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Of Course Everyone Knows That There's No Experimental Writing In America

There’s been a heck of a lot of coverage of Dalkey’s Best European Fiction anthology. (And big congrats to Dalkey for that.) By and large it’s been pretty good, but for some reason I keep seeing people proffer a couple of patently false ideas: 1) Americans don’t want to read fiction beyond their nation’s borders; and 2) There’s no experimental fiction of the kind seen in Best Euro being written in the U.S.

As to misperception #1–another day. But as to #2 here’s a fine example from Time magazine, wherein Radhika Jones gets Best Euro editor Aleksandar Hemon to abet her in passing along this myth:

The writers in Best European seem a more adventurous bunch than their American counterparts. They experiment freely with structure and venture more often down the path of metafiction, debating the direction of a story even as their characters are entangled in it. (“The Basilica in Lyon,” by Serbian writer David Albahari, is a mesmerizing dream chase along those lines.) Hemon says this is a reflection partly of his own editorial taste but also of the European publishing environment, which doesn’t follow the American blockbuster model. “There’s a lot of American fiction on the fringes that is very daring,” he says. “But it is judged not by courage or the risks that it takes but by its success.”

Of course Hemon is right about the blockbuster model, but he shouldn’t consign “adventurous” American fiction to the fringes. After all, I think Hemon would count his own work among the daring fiction coming out of the U.S., and he hasn’t exactly been languishing on the fringes.

Thankfully, in The New Republic Ruth Franklin (via Lauren) pretty much lays out the rebuttal for us:

So I was surprised to find Smith (a British writer of Caribbean descent who lives partly in the United States) pronouncing a strangely antiquated definition of American writing in her introduction to Best European Fiction 2010, a new anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. “It seems old-fashioned to speak of a ‘Continental’ or specifically ‘European’ style,” Smith (correctly) begins, but she continues: “If the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?” The differences, she argues, go beyond the “obvious matter of foreign names and places.” European fiction shows “a strong tendency towards the metafictional”; an interest in magic realism (one writer enjoys a fantasy breakfast with Murakami; another imagines that Gustav Klimt has 14 illegitimate sons all named Gustav); and an “epigraphic, disjointed structure” featuring abrupt endings. These stories, she concludes, “seem to come from a different family than those long anecdotes ending in epiphany, popularized by O. Henry.” And these writers’ models are not O. Henry or Hemingway, but Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kafka, Sebald.

O. Henry! When was the last time you saw a reference to him in a contemporary American short story—or anywhere else? What struck me about Smith’s description of this supposedly European style was how well it applies to new American writing. Today, the greatest remaining practitioners of the traditional, linear short story Smith seems to be invoking are Alice Munro and William Trevor—neither of whom is American. (She’s Canadian, he’s Irish.) Meanwhile, in American fiction, the kind of fragmentary, fantastic writing that was once experimental has now become common, thanks to the influence of literary journals such as McSweeney’s (as I once argued in Slate). Barth and Barthelme—both of whom are American—are most definitely among the progenitors of this work, but Murakami and Houellebecq are its current patron saints. Kafka’s influence, of course, is a given everywhere, but Sebald was far more popular in England and the United States than among his compatriots on the Continent.

Thank you. It’s not like you have to look that hard to find the American writing of the kind Franklin is discussing here. David Shields just made a book-length case for it in Reality Hunger (which Zadie Smith forcefully came out against in The Guardian). Don DeLillo just exemplified it once again with Point Omega. Robert Coover is going to add to it when he publishes a metafictional deconstruction of the noir genre starring you. (Yes, you.) Jonathan Lethem just published something that sounds a heck of a lot like magical realism. And this is all from the past month or two.

True, as Hemon says there’s a lot of adventurous fiction languishing on the fringes, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s also a lot of it getting published by the mainest of the mainstream. There’s a lot of fragmented, meta, crazy-type fiction going on out there in the U.S., and it’s getting published because American readers are pretty comfortable with it now, comfortable enough that it’ll sell in large enough volumes to make it profitable. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, have you taken a look at life in the U.S. recently? I’d say it’s getting to the point that people I know are more familiar with fragmentation, multiple worlds, meta, etc than the other stuff that’s supposedly our bread and butter.

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10 comments to Of Course Everyone Knows That There's No Experimental Writing In America

  • Neil

    Robert Coover’s new one sounds interesting. I have only read his early work. Is he still in form?

  • Charlotte

    Lydia Davis, Mary Caponegro, Robert Kelly, Paul LaFarge, Brian Evenson, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop… the list goes on…

  • Marc W.

    …well? Finish the list! I’d like to know. =P

  • Charlotte

    …William Gass, William Gaddis, William Vollmann, Mark Danielewski, Anne Tardos, Jackson MacLow, and pretty much anyone in any recent Conjunctions:

    http://www.conjunctions.com/justout.htm

  • Brian P.

    I agree with the gist of what you’re saying in terms of general American fiction, but I think you are missing one key point. This is a part of a collection called BEST EUROPEAN FICTION. I seriously doubt any of the wonderful authors you mentioned, save Lethem, would make it into a similar American collection. You can definitely find writing of this type from American mainstream publishers but a similar kind of collection would be virtually unthinkable. I can’t imagine it in a million years! Also Chronic City, while possessing related qualities, is so far from a decent novel I cannot imagine why you would pick that one. Reputation should not give one such a pass.

    We really need The New Republic to fold up and die. It is a hate-mongering and wickedly embarrassing shell of what it once was. Leon Wieseltier further sullied the credibility of anything coming from that publication rather recently.

  • Thank you for this article. I’m a UK author and, possibly because of my age (all CBGB and Factory), I grew up thinking of the US as the epicentre of all things countercultural and cool. Early last year I started a writers collective of mainly European-based writers, Year Zero Writers (with two exceptional US members), and I’ve come across several articles about us on the web by US writers saying how they wish they lived in the UK because nothing cool and experimental happened in the US. That went against everything I’d grown up thinking, and I wondered if I just had a wildly anchronistic view of the States. I’m glad to find out I was right and that exciting stuff IS happening there.

    Oh, and if people want proof of the extraordinary experimental writing coming from the States, try this, posted today by our very own Californian Sarah E Melville:
    http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/getting-book-trailers-right/

    and search out the likes of badbadbad and moxie mezcal

    A word of warning though – I’m not quite sure that anything that’s percolated its way up to a regular anthology or mainstream publisher ios really experimental – we need to get terminology straight – if there’s a lot of it around it’s not experimental – by definition – different from what went a year or so before yes. Experimental no.

  • There are actually 3 sensibilities, British, European & American. If there is anything meta or experimental happening in British Literature, it must be so underground as to be etched on fossilised wood borne aloft the backs of woodlice. Clearly there is an experimental seam of European literature, right now a lot of interesting work is coming out of former Communist states. I defer to the American correspondents here, but I have come across Gary Lutz and Raymond Federman, though the latter could be argued to be European as much as American.

    The UK-US nexus, by sharing a language has always reflexively fed back & informed each other. US band can call themselves Pavement, while Scottish band Jesus & MaryChain write a song called “Sidewalking”… We each seem to find the other’s grass far greener.

    For my part, the music of Swans, Sonic Youth & slightly later CopShootCop represented a truly experimental wing of music, unparalleled in the UK.

    Oh yeah, I’m a member of Dan’ Collective by the way!

  • [...] these lines comes a post entitled “Of Course Everyone Knows That There’s No Experimental Writing in America“, at Conversational Reading, which makes the claim: True, as Hemon [editor of the Best in [...]

  • [...] on John Updike Sam Tanenhaus on John UpdikeShareTNR’s Ruth Franklin has demonstrated a pretty good bullshit detector. So when she writes that the most interesting article of last week’s Times [...]

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