Experimental Long Fiction Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Literature is forever transforming. A new literary age is new precisely because its important writers do things differently from their predecessors. Thus, it could be said that almost all significant literature is in some sense innovative or experimental at its inception but inevitably becomes, over time, conventional. Regarding long fiction, however, the situation is a bit more complex.

It is apparent that, four centuries after Miguel de Cervantes wrote what is generally recognized the first important novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), readers have come to accept a certain type of long fiction as most conventional and to regard significant departures from this type as experimental. This most conventional variety is the novel of realism as practiced by nineteenth century giants such as Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot.

The first task in surveying contemporary experiments in long fiction, therefore, is to determine what “conventional” means in reference to the novel of realism. Most nineteenth century novelists considered fiction to be an imitative form; that is, it presents in words a representation of reality. The underlying assumption of these writers and their readers was that there is a shared single reality, perceived by all—unless they are mad, ill, or hallucinatory—in a similar way. This reality is largely external and objectively verifiable. Time is orderly and moves forward. The novel that reflects this view of reality is equally orderly and accountable. The point of view is frequently, though not always, omniscient (all-knowing): The narrators understand all and tell their readers all they need to know to understand a given situation. The virtues of this variety of fiction are clarity of description and comprehensiveness of analysis.

After reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), one can be confident that he or she knows something about Emma Bovary’s home, village, and manner of dress; knows her history, her motivations, and the way she thought; and knows what others thought of her. Not knowing would be a gap in the record; not knowing would mean, according to standards against which readers have judged “conventional” novels, a failure of the author.

Modernism and its followers

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Early in the twentieth century, a disparate group of novelists now generally referred to as modernists—James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and others—experimented with or even abandoned many of the most hallowed conventions of the novel of realism. These experiments were motivated by an altered perception of reality. Whereas the nineteenth century assumption was that reality is external, objective, and measurable, the modernists believed reality to be also internal, subjective, and dependent upon context. Reflecting these changing assumptions about reality, point of view in the modernist novel becomes more often limited, shifting, and even unreliable rather than omniscient.

This subjectivity reached its apogee in one of the great innovations of modernism, the point-of-view technique dubbed “stream of consciousness,” which plunges the reader into a chaos of thoughts arrayed on the most tenuous of organizing principles—or so it must have seemed to the early twentieth century audience accustomed to the orderly fictional worlds presented by the nineteenth century masters.

Once reality is acknowledged to be inner and subjective, all rules about structure in the novel are abandoned. The most consistent structuring principle of premodernist novelists—the orderly progression of time—was rejected by many modernists. Modern novels do not “progress” through time in the conventional sense; instead, they follow the inner, subjective, shifting logic of a character’s thoughts. Indeed, the two great innovations of modernist fiction—stream of consciousness and nonchronological structure—are inseparable in the modern novel.

Among the most famous and earliest practitioners of these techniques were Joyce (especially Ulysses, 1922, and Finnegans Wake, 1939), Woolf (especially Jacob’s Room, 1922; Mrs. Dalloway, 1925; and To the Lighthouse, 1927), and Faulkner (especially The Sound and the Fury, 1929; As I Lay Dying, 1930). Many of the experimental works of post-World War II long fiction extended these techniques, offering intensely subjective narrative voices and often extreme forms of stream of consciousness, including disruptions of...

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The new novel

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With The Unnamable, long fiction may seem to have come a great distance from the modernist novel, but in fact Beckett was continuing the modernist practice of locating reality inside a limited and increasingly unreliable consciousness. Eventually, voices cried out against the entire modernist enterprise. Among the earliest and most vocal of those calling for a new fiction—for le nouveau roman, or a new novel—was a group of French avant-garde writers who became known as the New Novelists. However, as startlingly innovative as their fiction may at first appear, they often were following in the footsteps of the very modernists they rejected.

Among the New Novelists (sometimes to their dismay) were Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon. Even though Simon won the Nobel Prize in Literature, probably the most famous (or infamous) of the New Novelists was Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Robbe-Grillet decried what he regarded as outmoded realism and set forth the program for a new fiction in his Pour un nouveau roman (1963; For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, 1965). His own career might offer the best demonstration of the movement from old to new. His first published novel, Les Gommes (1953; The Erasers, 1964), while hardly Dickensian, was not radically innovative. With Le Voyeur (1955; The Voyeur, 1958), however, his work took a marked turn toward the experimental, and with La Jalousie (1957; Jealousy, 1959) and Dans le labyrinthe (1959; In the Labyrinth, 1960), the New Novel came to full flower.

The most famous technical innovation of the New Novelists was the protracted and...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A far more significant departure from modernism occurred when writers began to reject the notion that had been dominant among novelists since Miguel de Cervantes: that it is the chief duty of the novelist to be realistic, and the more realistic the fiction the worthier it is. This breakthrough realization—that realism of whatever variety is no more than a preference for a certain set of conventions—manifests itself in different ways in fiction. In metafiction, also known as self-mimesis or self-referential fiction, the author (or his or her persona), deliberately reminds the reader that the book is a written entity; in the traditional novel, however, the reader is asked to suspend his or her disbelief.

Often the metafictive impulse appears as little more than an intensification of the first-person-omniscient narrator, the “intrusive author” disparaged by Henry James but favored by many nineteenth century writers. Rather than employing an “I” without an identity, as in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-1848), metafiction makes clear that the “I” is the novel’s author. Examples of this technique include the novels of José Donoso in Casa de campo (1978; A House in the Country, 1984) and of Luisa Valenzuela in Cola de lagartija (1983; The Lizard’s Tail, 1983).

In other novels, the metafictive impulse is more radical and transforming. When...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

One might well ask if metafiction is not too narrow an endeavor to define an age (for example, postmodernism). The answer would be yes, even If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, for example, might more properly be described as a novel whose subject is reading a novel rather than writing one. Metafiction is best considered one variation of a broader, more pervasive impulse in post-World War II long fiction:fiction-as-artifice. Rather than narrowly focusing on the process of writing fiction (metafiction), in fiction-as-artifice the author directly attacks the conventions of realism or acknowledges that all writing is a verbal construct bearing the most tenuous relationship to actuality.

One of the earliest examples of fiction-as-artifice in the post-World War II canon is Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style (1947; Exercises in Style, 1958). The title states where Queneau’s interests lie: in technique and in the manipulation of language, rather than in creating an illusion of reality. The book comprises ninety-nine variations on a brief scene between two strangers on a Parisian bus. In each retelling of the incident, Queneau uses a different dialect or style (“Notation” and “Litotes”). The almost endless replication of the single scene forces the reader to see that scene as a verbal construct rather than an approximation of reality. Such “pure” manifestations of fiction-as-artifice as Exercises in Style are relatively rare. More often, fiction-as-artifice is a gesture employed intermittently, side by side with realist techniques. The interplay of the two opposing strategies create a delightful aesthetic friction.

One of the most famous and provocative examples of fiction-as-artifice is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962). The structure of the work belies all traditional conventions of the novel. Pale Fire opens with an “editor’s” introduction, followed by a long poem, hundreds of pages of annotations, and an index. The reader discovers, however, that this apparatus tells a hilarious and moving story of political intrigue, murder, and madness. Does Pale Fire, ultimately, underscore the artifices of fiction or, instead, demonstrate how...

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Fiction or nonfiction?

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Even at his most experimental, however, Barth never abandons his delight in storytelling. Indeed, virtually all the long fiction addressed thus far show innovations in certain technical strategies but do not substantially challenge the reader’s concept of what is “fictional.” A number of other writers, however, while not always seeming so boldly experimental in technique, have blurred the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction and thus perhaps represent a more fundamental departure from the conventional novel.

The new journalists—such as Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, 1966), Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968), Tom Wolfe (The Electric...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. London: Longman, 1995. Collection of articles on experimental themes and techniques.

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Comprehensive study of women’s English-language experimental fiction of the twentieth century. Includes an introductory chapter, followed by essays on various authors.

Levitt, Morton. The Rhetoric of Modernist Fiction from a New Point of View. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006. Accessible response to Wayne C. Booth’s...

(The entire section is 326 words.)