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Monday musings on Australian literature: New prize for experimental NON-fiction

February 16, 2015

We’ve all heard of prizes for experimental fiction, I’m sure, such as the new(ish) Goldsmith’s Prize won by Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing in 2013, but have you heard of a prize for experimental non-fiction? I hadn’t until I read about Lifted Brow’s new prize recently.

The Lifted Brow is a Melbourne-based publisher, which publishes, “excellent writing and artwork”. They publish in print quarterly, in digital monthly, and online every other day. They have, they say, “eyes all over the world”. This last point is important because their The Lifted Brow Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction is not limited to Australia. They describe the prize as “looking to unearth new, audacious, authentic and/or inauthentic voices from both Australia and the world”. The prize is AUD1000, plus publication in The Lifted Brow’s redesigned/reformatted magazine (edition 25, due out in March 2015). Submissions, which closed at the end of January, had to be no more than 5,000 words, and there was a small entry fee. The judges are (somewhat) international too: Australian author-academic Rebecca Giggs, and US writers John D’Agata (essayist) and Mallory Ortberg (author of Texts from Jane Eyre).

Anyhow, here is the longlist which was announced earlier this month:

  • Sophia O’Rourke’s “Flaming June – Still Life and the Anthroposcene”
  • Scott Sandwich’s “Music Begins Where the Possibilities of Language Ends”
  • Jocelyn Hungerford’s “Don Quixote, Which Was an Essay: A Plagiarism for Kathy Acker”
  • Kelly Neal’s “The Ax and the Ex: Texts and Contexts”
  • Harry Saddler’s “Thought Experiment”
  • Ilan Oberon’s “A Holiday with Space Hippies”
  • Mattie Sempert’s “Navel Gazing”
  • Ben McLeay’s “The Lake”
  • Oscar Schwartz’s “Humans Pretending to be Computers Pretending to be Human”
  • Sian Campbell’s “Bleach”
  • Caroline Crew’s “Slipcover”
  • Rachel Hennessy “Kristeva’s Blood”
  • Sam Cha’s “Why I Am Not A Pianist”
  • Kimberley Starr’s “The Caged Bird Speaks”

I’ve listed these in their order, restraining myself from alphabetising to keep with the spirit of the prize. But, oh dear, I would like some sort of order to facilitate locating particular names any time I come looking at this page again. Just me, I suppose. (You can take the girl out of the library, but you can’t take … well, you know the rest!)

Anyhow, at first glance, I only recognise one of the authors listed here, Rachel Hennessy, whose novel, The heaven I swallowed, I’ve reviewed here. Of course, The Lifted Brow folk did say that were looking for writers they’ve never heard of before as well as ones they know, so some of these could be new. I wonder how many are international? Here’s what a superficial Google search revealed:

  • Not found (or not with reasonable confidence): Sophia O’Rourke, Kelly Neal, Ben McLeay
  • Found (with reasonable confidence): Scott Sandwich (Australian performance poet whose “real” name is Tom Hogan); Jocelyn Hungerford (Australian author/editor); Harry Saddler (Australian author born in Canberra); Ilan Oberon (Australian writer-artist based in Queensland): Mattie Sempert (Australian writer and acupuncturist based in Melbourne); Oscar Schwartz (Australian writer-poet based in Melbourne, currently researching whether computers can write poetry); Sian Campbell (Australian “freelance writer, student, wannabe bassist and lit nerd” based in Melbourne and Brisbane); Caroline Crew (American writer-poet); Rachel Hennessy (Australian writer, born in Canberra); Sam Cha (American writer-poet, based in Massachusetts); Kimberley Starr (Australian novelist and teacher)

So there you have it. Most are Australian, as I suppose you’d expect given the sponsoring magazine is Australian. And the gender spread looks pretty even (albeit exact numbers aren’t clear given that a couple of the names are gender-neutral).

I love the idea of experimental non-fiction. I’ve read (and reviewed here) some non-fiction that has played with voice and structure, or that has straddled, for want of a better description, the fiction-non-fiction divide, but not a lot, and probably not as “out there” as I suspect this prize is seeking. I look forward to seeing who wins it and just what the winning entry entails.

What do you understand by experimental non-fiction, and have you read much?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2015 8:27 pm

    Nothing. No.
    :-\
    You are such a wide-ranging reader, Sue: thank all the gods there are literate people like you around. Otherwise there would only be people like me, fulminating unedifyingly about experimental writing …

    • February 16, 2015 9:28 pm

      Well, there was a creative element to your book I reckon, o-venerable-one, in your use of scripts at certain points. I liked that, you may remember.

  2. February 16, 2015 8:28 pm

    Hmm, I’m completely mystified as to what it might mean. There’s creative non-fiction as in Evelyn Juer’s bio House of Exile, where some speculation is given where there are gaps in what is known. But that’s hardly experimental…

    • ian darling permalink
      February 16, 2015 8:43 pm

      Not so many. Perhaps Iain Sinclair’s “psychogeographies” of London might qualify and maybe a book like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando?

      • February 16, 2015 9:49 pm

        I don’t know those Sinclair works Ian, but maybe. Orlando? Hmm … that’s an interesting idea. Not only is it creative in being semi-auto/biographical BUT it’s pretty experimental in form and style isn’t it. Good one!

    • February 16, 2015 9:42 pm

      I guess it’s partly how they define “experimental” Lisa? I can think of a few “creative” non-fiction works like your example but I’m wondering when “creative” tips over into “experimental”? Not quite like your example is Francesa Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue, in which she tells most of her story third person using another name, and then occasionally intercepts the story with her own first person voice. Something is bothering the edge of my consciousness – I feel I’ve read something I would describe as experimental but it won’t pop out.

  3. February 17, 2015 5:52 am

    A prize in experimental nonfiction? What fun! I would totally read “A Holiday with Space Hippies” just for the title. I’ll have to check and see if any of the list is available in the US. I’ve read a few books that could fall into the category. The one I remember most is a David Shields’ book Reality Hunger which is a “collage” meaning a large portion of the book is composed of words other than the author’s own. It was pretty good.

    • February 17, 2015 8:09 am

      Not surprised you came up with an idea. That does sound experimental.

      And yes, I thought several of the titles were great and rather suggest something interesting might be going on.

  4. February 17, 2015 8:54 am

    I’m really keen to read the entries and see what they’ve come up with; I’m particularly interested in Harry Saddler’s effort as I really enjoy his creative (if not experimental) non-fiction on his blog, Watching Animals. When I try to think of what experimental non-fiction might be I only come up with fiction that might be non-fiction, like WG Sebald’s novels, or ‘HhHH’.

    • February 17, 2015 11:42 am

      Thanks Jane … when I thought about adding examples, WG Sebald was one of the first names I thought of. I’ve only read his The emigrants but that was such an interesting work. I haven’t read HhHHH but have heard such good things about it.

      Thanks for the heads up with Harry Saddler’s writing on his blog. I’ll add a link.

  5. rachelhennessy permalink
    February 17, 2015 10:19 am

    Sue, great to see you spreading the word about this Award. As someone on the longlist I’d love to jump in with my definitive definition of what “experimental non-fiction” is but, I suspect, it escapes such boundaries. Like Stefanie, my eyes were opened by David Shields “Reality Hunger” and I’ve been interested in the idea of the creative essay ever since. My longlisted piece “Kristeva’s Blood” is a personal telling of my experience of miscarriage – it uses first-person re-countering, second-person reflection and a smattering of quotes from academics, poets and Shakespeare. I’ve read some of the work written by the judges of The Lifted Brow Award – John D’Agata is amazing – so I’m pleased to have had them read my work (and like it!)

    • February 17, 2015 11:39 am

      Thanks Rachel … lovely to have you join in. What you’ve described makes sense and reflects what I was thinking, that is, crossing boundaries, but I wasn’t confident enough to come up with the right words. I love this sort of work because the terms fiction and non-fiction have an artificiality to them don’t they?

  6. February 17, 2015 10:41 am

    Sounds an interesting concept but I won’t be adding any of these to my TBR

    • February 17, 2015 12:31 pm

      Fair enough Carrie (crlbth?). We all have different tastes and interests in reading down’t we? It’s great that this area is getting its own award/s.

  7. rachelhennessy permalink
    February 17, 2015 12:07 pm

    I did a bit of teaching last year and one of the most confusing terms the students found was “creative non-fiction” because they couldn’t get their head around the idea of crafting a non-fiction piece. It amazed me, actually, how conservative they were (mainly 18 year olds) when it came to the artificiality you speak of. They wanted everything to be “true” or “not true”. I really had to keep pushing them to recognise that fiction is full of non-fiction and non-fiction can be creative without losing its veracity.

    • February 17, 2015 12:29 pm

      Exactly, Rachel. I have been known to say that fiction is more honest because at least it tells you it’s fiction! I love creative non-fiction and these days tend to be little bored by “traditional” non-fiction.

      Your observation about young students is interesting. In one sense it’s understandable – they want the big world they are launching into to be simple and easy to manage – and in another sense it’s disappointing because youth is the time to get that brain of ours thinking open and thinking.

  8. February 17, 2015 12:33 pm

    Like someone else said, I think Lisa?, there is Creative Nonfiction which plays around with the narrative and structure while leaving the “nonfiction” aspects alone – it just adds creativity to the presentation. Does a work of nonfiction have to be told chronologically, be well organized and logically structured? Does it have to fit in one genre?

    I don’t think Experimental Nonfiction is really “new” – it’s just been rare – I’m thinking of In Cold Blood (Capote) or The Executioner’s Song (Mailer), a few others – most of them are part memoir – although James Frey’s little experiment (A Million Little Pieces) got him in a heap of trouble – lol

    More: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jul/28/biography.highereducation

    I think maybe I’d call Experimental Nonfiction something else – combine it with Creative Nonfiction and call it all Literary Nonfiction or something.

    • February 17, 2015 5:45 pm

      I think I said “voice and structure” Bekah. And no I don’t think that a work of non-fiction “has” to be chronological or logically structured but when it breaks those boundaries, there’s usually some additional creativity at play.

      I think you are right that the idea of experimental non-fiction is not new. I thought of In cold blood too when I saw this prize. I think the term literary non-fiction is already in use – at least I’ve written about it before – but I think that just as we have literary fiction, of which some is experimental, there’s probably an experimental “stream” of literary or creative non-fiction? It’s probably a matter of how far and in what way the “norm” is pushed. It’s all grey though isn’t it, with the lines between traditional and literary and experimental blurred (and changes with time – yesterday’s experiment is today’s traditional or usual!).

  9. rachelhennessy permalink
    February 17, 2015 12:35 pm

    Yes! I love creative non-fiction too. And, yes, these young ones need to open their minds a lot more. But I guess that is what higher education is for, because, unfortunately, most high school teachers don’t have time to go beyond the standard categories. I have to say that by the end of the module, quite a few of them were “sold” on creative non-fiction so there is hope!

  10. February 19, 2015 12:36 pm

    Hi Sue, thanks for writing this post. It’s interesting to see what other people’s thoughts and expectations of the competition might be.

    I suspect that the Lifted Brow kept things deliberately vague in the hope of encouraging – well, experimentation. I can remember that when I first heard about the competition I had no idea what they were looking for and I was even a little bit sceptical – I certainly had no intention of entering as I knew that whatever else my writing might be, it wasn’t “experimental”. To be honest I’ve often found experimental writing in the past to be rather cold – more of a formal exercise than something that tries to engage the reader.

    But then I had an idea about something that I wanted to write about, so obviously I had to write it. The idea definitely came first: experimentation was necessitated by the subject matter, form followed function.

    Unfortunately my piece is hugely spoilerable – it relies on the reader doing a lot of heavy lifting – so I don’t want to go into too much detail about what it comprises, because having been longlisted I hold out hope that in the near future it might be read by more people than just the judges! (Incidentally, this delicate nature of the piece explains the rather banal title I chose for it.) In part it’s about magnetoreception in European robins – the mechanism by which they (and other migratory birds) can sense the earth’s magnetic fields.

    I can tell you more about the structure of my piece, though, as that might interest you and everyone else given all the questions here about what, exactly, “experimental non-fiction” is. My piece is in the form of a five-by-five table; each cell in the table contains a single paragraph of text. These paragraphs are not linked, and can be read in any order the reader wishes. The total length of the piece is about 900 words.

    So in my case, I took “experimental” to mean form and effect, rather than reliability. The text of my piece is (I hope) unambiguously factual.

    More than anything I’m dying to read all the other entries in the longlist, and I hope the Lifted Brow will publish more than just the winner.

    • February 19, 2015 4:06 pm

      Thanks Harry for explaining your understanding and your experimental approach in your piece. I suspect you are right about keeping it vague. In a way, if you define what’s experimental then it probably isn’t experimental!

      I hope they publish more than the winner too.

      I know what you mean about experimental writing sometimes being cold. I didn’t find that, for example, with Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half formed thing, but I did think Eleanor Catton’s structure for The luminaries got in the way. I didn’t find it “cold” exactly, though some did, but I did find it lost its way so that I wasn’t comfortable that I understood her “meaning” in the end.

      BTW I read a few posts on your blog and send the link to one post to my daughter who loved the piece. I can see why Dorothy Johnson likes your writing.

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