Writing Experimental Fiction Is Tricky

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wefitSubmitting to editors who claim to want “experimental” fiction can be tricky. One editor may simply be looking for stories that are “fresh and creative; something I haven’t seen before.” Another may mean fiction “way outside the box” and “on the cutting edge”; stories written without restraint and without regard to writing conventions.

Ronald Sukenick, editor of Black Ice, noted for its “edgy” fiction, says “experimental fiction breaks away from the very narrow literary formula commercial writing usually imposes. When you break away from that, you open your fiction to a spectrum of possible styles and forms and release yourself of the taboos that hold those forms in place.”

Sukenick suggests to his writing students at the University of Colorado that they impose new forms as a way of breaking away from the familiar. “Write a story without using the letter e, for instance. That immediately alters the way you write and suggests new possibilities. Or write without any forethought — free associate. I think fiction writing is a way of thinking, and anything you do to encourage new thinking through language is the way to go.”

Richard Burgin, editor of Boulevard says, “Any writing that’s original is experimental. And originality has little to do with a writer trying to make each line or sentence odd or bizarre or eccentric merely for the sake of being different. `Original’ writers need to always recognize their own emotional real estate, a territory that’s uniquely their own and about which they’re uniquely qualified to write by virtue of their experience. Writers must also have the self-knowledge to understand their strengths and limitations as writers and the good sense to focus on what they do best.”

Chicago Review’s managing editor Andy Rathmann sees experimental writing as “challenging the conventions of `realistic’ fiction without lapsing into a kind of self-indulgence, or [being] writing that’s merely clever or transgressive.” To challenge those conventions, Rathmann advises writers to “read not only contemporary writing but very old writing. To read and be well-informed about writing conventions is the first step to challenging them.”

John Roberts, one of the three fiction editors at Chicago Review, says, “People have been playing with the story form for so long. You can go back 30 or 40 years and find writing that’s more off-the-wall than anything published now; William S. Burroughs for instance. Occasionally we’ll see a piece of fiction that”s experimental purely on the surface. The writer will purposely leave out punctuation or slap some sort of cutting-edge motif on a story they realize wouldn’t otherwise be interesting. Or they throw in a second-person narrative or something that isn’t organic to the story. These things don’t enhance the story.

“It’s not that experimental fiction can’t be successfully done,” continues Roberts. “Tricia Wang’s `This Dead Desert,’ published in our June issue, mixes elements of poetry with prose to give shape to the piece. She dictates where the line breaks occur to indicate thought processes and lets you know when the mind of the author skips to something else. It isn’t just to jazz up the story.”

Jeff Mock, assistant editor of the Gettysburg Review, says, “Experimental work we’ve published takes any of the elements of fiction and accentuates it in some way. I think of playing with structure, repetition — repeating an event with slight variations — and running the narrative backwards so the story begins at the end and then progresses to the beginning. Anything out of the ordinary will catch our attention.”

Jack Smith, one of two senior editors at The Green Hills Literary Lantern, says experimental techniques must be effective. “We’re not into things that are experimental simply to shock. We published a story by Doug Rennie called `Tell Me You Ain’t Mad’ that’s definitely cutting edge. Rennie uses the second-person point of view but he handles it well — it works.”

But even in Lantern’s traditional pieces, Smith says, “we’re not into stories tied up in neat packages by the author. The thing that really turns us on is a story that has several levels and operates more by indirection as long as it’s accessible to readers — one that uses figurative language and irony.”

Lawrence Coates, editor of Quarterly West, prefers the term extreme fiction to experimental. “It’s fiction that pushes the limits of what we expect fiction to be. Fiction that pushes against either the conventions of realism or the standards of plot is trying to do something new.”

To write extreme fiction, Coates suggests John Barth’s method of rewriting exhausted plots with ironic intent. “I wouldn’t say you should do something avant-garde, making a complete break with tradition. Rather, learn to use tradition ironically. Look at any standard text on how to write fiction and break or bend those rules.”

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