The Long, Slow Death of Avant-Garde Fiction
The state of popular fiction, especially mainstream “literary fiction,” in the second decade of the twentieth century is one of complacency and uniformity. It’s as though someone filtered the concept of fiction and literary fiction through a sieve, and homogeneity is all that largely remains.
Literature has struggled since the advent of movies and television, with the introduction of interactive entertainment—what some people still call videos games—and the internet. In a culture marginalizing fiction and literature, the industry is rapidly transforming into a game of monkey-see-monkey-do. In this world, the avant-garde, historically on the margins, is being further marginalized—to the detriment of our culture.
Fiction and literary fiction in this hyper-real, digital age, an age in which the line between “reality” and “simulacrum” is vanishing, suffers the same existential crisis that visual art—paintings and sculptures—suffered with the advent of the camera.
Over the past two decades, films and television, interactive entertainment and the internet have collided with the nuances of everyday life. As a culture, we’ve moved from the digital age into a sort of hyper-digital age, a period in which we’re experiencing the merger of the digital realm and the physical realm. This new period is revolutionizing the way we communicate, and consume entertainment, even more so than it did a decade or two ago.
Unfortunately, fiction, especially literary fiction, zigged when it should have zagged. In
lieu of revolutionizing the form, the way Picasso did with les Demoiselles D’avignon, the publishing industry instead chose to alter the delivery system, transitioning from hard copies to digital copies, without altering the form. That is, they’re in the process of changing their appearance—and nothing more.
Writers and agents, editors and publishers failed to seize the moment; they failed to change the literary landscape, to alter it, to transform it. Instead, they monetized formulae, and largely write, accept, and propagate formulae and recycled stories.
As an aside, it should be noted that there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with stories sharing similarities; however, chasing the “safe bet” is by and large standard practice in the publishing milieu, and the safe bet usually entails treading familiar territory without breaking the rules.
And that brings us to the heart of the problem—the safe bet.
First, let’s assume that we have a set called “fiction.” This set includes subsets—science fiction, thriller, horror, and so on, each of which is a subset of the set called “fiction.” Each subset is bound, to a large degree, to rules established over decades. These rules, when they affect uniformity, become formula.
Formula, or form, as we’re using it here, is a combination of technique and structure. The differences between The Stand, for example, or The Wheel of Time are largely superficial: the stories themselves might differ, the characters inhabiting these stories might differ, but structurally the stories are similar—the forms are similar, if not identical—as are the techniques employed to tell them.
Werner Herzog once said that cinema got stuck in the birth canal; it was never allowed to transform. Innovations in cinema were, and are, largely superficial. The form remains largely untouched. Even a film like Pulp Fiction, for example, appears to play with or subvert the form; but the difference between Pulp Fiction and a movie like Transformers is superficial: structurally, Pulp Fiction adheres to the same three-act structure that all mainstream movies adhere to, which is to say that the forms don’t differ, only the appearances do.
That is the problem with the set we call “fiction” and its various subsets.
But literary fiction is the subset we’re focusing on here, so let’s bracket the other subsets for the moment.
“Literary fiction” for our purposes means “any form of fiction meant to emulate or simulate ‘reality.'” Some modern or postmodern works, such as Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow will fall under this definition. Other works, such as Naked Lunch, for example, or Infinite Jest do not fall under this definition—although one could argue that the latter, with its emphasis on corporate culture, technology, and the human condition might fall into this subset; instead, they fall within a subset of the subset we will call “literary fiction.”
For now, we’ll bracket books like Naked Lunch and Infinite Jest to examine the effect of form on readers, and why agents and publishers are probably reluctant to break from deeply entrenched literary norms.
First, let’s examine a common structure. In its simplest form, it is comprised of a beginning, middle, and end—in that order. One or more characters experience something significant, without which, many argue, there wouldn’t be a point in telling the story. Over the course of the story, the characters experience an arch, so they emerge at the end either changed or enlightened in some manner.
Conflict is a crucial element to this form: it presents obstacles the character or characters must overcome in order to reach his or her objective. Obstacles become more costly as the form progresses, and the characters are challenged, and for a time it appears as though they do not possess either the physical or psychological wherewithal to overcome the obstacles and complete their objectives.
This form has been the standard in Western literature since The Iliad—and, some might argue, it’s rooted in folklore or oral traditions that pre-date Homer.
In short, this form has dominated storytelling since before scribes and writers recorded the stories for posterity. It is a form with which we are familiar. Television and movies, novels and interactive entertainment inundate us with similar or identical forms. We understand them at a visceral level.
Such familiarity with this form is both its strength and weakness.
Writers do not create worlds or characters in the literal sense; instead, they encode instructions using symbols that a reader, familiar with those symbols, then decrypt and construct based on the information they receive. This is a purely cognitive function. The processes that comprise our “brains” intake and filter and sort through information to build models based on such information.
To put it another way, a writer draws up a blueprint and a reader constructs the object based on those blueprints. But this metaphor fails in one regard: when a reader decrypts the information provided by a writer, the reader superimposes his or her biases and presuppositions, assumptions and experiences onto his or her constructions of that information. This is how two different readers can read the same text with varying or disparate results.
Reading and writing, however, are cultural constructs. They might co-opt other processes, but it’s doubtful that they are genetically inherited—unlike, say, what Chomsky called the Language Acquisition Device. A reader’s ability to construct worlds based on information from a writer comes largely from training—this is not meant to imply a reliance on, or endorsement of, behaviorism. We’re using “training” in a specialized sense.
For our purposes, we’ll distinguish two kinds of training: intentional and unintentional.
From the opening paragraph of a novel, a writer intentionally trains a reader to read his or her novel. Intentional training is superficial. Although the form might be identical to other novels, the superficial content, including quirks or idiosyncrasies, might differ from writer to writer—or from novel to novel within the oeuvre of a single writer. In effect, intentional training is the act of a specific writer more or less supplying superficial information.
Unintentional training, on the other hand, is a slower process. It is unintentional in the sense that the propagation of similar or identical forms excites a reader’s expectations on a non-conscious level. That means that, on a non-conscious level, readers who read formulaic novels are, as time passes, non-consciously learning the structure—the form.
This, it should be noted, is not to suggest that there aren’t astute readers.
After a person has consistently read novels of similar or identical forms, he or she comes to non-consciously expect the forms with which he or she is non-consciously accustomed. If you accept that assertion, then you might understand why, over time, readers begin to anticipate what’s going to happen in a novel. If their anticipations are met, then they respond positively, as if it’s some form of validation.
Again, this is not to suggest that there are not astute readers out there. It’s possible that an astute reader is someone who readily—consciously—grasps the same forms and information that their non-conscious processes are selecting, processing, or encoding.
It’s possible that similar or identical forms appeal to our non-conscious training—they also inculcate and reinforce this training. This appeal to our non-conscious training is the key to their dominance.
When a person reads a book similar to other books he or she has read, his or her non-conscious training anticipates the flow of the structure while simultaneously enabling him or her to focus on the superficial content.
This brings us to the long, slow death of the avant-garde.
By producing and distributing books with similar or identical forms, writers and agents, editors and publishers reinforce this training. This reinforcement becomes so ingrained in readers that it’s been established as the norm. To break from this norm is to upset, for the reader, a lifetime of developed habits—some of which are non-conscious.
If you can accept the above theory, then you’ll understand why “difficult” or “challenging” novels have always been niche, and are slowly dying. Novels that play with—experimental—or subvert—avant-garde—the dominant form plunges a reader into a world outside their sphere of training and experience. Since most readers non-consciously pick up on the form, which is then reinforced, they approach a novel like Infinite Jest as though it’s a novel they’ve read countless times. The assumption—which is probably non-conscious—lies in expectations of form.
People who have read novels with the same or similar forms non-consciously expect novels to adhere to those forms. When a novel plays with or subverts those forms, a reader might begin to read such a novel as though it were constructed the way novels tend to be constructed in their experiences. If their expectations are not met, then they might have limited options: 1), abandon the novel; 2) work harder to read it; 3) learn to adapt to varying or various or alternative forms—this adaptation occurs over time and through experience.
Examine best-sellers lists, examine catalogs from publishers, examine new and anticipated novels—they by and large represent the dominant forms. Few novels that play with or subvert the dominant forms are published with the marketing or promotion or fanfare like novels of the dominant forms. In the age of mass media, an age in which movies, television shows, music, and books are available on a handheld device, few publishers seem willing to take many risks, especially when it comes to subverting the expectations of readers in new and radical ways.
Novels of the dominant forms sell well because they provide a sort of comfort to the reader; they maintain, in a sense, the status quo; they make the reader feel safe or comfortable or intelligent. The latter does not imply that readers of so-called “popular fiction” are less intelligent or insightful than readers of “challenging fiction.” No value judgments are made or implied here.
Since novels of the dominant forms sell well, since readers prefer such novels on a larger scale than readers who prefer novels that play with or subvert the dominant forms, they are the kinds of novels agents, editors, and publishers seek; they are the kinds of novels most likely to generate greater sales and visibility.
Essentially, the milieu of publishing—from those who teach writing to those who write to those who market novels—is predicated on the dominant forms, which appeal to the largest possible audience. In corporate speak, they’re more likely to pad the bottom line. With few exceptions, this has long been the case. However, the increased marginalization of literature seems to have exacerbated the situation.
The avant-garde, which is always been on the fringe, has now virtually vanished.
But this doesn’t have to necessarily be the case. Things can change. Things do change. The possibilities for the novel are limited only by the training and expectations of the people writing it, and of the people reading it.
To change the dominant forms, we must allow alternate forms. To allow alternate forms, agents and editors and publishers must be more willing to consider or accept them. Once accepted, once entered into the public sphere, these books could alter readers’ training and expectations, and open a world of possibilities, a world in which identical or similar forms are no longer the dominant forms.
When readers are exposed to more and more novels that play with or subvert the forms, then their expectations will expand, and they will—hopefully—incorporate those into their non-conscious toolbox, so to speak. Readers are exposed to alternate forms—David Mitchell immediately comes to mind—but we have to call on agents, editors, and publishers to seek out these alternate forms on a larger scale, to give them a chance, to put them on a more or less equal footing with novels of the dominant forms.
We as humans experience something called “perceptual expectancy.” It is a non-conscious bias in which we perceive what we expect to perceive. Everything above, this theory of forms, easily applies to cinema and theater and even music. To limit our forms is to limit our expectations; to limit our expectations is to limit our perceptions; to limit our perceptions is to limit our experience of the world. In short, limited forms limit our world—which is why the avant-garde has always, does, and should always play such an important and significant role in a culture.
Historically, the avant-garde has been a bottom-up movement: it starts on the fringes, but its ideas and concepts expand and influence popular culture—Dadaism, Surrealism, and the French New Wave immediately come to mind.
In an ever-increasing corporate culture, homogeneity is the modus operandi, because homogeneity preys on non-conscious training and expectations—which, in turn, results in greater revenue as more and more people are exposed to similar or identical forms. Even so-called indie publishers tend to fail to eschew the dominant forms: their appearances might differ, but the dominant forms remain more or less intact. This must change. We as a culture need the avant-garde so we can shake off the shackles of our limited perceptions, of our limited experiences, of our limited individual worlds.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.