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my kind of writer

this morning, i had a conversation with one of my colleagues about writing, & i kept on saying “my kind” of writers. a philosopher, she asked exactly what i meant by “my kind,” which is a more than fair question. do you think it’s limiting or even degrading to ostracize ourselves as “innovative” or “conceptual” or “experimental” writers? these terms are all lame. why do i feel a need to differentiate? is it problematic? do you differentiate? does it have value or use?

i mean, we’re all different writers writing very differently. furthermore, i’m not doing anything that wasn’t done a century ago, and arguably, those who did it a century ago did it a hell of a lot better than i do. we are, after all, working within a tradition, as much as any “traditional” writer does, right? how do you all feel about this?

yes, this is an old question, but a question worth revisiting over & over again, until we reach a solution. i’d rather just call myself a serious writer. or a writer. fuck. may as well call myself anything. who cares, right, all of 20 people?

36 thoughts on “my kind of writer

  1. Maybe it would be helpful to start by asking what writers could be characterized as NON-experimental. Are there non-experimental writers, in any way that makes sense without bending the definition of “experiment” to include any language act? Once we have a baseline of non-experimental writers, we can see what characteristics “experimental” writing might either include or omit to earn the designation. This is probably an impossible task.

    1. i’ll agree with shya by trying to further blur the distinction between “non-experimental” and “experimental.”

      if i understand shya right, he’s positing the fact of a language act as experimental. but i think it could similarly be understood as at once experimental and non-experimental, in that a. a language act (or art act or writing act) ‘performs’ a convention, inasmuch it is thrown into a language which has always come before it, thus solidifying itself as a convention and falling subject to the tropes (narrative or otherwise) which conventionality invokes–of course, there is also a sense in which a language act opens up new conventions; b. a work is always engaged and bound up in an entire history of works–past, present, and future–so what is experimental in its moment of conception might, will probably not be experimental in the future, or is already engaged with a history and dialogue between past works of which it is not aware. a work might, in its present moment, be considered experimental, but it most likely cannot (and theoretically will not) maintain its sense of experimentalism outside of that moment. that’s not to say i can look at, say, ulysses and deny that it’s a radical work of art. but as someone said, and i can’t remember who, ulysses now is the most normal story in the world. its undoing-and-redoing of conventions, however, can be, i think, understood with the greatest clarity under the lens of “modernism.”

      so yeah, basically i think the terms “experimental” and “non-experimental” are impossible terms to apply in isolation, that is without applying them both.

  2. One way to define experimental writing is to say that it tends to resist mimesis and verisimilitude, is innovative in form &/or content…

    But most importantly, experimental writing challenges Aristotelian conventions — which are and have been, regardless of historical era, the conventions of western literature.

    Alec’s argument viz “what is experimental in its moment of conception…will probably not be experimental in the future” is similar to Jakobson’s argument viz “realism” but what both perspectives assume is a mutability that, I argue, does not exist: the Aristotelian notions of unity of character/time/place, of the beginning-middle-end, of catharsis (see: Poetics), these have become the dominate paradigm – thus, any writing which seeks to challenge that paradigm is and always will be experimental.

    I think many folks get caught up on this idea that something is experimental simply because it’s weird. This is not the case. Something is experimental because it is experimenting with Aristotelian convention. And I would argue, contra Jakobson, contra one of my former graduate mentors Brian McHale, and it seems contra Alec, that what is conventional has not changed at the structural level since Aristotle.

    Of course, the novel’s codifying of these principals did not fully develop until the late-18th/early-19th century — thus, as Franco Moretti has shown, all “novels” before that period were experimental.

    & obviously, as Foucault has convincingly shown, the Victorian era did a crash bang fuck-up job of codifying literature, but regardless of sexual repression or sexual exaltation, the fundamental Aristotelian precepts have remained constant.


    I proudly differentiate myself as an experimental writer.

    1. What I’ve found during my own deviations from standard poetics, is that if I abandon them entirely–say if I opt away from mimesis altogether–I can find readers who will champion the work on a pure “language” basis. However, if I adopt some aspects, such as mimesis and, I don’t know, characters who experience plot reversal or something, then readers balk if I don’t follow through with the entire thing (climax and denoument, say). Ultimately, it’s “resolution” that seems to be a real sticking point for people–even many readers who admire and support dense, challenging texts don’t like it when you set up a “straight” narrative but resist or complicate the resolution. I personally find it compelling when resolution is withheld, but it really pisses o lot of people off.

      1. shya, i am in absolute agreement re: the absence of resolution. i love languagey works that deal with plot, but in extremely fucked ways. and that is something i’ve liked very much about the fiction/semifiction i’ve read of yours.

      2. Hey Shya, that’s really interesting. Sadly, I think you’re right: most people want/need “resolution.” Personally, I find that desire annoying — resolution to me is extremely boring and limited and frustrating — unless I’m watching a romantic comedy, in which case I usually find myself enjoying the resolution — but in literature, since I don’t read for plot I could care less. Also, come to think of it, when I watch a television show I tend to like those shows that are not episodic but are — what’s the alternative to episodic called?…ongoing?…like, I don’t care for shows like CSI or whatever that have a beginning-middle-end, that wrap everything up within one episode; rather, I like shows like LOST that seem to never end, that go on and on and on and continually resist resolution, resist closure.

      3. this why I think a-near neverending serial form like a daytime soap (altho on a soap, lots of individual ‘storylines’ are regularly resolved) is potentially radical.

        …didn’t shane choose resist resolution w/ failure 6? I still haven’t read.

        1. fascinating idea, tim.

          i’m not sure failure 6 is a book that could have resolution. many books “our people” write resist plot & resolution, while not necessarily resisting narrative. that’s what’s so cool about it.

          maybe by “my kind” i mean a group of a certain age, who have a certain aesthetic, like certain things, though what “certain” means is constantly flexible, changing, resisting definition. yes, i think i like that.

    2. chris, i’d argue:

      if you are laying out a ground of conventions–classical unity–and then a reaction to that ground–experimental–then it seems to me you are laying out a traditional power relation. that is, there is a dominant discourse, and then a subversive discourse. as foucault has also convincingly shown, power dynamics can’t be construed binarily; what i think you’re pointing toward is a traditionalist power/resistance division. we all know by now that power corrupts; aristotle’s unity might be mirrored contemporaneously by a ‘postmodern’ sense of disarray or nonrepresentation.

      “what is conventional has not changed at the structural level since Aristotle.”

      exactly. but i would take this further and alter it to, “… since before, and beyond, Aristotle.” are we sure that aristotle’s attempted systematization of narrative was successful? and if he wasn’t–and obviously he wasn’t, since texts from that era are all the time chewed up with a ‘poststructuralist’ bent–then perhaps there is a law, or absence thereof, of narrative, of code, which works outside of time, and which is as resistant to appropriation as it is to revolution? i am referring to the “nature” of language, which has gone by the names “differance,” “ipseity,” and even kant’s “Sublime”–in Kant’s “Critique of Judgment,” we find the absolute indeterminacy of faculties in the face of the absolutely absent.

      this leads me back to “revolution” as regards temporality. all works are temporized, and all works do work (revolutionize) at once both inside and outside of the work-at-hand. from here, as ‘experimental,’ works work in different, implicit–and explicit–political, psychological, and (primarily) ethical ways. but narrative is different. narrative is the very unconditioned condition of possibility for politics, psychology, and ethics. narrative came before aristotle thought to unify and categorize it. narrative came before thought could think itself; narrative is the present always-already past by the time i can say “I” and think to pen a single word.

      1. i feel kind of embarrassed by my response here. but i figure hey, the website is named big other, so i might as well.

        1. Hey Alec, no need to feel embarrassment…you’ve raised some really interesting issues. I appreciate what you have to say.

          Regards this idea of power relations: I do not conceive of experimental/avant-garde literature as “reactionary.” I do not conceive of it as “subversive,” either. Both of those terms are negative rather than affirmative (in the Spinozian sense) and weak rather than strong (in the Nietzschian sense).

          In The Genealogy of Morals, recall how Nietzsche articulates the slave mentality as that which “reacts” rather than acts, that works from a position of resentment rather than autonomy.

          In effect, when someone claims that Dadaism (for example) was “reactionary” they are subordinating it, that is: making it slave to the master of some other (as you put it) dominate discourse.

          The way I conceive of the difference between experimental and conventional literature is in the Bergsonian sense of there being a difference in kind rather than degree. Which draws on my understanding of Deleuze’s concept of difference and repetition, which is to say that I do not conceive of a hierarchy between the two but rather a coexistence. Both forces are affirmative. Both forces are active.

          The rhetoric of “reaction” is a propagation of conventional literature aimed at subordinating the experimental — it is not, in fact, “real.” It is merely a strategy used by one discourse to try and diminish another.

          I argue that one of the reasons why people struggle with this term “experimental” is because the frame of the conversation got fucked up a long time ago and no one has come along to fix it. Enter me, and my crazy PhD dissertation… :)

          1. ok, i gotcha. yeah, i thought you were articulating all of this stuff within a master/slave relation.

            i would agree with ‘coexistence.’ that’s i think what i was trying to get at, or point toward, with my first post.

            what i’m wondering is, if there is an ethical responsibility in literature which is innate beyond all innateness, does that responsibility differ between representational and nonrepresentational literature? (i’m getting this dichotomy from zadie smith’s “two paths for the novel.”) if storytelling itself resists re-presentation, is re-presentational writing less ethical than nonrepresentational, or rather, is it working in bad faith?

            i’d like to hear more about your phd dissertation, chris. maybe write a post on it?

            1. I know mine is a contensious position, but…

              I don’t go for ethical responsibility in literature, Alec. I think of literature as art – and I subscribe to Gautier’s art for art’s sake paradigm.

              I believe art has only one purpose and that is provocation. Otherwise, art is useless. Once it becomes useful beyond provocation, it is no longer art…it becomes propaganda or entertainment or decoration or whatever.

              For example, Shepard Fairey’s OBEY campaign was art because it had no purpose (beyond provocation) — but when he started making those Obama HOPE screen prints he jumped the shark into propaganda. He took something that was useless and made it useful – thus, no longer art.

              In reverse: once Duchamp put the urinal in the art gallery it was no longer a urinal, it had become art: it had become useless.

              Holding this position, I am used to getting tomatoes thrown at me. So I’ll understand if you vehemently disagree.

              1. …an object like a urinal divorced from its context of use and aestheticized is how I’ve understood and defined “fetish.” I think this is why Jeff Koons’s stuff seems fetishistic to me. I am not saying it is not “art” (the defining art conversation mostly makes me uncomfortable), but how then do you differentiate art from fetish?

                1. Wow, excellent question!

                  You know, in all the time I’ve been discussing this topic with people, no one has ever brought up the idea of fetish.

                  I tip my hat to you, Tim. Big time.

                  I will think on this and get back to you.

                  1. I haven’t a clue abt how this connects w/ the conversation re: art, but one of the things I believe about fetish objects is they help us negotiate liminal spaces. For instance, the colonial explorer teeters between delusions of grandeur and fears of engulfment by an alien landscape and its people, and uses his spears, flags (see Eddie Izzard sketch — “Do you have a flaaaag”), data collection instruments, etc, to help manage this anxiety. I stole this last bit from a woman named Anne McClintock who wrote a book called “Imperial Leather.”

          2. I like this, I do not know all the source material (Nietzche, Deleuze… I do know some foucalt, but have read more of the sexuality stuff than the power stuff), but I think I understand–

            “Both forces are affirmative. Both forces are active.

            The rhetoric of “reaction” is a propagation of conventional literature aimed at subordinating the experimental — it is not, in fact, “real.” It is merely a strategy used by one discourse to try and diminish another. ”

            One is not a derivation of the other, they are concurrent? Similar to questioning directionality of self/other?

  3. My real issue with this idea is that “experimental” writing tried to not represent reality is that is completely misunderstands the main point of the beginnings of experimental writing- in that is attempted to BETTER represent reality. They thought reality was deeper, due to the work of Freud and Darwin, and wanted to represent it better, and more honestly. To grab ahold of a style and not understand what they were getting at, is to be enamored with style with disregard for the deep significance that was the whole point of the massive change that literature shows at the end of the last century. It’s a shallow way of approaching the rich history of the written word.

    1. What pr is describing is historically accurate re: modernist experimentation, isn’t it? That it worked with stream-of-consciousness and fracture and such, but with the goal of expressing what were understood to be more essential, unifying Enlightenment-derived truths? Like Proust, Woolf, Fitzgerald, etc?

  4. “May as well call myself anything”–yes, Lily. This is where I find myself, in all earnestness. Since all categories/claims/”kinds,” etc., are reductive in some way, I tend to steer clear of hard-and-fast alliances, and usually avoid putting other writers amidst them, unless I’m just trying to finish a point or make a point (to myself, mostly…I tend to avoid these kinds of discussions post-grad-school, or jump in only to dodge out a minute later) and need a kind of placeholder. Doing otherwise feels somehow like I’m reinforcing or at least entertaining certain hierarchies or ideologies that I’d largely rather ignore. At the start of conversations such as these, I feel rather exhilarated…but after a moment or two I feel like I’m deadening whatever work I’m talking about. I try to keep my relationship to the work that I care about, I don’t know, intimate–and therefore somehow protected from codification.

  5. After I discovered the term “stylist,” I realized that’s what I wanted to be, that “experimental” and “innovative” no longer applied (in the way I’d thought of them–which is to say, I’d thought them synonymous with “stylized”).

  6. “i’m not doing anything that wasn’t done a century ago”

    I’ve never understood these statements. Similar to, “Nothing is new.” Are people so hopeless? Is that has a possibility to be true, isn’t it equally possible there are people doing new, great things? Things never done before?

    1. mjm: i’m not taking the whole hume “nothing is new” POV. i’m simply acknowledging that what we’re calling “experimental” today (at least what’s in print) is not entirely different from what was called “experimental” a century ago. i’m acknowledging lineage & historicity. i’m not hopeless. i’m not a nihilist. (well, maybe a little.) i’m saying MY writing, in particular, works within a “tradition” of “experimenting,” in a way that is no longer even experimenting. i’m more comfortable with terms like “conceptual,” as my writing is concept-driven.

      but really, my point is: why pigeon-hole ourselves? why INTENTIONALLY marginalize ourselves & say we don’t fit in? it’s something i’m guilty of, and i don’t like it.

      i say: let’s forget the fucking margins. we’re writers. we’re already irrelevant. why intentionally make ourselves more irrelevant? ok. i’m sounding more and more nihilistic. i should stop before i dig myself too deep of a hole.

      1. Is the pigeon-holing solely abt the self-labeling?

        Because when I read your initial post, when I thought abt the “my kind of writer” phenomenon, I was thinking also in terms of social and community dynamics, maybe initially seeking out other folks w/ similar aesthetic philosophies and principles, but then over time how that can become reductive, perhaps a bit “are you with us or against us?”-ish, are you “my kind” of writer or not, acceptance vs. ostracism, the clubhouse phenomenon… I thought folks might discuss social dynamics like these more in the thread.

        1. i like this point, tim, and i think it’s a really important one. i was speaking about pigeon-holing in terms of self-labeling, but i’d like to hear what people have to say about the us v. them club. it’s certainly true in our writing world (not to mention the “real” world!!). we should start a new post about it. you want to, or shall i?

  7. Thanks for posting this, Lily—and interesting responses all around.

    I used to be very invested in calling myself an experimental writer, and in associating with other experimental writers, etc. And then when I really started writing, my need for that label kind of fell away.

    These days I sometimes self-identify as “experimental” when describing my work to others (such as my family), but mainly because I don’t want them to think that I’m trying to write the mainstream commercial fiction like they read. Like Dan Brown novels. Which I don’t know how to write. (I’m sure it takes a certain skill.)

    But I find myself saying even that less and less—maybe because I’m increasingly interested in Dan Brown? There are skills behind writing commercial fiction that I would like to acquire. In fact, lately I’ve been saying that I want to write “commercially successful experimental fiction.” I find that an interesting challenge. What’s the strangest thing that someone could write that would still have mainstream appeal? I don’t know, which is why I’m intrigued. (I already know what unwanted, unreadable experimental fiction looks like, having written a lot of it already.)

    Overall, though, I’m less and less interested in such labels, and more interested in when I simply like something. I might like it because it’s innovative, but I also might like it because it’s conventional but really well-considered and well put together. So what I think that I like—”my kind of writer”—is someone who considers form, whether it’s conventional or not.

    That’s vague. Anyway—remember our conversation about Adorno, at the Mexican place? Beethoven: once very experimental. Now used to sell cars. The same can be said for many formerly experimental artists; the culture can eventually grow familiar with them, feel comfortable with them, exploit them.

    I think the only thing one can really do—the only thing that I can do, at least—is to write the things that I want to see in existence. With some of those things, I might be the only one who needed it. But with others, there might have been one million others who wanted it. Although they might live two hundred years after I do.

    Still vague!

    1. ha ha! we’re such nerds: talking adorno at a mexican restaurant with chips & salsa & beers & jeremy.

      i guess that’s my whole point with starting this conversation though: i’m getting increasingly uncomfortable with terms like these. i’m ready to abandon them entirely and just call it what it is: writing. (i’m getting crazy with the colons, no? i’d mentioned that in chicago, too, right? on our way to ethiopian food: obsessed with colons.)

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