back to e-flux.com

"Chick-lit meets the avant-garde"


#1

In English-language literature, “experimental fiction” has usually been a sausage fest, with male authors like David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon garnering endless accolades for their daring subversions of form and narrative, while female experimental authors get nary a mention. But as Tess McNulty writes at Public Books, experimental fiction is becoming decidedly more feminine. Not only are younger female fiction writers using avant-garde forms to explore women-centric themes; they are also borrowing elements from the most “feminine” of literary genres: chick lit. McNulty argues that this gesture, however, is having mixed results, as exemplified by Alexandra Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.

Check out an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.

Lately, though, changes have been taking place in both genres, conducive to their union. Experimental fiction, on the one hand, has become more accessible. In recent years, it has produced a spate of remarkably well-received novels, lauded for being less intimidating than their forebears. When Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer in 2011, it was praised as “Old School” avant-garde literature—or experimental fiction that didn’t, as Egan herself put it, “drown out the story.” Ali Smith’s How to Be Both was awarded Britain’s Goldsmiths Prize in 2014 for proving “that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure." The mainstreaming of the experimental novel has been aided by “for dummies” style guides, such as Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers, which seek, ironically, to standardize experimentation and make it less off-putting.

Even as experimental fiction has been commercializing, chick lit has been heading in more literary and challenging directions. Since the 2008 recession, when chick lit of the classic mid-’90s variety was declared “dead,” the genre has matured; in the words of Publishers Weekly’s editor in chief Sara Nelson, it had to, like its heroines, become “a little more accomplished and grown-up.” That has meant embracing more serious themes, like motherhood and marriage, and becoming more “high-concept” so as to acquire more literary heft. Its post-recession readers, agent Diane Banks explains, “want to be challenged by their reading as they are being challenged in other areas of their lives.”

Finally, pressures preventing female authors from fusing experimental form with chick-lit content have been weakening. As recently as 2013, critics saw the success of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as evidence for an accepted fact: that female authors of avant-garde fiction had to masculinize their manuscripts in order to succeed. But that trend has been reversing in recent years, with experimental novels by and about women receiving more recognition. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmented tale of motherhood, was one of the New York Times’s top-10 books of 2014. A year before the Goldsmiths Prize was awarded to How to Be Both, it went to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

Image of Alexandra Kleeman via electricliterature.com.