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History of Experimental Literature

Early history (1700s)

Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) features mockery of narrative, and graphic elements as an all-black page to mourn the death of a character

20th-century history

In the 1910s, artistic experimentation with given forms

The Cantos of Ezra Pound

post-WWI work of T S Eliot

prose and plays by Gertrude Stein

James Joyce's Ulysses

Virginia Woolf

historical avant-garde movements & the development of experimental literature in the early and middle 20th century

Dadaist movement - French poet Tristan Tzara employed newspaper clippings and experimental typography in his manifestoes

futurist author FT Marinetti espoused a theory of "words in freedom" across the page, exploding the boundaries of both conventional narrative and the layout of the book itself as shown in his "novel" Zang Tumb Tumb

writers, poets, and artists of the surrealist movement employed a range of unusual techniques to evoke mystical and dream-like states in their poems, novels, and prose works

collaboratively-written texts Les Champs Magnétiques (by André Breton and Philippe Soupault)

Sorrow for Sorrow, a "dream novel" produced under hypnosis by Robert Desnos

literary experimentalism kept alive through the 1940s

by isolated visionaries like Kenneth Patchen

1950s, Beat writers

- a reaction against the hidebound quality of both the poetry and prose of its time

near-mystical works as Jack Kerouac's novel Visions of Gerard

poet Isidore Isou formed the Lettrist group, and produced manifestoes, poems, and films that explored the boundaries of the written and spoken word

OULIPO (in French, Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or "Workshop of Potential Literature") brought together writers, artists, and mathematicians to explore innovative, combinatoric means of producing texts

Founded by the author Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais, the group included Italo Calvino and Georges Perec

Queneau's Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes uses the physical book itself to proliferate different sonnet combinations, while Perec's novel Life: A User's Manual is based on the Knight's Tour on a chessboard


William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch brought a wide awareness of and admiration for an extreme and uncensored freedom

Burroughs also pioneered a style known as cut-up, where newspapers or typed manuscripts were cut up and rearranged to achieve lines in the text

late 1960s

experimental movements - so prominent even more conventional authors - Bernard Malamud and Norman Mailer exhibited experimental tendencies

Metafiction: John Barth and Jorge Luis Borges

Barth essay The Literature of Exhaustion: a manifesto of postmodernism

Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

short story form: Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and Ronald Sukenick

later well-known experimental writers of the 1970s and 1980s:

Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje, and Julio Cortázar

Argentine Julio Cortázar is just one of the many Latin American writers who have created masterpieces in experimental literature of 20th and 21st century, mixing dreamscapes, journalism, and fiction

regional classics written in Spanish: the Mexican novel "Pedro Paramo" by Juan Rulfo

the Colombian family epic "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

the Peruvian political history "The War of the End of the World" by Mario Vargas Llosa

the Puerto Rican Spanglish dramatic dialogue "Yo-Yo Boing!" by Giannina Braschi

the Cuban revolutionary novel "Paradise" by Lezama Lima

Contemporary American authors

David Foster Wallace, Giannina Braschi, and Rick Moody, combine experimental form-play of the 1960s writers

Wallace's Infinite Jest is a maximalist work describing life at a tennis academy and a rehab facility - digressions often become plotlines, and the book ultimately features over 100 pages of footnotes

Nicholson Baker - noted for minimalism in novels: The Mezzanine, about a man who rides an escalator for 140 pages

Mark Danielewski combined elements of a horror novel with formal academic writing and typographic experimentation in his novel House of Leaves

In the early 21st century

examples of experimental literature reflect the emergence of computers and digital technologies, some actually using the medium on which they are reflecting

Such writing as been variously referred to electronic literature, hypertext, and codework.

Excerpted and paraphrased from Wikipedia - Experimental Literature.