I am taking part as a workshop leader and moderator in the Circa Bloomsday weekend event in the Irish Writers Centre, (scroll down at link for details) celebrating and showcasing contemporary experimental literature, in honor of the legacy of Joyce. I have also been commissioned to write a poem in response to modernist manifestos for the Blast 100 modernist symposium In Trinity College in early July. As part of the build up to both these events I’m asking various writing and arts professionals to answer – briefly – the four questions below. I am aware that some people are unsure of the term experimental, by which I mean, to put it briefly, a playful approach form and representation, especially but not exclusively in the light of contemporary technological developments.I have included a definition option as question, because I know that everyone thinks of it in their own way, and I love hearing about that. I will be blogging the replies over the next month First is Rob Doyle – one of the best fictioneers I have had the pleasure of meeting and reading in the last few years. I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. Comments are obviously welcome below. I’ll be reading alongside Rob at the Listen At Lilliput event this Sunday.
In relation to writing, how would you define the term experimental?
The danger with the term ‘experimental’ is that it leads to ghettoization. As soon as that label gets attached to someone’s writing, people compartmentalise it, keep it at arm’s length, basically assume (though they might not admit it in public) that it isn’t worth reading. It becomes a subtly derogatory phrase, or at least a self-defeating one – people might profess a certain respect for ‘experimental’ writing, but it will be a cold sort of admiration, and they will go elsewhere for their reading material due to an equation between ‘experimentalism’ and the absence of pleasure. And readers, of course, have every right to demand pleasure from what they read. And yet, in a crucial sense, most if not all of the great writers really were and are experimental – they play with form, they invent, they inherit the tradition and then seek ways to jettison all the parts of that tradition that no longer feel satisfactory, so they can write books that light up all the way through, not just in flashes between the tediously necessary pages of plot exposition or whatever. So yes, experimentalism simply means playing with the forms, seeking to make them one’s own – not in the name of obscurantism or difficulty, even if in some cases it leads to writing which is perceived, at least initially, as being ‘difficult’, but to make writing more contemporary, less stale, less stodgy.
Are you ever experimental in your own approach?If so, how?
I would say a fair amount of my stuff is experimental to the extent that I often get bored with the dominant conventions (and that is all they are) of the day, such as straight-ahead realism, or short stories that give us little epiphanies and glimpses of some small emotional truth, and then I seek ways to make myself fascinated again. Usually this means trying to find ways of writing which are more immediate and intense. Of course, a lot of the time ‘experimentalism’ just means going elsewhere for your inspirations, because pretty-much everything has at least been attempted already. But if you can find those lost or forgotten strands in the evolution of literature – the pathways that were pointed to but never followed very far – you can race down them and hopefully discover enchanting new vistas, strange ethereal landscapes with swaying lilac trees and elegant deers. And you can bring a flask of tea and stay there for a while and contemplate your surroundings, breath the fresh forest air and listen to the rustle of leaves, then go home and have epic dreams about vast, buried starships being excavated by skyhooks.
Can you recommend some essential past and present experimental reads?
Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp has been rocking my casbah no-end recently. I’m tempted to declare, in the face of all received opinion, that that is his true masterwork. If you give up on trying to pull a coherent story from it, you find that it is drenched in atmosphere, mystery, eerie imagery and haunting language. It’s a mesmerising book. Because it’s so chaotic, you’re not even obliged to read it in a linear, page 1 then page 2 kind of way, and that sits very well with my own internet-and-coffee frazzled mind. Read it in whatever goddamn order you like. Which brings me to something else I’ve been thinking about lately: while a lot gets said about experimental writing, I would also say we should be messing around with experimental reading. I mean, I observe the doings of my own mind, how scattered and flighty it’s getting due to prolonged exposure to the new technologies, and clearly I’m part of a generalised trend. And often I can’t be bothered to read books in a straight-ahead, front-to-back way any more. I always have stacks of books around me, whichever room I’m in, and I’ll often pluck from these at whim, seek out particular sections or just follow my nose and read the passages I open if I like the look of them. So you have this constant stream of language coming in, and if you read like that, and even write like that, you can ‘break open the head’ to some extent, bypass the rational, analytical mind and access the dream-source, the unconscious, which is where the magic happens, baby. That’s what the surrealists – those exuberant experimenters – were all about. William Burroughs is a stellar author to read in this way. I wouldn’t even really recommend reading his books all the way through: far better to open them at random and get off on the wildness of voice, the torrents of weird imagery and language. With a lot of so-called experimental writing, that’s probably the best way to read.
What do you predict will be the most important changes in the construction and distribution of literary works over the course of the 21st Century?
The digitization of all text and all information can sometimes seem like a cause for despair. But another way to look at it is that, if you agree that literature is what we might call the Starship – the vessel to which humanity uploads all the truth, beauty, awe, pain and longing it has met down the centuries – an immense presence which dwarfs the individual writer, to which the individual writer is superflous and subservient, yet in the construction of which he or she collaborates, thereby both ennobling and transcending themselves – if you agree with all that, then to write a book now, at the end of the Gutenburg age, when physical books are disappearing, need not be a cause for despair. Rather, when we write a book now we can have far greater confidence than was possible in the past that it will be preserved, resurrected even, as all the information of literature eventually gets collated and reconstructed in the deep future into some awesome, Godlike, radiant shrine to the human race, to all our sorrow and majesty, all our longing and our nightmares.
Rob Doyle’s first novel, Here Are the Young Men, is imminently to be published by The Lilliput Press. His writing has appeared in The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, Gorse, The Penny Dreadful and elsewhere. His work has been translated into French and Serbian, and has appeared on RTÉ radio and the BBC World Service. His twitter is @RobDoyle1.
Here Are the Young Men will be launched on June 4th at the Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay, at 18:30. Guest speaker: Peter Murphy.