Experimental Literature In The 21st Century


Nirbhay Kanoria

April 20, 2018

Experimental literature is literature that is written using innovative techniques and often presented in a way that is not considered ‘regular’. Writers have gone to great lengths and pushed their creative boundaries to achieve something that is out of the ordinary. Undoubtedly, one of the most famous examples of this is Gadsby, a 50,000-word novel, written without using the letter ‘e’. Fun fact: Why did Wright draft a book without using a common symbol in a popular lingua franca? Simply to show that if a good author wants to jot down a brilliant story, no constraint can hold him back (Did you notice I took a page from the master’s book and didn’t use the letter ‘e’?)History is dotted with similar examples of experimental literature. However, in the 21st century, writers need not rely only on prodigious skill, but can also borrow from technology to create unique styles of writing, taking the concept of experimental literature to a whole new level.
experimental literature

David Mitchell – The Right Sort

“Valium brightens colours a bit. Reds are bloodier, blues go glassy, yellows sort of sing and greens pull you under like quicksand.”
-David Mitchell

David Mitchell, the award-winning writer of Cloud Atlas decided to embrace new technology and released an entire short story on Twitter. Surprisingly, Mitchell doesn’t use Twitter often as he values his privacy. So what motivated him to release not just a few lines but an entire short story on the micro-blogging platform? The answer is simple, the medium supported the way he wanted to tell his story.

(David Mitchell, via Esquire)
Set in 1978, The Right Sort features a central character who takes one of his mother’s Valium pills. As a result, all his thoughts are short and sporadic, connected while seemingly disconnected. Each of these thoughts was represented by a Tweet and Mitchell released approximately 20 Tweets every day spread over a period of seven days. The thoughts collectively formed a short story with a narrative. The use of Twitter to release this story was well-thought out and not done for the sake of gimmickry. If he had published this story in a book, readers would have to read the ‘thoughts’ in one go, and not as random bursts the way Mitchell intended, similar to the way thoughts come to us. The impact of the story would end up being very different. Twitter itself started off as a platform to share random thoughts, and Mitchell’s brilliance is evident as he managed to merge Twitter’s original purpose and his writing to form a unique storytelling style. This is a classic case of technology supporting a new form of writing.

Interestingly, Mitchell isn’t the only author to have used Twitter as a medium to release a book. Award-winning authors such as Jennifer Egan and Philipa Gregory have incorporated Twitter as a storytelling tool for their books.

Austin Kleon – Newspaper Blackout

“No one is going to rescue us but us.”
-Austin Kleon, Hope (2017)

Not many people would think of converting their morning newspaper into a poem or using it to tell stories. But writer Austin Kleon recognised the potential that newspapers bring with their many words, quite literally, to create stories. He ‘wrote’ a book, a collection of poems if you will, with stories created by blacking out most words in a given newspaper article. Kleon refers to himself as a ‘writer with a design sensibility’. Initially, he released a few poems on his blog, and after he gained some fame, Harper Collins approached him to release them as a poetry book. Had Kleon not had a popular blog, it is unlikely that Harper Collins would have paid his work any attention, and it is quite possible that Kleon’s brilliant work would remain obscure.

(Newspaper Blackout, via Austin Kleon)
Since he redacts from newspapers, Kleon is working with constraints, and that challenge makes his work even more interesting and creative. He has virtually created a new genre of writing, one which many are now adopting. The companion blog to his book also allows readers to create their own poems using the blackout technique and submit them on the website. The poems are uploaded after Kleon approves them. It is interesting that the challenge here is to create poetry not by stringing together words, but by recognising a poem trapped between superfluous words, taking the concept of ‘read between the lines’ to a whole new level.

Rupi Kaur – milk and honey

loneliness is a sign

you are in desperate

need of yourself |

-Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur came into the limelight around 2014 and made a smashing debut appearance at Jaipur Literature Festival in 2018. Paraphrasing her words, she realised she had a talent that the word needed to know, but publishers did not seem to think so. She took matters into her own hands and started showcasing her poetry through Instagram, and went on to become the world’s first famous ‘instapoet’. As of April 2018, she has over 2.5 million followers on Instagram and many young women around the world see her as an inspiration- as someone who can tackle matters such as menstruation, sex, self-identity, and race through beautifully crafted, and accessible words. Her debut novel, milk and honey (intentionally in small case as a homage to her ancestral language, Gurmukhi), has sold over a million copies.

(milk and honey by Rupi Kaur, via DUbeat)
It is interesting that when she started off writing her poetry, Kaur wanted to publish her entire book as one long poem, and not as individual pieces because she felt they would come across as incomplete, but publishers wanted to pick and choose what they liked, so left with no option she chose to self-publish. Subsequently, and rather ironically,  she went on the gain fame through her Instagram channel, where she was presenting different parts of her poem as individual poems and not as one long poem. Kaur’s poems are quite different from the poems of Wordsworth and Blake, which many of us have grown up studying; they are short, they do not follow a traditional structure, and almost merge Gurmukhi and English, in their use of only lower case and a period represented by a | and not the usual dot.

Rupi Kaur’s story is inspiring, and it shows that in today’s technologically- advanced world, powerful and interesting poetry doesn’t need the traditional publisher or middleman to gain literary fame.

Neil Gaiman – A Calendar Of Tales

What is the weirdest gift you’ve ever been given in May?

An anonymous Mother’s Day gift. Think about that for a moment.

In February 2013, Gaiman decided to incorporate readers into the writing process of his new book – A Calendar of Tales. In collaboration with Blackberry, Gaiman released 12 prompts on Twitter, each prompt related to a month. The questions covered a wide range of subjects- from deep topics such as happiness and loss, to more fun ones like strange events people had witnessed and mythical creatures they’d like to meet. Gaiman chose 12 winning entries and wrote a short story around each one. Once the stories were written, he invited illustrators to send artwork based on the stories and chose 12 winning pieces of art to accompany the respective story. Each illustration was unique and followed a different style, thereby making the collection of short stories even more interesting to read.

(Neil Gaiman, via Neil Gaiman)
By making his readers a part of his writing process, he made them far more invested in his work. He also made the writing process more challenging for himself as he had to follow someone else’s ‘theme’ and not his own- he had to create a story he hadn’t necessarily intended to or wanted to write. As a writer, it was interesting for him to challenge himself. As for the reader, he was able to participate in the creation process of an established, which was exciting.


Thus we see technology, social media, and the internet have created new avenues and media to tell exciting new stories. If a platform is used intelligently, it makes for a novel storytelling experience from the readers’ perspective. Technology has taken over many aspects of our lives and reading is no different. Experimental literature too has undergone a change and authors have many avenues through which they can express their creativity. We are living in an exciting time, where authors and readers alike, should be open to new forms of writing- to look beyond books published on paper- to be open to an experience they may not have had before.