiction and the Avant-Garde
Elana Gomel

G. Experiments with Form and Design

30. Graphic Narrative
Hillary Chute

 31. Multimodal Literature and Experimentation
Alison Gibbons

 32. Information Design, Emergent Culture and Experimental Form in the Novel
Steve Tomasula

 33. Interactive Fiction
N. Katherine Hayles and Nick Montfort

Part III: Experiment Now: Beyond the Page

H. The Digital Age

34. Digital fiction: Networked Narratives
David Ciccoricco 

35. Code Poetry and New-Media Literature
Steve Tomasula

36. Computer Gaming
Astrid Ensslin

37. Virtual Autobiography: Autographies, Interfaces, and Avatars
Amy Elias


Introduction by the editors

I. What Is Experimental Literature?

Experimental literature, as the contents of this Routledge Companion amply testify, is irreducibly diverse.  Unfettered improvisation and the rigorous application of rules, accidental composition and hyper-rational design, free invention and obsessively faithful duplication, extreme conceptualism and extreme materiality, multimediality and media-specificity, being “born digital” and being hand-made – all of these, and many others, are ways of being experimental in literature.  Despite this diversity, however, a number of common threads (some of which will be explored below) traverse experimental literary practice across the twentieth century and right up to the present.  The one feature that all literary experiments share is their commitment to raising fundamental questions about the very nature and being of verbal art itself.  What is literature, and what could it be?  What are its functions, it limitations, its possibilities?  These are the sorts of questions that “mainstream” literature, at all periods – commercial bestseller literature, but also the “classics” once they have been canonized, domesticated and rendered fit for unreflective consumption – is dedicated to repressing.  Experimental literature unrepresses these fundamental questions, and in doing so it lays everything open to challenge, reconceptualization and reconfiguration.  Experimentation makes alternatives visible and conceivable, and some of these alternatives become the foundations for future developments, whole new ways of writing, some of which eventually filter into the mainstream itself.  Experiment is one of the engines of literary change and renewal; it is literature’s way of reinventing itself.

In the chapters that follow, the modifier experimental is used more or less interchangeably with avant-garde, and sometimes innovative.  Though the terms function roughly synonymously, there are important nuances of difference in connotation, especially between experimental and avant-garde.  Avant-garde begins its career in the military context, but then migrates to the political sphere, where the avant-garde is the faction that takes the lead ahead of the rest of a political movement (Calinescu 1987:  95-148).  Consequently, aesthetic avant-gardism continues to be allied with political radicalism in a number of twentieth- and twenty-first century artistic and literary movements.  Experimentalism’s connotations, by contrast, are scientific.  Experiment promises to extend the boundaries of knowledge, or in this case, of artistic practice.  Strongly associated with modernity, it implies rejection of hide-bound traditions, values and forms.  To call literature experimental is in some sense to aspire to compete with science, challenging science’s privileged status in modernity and reclaiming some of the prestige ceded by literature to science since the nineteenth century.

The language of experiment is a relative novelty in literary discourse, though if one were seeking deep historical roots one might venture as far back as the sixteenth century and Michel de Montaigne, who applied the term essais – in the sense of “try-outs” or “attempts” – to his unprecedented thought-experiments in prose. Subsequent centuries saw the emergence of literary forms that in hindsight we would surely be disposed to call “experimental” – the eighteenth century novel, climaxing in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), is one example – but the model of scientific experiment would not become fully available for describing literary innovation until Émile Zola applied it to the naturalist novel at the end of the nineteenth century.  The early-twentieth-century avant-gardes – especially the Italian and Russian Futurists, and later the Surrealists – embraced the term enthusiastically, and it is largely thanks to them that we continue to regard unconventional, cutting-edge literature as “experimental,” and to associate the term with qualities of shock and affront, iconoclasm and difficulty.

In the last third of the twentieth-century, avant-garde writers began to express certain reservations about the category “experimental,” which they viewed as dismissive, a way of segregating or ghettoizing innovative literature and preventing it from reaching an audience or infiltrating the mainstream.  The British novelist B.S. Johnson, a restless innovator and intransigent avant-gardist, wrote that

“Experimental” to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful.”  I object to the word experimental being applied to my own work.  Certainly I make experiments, but the unsuccessful ones are quietly hidden away and what I choose to publish is in my terms successful: that is, it has been the best way I could find of solving particular writing problems. (1973: 19)

His American counterparts, the surfictionists Raymond Federman and Ronald Sukenick, shared Johnson’s suspicion of the category.  Contending that “experimental” is a term that literary “middle-men” use to “brush aside” challenging literature, Federman writes that he does not believe that a fiction writer with the least amount of self-respect, and belief in what he is doing, ever says to himself: “I am now going to experiment with fiction; I am now writing an experimental piece of fiction.”  Others say that about his fiction.  The middle-man of literature is the one who gives the label EXPERIMENT to what is difficult, strange, provocative, and even original …. Fiction is called experimental out of despair.  (1975: 7)

Sukenick’s view is that the term “experimental” belongs to the “ephemeral metalanguage” of the publishing industry, where it is used to resolve contradictions between publishing as business enterprise and publishing as cultural institution.”  In this metalanguage, he writes acerbically, “‘experimental novel’ … means something like ‘no sales of subsidiary rights’” (1985: 55).

These are cogent objections from writers with impeccable experimentalist credentials, whose reservations need to be taken seriously.  Nevertheless, our hope is that the present Companion might go some way toward salvaging the term experimental, rescuing it from the contexts where it is a term of dismissal and condescension, and reinvigorating its connotations of edginess, renovation and aesthetic adventure.

II. The Structure of this Companion

The volume is divided into eight sections arranged into three parts, the first of which is entitled The Historical Avant-Gardes. The opening section on modernist-era experimentalism introduces the key early- and mid-twentieth-century movements which transformed the meaning of the avant-garde: Futurism, Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, and Existentialism and Absurdism. The next section turns to experimental innovations across Europe and the US in the period following World War II, whether in poetry (the New York School, the Beats), or prose (the nouveau roman, meta- and surfiction). The radical politics and techniques of Lettrism and Situationism are discussed here, along with the creative inventiveness of OuLiPo and proceduralism (or writing under constraints) generally. Many of the developments of this period can be brought together under the heading of postmodernism, a phenomenon that has proved notoriously difficult to define or locate chronologically. The third section of the volume discusses forms of experimental writing in which the notion of identity has been especially contested throughout the twentieth century – the female, African-American and postcolonial avant-gardes – before the final section of Part One examines attempts to put a stamp on the experimental contemporary, whether in the form of theoretical reflections and manifestoes, engagements with popular culture (Avant-Pop, post-postmodernism), wider cultural movements (globalization, altermodernism), or new forms of critical practice (post-criticism).    

Part Two of the volume eschews a strictly chronological approach, focusing instead on innovation within and across genres. The first section concentrates mainly on poetic forms of experimentation and their influence on current practice, such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, concrete poetry, hoax poetry, found poetry and other forms of “uncreative writing,” and the poetry and other types of language used in visual art. The next section focuses on experiments with narrative and with fictionality more generally, with chapters on unnatural narration, impossible worlds, experimental life writing, and genre fiction and the avant-garde.  The final section of this part considers ways in which the novel in particular has experimented in recent years with form and design, with attention to graphic novels, multimodal fiction, the incorporation of information design in the novel and printed interactive fiction. The third and final part of the volume comprises one section and turns to the impact that the digital age has had on experimental literature across media. Chapters on digital fiction, code poetry and new media, computer gaming, and virtual forms of autobiographical writing show the wide range and versatility of contemporary experimentation, and point to the ways in which the first years of the twenty-first century, like those of the twentieth, have been concerned with the radical possibilities opened up by new technologies.

III. The Persistence of the Historical Avant-Gardes

The idea of a “tradition of the new” ought to be paradoxical – surely anything truly new in culture should define itself in opposition to the traditional? – but that has not prevented people from talking about such a tradition since at least Harold Rosenberg’s 1959 book of that title.  Indeed, it would be hard to deny that such a tradition exists, even if we leave out of account the kind of retrospective tracing of forebears that Jorge Luis Borges once described in his essay, “Kafka and His Precursors.”  With the benefit of hindsight it is always possible, as Borges saw, to discover historical precursors of recent avant-garde practices in, say, Romantic irony, eighteenth-century metafiction, Renaissance formal inventiveness, and so on, back into the mists of time.  It is a somewhat different matter, however, to recognize the direct genealogical connection between the historical avant-gardes of a hundred or so years ago and late-twentieth-century and twenty-first-century experimentalism.  The first of these ways of constructing a “tradition of the new” is retrospective, while the second acknowledges the persistence of a particular past in the present.

Many of the general features, and even some of the specific practices, of experimental literature of the second half of the century were anticipated by the avant-garde groups of the period from just before the Great War until the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the epoch of the great isms of the early twentieth century, including Italian and Russian Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, down to Existentialism and Absurdism (see chapters by White, Murphy, Stockwell and Gavins).  Multi- and inter-media experiments, experiments with language, identity, visuality and the creative process, the embrace of transformative new technologies, the testing and transgression of the limits of artistic and social acceptability – all of these, and many other features of recent literary experimentalism, are prefigured by the historical avant-gardes.  More than that, the very model of an avant-garde group, of what it is and does – group formation and internal politics, identity and “branding,” manifestoes, self-promotion and propaganda – derives from the early twentieth-century isms.

These models of experimental practice and group behavior are in some cases embraced by later literary experimentalists and adapted to their own uses, in other cases resisted, but they can rarely if ever be ignored.  Thus, for example, it is easy to trace the influence of the early-twentieth-century French and Russian avant-gardes on the New York poets of Fifties and Sixties (see Lee, this volume), and that of Dada and Surrealist practice on the “uncreative writing” and Flarf poetics of the Nineties and the new millennium (see Epstein, this volume).  Conversely, it is just as easy to see how groups as diverse as the French New Novelists and the Tel Quel circle, the Lettrists and Situationists, and the OuLiPo group all defined themselves in opposition to their Surrealist and Existentialist predecessors (see Marx-Scourras, Miller and Baetens, this volume).  Both tendencies – both the reclamation of certain aspects of the modernist-era avant-gardes and wariness toward other avant-garde tendencies of the same era – can be detected in the poetics and politics of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (see Bernstein, this volume).  For better or worse, the life and work of the historical avant-gardes seem to have been incorporated into the very DNA of the experimental literature that has come after them.

The persistence of the historical avant-garde into the present guarantees a sort of family resemblance among the contemporary varieties of experimentalism.  As with real families, resemblance here is not a matter of everyone possessing some essential feature common to all types of experimentalism; rather, it involves a series of overlapping similarities – common threads, some of which connect one subset of experimental practices, whiles others connect other subsets.  Some of the common threads that we have detected among the experimental practices surveyed in this volume are outlined below; no doubt the reader will find others.

IV. Some Common Threads

After the historical avant-gardes: Postmodernism

Postmodernism, whatever it may be – a period, style, literary movement, or cultural condition – is, by its very name, seen as a successor to the historical avant-gardes and, more specifically, to modernism. And yet, as Brian McHale points out, “nothing about the subject is certain, resolved, or uncontentious.” Questions of the when, how, and why of postmodernism loom unanswered. Furthermore, postmodernism’s ambiguous politics and debatable relationship to popular culture pose an even greater question: Is the literature of the postmodern experimental at all? It is precisely this controversial topic that McHale raises in his essay for the volume, first recalling the unsettled dispute on the matter between philosopher J. F. Lyotard and architecture critic Charles Jencks, who advocated a postmodern experimentalism rooted in modernism and a postmodern eclecticism associated with the popular, respectively. For McHale, there are two key tropes of postmodern literature that complicate each side of the argument: the process of world-modelling and the presentation of an unpresentable textual sublime.

True to the spirit of postmodernism, McHale ultimately refuses to pit the experimental and the eclectic against each other in a straight dichotomy. Similarly, Elana Gomel in her discussion of popular genre fiction (itself a progeny of the postmodern) interrogates the absolute segregation between genre fiction as low art and the avant-garde as high art. As she says in the opening words to her essay, rather “Two trains collide.” Concentrating on the popular genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, Gomel shows that, like postmodern literature, avant-garde genre fiction is concerned with the creation of new worlds and exploration of ontological arenas, particularly through devices of allegory, displacement, and incoherence. However, while postmodern works often rely heavily on parody and pastiche, avant-garde genre works “create new fictional spaces that attempt to resurrect/reconstruct history, and in doing so, question their own role as commodities.”

Focusing on writing of the present, both Liam Connell in his discussion of the literature of globalization and Alison Gibbons in her account of altermodenist fiction suggest that contemporary experimental novels exhibit a heightened awareness of the value of commodities in the international market place. The literature of globalization explores themes of “complex connectivity.” the numerous and sometimes intertwined modes of social interaction available today, and the ways in which these interactions produce a perceived sense of “proximity.” In exploring these themes, such literary experiments also trouble them, highlighting “the interplay between local and global as mutually interpenetrating forms.” In doing so, time and space become intertwined. The concatenation of time and space is one of the commonalities shared by the literature of globalization and altermodernist fiction. Gibbons’s account of altermodernism, which stems from the writings of art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, identifies three central tenets of fiction of this period: the representation of time as a spatialized landscape, the conceptualization of identity as nomadic, and the integration of genres and modes. Both altermodernist fiction and the literature of globalisation are interested in “networks” – temporal-spatial, formal, intersubjective and ontological. Moreover, both have subversive intent, challenging forms of contemporary internationalism and offering, in Gibbons’s words, “an implicitly politicized aesthetic resistance to globalization.”

The politics and manifestoes of experimentalism

The political connotations of experimental literature have been prominent ever since surrealism, described by Stockwell as “the prototype of the modern avant-garde.” Noting that “even if it was not a political movement in itself, most of the first surrealists were marxist communists,” Stockwell tracing surrealism’s roots to Dada, a somewhat chaotic grouping of writers, artists and performers which emerged in Zurich in 1916. The targets of the group’s creative energy were many and various; as Stockwell says of the movement, “it is the anti-X, where X is whatever you can think it is.” He shows how as Dada evolved into surrealism, the art produced became “more constructively framed, more shaped by principle,” and also more infused with “the language of revolutionary socialism.” While Dada’s ethos had often been anti-establishment in the abstract, surrealism “excelled in the production of manifestoes, pamphlets, essays and debates.” 

In her wide-ranging chapter Laura Winkiel also highlights the importance of the manifesto in the construction of the “avant-garde,” pointing out that the term was first used by radical groups of Jacobins during the French Revolution. For her the implied metaphor in the term of elite troops sent ahead in battle suggests that “revolutionary battles increasingly became a war of words and ideas,” and that it thus encodes “the entwining of aesthetics and politics that structures the manifesto form and determines its functioning for the next two centuries.” This “duality” is particularly heightened, Winkiel claims, in the first four decades of the twentieth century, when “manifestos’ staunch refusal to accommodate ‘tradition’ in any form captures the militancy of the artistic avant-gardes.” She gives as examples Marinetti’s futurist manifestoes, yet her comments could apply equally to Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism. Both aimed at, in Stockwell’s words, “a radical re-evaluation of society through the medium of an artistic movement.” 

This aim is also crucial to Lettrism and Situationism, which Tyrus Miller describes as “post-World War II outgrowths of Surrealism.” Though early Lettrist enthusiasts such as Isidore Isou and Guy-Ernest Debord often scornfully dismissed current surrealism as tired and mainstream, they openly acknowledged their debt to the radical ideas that it had advanced in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In journals such as Internationale lettriste (1952-54), Potlatch (1954-57), and Internationale Situationiste (1958-69) Debord and Gil Wolman formulated their proposals for overthrowing the commodified, consumerist “spectacle” of capitalist society, developing key concepts such as dérive (the exploration of urban space) and détournement (the recontextualizing of appropriated cultural materials). Miller argues that such strategies “possess an ‘artistic’ status at least equal, if not more important, than those works that relate to recognizable artistic categories such as poetry or film.”

Two years after the first appearance of the Internationale Situationiste the literary journal Tel Quel was founded by a group of relatively unknown French writers. Though the two journals differed in format and approach, they both played a crucial role in shaping French culture and politics in the tumultuous years leading to the uprisings of May 1968. Tel Quel was more literary-focused, and closely aligned with the emergence of the nouveau roman, yet as Danielle Marx-Scouras observes, “the cultural politics of the journal were shaped as much by the historical events of the era as they were by theoretical advances in literary studies, semiotics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.” The writers published in the journal, who included Alain Robbe-Grillet, Natalie Sarraute and Jean Ricardou, turned away from Sartrean engagement, and its belief that literature passively reflects social practice, promoting instead, under the influence of semiotics and psychoanalysis, a critique of language itself, and a greater understanding of its role in shaping, and sometimes frustrating, meaning. As Marx-Scouras notes, however, this preoccupation with language was not an act of political disengagement; indeed quite the contrary.

A focus on language and its ways of making meaning was also key in the 1970s and 1980s for another, disparate group of writers, based mainly in the U.S. and Canada. The term L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E describes less a movement or a school than a “site of conversation,” as Charles Bernstein, a leading practitioner himself, notes in his chapter. As with the groups centered around the Internationale Situationiste and Tel Quel, a serial publication was crucial in shaping a collective rationale, namely L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which Bernstein edited with Bruce Andrews from 1978 to 1982. Although, in marked contrast to earlier experimental movements, the writers associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E tended to steer clear of manifestoes and explicit statements of intent, the turn to language and an examination of its potential for ideological bias, led, as with the Tel Quel group, not to a disassociation from politics and contemporary events, but rather to a deeper, more sustained engagement with them. Bernstein notes that “there was a strong desire to connect oppositional political and cultural views with linguistically inventive writing.” 

One particular kind of oppositional politics, which according to Bernstein had a significant influence on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, is addressed by Ellen Friedman in her chapter on women’s avant-garde writing in the twentieth century. Highlighting the importance of the poststructuralist turn to language and psychoanalysis in the 1970s and early 1980s, Friedman discusses how Hélène Cixous and other French women theorists advocated l’écriture feminine in order to emphasize their difference from canonical male authors. Having traced this non-hierarchical, open-ended style to the modernist experiments of Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, amongst others, Friedman claims that the female avant-garde becomes harder to identify in the late twentieth century, as experimental tropes and techniques are incorporated into the mainstream. She suggests that contemporary feminist experimentalists, such as Kathy Acker, Bharati Mukherjee and The Guerilla Girls, have been driven to “find new forms of subversion, adapting, for instance, the trickster figure.”

Political subversion has indeed been a feature of recent experimental writing across the world. In her chapter on anglophone postcolonial poetry, Priyamvada Gopal discusses how postcolonial literature has been deemed “always already radical by virtue of speaking from the periphery to the metropole.” She is concerned to complicate this picture by distinguishing between both the political motivations and the techniques used in different national traditions. She critiques one especially widely-used term in postcolonial theory in particular: “hybridity.” Thus the poetry of Sujata Bhatt in India, Mutabaruka in the Caribbean and Mothobi Mutloatse in South Africa, to take three of her examples, differs not only in form and content, but also as a result of the “political and historical imperatives which variously shape the reception, perception and use of English in the wake of colonial rule” in each region. In each case, however, Gopal emphasizes the potential of experimental poetry as a force for change, through its “refiguring multilingualism as a space of creatively politicized intersection.”

Technological influence and innovation

The experimental writing practices of Italian Futurism and Russian Cubo-Futurism were hardly isolated from the politics of the early twentieth century. Italian Futurism, as John White advises, was both “a deliberate riposte to the passéism of late 19th century poetry” and “a mode of discourse appropriate to the modern dynamic world of speed, technological efficiency and, ultimately, the mechanized slaughter of the First World War.” Indeed, in the turbulent climate of the First World War, Futurist experimentation was “invariably deployed with a political purpose in mind.”

Nevertheless, while the political was clearly one motivation for the Futurists, the technological was a central inspiration. The rapid advancement of science and technology at the turn of the century was heralded by founder F. T. Marinetti as an impetus for literary experimentation. As White details, the typographical vision associated with Futurism known as “Words-in-Freedom or “the telegraphic device” enabled Futurist poets to express the speed and rapidity of trains and automobiles while “aeropoetry” sought to convey the physical and psychological dimensions of flying. Words-in-Freedom generated poems in which onomatopoeias abound, punctuation is replaced by mathematic symbols, and words themselves are dismantled. The Russian Cubo-Futurists take such linguistic deconstruction even further, creating neologisms from the existing lexicon, breaking words down into morphemes, or perhaps allowing only vowels to remain, all of which amount to what White calls “a process of linguistic de-familiarisation.”

Contemporary electronic code poetry similarly explores the fabric of language. As Steve Tomasula phrases it, code poetry “foregrounds that code is a language, and also that language is a code.” In his chapter on the electronic literature of code poetry and new media, Tomasula discusses a form of experimentalism that is rooted in the technology of its own creation. Code poetry, Tomasula explains, is highly self-conscious, and its aesthetics are concerned with revealing the mechanisms by which it is generated.  It is a “practice that sees itself as poetry and programming in equal measure,” and thus “code poets have pushed to the foreground the scaffolding of code and its structures that normally reside hidden behind the scene/screen.” In contrast, new media fiction and poetry, while reliant upon their technological underpinnings and programming foundations, hide such infrastructure. Instead, such works exist as theatrical and engrossing hybrids of video, sound and music; they are often interactive; and they recast experimental literary art as multimedia experience.

Visual experimentation

Code poetry, new media literature, and the Futurist impulse to experiment with typography all point towards the potentialities of the visual dimension of language, literature and narrative. Concrete poetry explores not only the visuality of language but also of the page, which becomes a canvas, with white space as much a part of the literary work as words themselves. In his essay, Joe Bray outlines the history of concrete prose and poetry. While the origins of concrete prose can be found in early novelists such as Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, Bray argues that the fascination with visual form has not abated in twentieth and twenty-first century novels, pointing to modernist, postmodernist, and contemporary writers for whom the page is still very much an experimental surface. Similarly, having established the canon of concrete poetry, at its height in the 1950s and 1960s, through recourse to seminal poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Guillaume Apollinaire, and of course Eugen Gomringer, Bray considers the way in which contemporary poetry might still be influenced by this heritage.

Alison Gibbons cites concrete poetry alongside modernist poetics, Futurist experimentation, and postmodern fictions, to name a few precursors, in contextualising contemporary multimodal literature, that is, “literary texts that feature a multitude of semiotic modes in the communication and progression of their narratives.” She claims that the advent of digital technologies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has produced an upsurge of literary works which emphasize their own form through visual and material experimentation. In her essay, Gibbons suggests a formal taxonomy for contemporary multimodal literature: illustrated works, multimodal (re)visions, tactile fictions, altered books and collage fictions, concrete/typographical fictions, and ontological hoax.

Although graphic novels are certainly multimodal, Gibbons chooses not to discuss them, preferring instead to view such works as a genre in their own right. In her chapter on graphic narrative, Hilary Chute considers the relationship of comics to literary experimentation. Chute rebuffs the charge that comics are merely popular and low culture artefacts, proposing that they are experimental by way of having “vigorously expanded the rubric of ‘literature’ over the past thirty years.” More pertinently, comics are experimental in the sense that they self-consciously draw attention to their own construction and obstruct normal reading practices. In support of her argument, Chute invites readers on a tour of experimental comic practice starting in the early twentieth century, continuing into the late twentieth century and concluding with the comics of today. Ultimately for Chute, comics, like multimodal literature and concrete poetics, explore “the spaces in between word and image” and “offer a rich and relevant visual-verbal syntax.”

While literature has incorporated the visual in experimental practices, art has assimilated the verbal. Reflecting on the presence of words in recent visual art, Jessica Prinz claims that in the twentieth century we witnessed “an eruption of language into the field of the visual arts,” an eruption prefigured and stimulated by avant-garde experiments such as Dada and Futurism. A key figure in the historical lineage of words in visual art, Prinz claims, was the avant-gardist Marcel Duchamp, “who influenced an entire generation of artists” in the latter twentieth century “for whom art was not only visual but also linguistic.” Moreover, the twenty-first century exhibits a further enhancement of the integration of word and image, with works of language art that are inspired by, offer tribute to, or appropriate literary texts. Consequently, Prinz intimates, the boundaries between art and literature are blurring and dissipating. The literary and the artistic are no longer necessarily distinct types of aesthetic artefact.

Experiments across media

From the beginning of the twentieth century right down to the present, experimental literature has had to find ways to coexist with other, competing media – visual art, music in a range of genres, performance, photography, film, television, digital media – competitors that have expanded in number, power, appeal and market-share over the course of the century.  A common thread uniting several of the chapters in this volume is experimentation with these other, adjacent media. In some cases this experimentation has taken the form of collaboration across media, or even co-optation of one medium by another; in other cases, it has been more akin to baiting a threatening competitor, poking at this dangerous beast through the bars of its cage to stir it up and see how it reacts.

Richard Murphy views the Expressionism of the immediate post-Great War and the Weimar years as an avant-garde style that straddles the media of literature and film, which share a common “poetics of animism.”  In both media, on the screen and on the printed page alike, an unstable, uneasy balance is struck between realism and the fantastic.  In Expressionist literary works such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just as in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis, subjectivity is dramatized, the protagonist’s interior state being projected onto the outside world so that, for the viewer or reader as much as for the protagonist, “exterior” reality becomes a hybrid of inside and outside. 

If Expressionism straddles media, the experimental poetics of The New American Poetry, Donald Allen’s seminal anthology of 1960, modelled itself on adjacent art-forms, especially the bebop jazz and Abstract Expressionist painting of the postwar era, but also dance and performance.  According to Ben Lee, in his chapter on postwar avant-garde poetry in the U.S., poets adopted the new music and painting as their models as a strategy for distancing themselves from a modernist literary tradition that they regarded as over-civilized and exhausted.  Crucial to the aesthetic formation of this generation of poets was their encounter with experimental, collaborative cross-media practices, which some experienced in the New York artworld while others encountered it at Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, an incubator of mid-twentieth-century avant-gardism.

A similar cross-fertilization among the arts is explored by Aldon Nielsen in his chapter on the experimental strain in African-American poetry, which he seeks to recover through case studies of two pivotal but undervalued figures: Melvin Tolson and Lorenzo Thomas.  Tolson wrote his way out of a conservatively modernist aesthetics into a complexity akin to the “New World neo-baroque” of African Diasporic art throughout the hemisphere. Thomas, whose artistic circles overlapped with the groups represented in The New American Poetry – the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, the New York School – experimented like them in mingling poetry with jazz, performance and visual art, as reflected, for instance, in the collage imagery of his own book-covers (often the work of his artist-brother Cecilio “Cess” Thomas).

Cross-media experimentation and the poaching of models from adjacent media, features of both the New American Poetry and the African-American avant-garde, become defining characteristics of the Avant-Pop tendency in contemporary literature.  By Lance Olsen’s account, Avant-Pop exploits the resources of popular film, television, comics, rock music, advertising and franchising in much the same way that high-modernist writing drew on classical mythology, Christian iconology and the literary canon.  Avant-Pop writing appropriates, recycles and repurposes the materials of popular mass-media culture, practicing a form “pla(y)giarism,” to use Raymond Federman’s neologism.  It has much in common with jazz, readymade art, collage and montage practices, and sound sampling and mashup in popular music, and its aesthetics are perfectly suited to the newer digital media.

Robert McLaughlin discerns quite a different relation to contemporary popular culture, a much more adversarial one, in the tendency that he calls (not without reservations) post-postmodernism.  The post-postmodernist fiction of novelists such as Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, Jonathan Lethem, and especially David Foster Wallace responds both to the perceived exhaustion of literary postmodernism and to the growing dominance of television in popular culture.  Post-postmodernism arises in a generation fully acclimated to television and deeply suspicious of its corrosive irony and its power to reduce our experience of the world to mere “viewership.”  The post-postmodernists share with their postmodernist predecessors an acute awareness of the constructedness of reality, but they also aspire, more than their precursors ever did, to engage with a reality beyond mass-media representations.


Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen and Brian Richardson describe unnatural narratives as a “distinctive and important subset of experimental literature.” They undertake a wide-ranging survey of different forms of unnatural narration, focusing on recent experiments with the narratorial voice in particular, such as the collective, intermental “we” narration of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons (1973), and the disconnection between the narrator and the narrated in Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama (1998).  For Alber, Nielsen and Richardson, such experiments do not only show the extremes possible in narrative construction, but also “provide an interrogation of the basic elements of realistic narrative practices and a critique of overused narrative conventions.” Their examples thus highlight the fact that in all literary fiction there is “a process of dialectical mediation between ‘natural’ components that reproduce the world as we know it and unnatural components that move beyond our real-world knowledge.”

Ralph Berry similarly argues that the various practices that can be grouped under the heading “metafiction” should not be regarded as isolated experimental techniques, but rather as integral to the understanding of all fiction. He claims that the most frequently-cited metafictional writers of the 60s and 70s, such as Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth and Flann O’Brien, beyond simply asserting the artificiality of their work, were actually aiming to establish “a properly philosophical relation of fiction to itself, one in which writer and reader engage in something like a critical analysis of the formative conditions of their own activity.” For Berry, then, writers of metafiction are not self-consciously playing with ideas of constructedness for their own sake, but rather seriously attempting “to engage reality, not primarily by representing it but by acknowledging its immanence in their medium and practice.”

According to Philip Mead similar questions are also raised by various forms of literary hoax. Focusing on one particular example, the matrix of critical discourse surrounding the texts supposedly written by Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada, Mead suggests that in challenging notions of authenticity, authorship, political responsibility and cultural guilt, the hoax (apparently perpetrated by the poet and translator Kent Johnson) constitutes “a genuine experiment in poetics.” Like other hoaxes, it raises for Mead “important questions about what exactly authenticity and genuineness in writing are, how they are produced, and why readers value them.” A history of literary (in)authenticity, from Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, through Chatterton and Ossian to Armand Schwerner’s playful take on ethnopoetics in The Tablets (1999), reveals for him that “authenticity in literature has always been a form of illusion.” Literary fakery is thus, according to Mead, more than dissidence against various forms of institutional authority. Instead it can lead, at its most sophisticated, “to the development of useful diagnostic tools for literary and cultural analysis.”

The creative process

“Process” is a key aesthetic category and value in many varieties of experimental writing practice across the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, and as a recurrent theme it threads its way through several of the contributions to the present companion.  Process-oriented art values the experience of making over the thing made, and that experience is often a shared one, involving the reader’s or viewer’s collaboration in the artwork’s production.  Process-oriented writing invites us into the workshop to witness the experiment as it unfolds, and increasingly, especially with the emergence of interactive digital media, to participate in it directly.

One of the avant-garde groups surveyed here literally describes itself as a workshop: l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, the Workshop of Potential Literature, or OuLiPo for short.  As Jan Baetens explains, the OuLiPo group researches and practices procedural or constrained writing; it rediscovers and revives, or invents from scratch, extra or supplementary rules and conventions of literary production, and then applies them.  It literally conducts experiments in writing, and it often does so in plain view. The processes by which OuLiPian works come to be produced are sometimes accessible to the reader’s inspection, though not always; yet even when the actual procedure that yielded a specific text is irrecoverable, the reader will generally be aware that some constraint has been observed or procedure followed, and this knowledge subtly alters his or her relationship to the text from that of passive consumer to co-conspirator.

OuLiPian practice also has implications for our understanding of artistic or authorial control.  Insofar as the writer relies on a constraint or procedure to help generate a text, doesn’t he or she surrender some degree of control over the product?  This issue of control becomes even more vexed in the case of what Andrew Epstein (following the poet Kenneth Goldsmith) calls “uncreative writing,” including its web-based, search-engine-driven variety, known as Flarf.  Uncreative writing is all process, as it were.  Originating nothing, it appropriates and recycles readymade verbal material, whether read, spoken or culled from the internet. Duplicating texts that already exist, its products are strictly speaking redundant, and in that sense valueless.  What more profound challenge could be posed to dominant aesthetic ideologies of self-expression, originality and the personal voice?

Recycling and appropriation also figure in the concept – or more properly, the post-concept – of the take that Greg Ulmer develops in his chapter on “post-criticism.”  Criticism and theory have been partners of experimental literature throughout the twentieth century, appearing in aesthetic manifestoes and elsewhere in the writings inspired by avant-garde movements; but now that we find ourselves in the aftermath of criticism, Ulmer argues, we need, not new concepts, but something else: call them “post-concepts.”  The take is one such post-concept, peculiarly adapted to the literacy (or what Ulmer calls the electracy) of an era of digital technology and internet culture.  One model of the take is Marcel Duchamp’s practice of the readymade –for instance the occasion when he defaced a postcard representation of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and added a punning, obscene caption.  This act of vandalism implies a strategy: take a picture.  In the same spirit, Ulmer takes a passage from Kafka’s notebooks, substituting post-conceptual pastiche for definition (the form appropriate to a critical concept).  This process may be applied to passages from any writer whose style, like Kafka’s, serves as a vehicle for thought.  Just as Ducamp takes a picture, so post-criticism takes thought.

In their chapters, Baetens and Epstein report on avant-garde groups that usher us into the workshops where writing experiments are conducted, but Ulmer goes a step further.  His chapter is itself such a workshop, and in visiting it we are privileged to witness how post-criticism is made – the very process of its emergence.


Decisions concerning the composition of a novel are part and parcel of the process of creating experimental forms. In writing a novel, authors have to choose how to arrange their text, be it in terms of narrative progression, graphological layout, or conventional structure (such as chapter divisions). In his chapter on information design in the novel, Steve Tomasula makes exactly this point, that “one history of writing is a history of information design: a means of organizing information for effect.” Through an exploration of design structures as well as the social-literary context of their structures, from renderings of the tree of life and powerpoint appropriations of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” to novels and hypertexts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Tomasula shows that different forms of representation, different information designs, have different effects. Ultimately, information design creates the pathways for reading.

Pathways of reading are fundamental in the arena of digital fiction. David Ciccoricco covers extensive ground in his survey of “networked narratives” which present what he calls “a poetics of the link and node,” offering “new insights into the composition and reception of literary art in light of participatory digital media.” Ciccoricco offers a diachronic account of the development of digital fiction from the disk-based (floppy or compact) hypertext of first generation manifestations to the predominantly (though not exclusively) multimedia web-based works of the second generation. He also mentions digital interactive fiction (IF) which requires textual input from reader-user-players for narrative advancement. Each type shows that information design, and specifically the form of link and node particular to digital fiction, impacts upon reading pathways, for instance, in the case of re-reading text, recycling nodes and reordering narrative. In Ciccoricco’s words, “Repetition and variation comes to characterize both the elements of textual design and the interpretive models we design as we read.”

N. Katherine Hayles and Nick Montfort share Ciccoricco’s interest in interactive fiction, but discuss print interactive fictions as well as digital IFs. In doing so, they suggest the subdivision of printed interactive works into three categories: random shuffle of cards or loose pages, multiple pathways through bounded codex forms, and multiple paths by way of annotation such as the literary footnote. What is common to both printed and digital forms, according to Hayles and Montfort, is that “the text requires the user to make choices, and that these choices affect how the narrative proceeds in a literal (not merely interpretive) sense.” The multiple pathways of information, narrativity and reading for interactive fictions offer various perspectives on the narrative and the world(s) it presents. In their approach, Hayles and Montfort employ a worlds model, specifically David Herman’s (2002) model of “storyworlds,” which understands narrative worlds as mental representations that readers must cognitively map out. This enables them to offer an analysis which tracks the complex ways in which readers construct, develop and revise storyworlds from their interactions with such texts.

Marie-Laure Ryan also employs a model of worlds as mental representations, that of possible worlds as developed from philosophy and logic. In looking at the impossible worlds of experimental literature, Ryan is interested in texts which transgress logical laws and therefore challenge the imagination. Through the course of her essay, she offers a catalog of the forms of impossibility in experimental literature: contradiction, in which opposing facts, sentences, or versions of narrative events are given; ontological impossibility, in which, through metalepsis, fictional entities transgress the boundary between fiction and reality; impossible space, in which spaces do not cohere to their given properties; impossible time, in which narrative time does not function according to its known rules; and impossible texts, in which literary works feature an invented paradoxical text. The pathways presented by impossible worlds are both ontological in their inconsistency and unfeasibility, and cognitive in the sense that readers must negotiate unresolved paradoxes. Impossible worlds present unnatural reading experiences by challenging readers “to devise new strategies for making sense of texts, even if meaning does not arise from the vision of fully imaginable solutions.”

The readerly and the experiential

The importance of the reader’s experience is also emphasised in Joanna Gavins’ chapter on the absurd in literary prose fiction. Having outlined the imprecision of most literary treatments of the topic, Gavins proposes a “spectrum of absurd experimentalism,” ranging from texts which overtly display experimental stylistic techniques to those that explore the concept through a more conventional narrative structure. At one end she places Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog (1968), which creates a sense of narratorial unreliability through an abundance of epistemic modality, while at the other she gives the example of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which contains some of the same uncertainty, but exhibits more realism of detail. Gavins argues that the kind of stylistic analysis she practises in the chapter, when complemented by a greater focus on readers’ everyday responses, confirms the absurd “not as a genre, not as a movement, but as a readerly experience.”

The reader’s navigation of a cline of experimental possibilities is also a theme of Astrid Ensslin’s chapter. Ensslin proposes a spectrum between ludic digital literature and literary computer games, arguing that “recent experimental forms of art games and digital experimental literature have merged visual, ludic and literary design techniques and materials,” and that as a result computer games can be seen as “literary art.” Nearer the ludic end of the spectrum is an example such as The Path, which is based on Little Red Riding Hood, and foregrounds certain aspects of computer game mechanics for the purposes of critical détournement, while nearer the other end is The Princess Murderer, a take on Bluebeard, which contains more prominent metafictional elements, and which acts as a subtle criticism of forms of digital narrative and their accompanying critical theories. In each case, according to Ensslin, unreflective, fully immersive gamer behaviour is challenged and a more attentive and critical kind of engagement promoted. 

Irene Kacandes is also concerned with the ways in which experimental literature can be experienced. She points in particular to the importance of the reader’s attention to paratext in the interpretation of life writing, arguing that neither Philippe Lejeune’s oft-cited “autobiographical pact,” nor the concomitant “referential pact,” can be analyzed on the basis of the text alone. Kacandes shows how experimental life narratives play with each category in Lejeune’s definition. Thus for example, Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backward (2006) challenges Lejeune’s notion of a retrospective vantage point, while J. M. Coetzee’s supposedly autobiographical trilogy undermines the unity of author, narrator and protagonist. Kacandes concludes her chapter with a discussion of her own experiment in life writing, her “paramemoir” Daddy’s War: Greek American Stories (2009), the writing and reception of which confirm her main argument that “the paratext counts.”

Amy Elias’ chapter on virtual forms of life writing also discusses the ways in which Lejeune’s foundational propositions have been challenged by recent experimental texts. Focusing on autographics, various forms of interface and avatar autobiography, she argues that digital-based life writing particularly disrupts Lejeune’s assertions concerning authorial intention and single authorship. According to Elias, virtual life narratives are often “collaborative, social, and networked,” and the “dialogical self” that emerges “becomes a kind of collaborative interchange between myself as writer and the interpreting, interactive reader.” Thus examples such as Shelley Jackson’s online graphic memoir “My Body: A Wunderkammer” (1997) and role playing games such as Second Life® illustrate for her the important role of the reader (or participant) in constructing a virtual self. Elias claims that “the options for self-representation” in these new genres diverge radically from those which shape “traditional print autobiography and memoir,” and thus that “online autography, interfaces, and avatar autobiography now seem to be, in fact, the new frontier of experimental life writing.”

V. Conclusion: The Futures of Experimental Literature

This introduction began with a qualification of what it meant to experiment, intimating that the history of experimentation in literature might be considered as old as the history of literature itself. But what might the future hold? Already at the beginning of the twentieth-century, the Futurists claimed that their experiments enabled them to produce a literature of tomorrow.  Well, when is tomorrow? 

In light of the evidence of this companion – its retrospective view of the historical avant-gardes and of postmodernism and its descendants, its survey of explorations in language, narrative, form, and media, and its account of the aesthetics of the present – it remains to ask: What might we expect from the new frontier of experimental literature?

Futurological predictions inevitably fall short: the millennium bug did not take down the world’s computer systems in on New Years Day 2000; we are not (yet) posthuman; the book is not dead. As cultural commentator and author Warren Ellis (2005) puts it, “Welcome to the future. It’s the world you’re living in”:

People are disappointed with the future they’re living in. Since 2001, the refrain has gone up, louder year by year: “This is the future. Where’s my flying car? Where’s my fucking jet pack?” Pre-millenium, we were living in an unprecedented density of imagined futures, and we assumed it was all waiting for us around the corner. And here we are, around the corner, and none of it is standing here.

Any act of future-thinking is, in itself, a work of fiction, and the imagined possibilities are thought-experiments. Thus, to consider any brave new literary landscape, we can but look at where we’ve been and where we are now, or as Ellis says, “The best we can do is track the future as it happens.”

Political intervention has often been a motivating factor in experimental literature, as demonstrated by literary movements such as surrealism, Futurism, Situationism, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, or by formerly marginalized groups such as feminist or postcolonial writers. The present experimental literature, of globalization and/or altermodernism, seeks to challenge the forces of cultural and economic globalization, internationalism and capital markets. In keeping with such subversion, recent events such as the “Occupy Wall Street” campaign might fuel experimental literary reactions. Beginning on the 17th September 2011 in Manhattan’s Financial District, and spreading to other major cities in the Western world, Occupy Wall Street is not unconnected to other recent unrest, including the violent civil uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world in 2010/2011, stemming from political corruption, democratic deficiency, and fiscal problems, and in Greece and Italy in relation to the Eurozone debt crisis. We may, therefore, envisage an experimental literature that addresses what may be seen as the contaminated rule of capitalism. Alternatively, the increasing concern over the environment, global warming and the end of the world, seemingly supported by a surge of natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, catastrophic storms), might spur the development of a politicized, experimental eco-literature.

The proliferation of technology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries certainly suggests further potentialities for literary innovation. What does the e-reader, Kindle, or i-pad have to offer the literary work? What more might the World Wide Web have to offer? Media scholars cite the development of Web 2.0 (the interactive sites of the internet such as social networking, blogging, and virtual worlds) as liberating for users. Isn’t it logical to assume, therefore, that an experimental literature of tomorrow (be it in the printed book, on the tablet computer, online, or across media in multiplatform environments) might offer greater participatory pleasures for its reader-users? Similarly, another factor to consider in the development of tomorrow’s literary experiments is the impact of today’s media saturated environment. Will works become progressively more hybridized in form, in terms of genre, modes, and media? And will the incessant flow of data and information (rolling news, twitter feeds) affect the form and process of texts, leading to still more appropriation or recycling in composition?

However grounded in the past and the present, these previsions of the future, predictions of the forthcoming, are no more than fancy. Inventions. Fabrications. In Ellis’s (2005) words, “By the time you read this, everything in it will be history. The future’s a moving target.” Yet as we linger in the interminable pause of the present, waiting for a literary future that will never arrive, there is one thing of which we may be certain: Experiment, we must.

Works Cited
Calinescu, M. (1987) “The Idea of the Avant-Garde,” in Five Faces of Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 95-148.
Ellis, W. (2005) ‘Future Underground’, Brainjuice, 16 February 2005 (no pagination), Online, retrieved October 2011, from
Federman, R. (1975) “Surfiction – Four  Propositions in Form of an Introduction,”  in Surfiction: Fiction Now … and Tomorrow, ed.R. Federman, Chicago: Swallow Press, 5-15.
Herman, D. (2002) Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative, Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Johnson, B.S. (1973) “Introduction,” in Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?  London: Hutchinson, 11-31.
Sukenick, R. (1985) In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.