What is Experimental Writing?

I’ve always considered myself a no frills, linear, begin-at-the-beginning, chronological-until-the-end type of person. Experimental writing was only for the few, the proud, those who could consume or create it unsupervised, without being deemed unintelligible or pretentious. Experimental writing for me was a Zen thing: I had to ask about it, so therefore I’d never understand it. If I had to define experimental writing, I could only say it was like obscenity: I knew it when I saw it, but that was the extent of it.I thought I didn’t get experimental writing not only because of the type of person I am, but also because of the work I once did. I was a newspaper reporter for mostly small, community papers before returning to school for my MFA. Most of my writing was inspired by the newspaper stories I had written, so that while characters might have been unreliable, their tales had predictable arcs, or intentions. They began at the beginning, had identifiable if not predictable villains, conflicts, epiphanies and resolutions, and sometimes even happy endings.

These stories and novels did not get published, by the way. I couldn’t always figure out why, although I was told they failed for all the usual reasons: voice, point of view, too much exposition, and not enough character development. More than feeling confused, I was left to think that I was incapable of making my experiences and insights comprehensible to others. I was not an experimental writer, and yet my work had the same effect as any failed experiment in literature, painting, or science. It did not translate into anything of use, or anything of enjoyment.

I didn’t give up, but I didn’t push the issue, either. I also had a daughter to raise and while taking her to the park, to play dates and admission interviews for kindergarten, I was struck by how different her childhood was from my own. She was growing up in the center of the universe, or so it seemed, in midtown Manhattan. I grew up in a slightly more remote and suburban location, although it had its own kind of glamor, in the hills of Hollywood.

The problem I had, though, was I had no way to make my observations relevant, either to her, or the gatekeepers to the book buying public. As I was contemplating all of this, my husband had taken to reading to our daughter aloud from the childhood classics, particularly one seemingly bequeathed to us from the 1960s (although it was written much earlier): The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In their own time, these books were considered revolutionary because they were not told through the triumphant viewpoint of the hero, but through weaker, supposedly insignificant characters. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not only narratives of derring-do and destiny, but about language and the art of story telling.

Far be it from me to say J.R.R. Tolkien was an experimental writer. Steeped in Northern European mythology as he was, Tolkien may have been as far from an experimental writer as can be. But his work was essentially an experiment; to see if the new language he had created could live up to the linguistic theories he proffered about sound, aesthetics, and a culture’s values. My daughter was receiving a nightly education in the culture born out of that make-believe language. That was precisely what I wanted to give to my daughter, a look back into the culture of my neighborhood, where squares and hippies lived side-by-side with a mixture of envy, revulsion, and resignation.

So instead of starting yet another, no frills, linear, begin-at-the-beginning, chronological-until-the-end explanation of my life for my daughter, I found myself trying something new. There are many reasons why I used the unconventional form of Tolkien-style fantasy with postmodern touches to write my book, “An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir.” In the end, though, I still feel I didn’t do anything particularly risky — anything experimental.

My story is standard fairy tale, with a very good girl and a very good man; a war that forges boys into men; and a queen with potential for evil. But unlike Tolkien, who abhorred allegory, my fantasy world is meant to comment on the real world, through the use of footnotes. The footnotes describe the real-life inspirations for the fantasy. I did this because I wanted to show my daughter how my imagination was formed by the place where I grew up. It was where the first Renaissance Faire was held, among other cultural innovations such as libertarian celebrity, free drugs, and psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll.

In using footnotes to explain the story’s inspiration, I wasn’t doing anything more than writers who have come before me. David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker popularized the use of footnotes in the 1990s. They used footnotes to make a postmodernist point about focus; they forced their audience to question whether the true story in their tale was the present-day action or plot they had built, or whether it was in the struggle to tell that story. I used footnotes not because I thought them experimental but because they are a fairly standard and acceptable device for what seem to be tangents.

I don’t know if my experiment will be successful, but surely we can say Wallace and Baker have been. And so have the efforts of Carol Maso and Robert Coover, for instance; Coover’s marrying of antithetical worlds in his texts may very well have been the inspiration for novels with alternating narratives. Maso’s critiques and challenges to the male patriarchy may not be on the minds of the political chattering classes, but surely they are using her implicit ideas and arguments. We might do well to remember that Jane Austen was once considered experimental for the critical eye she turned to domestic arrangements. With all of Hollywood’s interpretations of Austen’s work, does she seem experimental now?

Literary gatekeepers often chide a work for being “experimental” when it is difficult, demanding, graphically scattered, or incomprehensible to the point it cannot be edited or marketed. The problem with labeling something as “experimental’’ is the assumption that a piece of literature violates the rules; that there are even such rules for language and imagination. I can’t predict what the future will bring in so many ways, but is it possible that there is nothing more to be done with art, with words and images, with the stories we tell one another and the reasons why we tell them? Is literature much like history in that it’s over, as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed at the end of the Cold War?

All writing is experimental. On one level, it is an experiment in the writer’s imagination; on another, it is an experiment with readers, who include agents, editors, paying customers, critics, university professors, hoarders, and searchers. Discouraging “experimental” work, though, is dangerous, because the use of that term is akin to saying humanity and its discoveries are over. There is always something left to discover about our myths, our everyday lives, and our future.

Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of “An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir” from Jaded Ibis Press. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (once for poetry and once for fiction); a storySouth Million Writers Award; and for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. She lives in New York City with her husband, her daughter, and her daughter’s cat.