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EXPERIMENTALISM, PART 1

One of the trademarks of “experimental” fiction, both recent and ancient, is its backlash against the label “experimental.” Here, let me settle for only two examples from somewhere in between the recent and the ancient. The last published critical work of B.S. Johnson, Britain’s “one-man literary avant-garde” according to his biographer Jonathan Coe, contains the following dismissal:

“Experimental” to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful.” I object to the word experimental being applied to my own work. Certainly I make experiments, but the unsuccessful ones are quietly hidden away and what I choose to publish is in my terms successful: that is, it has been the best way I could find of solving particular writing problems. Where I depart from convention, it is because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to say. […] So for every device I have used there is a literary rationale and a technical justification; anyone who cannot accept this has simply not understood the problem which had to be solved. (Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? 19-20)

Writing simultaneously with Johnson (round 1973), Raymond Federman, the French-American practitioner of concrete fiction, which he redubbed “surfiction,” raised similar objections:

The kind of fiction I am interested in is that fiction which the leaders of the literary establishment brush aside because it does not conform to their notions of what fiction should be; that fiction which supposedly has no value […] for the common reader. And the easiest way for these people to brush aside that kind of fiction is to label it, quickly and bluntly, as experimental fiction.

And Federman goes on to draw parallels with such “(non-)experimentalists” as Beckett or Joyce:

The middle-man of literature is the one who gives the label EXPERIMENTAL to what is difficult, strange, provocative, and even original. But in fact, true experiments (as in science) never reach, or at least should never reach, the printed page. Fiction is called experimental out of despair. Samuel Beckett’s novels are not experimental—no! it is the only way Beckett can write; Jorge Louis Borges’s stories are not experimental; Joyce’s fiction is not experimental (even though it was called that for some 30 or 40 years). All these are successful finished works. (Surfiction, 6-7)

Two immediate parallels between Johnson’s and Federman’s lines of reasoning leap to the eye, one internal, as it were, the other external: both believe that “experiment” is what “doesn’t get published,” what “should never reach the printed page” – Johnson conceives of the label as somehow in opposition to “literary rationale” and “technical justification,” Federman contrasts it with “successful finished works.” Moreover, both criticise the literary-critical institution for failing to endow the label “experimental” with positive connotation and its (mis-)use of it as shorthand for what defies easy pigeonholing. Both these pronouncements from the opposite shores of the Atlantic bewail the conformity, idleness and ignorance on the part of official critical establishment, as consequence of which both Johnson and Federman were doomed to write, for the better part of their lives (and with Johnson, for many years after his death), in nearly complete obscurity.

What use, then – 40 years after Johnson’s and Federman’s notes of warning – is trying to redeploy the word “experimental” to the kind of writing promoted by Equus Press; writing defined, in its mission statement, as “pursuing a broadly cosmopolitan ‘agenda’”? Let’s note that of the three of Johnson’s and Federman’s shared predecessors, Joyce led a notoriously nomadic, multi-lingual and internationally emplaced life, Borges spent his formative years travelling around Europe, having grown up bilingual in Spanish, and English, and Beckett even switched languages half-way into his writing career. Linguistic and formalist experiment came naturally to these three since such was their lived experience – experimental. To say this is to commit an etymological pleonasm, as the word “experiment” comes from Old French esperment meaning “practical knowledge, cunning, enchantment” and consequently “trial, proof, example, lesson,” derived from Latin experimentum “a trial, test, proof, experiment,” a noun of action stemming from experiri “to test, try.” And it is out of this root verb that the word experientia grows, denoting “knowledge gained by repeated trials.” In turn, the structure of the verb entails the prefix ex-, “out of,” peritus “tested, passed over.” Experiment, as experience, is the process of departing from what has been tested, of gaining knowledge by venturing beyond the known grounds – just as Joyce, Borges and Beckett did in both their lives and fiction.

It was in this sense that Equus Press brushed up, pace Johnson or Federman, the label “experimental,” choosing to promote writing written from a doubly marginalised position “outside the literary establishment defined by the Anglo-American publishing industry, & outside the confines of nationalism.” Such writing taking place outside of its native emplacement is concerned with dwelling, identity, and place as experiences of writing – with writing not as a vocation but as a life, a way of living; writing as experiment in experience and vice versa. And it was in these terms that the first Equus Press titles, written in English from Prague by an Australian and American, have been grasped by reviewers and critics. Louis Armand’s Clair Obscur employs what Ali Alizadeh had called his “poetics of unplacement” in order to convey what other critics have identified as “a multimedia, multilinguistic experience” (Erik Martiny), dealing with “history, both personal and general, as a palimpsest of place-bound traumas” (Robert Kiely). Similarly, Thor Garcia’s The News Clown has been hailed by James Chaffee as “a global study of a sick society” whose patchwork of “horrific crime scenes, news articles full of political obfuscation […], misinformation, senseless murders, oddities and social tragedies” is all “set against the backdrop of the wider world going to hell” (Chris Crawford).

Adopting a position both globally general and place-specific, what’s been called “translocal” writing is  believed at Equus to be “both idiosyncratic & authoritative in its distance from which it can take a stand, make a change, & matter” – and Armand’s and Garcia’s first Equus novels achieve just that, experimental in the experience from which they have been written and which they convey.

And there has been, and will be, more…

 

David Vichnar

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About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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