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What Is Experimental Fiction?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Experimental fiction typically refers to any type of literary fictional work that is experimental in nature, often playing with genre definitions or various conventions established within the literary canon. These works can be written in numerous forms, including poetry or prose or combinations of the two, and are often meant to express new ideas or explore established ideas in new ways. Such works may sometimes be considered offensive or without merit initially, though critical review may deem such works to have greater meaning in the long term. Experimental fiction is often found at the beginnings of a literary movement and frequently influences those writers that follow.

The exact nature of this type of fiction can vary quite a bit, depending on the purpose and message of an author. In general, however, such fiction is meant to try new things within the confines of literature and approach writing or the written word in new ways. A work of experimental fiction might consist only of internal monologue written in a stream of consciousness style, for example, creating a work that is difficult to understand and explores the separation between thought and reality. This type of work might also play with typical notions of linear storytelling and reveal a story in a way that breaks away from normal methods.

Experimental fiction can also express ideas that are startling or may be considered offensive by those within the established culture. Such works often use vulgar language or describe images and scenes that may be unsettling to some readers. This is often seen in counter-culture works of literature that are meant to challenge norms and social standards considered to be generally accepted. Experimental works of fiction such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Naked Lunch by William Burroughs have all been received with shock and outrage by those who find their morals and ideals challenged by such works.

The very nature of literature and the process of storytelling through the written word can also be challenged by experimental fiction. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for example, consists of a 999 line poem written by a fictional poet. The novel that follows consists of a critical analysis of the poem written by a fictional friend of the poet, which reveals the story of the friend who is analyzing the poem and the last days of the poet himself. This type of experimental fiction serves to help the reader come to see the novel format as a literary device and creates new possibilities for storytelling in works of fiction.

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Discussion Comments
By wiesen — On May 12, 2011

I certainly agree with the points you made in your comment. A subject such as this is so complex and varied that it can be difficult to cover every aspect of it in a single article, which is why it is always wonderful when we get comments like yours that really help expand upon what we can say in a single article.

I mentioned the "vulgar" aspects of experimental fiction, mostly because I felt it was important to include the fact that these works sometimes push social norms and force readers to see things in new ways. This can sometimes be unsettling or shocking for some people, which has led to works being banned or challenged under obscenity laws.

By anon174386 — On May 10, 2011

There is much good information in this article. It would be improved, however, if the word "often" were removed from this sentence: "Such works often use vulgar language or describe images and scenes that may be unsettling to some readers," since experimental writing uses no more "vulgar" language or unsettling images than traditional (mainstream) literature. It should also be explained *why* such language is used, and explain the differences between "gratuitous" language, sex, and violence and the same that plays a significant role in the storytelling: character development, cultural context, etc.

It's important to point out that most experimental writing plays against traditional form, of which it is well aware. That is, the experimental writers are highly educated in literary history and, like visual artists, respond against conventions in order to comment on society.

What is also missing from this article are examples of contemporary experimental writing, of which there are many. There has been, for example, a current trend toward using science as a basis for literary experimentation, wherein both the language and structure of the narrative have been shaped by scientific methodologies.

Likewise, current experimental writing is often multimodal, incorporating multimedia elements like drawing, audio and video. This is the result of late 20th and early 21st century technologies availability. Steve Tomasula's DVD novel, TOC, is a good example of this, as is Debra Di Blasi's Jiri Chronicles that contains over 500 individual works of prose, poetry, audio interviews, music, websites, visual art, and consumer products.

Finally, experimental writing is typically intended for the reader to reflect upon and reconsider cultural, social and political standards of the time, the role that language plays in our lives, and the reader's own ability to [re-]evaluate himself or herself with brutal honesty and thereby become a better human being.

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