Thursday, April 20, 2006

Experimental Programs

Since this "let the readers answer the question" is working so well this week, I'll drop you this one from Jaundiced in Japan. Thanks in advance. You guys are doing great....

Sorry to bother you with a question that's undoubtedly been asked
before, but after having searched your posts for "experimental
fiction," I'm still unsure. Which writing programs are reputed to be
more experimental? I gathered Brown is one, others? Of course I
don't know precisely what is meant by "experimental" (or perhaps even
'fiction'), but was hoping it would suffice as a term of convenience.
Are there any self-ordained experimental programs?
Thanks much.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

The answer is what you'd expect. Yes and no. Cal-Arts and Brown are known for embracing experimental writing (how you'd define experimental is really up to you and would require a tired, long discussion). Columbia, with Ben Marcus directing, has to be considered experimental as well. That said, classical programs like Iowa have produced Stephen Wright and Adam Haslett. They don't necessarily frown upon experimental writing (though you can bet Marilynne Robinson and Ethan Canin were the main reason Sam Chang, not Ben Marcus, took over for Frank Conroy).

A program is probably just as experimental as the writers who come out of it and the professors who teach there.

Anonymous said...

yeah, I dont know about you, but when I was searching for schools, I was bent on applying to experimental fiction programs not necessarily because I consider my own work in those terms, but because I wanted to ensure the presence & support of open-minded faculty members and fellow students and that seemed the easiest way to do it. there is a book by cs lewis called "an experiment in criticism": I didnt want to get stuck with the bad kind of reader. anyway, I have no idea how closely my research matches reality, but it seemed to me that besides brown, other promising programs include the new school (historically, I guess, original; but over the years, as prices rose, they might have become distilled into mere pretension), university of southern mississippi (with two barthelme brothers, and they offer a Phd if you want one), bowling green state university, and the university of alabama ... an experimental-minded teacher suggested 3/4 of those schools to me. so who knows. but good luck.

Anonymous said...

Re: "That said, classical programs like Iowa have produced Stephen Wright and Adam Haslett."

Adam Haslett's not really considered experimental, is he?

Anonymous said...

Don't confuse Donald Barthelme with his brothers at USM, and Adam Haslet is not "experimental"

Anonymous said...

I know that donald is not among the barthelmes at USM: but there are two other brothers, both apparently experimental enough to warrant their program's bearing that description (so said my teacher, anyway).

Anonymous said...

Uh... Adam Haslett is about as traditional as you can get. He writes the kind of stories people look down upon and call "MFA stories"(although he does them better than most).

Seriously... I don't see a single strain of experiment going on in his work. Traditional pyschological realism stories with moments of ephiny at the end.


I think the answers are Cal-Arts and Brown for over-all experimental programs.

Then for programs that are very friendly to it (but will have plenty of non-experimental students and teachers) are Columbia and maybe Syracuse.

Anonymous said...

Also, everything I've read from the non-Donald Barthelmes has been pretty traditional.

I'm not sure I'd buy them as being enough to make a program experimental

Anonymous said...

The Barthelme who runs the USM program is known for writing “boy-meet-girl" stories that are as shallow as a sitcom…I don’t know much about the other one, but as far as I know he hasn’t published anything longer than a short-short…

Anonymous said...

I would definately add Steve Tomasula at Notre Dame, which is an incredibly nice chap as well as a skilled author, and John Kessel at NC State.

Anonymous said...

So what IS experimental fiction then? How do you define it? What common elements does it have?
I'm still in the dark, and I'd like to know, because I was also looking for a definition of "experimental fiction."
Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Go ask your mom.

Anonymous said...

In a nutshell, 'experimental' often means work that tells a story out of sequence, or is obsessed with language at the expense of character, or is surrealist or absurdist, or made from weird formalist strictures, or involves metafiction, or is told by hijacking other formats, such as letters to Wendy's, say, or all of these things and sometimes none.

I'd say start with some old French writers to get a feel for 'experimental' writing. First check out Alain Robbes-Grillet's For a New Novel, then watch his highly influential movie Last Year at Marienbad, in which the narrative plays out of sequence and seems to change depending on the character's perspective from which it's 'told'. Then go directly to USA's Robert Coover and Ronald Sukenick, who employed the same techniques and kind of started the whole 60's experimental lit phenomenon. (Coover's Pricksongs & Descants is essential reading for just about anyone, I'd say. Sukenick you might want to skim--I found him kind of boring.) Donald Barthelme is also essential; sometimes he's the only one 'experimentalists' have even read. Next read John Barthe's Lost in the Fun House, which riffs of the others I've mentioned, and extends the metafictional vibe. All of this is now considered 'postmodern', which is still sometimes synonymous with 'experimental'. From there it's easy to chart where Po-Mo has taken us. Don't forget to enjoy Pynchon, William Gaddis, William Gass, and David Foster Wallace. You could also check out Fiction Collective 2 (or FC2)/ Black Ice Books, run in part by Sukenick and Mark Leyner, another contemporary 'experimental'/PoMo author.

On the other end of the spectrum lies stuff that is also French-derived, but that's now been gutted and academicized by the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry crowd (many of which are UMass poetry grads). There's a lot of overlap here between fiction and poetry writers, as the work is often very short ('prose poems' if you're a poet, 'short shorts' if you write fiction). Not a lot of non-writers read this, but there's a ton of it clogging up journals because they're used to build quick publication records (and boy do you need pubs for that tenure track position)... Just start with surrealist, proto-surrealist, and DADA prose and poetry writers to understand the origens--Lautreamont, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussell for starters--then Google "Oulipo" for some great formalist 'experimental' pieces. This includes work by Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, who are, you know, experimental and stuff. William Burroughs and the Beats kind of stole part of the whole Oulipo schtick--in this case, automatic writing and the 'cut-up' method for generating text--and passed it off as their own. But we know better, right? Lucky Darryl, a fictive collaboration between poets James Tate and Bill Knott, is underread and underrated. Look for it.

The funny thing is that 'experimental' writing has its own conventions from which people rarely stray. (And when they do, the result is pretty much unreadable, poser crap). Everything experimental also tends to bleed together, so its kind of hard to give an organized account, which I've sort of tried to do here in a roundabout way.

That should be a reasonable start. Enter some of these names at GNOD.com to branch out...

To Wikipedia you go!


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