New York novelists on the dirtiest word in contemporary fiction: experimental
“You know the word pious?” asked author Rivka Galchen, cautiously optimistic, on Tuesday night at McNally Jackson.
“I think at some point in history,” she went on, “when you called someone a pious or righteous man, you weren’t insulting them. It meant they were pious, or righteous. But now it always seems to suggest, ‘They think they’re so righteous and pious.” This shift to the pejorative, she proposed, had also struck the term at the heart of the evening’s discussion: “experimental fiction.” It wasn’t a term any of the night’s panelists seemed eager to own, but perhaps, Galchen said, it could be reclaimed.
The rest of the panel—hosted by Harper’s Magazine—included writers Joshua Cohen (like Galchen, a contributing editor to the magazine) and Heidi Julavits. Galchen’s novel Atmospheric Disturbances followed a man convinced that a perfectly identical imposter has replaced his wife, possibly in connection with a meteorological conspiracy; Julavits’s fourth and most recent book, The Vanishers, also dealt in slippery narratives and supernatural elements. Cohen’s Witz is probably the most forbidding work among the group’s combined output, an 800-page epic that imagines a world in which just one Jew remains.
But, Cohen said, if anyone called his work experimental, he “wouldn’t take them seriously.”
Harper’s senior editor Chris Cox moderated the panel, and opened with “a confession” that served as a disclaimer.
“When we were putting together this evening,” he said, “we didn’t start with ‘experimental fiction’ and then think who would fit that. We actually just chose three writers that we really love and admire.”
Arguing about the role of experimentation in fiction is a traditional pastime, at least among young writers eager to do some forging in the smithies of their souls. Does a novel have to try something new to be good? Does it have to be likable to be admired? And is realism fiction’s best trick, or just its most reliable?
In 2008, Zadie Smith wrote in the New York Review of Books proposing “Two Paths for the Novel,” either the familiar lyrical realism of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or the unsettling formal adventures of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. She came down in favor of the latter. And in 2003, Julavits herself wrote an essay for The Believer’s first issue called “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!: A Call for a New Era of Experimentation, and a Book Culture That Will Support It.”
On Tuesday night, though, she was quick to call that subtitle misleading. It wasn’t “experimental” fiction she was after so much as “ambitious” fiction, Julavits said—books with the “ambitious messiness” of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Cox and the panelists also toyed with “difficult” as a loose synonym for “experimental.”
Cohen repeatedly called “experimental” a marketing term.
“It’s funny because, like, what is the experimental market?” he asked. “It’s like basement dwellers, or porn addicts, or something. It’s people who use their mother’s debit card on Amazon.”
“Does anyone get marketed as ‘experimental,’ though?” Julavits asked.
The panelists certainly weren’t treating it like a selling point. When Cox asked what experimental authors excited them, or what they’d been reading recently, Julavits cited Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses and Luca Turin’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Galchen mentioned Barbara Pym and Charles Portis (“one sentence pleasure after another after another”). And Cohen totally demurred, saying that he read "everything" and joking about having just four fans who send him their work late at night. Naming names—deeming authors experimental or otherwise—seemed to be an uncomfortable project.
Cox gave the panelists some useful examples to discuss when he brought up the 2005 essay that Ben Marcus wrote for Harper’s in response to Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 piece “Mr. Difficult.” Marcus made an argument for the continued importance of “experimental” (and not necessarily reader-friendly) fiction. The panelists opted not to discuss Marcus (perhaps out of courtesy, as he’s married to Julavits), but had plenty to say about the Franzen essay, an account of the author’s changing regard for William Gaddis and his “status” model of hard-to-read fiction. Galchen suggested that the essay was maybe most interesting for its underlying psychodrama.
“[He] had to ‘break up’ with Gaddis, and [he’s] expanding it into a large, general, objective truth, which it isn’t,” Galchen said. “Everything else he says is interesting and worthwhile, except for that major logical error.”
“I often think of that essay like the Annie Hall of literary essays,” said Julavits, who’s taught the essay in her fiction-writing classes at Columbia. “It is really heartbreaking, actually—you’re watching this person really hand-wring over falling out of love with somebody.”
The panelists’ shared hesitation to name names, to offer up non-Franzen case studies, seemed to underscore a general sense that experimentalism and difficulty were subjective qualities, tricky to define in a way that encompassed all readers and writers.
“Most people think of themselves, in a sense, as realists,” Galchen said, “even if they have speaking dogs in the book.”
Julavits reiterated the point that authors themselves often misjudge how their work will be read.
“Someone once told me they were talking to Diane Williams and she was just really surprised that people didn’t think of her in the same breath as Jane Austen,” Julavits said. “I sort of loved that as a really sweet misapprehension of what you think you’re doing versus how other people perceive what you’re doing.”
And the readers of difficult texts don’t always recognize what they’re doing as hard work, Cohen added. He used the example of rabbis who rarely read novels (and when they do “it’s, like, Chaim Potok or, like, you know, Leon Uris or something”) but can casually toss off elaborate scriptural analysis.
“They’re suddenly basically Joyceans of the Bible,” Cohen said. “If one imparts a degree of importance to something in life and decides to dedicate intelligence to it because it provides some sort of spiritual wholeness, you become so immersed in it you don’t realize what level of sophistication you’re really operating at.”
Cox repeated Franzen’s suggestion that difficulty is a way of winning literary respect, and Galchen said she couldn’t think of any examples of this principle in action.
“[What’s] the contemporary, super-difficult novel that someone who isn’t a writer is really into?” she asked.
But Julavits volunteered one obvious answer, recalling the 1996 release of Infinite Jest.
“Everybody was reading it on the subway,” she said. “Imagine a book that big and that hard being the book that everybody’s reading.”
Maybe, suggested Cox, “the most difficult thing” is figuring out how to be simultaneously accessible and ambitious.
Julavits said that when she’s working on something, she’s perpetually convinced that she’s writing J.K. Rowling-type kids’ stuff, and is always surprised to read her reviews and discover that she has once again not written a best-selling young-adult novel but rather something that might be considered, in its way—maybe!—experimental.
“I want to sneak all my maybe higher ambitions into a friendly-seeming Y.A. package,” she said. “I don’t want to compare my work to putting the pill in the dog food, but—“
“And feeding it to children?” asked Cohen.
“Yeah, exactly,” said Julavits. “Feeding it to people on the G train.”