I would like to discuss the difference between "innovative" and "experimental."
On one hand, I think these are words that may have lost their meaning over time. I offer, tentatively, that these terms seem as if they might have emerged as labels marking them as somehow "too risky" for the "mainstream." Not worth taking the financial risk, according to the New York publishers. But how, then, do we respond to those New York publishers who have swept up, these past few years, so many of our "experimental," HTML Giant-generation, indie writers?
So I don't think it's "experimental" and "innovative" versus the Big 5. And I don't think it ever was. Decades ago, when Lish was at Knopf, he discovered and published (and was fired, if that means anything) many of our high-visibility big name "avant garde" writers who are now teaching at some of the most competitive "experimental" MFA programs in the country. But he was at Knopf -- not some indie press run out of someone's basement. (And I'm not knocking that. Think of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, right?) And so I like to think there are still -- and that there have always been -- and that there will always be -- editors at the Big 5 who want the good stuff, the real stuff, Literature with a capital L -- and that they too are unimpressed, as readers, by the books that sell the most copies (celebrity biographies, etc.), the books by authors that the accountants say aren't too risky to take on based on past sales, the books that will bring in the big bucks. Happily, I observe that the Discover Great New Writers shelves at Barnes and Noble are testament to these editors. Almost all of the Big 5 are represented simultaneously on those shelves. I go frequently to B&N, at least once a month, to see what's on the front tables and how long those titles stay there, to see the new titles on those DGNW shelves. While I'm not going to say that those books are or aren't innovative or experimental, I am going to say that, consistently, the Big 5 do publish debut short story collections, novels, and essay collections by MFA types -- MFA types who would be offended, I think, if we rolled our eyes at them and designated their books "mainstream." These are just people -- like us -- who have spent a lot of time devoted to their craft, who have gone through the writing programs, who now teach and make very little money. What I'm ultimately getting at here is that I really don't think that the Big 5 New York publishers have necessarily proven themselves to be wholly against "innovative" or "experimental" writers / writing.
So what do we mean by these words, if we're not just setting them up in opposition to the "mainstream"?
It seems to me that the two words have different connotations: "innovative" fares better than "experimental," for sure. The word "experimental" can be used as an insult. It can be used, offhandedly, to describe anything that looks weird, reads weirdly, makes the reader feel weird. But I don't think any of this can be applied to the word "innovative."
Innovative suggests something new, something radical, something we haven't seen before, a new approach to an old standard, an invention, an improvement, something that will contribute usefully to our human experiences here on earth. I think, seen that way, innovative speaks to the implicit value of worth attached to the attempted experiment. I think, in order for something to be innovative, it must be an improvement upon something already in existence. And that improvement means the experiment succeeded.
Innovation = success! And for the greater good.
On the other side of things, "experimental" now feels much riskier to me than "innovative" -- because experiments can, and do, fail.
Experiment comes first. Innovation, if lucky, follows.
If we run with my proposal that "innovative" suggests improvement or advancement for human beings (and implicitly connotes the successful experiment), and that the word "experimental" signifies only the risk (because the experiment could go either way), then what kind of writers do we want to be?
Risk-takers, outcome be damned?
Is it the experiment that matters? The attempt? The risk?
Or do we want the glory of the experiment's success? And is it OK if the glory only comes after we're long dead and gone? (Keats died believing he was a failed poet. Kafka, Thoreau, Dickinson, Plath, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Chopin, Hurston -- all of them, appreciated only after death.)
I have been thinking about this a lot, lately. Maybe because Lance finally approved my Problematic over the weekend, and I look at that document now and think: I could never have written this before I got here.
It is not a creative document. It's a theoretical proposal, which I began drafting in July, about what my core "problem" is -- what I read for when I read, what I am trying to figure out as I am reading, what kinds of reading most impresses me because it exemplifies the innovation, is proof of that author's successful experiment, the author who took that core problem (the thing I too am most passionate and obsessive about) to heart and addressed it in a new way.
My entire way of thinking about craft has changed, since writing that document. I am not the same writer, or reader, I was when I got here a year and a half ago. I now know what I care most about, and I understand why it's a problem -- not just regarding the work of craft, but the work of structures, of language, society, and what we think we mean when we think we mean. I have a better sense now of why I want to address my own most "problematic" thing, in my own writing, too. (And so it seems like an amazing gift that for the next year I get to read and focus on precisely those texts that, throughout history, addressed this problem, too. And innovated, again and again. In so many different ways. Thus paving the way for future innovation.)
Not long ago, I revisited the piece I wrote in Lance's Narrative Theory last spring. It was so risky for me -- the first page ends on my narrator's "dripping cunt" -- and I was uncomfortable with that. But I wrote it. Read from it at AWP. And then serialized it, online, at Necessary Fiction. The text itself is proof that I wrote it. But for some reason, I can't tap into it. I can't revise and expand the thing the way I envisioned I would back in those first-draft days. I don't recognize the writer who wrote it. I want to, though. I want to feel that brave again. I want to want to take the risk.
I am reminded of how people say Lish used to make his students write what hurt. Did Keats or Kafka write what hurt? I think so. Keats was surrounded by death -- his parents, his brother, and then he got sick, too. He knew he was dying. He wrote obsessively about death, and life after death (the next generations). Kafka? Definitely writing what hurt. Dickinson, Plath, Chopin, Hurston? Yes. Poe? Lenore! Yes. Etc.
After I reread my piece from last year, I thought long about the writer who wrote it. She was assuredly braver than I am now, and writing from a place of genuine fear and shame and hurt. What made her able and willing to do that, though? What brought it out of her? What inspired her? And who told her it was okay, to put it down, to try the experiment and see what might come of it?
I think (besides the class in general) that, more than any other writer on our syllabus, it was Kathy Acker, whose words and images were screaming in my face in the weeks leading up to the day I submitted my piece for workshop. Acker just fucking went for it, you know? And she's dead now. Which matters to me. It would have mattered a lot to me then, too.
I want to wrap up by saying: We need to write what hurts. We need to take bigger risks. Otherwise, what's the point? I mean, I want my books to be remembered. Don't you? And there's nothing wrong with wanting that, or saying it. I want my books to survive me. I want them to be taught in universities and I want them respected. I wouldn't mind seeing it happen in my lifetime, too. But if I don't? Well, maybe I'll be discovered posthumously. (That's a joke.) Either way, here's the thing. . . . At the end of the road, or tunnel, or whatever, I want to say: I risked everything. I put it all on the page. I never let fear take over, doubt, hesitation, rationality, logic, or whatever else. I took the risks. I experimented. Sometimes I failed. Spectacularly. Sometimes I got it right. But always, always, I laid it all out.
And so my takeaway -- what this means to me, right now, in this moment -- is: Every line, every sentence, every word. Must. Hurt. Must willingly and actively and purposefully take the risk. Make it personal. With hope for the greater good.