I have lifted the beginning of a review from the excellent weblog: The Reading Experience by Daniel Green. I encourage you to visit this site.
Partisans of “experimental” fiction (I am one) frequently make unequivocal distinctions between a properly experimental and a “conventional” work: The experimental work is formally or stylistically unlike anything that has come before–satisfying Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”–while the conventional work merely recapitulates, perhaps with modest variation, an already existing form or style.
If the goal is to identify the truly original, this distinction makes sense, however much it seems to some readers an overly rigid standard or just unnecessary–if a work of literature provides some kind of aesthetic satisfaction (if it’s merely “a good read”), what difference does it make if it can be called original or not? In my opinion formal and stylistic innovation is important in maintaining the aesthetic potential of fiction. Without it, fiction becomes just a routinized “entertainment” medium that at best appeals to readers willing to settle for routine entertainment but that at worst itself implicitly denies that fiction has any potential to be “art” except through the skill required to master the moves involved in joining together the familiar elements–plot, character, setting–associated with it as an inherited form. I would not deny that this can be done more or less skillfully (and that the result can be more or less entertaining), but surely it is artistic originality that at the very least introduces a fresh perspective on what might be possible in a particular aesthetic form, and surely this is as true of fiction as of any other of the arts.
Perhaps, however, those of us who would defend experimental fiction against its frequent enough detractors (who usually either do prefer the familiar over the fresh or conveniently judge all literary experiments to be failed experiments) do, wittingly or unwittingly, too quickly discount the value of a work’s capacity to “entertain,” at least if “entertaining” is defined as that quality of the work that sustains attention, makes the reader feel the reading experience is worth the time spent. I have always thought the greatest experimental fiction precisely manages to both find original means of expression and make that expression entertaining, even traditionally “enjoyable.” The fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, for example, has always seemed to me wildly entertaining, even if it is dedicated first of all to discarding all the conventional ways of providing entertainment through narrative fiction. The same is true of the fiction (and the plays) of Samuel Beckett, if the reader can reconcile the at times farcical premises and occurrences with the bleak view of human existence Beckett presents.
There is also perhaps a middle ground between “experimental” and “conventional” in fiction where writers are able to follow up on (in a sense further experiment with) strategies and techniques first introduced by previous innovative writers, in some cases precisely employing those techniques in a more obvious attempt to turn them to the purposes of familiar literary pleasures. Although some practices that were at one time more daring–fragmented narrative or the move toward “psychological realism” among modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf, for example–have inevitably become so assimilated as to no longer seem exceptional, others can still be used to credible effect by skillful writers seeking to avoid the most conventionalized assumptions about writing novels or stories. While the results couldn’t be called experimental other than in this second-order sense, such works are certainly more adventurous than the great majority of what gets called literary fiction, and might even help convince some readers that more adventurous approaches to both the writing and reading of fiction could have their merits.
I am much in agreement with the discussion above. I do not personally insist that experimental fiction must be entirely unlike anything that went before. It’s great if it is truly new but I leave room for improvement of the experiment (so many examples of experimental fiction are unsuccessful or only marginally successful) and for other authors to try the experiment out themselves to see how it goes and how well they might be at writing something new, even if they weren’t the first. I also allow that what was experimental two-hundred years ago now might be considered conventional; that does not mean the original experimentation should be overlooked: shoot, the novel itself was once experimental … and it didn’t get very good reviews.