In October I started a writing course in experimental fiction. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect but had heard some good things from good people about it so decided to take the plunge and find out what it was all about. Honestly, the experience so far has been something of a revelation. I feel like an experimental fictionaut who’s been rocketed to the planet literaturia but found out that I had been headed home all along.
It’s a little hard to explain what experimental fiction actually is but in brief we might describe it as something that is a break from the norm. Anything that moves away from or plays with standard narratives and story arcs might be considered experimental. I’m often drawn to these types of works – flash fiction; ‘going down the rabbit hole’ pataphysical fiction; strange dystopian sci fi; any stories that play with structure and form. It’s usually these sorts of pieces that will leave me with book hangovers that last for days.
But this led me to a question about my own writing (which came up a few times in class), would I prefer my book to be critically acclaimed or ridiculously popular? Both I hear you cry, but this question is the literary equivalent of asking if I’d like to reduce taxes or increase public spending – of course I might want both, but with rare exception, this doesn’t happen. From a purely monetary point of view the popular book (by which I mean the standard narrative and easy to digest read of whatever genre) is likely to allow you to write more and more popular books, possibly quit your day job and live the dream of being able to tell people at cocktail parties “I’m a writer”. On the other hand, you might produce a thing of beauty with the experimental book, gain the respect of your peers and, although, you will have fewer fans, those that are may be far more appreciative than the masses who might tell you “Yeah, it was good. Yeah.”
Experimental fiction, by it’s nature, is designed to challenge and some people just won’t follow you where you want to lead them. On the other hand bestsellers might have immediate appeal but, if you’re of a certain experimental persuasion, might not satisfy your own urges to challenge convention and try something new. Of course, none of this is to say that any of what we write will be popular or critically acclaimed. Law of averages tells us it will be neither, even if we stack the deck and start from the assumption of publication. Yet in pursuing the art, the literature, the experiment, we are probably making it even harder to be widely read.
For the most part I think I have to learn to stop worrying and love the process. The only thing that really matters on a day to day basis is putting fingers to keyboard. I will write what I have to write and let everything else take care of itself. Yet, sometimes I can’t help but think about the road I’m driving myself down or where I’ll end up – critical juncture or populartown?