noulipo conference over-dub

Joseph over at Harlequin Knights is graciously sharing his notes/reaction to last week’s noulipo conference in Los Angeles: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Apparently one of the big topics for discussion was Ben Marcus’ recent essay in Harper’s Magazine, in which Marcus mercilessly grills Jonathan Franzen for his Updikenesses, and offers a passionate defense for experimental literature. In Los Angeles, Matias Viegener praised Marcus’ gumption, but criticized the essay for failing to render a solid definition of “experimental.” Joseph reports:

Matias Viegener again began his talk by invoking the Ben Marcus vs. Jonathan Franzen essay in the September issue of Harper’s. For the most part, said Viegener, Marcus resists reducing the argument to experimentalists vs. realists. However, Marcus lacks a clear definition of the “experimental?. If narrative realism, to quote Carla Harryman, is an “addiction to transparency?, what pray tell is the experimental? The experimental is usually not used in the strict historical sense by current writers . Unlike “postmodernism? or “deconstruction? says Viegener, the term “experimental? is never used to sell things. (I take a bit of an issue with this – concept cars are usually called “experimental? and are used by auto design firms to sell ideas; novels too are sometimes marketed as “experimental?). The historical avant-garde is usually linked to manifestoes, which are programmatic rather than experimental. And the most successful literary experiments are often very simple (e.g. Joe Brainard’s I Remember; but there was some mumbling by the audience that I Remember isn’t exactly experimental).

This is really interesting stuff, and it goes way beyond whatever beefs exist between individual artists and critics. What is “experimental” writing, exactly? And even if we are able to craft a working definition for it, what then?



3 responses to “noulipo conference over-dub

  • Matt Roberson

    I cheered while reading Marcus’s article, but I also wished he’d done more to properly discusss those qualities that (besides their “unfamiliar” and challenging language) really define experimental texts of the 60s and 70s. For example, he failed to comment on formal/typographical play, generic slippage, and the blurring of lines between fiction and reality (as in the best metafictions). These qualities have had and continue to have profound effects on contemporary, even mainstream writing.

  • trevordodge

    You’re absolutely right, Matt. Franzen’s argument that experimental fiction uses “difficult” language (I guess, for little other than elitist/esoteric reasons) really misses some of the larger points that the metafictionists were trying to make in the 70s, one of which is the baseline function language serves in the first place. To the realist/mimeticist, language serves only as a transparent window frame; we peer through it and view the charade/spectacle/whatever it is we’re supposed to see.

    For metafictionists (and I’m thinking specifically here of writers like Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino and John Barth), language *itself* is the charade/spectacle; once that idea is on the table for discussion, it’s pretty hard to take conventional mimetics seriously. Metafiction is less and less about characters in domestic settings doing whatever those characters would/wouldn’t or should/shouldn’t do; metafiction’s project is larger than peeking through the window—it wants us to consider and question that window’s epistemological function before we scrunch our faces against the glass.

  • TANGENTIALLY » noulipo conference (extended dance mix)

    […] Copius note-taker Joseph has added Parts Three and Four of the aforementioned noulipo conference. [Johanna] Drucker started by reading short poems that seemed to derive from keywords culled from each of the panelists’ talks. She explained that the long history of experimentalism in literature has two cultural traditions we can think about: Romanticism, which tends to the transcendental, and another nameless tradition that resists escape, resists the transcendental. Contra the theorization of much of the 20th century avant-garde, Drucker insists the “experiential? in experimentalism is not an act of liberation. She urges artists and writers to think of their work not as countercultural, but cultural. Drucker tires of the avant-garde and its strict pedanticism, which chides the adventurous artist, “you haven’t performed the avant-garde tradition correctly,? and pulls the artist back to a supposedly “liberating? space. She asked: what will the Oulipo be in 135 years? Her admittedly wicked answer: the seeds of current experimentalism will be muzak played in grocery stores; Perec will be handed out as reading material for kindergartners; in short, the strategies of the Oulipo will be absorbed and integrated into the cultural mainstream, and she looks forward to it.  […]

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