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History of Experimental Literature


  • 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

20th Century

  • 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


  • 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


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

1970s and 1980s:

  • 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

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.