First published by The Big Issue in July 2015
All over Australia, writers and their work are finding peculiar new homes, as publications and writers’ festivals shape shift, in order to accommodate new and experimental ways with words. The Digital Writers Festival for example, held for the second time in February this year, takes place entirely online. In stark contrast to a more traditional (and – don’t get me wrong, absolutely lovely) event such as the Sydney Writers Festival, where punters queue along the pier for the next panel discussion, scanning their printed programs or reading their new paperbacks, audiences of the Digital Writers Festival can view live audio fiction experiments from the comfort of their futons. And they can watch them again later, for free, on their smartphone, on the bus, on the loo.
In March this year, Canberra welcomed a brand new experimental festival of words, Noted. Wishing to subvert the format of the writers’ festival, Noted set out to toy with new ways to tell stories and engage audiences: words displayed as visual art in an online exhibition, London and Sydney writers composing and reading poetry to each other on Skype.
Without exception, every art form requires an element of experimentation if it is to change, to thrive and engage new audiences. How else can art preserve its longevity, if not by remaining edgy and appealing to hipsters and the unending parade of sub-cultures already primed to come after them?
If not for experimentation and playfulness, we’d never have the now instantly recognisable and iconic street art of Banksy. We’d never have Blue Poles, that imposing resident of Australia’s National Gallery that some find unspeakably calming and others find utterly pointless. Beyond visual art, we’d never have rap music, tap dance, graphic novels or the Kama Sutra. Why would anyone think to deconstruct a perfectly edible crème brulee, if not in the spirit of experimentation?
A stand out example from the literary sphere is Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, published in 2013. It is a full-length novel, in which none of the characters have names, and whose story is told almost entirely through the broken interior monologue of its protagonist. Perhaps the most common bone of contention, when it comes to works such as McBride’s, is this: what’s the point? What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned beginning, middle and an end? Why would anyone want to mess with that, label it post-modern and call it art? Where’s the story? What does it teach us?
Another common criticism of experimental art as a whole is ‘well, anyone could do that.’ Writing a novel that makes a bestseller list because millions of people can’t put the thing down, is the result of raw talent and hard bloody work. True. But there is something to be said for art being of its time, for art getting bored with what came before and pushing the boundaries in the spirit of “there’s got to be more than this.” After all, the purpose of experimental writing is not acclaim; it’s a commitment to the new, to seeing where audiences are willing to be taken.
Justin Wolfers is the editor of Seizure Publishing’s Alt Txt project. Alt Txt is a place for writers to let their 21st century hair down by playing with all mediums currently available to them, resulting in work that could not have been written at any other time than right now. “For me,” says Wolfers, “that means being bombarded by multiple screens and different forms of media all at once.” It’s this kind of playfulness he is interested in curating. The “voice of now”, if you like.
Current tasty morsels featured on the Alt Txt menu, include Ryan O’Neill’s dry, sly and cheeky analysis of Henry Lawson’s famous short story “The Drover’s Wife”, which doubles up as a dig at the deathly dull form of the power point presentation. On the other end of the spectrum, Melbourne writer Emma Marie Jones offers a powerful bit of sexy memoir, which nods to its place in 2015 via the use of emoticons and a link to a dick pic.
Like it or not, experimental writing, perhaps more than any other art form is all around us, and is here to stay. From the playful pared back descriptions on modern menus (duck three ways with a walnut crumb and smoked pea cloud) to the interactive giff-heavy click bait of Tom’s, Dick’s and Harry’s blogs, it appears we’ve used words for so long now that popping them into a well written sentence is not enough to satisfy us. We need new and interesting ways to present and decorate them #conventionalfiction #solastseason.