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Isn't the "rounded" character the real "shell game." Still just words on paper.

Personally I do think works of fiction can have both "feeling" and experimentation, off the top of my head: David Markson's works and Evan Dara's The Lost Scrapbook.


Welcome back, Dan. And then there's IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER...I would hope Caldwell has an extra set of fuses on hand before trying that one. Markson, absolutely. How about Manuel Puig? And Sorrentino's LITTLE CASINO is a deeply moving book whose every loosely linked section expressly announces its artificiality.

The irony is that those rounded characters, at least as manufactured by a writer like, say, Anne Tyler, are so plainly artificial, so obviously the sum of the the tics, mannerisms, patterns of speech, hobbies, and other items a Tyler has pulled from her bag of tricks.


Since I am also a big fan of narrative and formal experimentations, I certainly agree with your post. I'm perhaps even more aggressive than you in that I get annoyed at the all-too-frequent dichotomization of formal experimentation on one hand and emotional connection on the other, as if the two were mutually exclusive (though I'm not implying that you are doing that).

It's true, as you point out, that this may be the goal of much experimental fiction but I can think of counter-examples (in addition to the ones pointed out by derikb) such as Steve Erickson and, in film, David Lynch who use experimental forms and multiple shifting narratives but still, in my opinion, create strong emotional connections with the characters and the overall work.

For both of those artists, the form is crucial but I don't think its intent is to point away from the "content." Rather, it works to focus a specific way into the content and/or emotion of the story.

Carol Peters

Now I WANT to read the Krauss novel. Caldwell probably didn't like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, either, an imperfect but magnificent novel (

Carol Peters

Sorry, I mangled the link, retry: try this.



Regarding my criticism of Siegel--I agree with what you said. I certainly think that some postmodern novels have had excellent characters, but I also agree that some have had very flat characters. That is perfectly fine so long as the author is using them to do something interesting (e.g. Sorrentino). In fact, it's more than a little unfair to critique someone like Pynchon for his flat characters when he clearly is making them flat for a reason.

Also, I do think novels like this can be emotionally engaging. They may not be so in the typical sense of a realist novel, but there is more than one way to establish an emotional connection. Really, I'm getting tired of this critique of postmodern fiction. Either judge the novels on their own grounds or read something else.


Welcome back, Dan. Nice to have you posting again.

It's been a while since I've weighed in down here but I found this post terribly thought provoking and have been mulling it over for a while now. I don't know that I have much illuminating to say, as opposed to a bit of thinking out loud. So I hope you bear with me.

As you know, I'm certainly a big fan of plenty of experimental fiction (Markson and Calvino referenced above are faves, as is Bartheleme) but I have always wonder - and continue to wonder - if "to draw attention away from the immediate "content" a novel or story is expected to contain, like a vessel its liquid, and to focus some of the reader's attention on the vessel itself--better yet, to demonstrate that content only exists according to the shape of the container, the latter, after all, contributing the "art" to the art of fiction" isn't in some way, ultimately, a bit of a dead end? Or at least, a thoroughly well-traveled cul-de-sac. I mean it does seem to me that in the year 2005 this question has been more or less settled, hasn't it? Does anyone still dispute that the novel is, essentially, merely a container? I'm just not sure that we need novels to continue to come along and merely reinforce a point that seems more or less made. (It's worth remembering, though, that I'm an NYU-reject and literary autodidact, so there are surely nuances here that I'm simply missing.)

I'm also vaguely suspicious of that which is merely aesthetic experimentation - I'm reminded of Picasso's dismissal of certain types of pictures as mere "decoration" and I wonder if that isn't a danger here.

Finally, I would respectfully submit that I don't think it need necessarily be one or the other - experimental form or emotional resonance (nor do I suggest that Dan is necessarily saying this); again, I've referred to Barthelme's stories before as examples of experimentation that rings some deep emotional bells, at least for this reader.

As I said, an interesting, thought-provoking post, Dan. Just thinking out loud a bit here ...

Dan Green


I would merely argue that such things as "narrative shifts" ought not to be dismissed simply because they disrupt one's "emotional" response. Perhaps it's even important to a particular novel's "content" that it disrupt such a response. At any rate, reminding the reader that the text at hand has some kind of aesthetic or formal design--that it's meant to be a work of art and not just an "attention grabber"--can't really be a bad thing, can it? A novel or story isn't going to be understood for all that it has to offer if the "art" part is ignored--which I think Gail Caldwell comes close to doing.

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