What is Experimental Fiction?

Experimental fiction generally refers to works of literary fiction that play with typical literary and genres by using new and innovative stylistic choices. There is no set standard for what makes experimental fiction because any texts that falls within this bracket can appear wholly different from each other.

A piece of experimental fiction can be any form, i.e. prose, poetry, or a combination of the two. It can range in length from long-form novels to flash fiction.

Experimental fiction definition

Experimental fiction is any piece of writing, including prose fiction, verse, and even elements of nonfiction, that involves significant experimentation in elements such as style, form, structure, and genre. As a result, experimental fiction doesn’t fit neatly into a preestablished category, such as a particular literary movement.

Two vials containing blue and green liquids being poured into a third vial with red liquid.

What’s the purpose of experimental fiction?

Experimental fiction aims to stretch the boundaries of what is deemed “literature”. This is partly to test the very limits of the form, as well as to allow the writer to explore ideas in new and different ways.

Writers of experimental fiction might also aim to challenge readers’ expectations by breaking away from traditional notions of storytelling.

Another impact of experimental fiction is that it can be the genesis for literary movement, inspiring other writers to adopt the test out the new style.

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Characteristics of experimental fiction

As there is no set definition for experimental fiction, there are also no common characteristics that every piece of work under this banner has to adhere to. However, these are a few elements that may be utilised in experimental fiction: 

  • Not “easy” to read. By virtue of being stylistically different to what most readers are familiar with, experimental fiction can make for difficult reading.
  • Non-commercial. Because it is more challenging to read, experimental fiction is rarely a commercially viable form of literature that many big publishers would invest their time and money on marketing. As such, it is more commonly found online, in smaller publications such as literary journals and informal zines. Generally, only well-established writers would get the opportunity to publish experimental works widely.
  • Challenges literary traditions. Tropes, genres, and other literary conventions are often turn upside down, torn apart, or removed entirely. For example, typically dramatic structures rarely exist in experimental fiction.
  • Non-conventional characters. Traditional character arcs and archetypes are often missing from pieces of experimental fiction. Instead, characters may appear disjointed or at odds with the readers’ expectations.
  • Doesn’t follow usual layout rules. If there is a work of experimental prose or prose poetry, it may not even appear like a typical novel or short story with paragraphs neatly aligned. Instead, the very appearance of the text could be experimented with, such as presenting a paragraph into a specific shape or playing with the position of blank spaces.
  • Mixed media. Another characteristic of some experimental fiction is how it isn’t always limited to simply words on a page. Images might be used not just as accompaniments to the text but as significant elements of the text. In more recent decades, digital art has also allowed literature to be blended with audiovisual mediums.

Examples of experimental fiction

Experimental fiction isn’t a defined genre or literary movement, and movements such as modernism and postmodernism now encapsulated texts that may have before been experimental. However, here are some examples of what can be considered works of experimental fiction:

  • House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
  • Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

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