This semester I am teaching a workshop on “experimental fiction.” “Experimental” is a term that gets thrown around a lot with very little meaning or with one specific meaning: outside of a Western psychological realist norm. If everyone were writing with the Western psychological realist norm as their model of “traditional” fiction, then this meaning would make sense. Instead, writers who write with other traditions in mind are often labeled “experimental fiction” by critics, readers, and even their publishers.
Following a different tradition may or may not be experimental. Perhaps if the reason is to work directly against a Western psychological realist norm, writing in another tradition may have experimental purposes. But those purposes are about the audience and the assumption that the audience is reading within the Western psychological realist norm.
A friend reminded me recently of the novel Chemistry, by Weike Wang (one of my very first fiction students–who learned nothing from me and was an amazing writer from day one), and how, reading it, she found the language to be familiar to Chinese constructions. To a reader like her, this familiarity seems less something completely out of the ordinary and more a part of a certain tradition. Is the book traditional or experimental?
Maybe the better question is for the writer–whose decision about audience is also then a decision about purpose. Is the purpose to speak to a certain tradition or to speak against another? Perhaps, but not necessarily, both. One can’t account for what the reader brings to the page, only for which readers one wants to address as insiders and which as outsiders.
To this end, I’ve assigned various stories that play with both dominant traditions and marginalized traditions. We began with a story called “Giant Rat,” by Anna Nelson Harry, which draws on an Eyak oral tradition of storytelling, but could be mistaken at first for drawing on the fairy tale tradition that goes through Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers. As a class, we talked about how the students were reading the story versus how they might better read it with more context about the author and the (intended) audience. I’ve asked my students throughout the semester to lead discussions on the readings by talking about what is “traditional” and “experimental” about them, and what that means about tradition and experiment, and about their position in the world as writers and readers.
Each week they will have a writing prompt that in some way connects to their readings. In this first case, the idea was simple: I asked them to play with the folk or fairy tale traditions they are familiar with, and to write one of their own while taking notes on what they intend to be “traditional” and what “experimental.” I’ll keep this space updated with more prompts, perhaps. But welcome back to school.