Experimental Writing in American Literature

American literature is mostly about social justice, voiceless people, and new literary forms that bring awareness. Historically, experimental writing does just that; it forces us to conceptualize new ways of thinking about text. This is necessary for literary progression or simply for the movement of writing in new directions. Exploring three significant kinds of literary experimentation in writing in the United States after 1929 will show us the evolution of writing during these few decades in our past. The kinds of experimentation I am going to talk about are: magic realism, hyper realism, and pastiche. 

The first type of literary experimentation called magic realism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a style of painting which depicts fantastic or bizarre images in a precise representationalist manner (first used in German to describe the work of members of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement). In extended use: any artistic or literary style in which realistic techniques such as naturalistic detail, narrative, etc., are similarly combined with surreal or dreamlike elements. Magic realism functions and is exemplified well in Sherman Alexie’s 2003 short story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (1558). The author has to ground the reader and give some concrete elements so that we can determine the plausible elements from the implausible. The reality is that the protagonist, Jackson Jackson is a homeless alcoholic. The piece has an overall feeling of being in a dreamlike state; the reader doesn’t really ever know what’s real and what’s not. The Aleut Natives, for example, are likely figments of the main character’s imagination, but he does carry out conversation and actions (they eat breakfast together) with them, so the reader is left to question the sanity of the protagonist and or themselves. On top of that, the main character perpetuates a stereotype of Native Americans and is drunk for most, if not all of the story. This unreliable narrator effect created by a blurred lens emphasizes the kind of disorientation Alexie was aiming for.

The second type of literary experimentation called hyper realism is a compositional style defined by American composer Noah Creshevsky as “an electroacoustic musical language constructed from sounds that are found in our shared environment (realism), handled in ways that are somehow exaggerated or excessive (hyper).” It is a style in art that attempts to reproduce highly realistic graphic representations. This is exemplified in Don DeLillo’s 1994 short story “Videotape” (1460). Not only was the story written in a hyper realistic style, but it actually was about the filming of an event. This created the kind of meta-narration that this experimental style strives for. The subject matter seemed like it was about something other. Hyper realism was something people hadn’t talked about before. The whole thing in its second person narrative feels impersonal, but maybe this is done so anyone can insert themselves into the story and make it easily relatable.

The third type of literary experimentation called pastiche is defined as combining very different styles and elements as a way of drawing attention to materiality of art. This style is exemplified in Anzaldua’s 1987 poem “El Sonovabitche” (1480). Firstly, the form of the poem indicates an amalgamation of different types of texts, as certain stanzas are partially indented and others are completely indented. Anzaldua’s use of Spanish in this text can also be seen as her weaving another element into this mix of cultures represented by her writing. Our author provides footnotes as translation for the spanish she uses. This suggests that she intended for some members of her audience to need translation and that those members are who she is speaking directly to; they are the oppressors in her poem. Like Alexie, Anzaldua presents the white man she receives money from in the end as quite cooperative – an unexpected move. The content of “El Sonovabitche” also speaks directly to the pastiche technique; the characters are crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. A literal mixing of cultures is happening both in storyline and plot. 

The experimental techniques I have chosen relate to pre-1929 experiments in American writing, as well. All of them strive to build a material representation in their writing; their authors work to make their writings more than just words on the page. The words do something. They take action. Before the three authors I have talked about experimented literarily, Gertrude Stein developed an analogue to modern art. Stein once explained that she and Picasso were doing the same thing, he in art and she in writing. Using simple, concrete words as counters, she developed an abstract, experimental prose poetry. The childlike quality of Stein’s simple vocabulary recalls the bright, primary colors of modern art, while her repetitions echo the repeated shapes of abstract visual compositions. I have taken an example from her work titled “Ada” (842). “And certainly Ada all her living then was happier in living than any one else who ever could, who was, who is, who ever will be living” (844). By dislocating grammar and punctuation, she achieved new “abstract” meanings. 

Meaning, in Stein’s work, was often subordinated to technique, just as subject was less important than shape in abstract visual art. Subject and technique became inseparable in both the visual and literary art of the period. The idea of form as the equivalent of content, a cornerstone of post-World War II art and literature, crystallized in this period.

William Carlos Williams also contributed to the imagistic experimentation intended to take readers away from the page. He cultivated a photographic clarity of image; his aesthetic dictum was “no ideas but in things.” 

Overall, the intended effects of these experiments were to cultivate a generation of critical readers. The goal was to get people thinking about what they were reading and then engage on a deeper level. It is one thing to read a story, poem, or piece of work, but another to actively participate with it on a certain level in order to form your own interpretations and generate thoughts, or even writing, in response to what you have read. 


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