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Toward a “Bibliography of Important Experimental Texts”

Recently, on Facebook, Lance Olsen mentioned that he’s in the midst of “compiling a bibliography of 100 important experimental texts for [his] in-progress Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing, a book about how to imagine one’s own work as a space of opportunities.” He asks:

“[W]hat are some of the texts across place & time that should be present?”

This was my answer:

Here are some works outside of the usual, but still unusual, suspects: Thalia Field’s oeuvre. Leon Forrest’s Forest County Trilogy (There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden; The Bloodworth Orphans; and Two Wings to Veil My Face) and Divine Days. The 1611 King James Bible. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. Brian Evenson’s Dark Property. Gary Lutz’s oeuvre. Ditto for Ben Marcus. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s oeuvre. Ditto for John Haskell. William Gass’s oeuvre. Ditto for William Gaddis. Some others: Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You; Luigi Serafini’s The Codex Seraphinianus; and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Now, as I reconsider my answer in light of imagining my own work “as a space of opportunities,” I think that I’d have to add Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and The Complete Cosmicomics; and The Best of Rube Goldberg.

24 thoughts on “Toward a “Bibliography of Important Experimental Texts”

  1. Did Lance provide further criteria than the above? I mean, 100 is not very many. And what does experimental mean in this context? And what does “after innovative writing” mean? And does “a space of opportunities” mean works that literally monkey with the “architecture” of the book? Or does he mean that more metaphorically?

    Ever curious,

  2. All good questions, Adam. I think the invitation can be approached, answered, and interrogated in many different ways. And I’d certainly be interested in hearing about more books that “literally monkey with the ‘architecture’ of the book.” Besides Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and the abovementioned The Waves, Hopscotch, Dhalgren, The Tunnel, Invisible Cities, Codex Seraphinianus, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Dies: A Sentence, I’d add the following works:
    Robert Coover’s Heart Suit
    Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water
    Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames
    Davis Schneiderman’s Blank
    Lily Hoang’s Changing
    David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
    Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura
    Anne Carson’s Nox
    Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.
    Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley
    Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales
    Shane Jones’s Light Boxes
    Andy Devine’s Words
    Christopher Higg’s The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney
    Eve Rhymer’s Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love

    Then there are any number of fantastic artists’ books, like Daniel Spoerri’s Topographie Anécdotée* du Hasard (An Anecdoted Topography of Chance) (a book I highly recommend, but do not own, alas); Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A treated Victorian novel (which William Gass told me about); Mark Pawson’s Die-Cut Plug Wiring Diagram Book; Dieter Roth’s myriad books; and Ed Ruscha’s books.

    More will most certainly come to mind after I post this comment, I’m sure.

    1. I think I could name 1000 great experimental books, off the top of my head. And someone like Stephen Moore could probably list 10,000. The question becomes: why list any of them? (And why 100?) (And of course, it says “important,” not “great”—what does “important” mean?)

      If the goal is to list “important ones,” then this list probably won’t be all that new; i.e., it probably already exists elsewhere. Surely others have listed 100 important experimental books.

      I also just noted that the above post says “texts.” Is this to include all texts; e.g., would hypertext novels be available for consideration?

      Questions, questions…

      1. When I say “it probably already exists,” I mean that a list of (only) 100 important experimental books (with no other conditions) would probably consist of works like Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Les Fleurs du mal, Locus Solus, Tender Buttons, À la recherche du temps perdu, Ulysses, etc. It’s a pretty academic affair to list 100 historically important experimental books.

        Meanwhile, regardless of how one feels about, say, Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley (I feel it’s absolutely terrific!), I don’t see how anyone could argue that it’s important. (It’s important to me, and to Jeremy, but who else, really? Yet.) (Jeremy would also probably argue that it isn’t even all that experimental. It’s brilliantly written, but it clearly follows a pretty long lineage—Raymond Roussel, Ronald Firbank, Jane Bowles—all of whom Jeremy has openly acknowledged stealing from…)

        (The most experimental thing about Rose Alley, I might argue, is that it’s a work of long-form fiction that isn’t primarily organized as a novel. Which is historically not an experimental thing—see The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales—but is, perhaps, somewhat unusual these days. Although even then, Harry Mathews Cigarettes sets a pretty clear precedent for Jeremy’s book.) (Mind you, I’m not saying any of this to disparage Jeremy’s book, which I think is truly terrific, and should be read by absolutely everyone! I’m just trying to provide a little perspective.)

        I mean, I think that Dave Sim’s long-running graphic novel Cerebus (1977–2004) is one of the most astonishingly experimental literary works of the 20th Century—no one since Proust, arguably, has experimented more thoroughly with the literary expression of time, and no one else has ever experimented so thoroughly with it in graphic narrative—and yet I don’t know if I could be persuaded that it’s one of the more important experimental books, flat out ever—simply because of that adjective, important. Because who today is influenced by Dave Sim, or considers Cerebus important, any longer? Very few people, probably. (Which is a damn shame, really.)

        …Let alone any work by Yuknavitch, Olsen, Schneiderman, Hoang, Higgs, etc. I don’t mean anything personal here—it’s just, in what sense is Blank, say, an important book? It came out like one month ago! And The Original of Laura? How could that be one of the 100 most important experimental books ever? You’d have to name maybe thirty other Nabokov titles before you could get to that one.

        Mainly, I’m trying to define the terms of the inquiry. Now, if Lance were asking, “What do you think are the most interesting experimental novels of the past five years?”, that would be quite another thing entirely…


        1. Hi, Adam.

          When I’d read that Lance was compiling this bibliography with this number of texts I first thought of it as a corrective to other lists, like Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels” and Time Magazine’s “All Time 100 Novels,” lists that are as predictable as, perhaps, a “bibliography of important experimental texts” might be (although I suspect that the bibliography we’re discussing ultimately won’t be), especially if it were compiled by some cultural megalith (among the things that distinguishes Lance’s list from just such a list is that he’s asked for others to contribute in some way toward its composition, which I think is pretty cool). Also, I thought that Lance might have been using culturally predicated tendencies for certain numbers as a constraint for the construction of his bibliography, which I found to be interesting as well.

        2. Hey, Adam.

          The so-called test of time test is a useful one, but I’d hardly call it the only way of measuring a work’s importance. It’s just one tool among others to measure worth. Why shouldn’t a book that “came out like one month ago” be included on a list of important experimental texts? In fact, I would hope that a bibliography of important experimental texts would toy with the conventions of compiling just such a list, disrupt the very idea of a so-called canonical bibliography. Seems it would be in keeping with the work that makes up its contents.

          1. Thanks for the clarifications, John. And I agree that there are many ways of measuring importance. But how are you measuring it? I still don’t understand how Davis’s book is important, given the criteria (i.e., there are only 100 slots). By which I mean no offense to Davis, natch.

            I like the idea of toying with the conventions of such a list, but the word “important” still has to mean something salient (unless the list is to be a parody of other lists).


  3. Oh, and:

    Numbers (The Bible)
    John Barth’s Giles Goat Boy
    Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret
    whatever book Davis is working on at the moment

    (It had to be said; poetic form demanded it.)

    1. whoa, a d, please talk to me about listing Rhonda Byrne here… working in Borders for 3 years and seeing that book never ever leave the bestsellers has me forever swearing against it, though i’d love to read about a reading of it as an ‘experimental text’

  4. More’s Utopia
    Tristram Shandy
    The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
    The Iliad
    Woolf’s Orlando
    The entire contents of New Worlds under Michael Moorcock

    The list is endless – in one sense every work of fiction is experimental (it’s often more a question of how successful the experiment was).

    1. Hi, Paul.

      You know, today, I was thinking about the endlessness of this kind of a list, and I think that the awareness of this endlessness might be one of the guiding forces toward the composition of lists like these, well, at least for me. In other words, faced with the futility of day-to-day experience (please forgive the utter banality of the sentiment), I find it somehow emboldening to know, or, rather, believe, that something which compiles important things can always be added to, a list that, to adapt Beckett to my purposes, “must go on,” encouraging me to think that though “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

      1. And lists always do go on. Because every list generates argument, disagreement. There is no list anywhere of anything, no matter how comprehensive, where someone won’t say: X should not be included, or Y should be included.

        But there are times, I confess, when I get tired of lists, when I don’t care if X is on the list or not. Because, in a sense, everything deserves to be on the list.

        Perhaps I’ll compile a list of the lists I like. Or the ones I don’t like?

  5. Not that anyone asked me, but I agree with a few points in A D Jameson’s 12:41 post. Surely time, and invocations of, or allusions to, this or that more recent book will say whether or not it’s important or experimental. What about BS Johnson or David Markson’s books?

    Jeff Bursey
    author of _Verbatim: A Novel_ (Oct. 2010),
    a novel told in lists, letters, and political debates,
    without a narrator or strong narrative, that may
    yet be important, and which has been called
    experimental, though I’m not claiming it’s “important” yet,
    but if others disagree, then…

    1. > What about BS Johnson or David Markson’s books?

      Increasingly important (and rightfully so).

      Pity it took both men so long to find an audience (although Markson lived long enough to see it happen—or start to happen).

      Meanwhile, my beloved Ann Quin lies languishing…

    2. As Pierre Bayard reminds us in his brilliant How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, every book is at least two books: the words printed on the page, and the cultural reception of the book. The former never changes (well, it rarely does), but the latter is always in flux—and often more important.

      The consequence for critics, then, is that they must always ask: which book am I talking about?

      1. As a frequent book reviewer, your question comes up, not all the time, but because of certain texts. Do I think Mati Unt will be read in such a way that the culture–whatever the heck that means–will accept him, or more to the point, his books, or do I want that and therefore delude myself?

        For me, it’s best to just say: hey, this is a book worth considering, for these reasons (that is to say, the words on the page, and at times the silences, plus the ideas hovering over the text that are generated by the author, and those generated by me as I read and make connections), and maybe a review reader (and therefore posterity) will like these also, or find more than I found (always possible), to continue its life beyond a year after its publication date.

        In short, I can ask your question, but don’t feel the need to address it in a review. It informs how I write (again, not with all books), but doesn’t need to be evident. If I want to I can say this or that book ought to live forever, but that depends on the occasion.

        1. Hi Jeff,

          Mati Unt! About six years ago Jeremy (M. Davies) made me read Things in the Night; I then pushed a few other people read it. I don’t think any of them liked it as much as Jeremy and I did.

          I see what you’re saying, but I also think these “cultural reading” aspects still play a role in book reviewing. Since the book being reviewed, being new, probably doesn’t yet have that cultural reading, the review then becomes a place where that reading begins forming. If I call a novel “one of the best I’ve ever read,” and everyone else in the world believes me up front, then—well, there you go! Does it then matter what the author read on the page? (AKA, the press release is what forms the opinion, not the actual words on the page. This happens all too frequently.)

          In the case of Unt, also, he is already an important Estonian writer, and that certainly factors into writing about his books: part of the review becomes alerting US audiences as to that fact: “You’ve never heard of this guy, but you might want to give him some attention, because he’s considered the most important recent Estonia writer. And will be considered such regardless of what you think of the book.”

          I think, ideally, we’d discuss only the words on the page, but I also think that’s not possible. There’s a politics to reviewing, and there must be, since writing and reading are social activities.

          Nice talking with you!

          1. Adam, hello. Not to be dense, but please define “There’s a politics to reviewing” just so we’re on the same page.

            As to “culture,” I don’t know if we could posit _a_ culture, considering the number of readers of books, generally. Unless you mean readers of books by estonians in english, and that would be a pretty low number. Perhaps you mean the largest group possible, the general literary culture, in which case I’d say that the next piece of product by P. Roth will get such attention it would swamp, completely, whatever press the next book by Unt received (or anyone else). I’d like to believe that if we said Unt was important people would listen, but the braindead megaphones (to remove Saunders’ remark from its context) would drown us out in their enthusiasm for Roth, Rowling, or Franzen, or, up here, Munro, Atwood or Ondaatje.

            I chose _Things in the Night_ to review because it looked interesting and different. I reviewed _Diary of A Blood Donor_ and _Brecht At Night_ when they came out because they were darn good, and I thought others might like to know of them, but could I discuss all the words on the page? No, because I’d need to know a lot more about estonian language, politics and history to do more justice to them. Here it’s a case of offering ‘the widow’s mite,’ in a sense, where one is aware of the inadequacy of a response even as one offers as much as one can (or can fit into a set frame).

            Saying that brings back something Sorrentino said, so here it is:

            “Reviewers who don’t understand the work under review, or who are intimidated by this lack of understanding, are shameless in their admission of this. Most of them, in fact, can hardly wait to admit it. Their admission of ignorance, however, neither silences nor dissuades them from their tasks. On the contrary, they spend the space of their reviews pointing to the incomprehensible work before them, and this gesture is displayed as a kind of self-bestowed nobility. The work, of course, is always at fault, since the book reviewer is a bona fide literary person, perhaps an expert, else why would he be reviewing books? To admit his incapacity to review the book would never do. The book must die.” (“Writing and Writers: Disjecta Membra,” 355)

            Okay, so I don’t kill any books, but nevertheless, I’m aware of some of my limitations in discussing the words, let alone ideas, on the page. I assume that lack (an inevitable lack?) affects the presentation of Unt (and others) to whatever culture is reading about him.

            Good to talk with you also.


            1. Hi Jeff,

              > Adam, hello. Not to be dense, but please define “There’s a politics to
              > reviewing” just so we’re on the same page.

              Sure thing! What I meant was, when one reads a book, on the one hand they react to the words on the page, and can write about that—I think the sentences are nice, there’s a strong plot, I liked the themes, what-have-you. But then there’s also the social positioning of the book, and I think that, too, enters into how the book is received. Perhaps the book’s by a powerful writer who also happens to be the publisher of a press one would like to publish with? Or the head of a grad program? Or (less posit scenarios less crude) maybe the book’s by a brand new writer who isn’t well known, as opposed to by someone with a long history of a particular kind of work? Things like these are factors that reviewers may pay more or less attention to, and which exist outside the actual text on the page. In other words, because book reviewing is a social activity, it will entail political factors, as does any social activity.

              This kind of thing often does come up in reviews. For instance, I’ve seen some reviews of recent Woody Allen films that say, “If this were by a new director, I’d praise it, because it’s a perfectly nice film, but since it’s by Woody Allen, and not up to snuff with his earlier work, I think it’s a let down.” And another common situation: when something is very much liked by many, many people, it’s harder to write a negative review of it than if it weren’t popular. Because swimming against the tide necessarily demands extra effort. (I still get emails from folks trying to convince me that Inception is a great film, and that I must be dense for not having “understood it”—as well as accusing me of having written a negative review of it “just because” I’m some film snob who wanted to hate on it, &c.)

              Moving on, you’re right: there isn’t just one cultural reading. I was reminded of that just tonight, at dinner with some friends (including Big Other’s own Greg Gerke, who’s been visiting me in Chicago). I happen to be a tremendous fan of Keanu Reeves, and that fact happened to come up during the meal. And Greg and the other two people in our party all consider Keanu Reeves a rather bad actor, which is a pretty popular narrative about him in the present day and age—one commonly hears people remark on how wooden he is, etc. But there are those of us who believe quite the opposite: that Reeves is a tremendous actor, and who value precisely the things in his performances that others disparage.

              Anyway, it is important to remember that the culture—any culture—contains many different views, even when some are more dominant than others. And that one of the reasons why we need reviewers, and reviews, is to call attention to that which is getting drowned out by marketing and hype. Or just sheer popularity.

              Well, maybe this is a little clearer? I’m aware I’m speaking pretty generally; apologies. Meanwhile, it’s nice to know that someone else out there appreciates Unt’s work. And can quote Sorrentino. If you’re ever in Chicago, by all means let me know!


  6. Hi, all, and super thanks for your great suggestions. Let me go ahead and contextualize my question(s) a little more. I’m working on a book called Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing aimed at authors interested in working within the experimental tradition (especially, but not limited to, graduate and undergraduate students). Think of it as the antimatter of, say, Burroway’s Narrative Craft. Essentially its goal is to open up writing spaces rather than creating conventioned boundaries. And so to some short definitions: “After Innovative Writing” is therefore a pun–that is to say, we’re all “after” innovative writing in at least two senses: 1) following a long tradition of experimentation that tracks back at least to Petronius in the first century A.D., and 2) chasing the always troubled and troubling notion of the “innovative” and what we may mean by that. As John mentions above, that word is going to carry a multiplicity of charges, depending on who you are, what you’ve read, where you’re standing, how old you are, etc. . . . and that multiplicity is one of the things that interests me. Why only 100 books? Both because I don’t want to overwhelm potential readers (give a list of 10,000 books, and you might as well give no list at all . . . that is, such a list shows how much you’ve read, but I’m not sure it’s fruitful to potential readers) and because I believe one can give a pretty strong sense of innovation with somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 titles, although, of course, all lists really exist to be disputed, argued with, questioned, tested . . . and that zone of contention is what also interests me. In other words, I’m developing the rules of a game, and inviting others to play, but everyone knows how artificial any game is. Finally, why “texts” instead of “books,” “novels,” etc.? Because I don’t want to make a distinction between what we once thought of as poetry and fiction. I used to know what the difference was between those modes, but I seem to have forgotten, thank goodness. So I’m as interested in, say, Claudia Rankine’s, Susan Howe’s, and Anne Carson’s innovations as Laurence Sterne’s or Perec’s or Beckett’s. Too, I’m interested in other ways of thinking about textuality–both in terms of new-media writing (Young-Hae Chang, David Clark, Shelley Jackson, et al.) and the book arts movement’s response to the perceived disembodiment of the text (Jen Bervin, Clarissa Sligh, Heather Weston, et al.). So perhaps a fruitful way to approach my question is simply this: for you to have become the innovative writer you are, which 15 or 20 or 25 innovative texts had to have already existed in the universe? Thanks again for playing!

    1. This clarification helps a lot—thanks, Lance! It seems as though the list would benefit from a lot of variety (to better show the options that are available).

      It might be helpful to then break down the list historically/categorically, rather than by actual author/book. By which I mean, one could make a list of the most important experimental developments of the past 100 years (or whatever), then look for books that represent/display those innovations. e.g.:

      chance technique
      conceptual writing
      language poetry
      register shifting
      severely constraint-based writing
      stream of consciousness
      visual texts

      …and so on.

      Yielding something like:

      Gertrude Stein, Tender buttons
      John Cage, Silence
      Daniel Spoerri, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance‎
      Carol De Chellis Hill, Henry James’ Midnight Song
      Lyn Hejinian, My Life
      Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
      James Joyce, Ulysses
      Georges Perec, La disparition
      Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
      Ann Quin, Tripticks

      …and so on. And if any one of examples weren’t considered important enough, in a broader conceptual sense, then one could swap it out for a different example—e.g., replace Tripticks with Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School


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