Experimental literature is a genre that is, according to Warren Motte in his essa"Experimental Writing, Experimental Reading"
"difficult to define with any sort of precision." He says the "writing is often invoked in an "offhand manner" and the focus is on "form rather than content." It can be in written form of prose narrative or poetry, but the text may be set on the page in differing configurations than that of normal prose paragraphs or in the classical stanza form of verse. It may also be entwined with images of a real or abstract nature, with the use of art or photography. Furthermore, while experimental literature was traditionally handwritten on paper or
Vellum is prepared animal skin or "membrane", typically used as a material for writing on. Parchment
Parchment is a writing material
Writing material refers to the materials that provide the surfaces on which humans use writing instrume ...
, the digital age has seen an exponential leaning to the use of digital computer technologies.
The first text generally cited in this category is
Laurence Sterne (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768), an Anglo-Irish novelist and Anglican cleric, wrote the novels ''The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'' and ''A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy'', published Sermons ...
's ''The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'' (1759)
. This text occurs so early in the standard history of the novel that one can't refer to its "breaking" conventions that had yet to solidify. But in its mockery of narrative, and its willingness to use such graphic elements as an all-black page to mourn the death of a character, Sterne's novel is considered a fundamental text for many post-World War II authors. However, Sterne's work was not without detractors even in its time; for instance,
Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784), often called Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, critic
A critic is a person who communicates an asse ...
is quoted in
as saying "The merely odd does not last. ''Tristram Shandy'' did not last."
Denis Diderot (; ; 5 October 171331 July 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic
An art critic is a person who is specialized in analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating art
Art is a diverse range of (products of) human activities
's '' Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
'', drew many elements from ''Tristam Shandy'', a fact not concealed in the text, making it an early example of metafiction.
In the 1910s, artistic experimentation became a prominent force,
and various European and American writers began experimenting with the given forms. Tendencies that formed during this period later became parts of the
Modernism is both a philosophical movement
A philosophical movement refers to the phenomenon defined by a group of philosophers
A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy
Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and ...
movement. The '' Cantos
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (30 October 1885 – 1 November 1972) was an expatriate
An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person residing in a country other than their native country. In common usage, the term often refers t ...
, the post-World War I work of
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (26 September 18884 January 1965) was a poet
A poet is a person who creates poetry. Poets may describe themselves as such or be described as such by others. A poet may simply be a writer of poetry, or may perform the ...
, prose and plays by
Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh ( ) is a city in the Commonwealth
A commonwealth is a traditional English t ...
, were some of the most influential works of the time, though
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, poet and literary critic. He contributed to the modernist
, Solomon Guggenheim Museum 1946–1959
Modernism is both a philosoph ...
Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, a hero in ancient Greek literature.
Ulysses may also refer to:
* Ulysses (given name), including a list of people with this name
Places in the United States
* Ulysses, Kansas
* Ulysses, Kentucky
* U ...
'' is generally considered the most essential work of the period. The novel not only influenced more experimental writers, such as
Adeline Virginia Woolf (; ; 25 January 1882 28 March 1941) was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist
Modernism is both a philosophical movement
A philosophical movement refers to the phenomenon defined by a ...
, but also less experimental writers, such as
Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961) was an American novelist, short-story writer, journalist, and sportsman. His economical and understated style—which he termed the iceberg theory
The iceberg theory or theory of o ...
The historical avant-garde movements also contributed to the development of experimental literature in the early and middle 20th century. In the
Dada () or Dadaism was an art movement
An art movement is a tendency or style in art with a specific common philosophy or goal, followed by a group of artists during a specific period of time, (usually a few months, years or decades) or, at ...
Tristan Tzara (; ; born Samuel or Samy Rosenstock, also known as S. Samyro; – 25 December 1963) was a Romanian and French avant-garde
The avant-garde (; In 'advance guard' or '', literally 'fore-guard') are people or works that are exper ...
employed newspaper clippings and experimental typography in his manifestoes. The
Futurists (also known as futurologists, prospectivists, foresight practitioners and horizon scanners) are people whose specialty or interest is futurology
280px, Moore's law is an example of futurology; it is a statistical collection of ...
author F.T. Marinetti
espoused a theory of "words in freedom" across the page, exploding the boundaries of both conventional narrative and the layout of the book itself as shown in his sound poem
Zang Tumb Tumb
''Zang Tumb Tumb'' (usually referred to as ''Zang Tumb Tuuum'') is a sound poem and concrete poem written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti (; 22 December 1876 – 2 December 1944) was an Italian poet, editor, art th ...
''. The writers, poets, and artists associated with the
Surrealism was a cultural movement
A cultural movement is a change in the way a number of different disciplines approach their work. This embodies all art forms, the science
Science (from the Latin word ''scientia'', meaning "knowledge") ...
movement employed a range of unusual techniques to evoke mystical and dream-like states in their poems, novels, and prose works. Examples include the collaboratively written texts '' Les Champs Magnétiques
André Robert Breton (; 18 February 1896 – 28 September 1966) was a French writer and poet. He is known best as the co-founder, leader, principal theorist and chief apologist of surrealism
Surrealism was a that developed in Europe in the ...
Philippe Soupault (2 August 1897 – 12 March 1990) was a French writer and poet, novelist, critic, and political activist. He was active in Dadaist, Dadaism and later was instrumental in founding the Surrealist movement with André Breton. Sou ...
) and ''Sorrow for Sorrow'', a "dream novel" produced under hypnosis by
Robert Desnos (; 4 July 1900 – 8 June 1945) was a French surrealist
Surrealism was a cultural movement
A cultural movement is a change in the way a number of different disciplines approach their work. This embodies all art forms, the scienc ...
By the end of the 1930s, the political situation in Europe had made Modernism appear to be an inadequate, aestheticized, even irresponsible response to the danger of worldwide
Fascism () is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and the economy that rose to prominence in early 20th-century Europ ...
, and literary experimentalism faded from public view, kept alive through the 1940s only by isolated visionaries like
Kenneth Patchen (December 13, 1911January 8, 1972) was an American poet and novelist. He experimented with different forms of writing and incorporated painting, drawing, and jazz music into his works, which have been compared with those of Will ...
. In the 1950s, the
Beat, beats or beating may refer to:
Assigned activity or area
* Patrol, an area (usually geographic) that one is responsible to monitor, including:
** Beat (police), the territory and time that a police officer patrols
** Bea ...
writers can be seen as a reaction against the hidebound quality of both the poetry and prose of its time, and such hovering, near-mystical works as Jack Kerouac's novel ''Visions of Gerard'' represented a new formal approach to the standard narrative of that era. American novelists such as John Hawkes (novelist), John Hawkes started publishing novels in the late 1940s that played with the conventions of narrative.
The spirit of the European avant-gardes would be carried through the post-war generation as well. The poet Isidore Isou formed the Lettrist group, and produced manifestoes, poems, and films that explored the boundaries of the written and spoken word. The Oulipo, OULIPO (in French, ''Ouvroir de littérature potentielle'', or "Workshop of Potential Literature") brought together writers, artists, and mathematicians to explore innovative, combinatoric means of producing texts. Founded by the author Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais, the group included Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Queneau's ''Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes'' uses the physical book itself to proliferate different sonnet combinations, while Perec's novel ''Life: A User's Manual'' is based on the Knight's Tour on a chessboard.
The 1960s brought a brief return of the glory days of modernism, and a first grounding of Post-modernism. Publicity owing to an obscenity trial against William S. Burroughs' ''Naked Lunch'' brought a wide awareness of and admiration for an extreme and uncensored freedom. Burroughs also pioneered a style known as cut-up, where newspapers or typed manuscripts were cut up and rearranged to achieve lines in the text. In the late 1960s, experimental movements became so prominent that even authors considered more conventional such as Bernard Malamud and Norman Mailer exhibited experimental tendencies. Metafiction was an important tendency in this period, exemplified most elaborately in the works of John Barth, Jonathan Bayliss, and Jorge Luis Borges. In 1967 Barth wrote the essay ''The Literature of Exhaustion'',
[John Barth (1984) intro to ''The Literature of Exhaustion'', in ''The Friday Book''.]
which is sometimes considered a manifesto of postmodernism. A major touchstone of this era was Thomas Pynchon's ''Gravity's Rainbow'', which eventually became a bestseller. Important authors in the short story form included Donald Barthelme, and, in both short and long forms, Robert Coover and Ronald Sukenick. While in 1968 William H. Gass, William H. Gass's novel Willie Masters Lonesome Wife
' added challenging dimensions to reading as some of the pages are in mirror writing where the text can only be read if a mirror is held in an angle against the page.
Some later well-known experimental writers of the 1970s and 1980s were Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje, and Julio Cortázar. Calvino's most famous books are ''If on a winter's night a traveler'', where some chapters depict the reader preparing to read a book titled ''If on a winter's night a traveler'' while others form the narrative and ''Invisible Cities'', where Marco Polo explains his travels to Kubla Khan although they are merely accounts of the very city in which they are chatting. Ondaatje's ''The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid'' uses a scrapbook style to tell its story while Cortázar's ''Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar novel), Hopscotch'' can be read with the chapters in any order.
Argentine Julio Cortázar and the naturalized Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, both Latin American writers who have created masterpieces in experimental literature of 20th and 21st century, mixing dreamscapes, journalism, and fiction; regional classics written in Spanish include the Mexican novel "Pedro Páramo, ''Pedro Paramo''" by Juan Rulfo, the Colombian family epic "One Hundred Years of Solitude, ''One Hundred Years of Solitude''" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Peruvian political history "The War of the End of the World, ''The War of the End of the World''" by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Puerto Rican Spanglish dramatic dialogue "Yo-Yo Boing!, ''Yo-Yo Boing!''" by Giannina Braschi, and the Cuban revolutionary novel "Paradiso (novel), Paradiso" by Lezama Lima, José Lezama Lima.Americas Society's Latin American Literature Roster
Contemporary American authors David Foster Wallace, Giannina Braschi, and Rick Moody, combine some of the experimental form-play of the 1960s writers with a more emotionally deflating, irony, and a greater tendency towards accessibility and humor. Wallace's ''Infinite Jest'' is a Post-postmodernism, post-postmodern maximalist work describing life at a tennis academy and a rehab facility; digressions often become plotlines, and the book features over 100 pages of footnotes. Other writers like Nicholson Baker were noted for their minimalism in novels such as ''The Mezzanine'', about a man who rides an escalator for 140 pages. American author Mark Danielewski combined elements of a horror novel with formal academic writing and typographic experimentation in his novel ''House of Leaves''.
Greek author Dimitris Lyacos in Z213: Exit combines, in a kind of a modern-day palimpsest, the diary entries of two narrators in a heavily fragmented text, interspersed with excerpts from the biblical Exodus, to recount a journey along which the distinct realities of inner self and outside world gradually merge.
In the early 21st century, many examples of experimental literature reflect the emergence of computers and other digital technologies, some of them actually using the medium on which they are reflecting. Such writing has been variously referred to electronic literature, hypertext, and codework. Others have focused on exploring the plurality of narrative point of views, like the Uruguayan American writer Jorge Majfud in ''La reina de América'' and ''La ciudad de la luna''.
** Absurdist fiction
** Theatre of the Absurd
* Asemic writing
* Beat generation
* Bizarro fiction
* Code poetry
* Concrete poetry
* Digital poetry
* Ergodic literature
* Flarf poetry
* Haptic poetry
* Literary modernism
* Magic realism
* Modernist literature
* Nouveau roman
* Nonlinear (arts)
* Postmodern literature
* Slipstream (genre)
* Visual poetry
* Per Bäckström, Bäckström, Per. ''Vårt brokigas ochellericke! Om experimentell poesi'' (Our Gaudy Andornot!. On Experimental Poetry), Lund: Ellerström, 2010.