Want to expand your reading horizons, but worried you aren't enough of a ~literary~ reader? Never fear, because there are plenty of experimental novels that aren't hard to read, which means you'll be reading the writer's writers in no time.
Now, I know that by promoting books that aren't difficult to read, I'm going to draw the ire of at least one self-appointed, literary gatekeeper, who will insist that people who can't suffer through [insert favorite dead white man here] shouldn't bother reading any adult books at all. Folks, I'm here to tell you that that's a bunch of ... well, a very non-literary word.
It's like the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal told John Green: "for stories to work, readers and writers must both be generous." That means readers must turn pages with an open mind, and writers must craft books that are "not trying to wow or impress," but that are gifts for the reader to enjoy. Some readers can read big-L Literature and be generous, but just because a small number of people — and yes, many writer's writers are writing for a very limited audience — can enjoy a book does not necessarily mean that the writer is being generous.
I read a lot of literary fiction, and I enjoy experimental writing, but I've hit a wall with my fair share of these. When I feel that a writer isn't being generous with me, when it seems that they have deliberately obfuscated their meaning in order to weed out the less worthy, I check out. Goodbye, needlessly muddied novel, I hardly knew ye.
If you're looking to expand your reading pool with a little toe-dip into experimental fiction, the novels below are the perfect and not-too-intimidating jumping-off point. Check out my recommendations below, and share your favorite experimental novels with me on Twitter!
1'Ella Minnow Pea' by Mark Dunn
In the tradition of Gadsby, Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea uses fewer and fewer letters as the story progresses. In the fictional Nollop, South Carolina, an aging memorial dictates what letters the residents may use. As letters fall from the statue's inscription — The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. — the town council demands that those letters be outlawed.
2'Dear Committee Members' by Julie Schumacher
Dear Committee Members is told through a series of recommendation letters one English professor is commissioned to write over the course of a year. Once upon a time, Jason Fitger was a novelist, but now he writes to employers and graduate acceptance committees on behalf of students he barely knows and former lovers he knows too intimately.
3'If on a winter's night a traveler' by Italo Calvino
Each chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler begins with a description of how you — You the reader? You someone else? You decide! — are attempting to read the novel-within-a-novel, which is also titled If on a winter's night a traveler. Each chapter concludes with the opening passages of various other novels you are reading. Italo Calvino's most famous novel is an exercise in experimental romance, and for that reason alone it should be on your TBR.
4'The Story of My Teeth' by Valeria Luiselli
Gustavo "Highway" Sánchez needs a new set of teeth, and he has a great plan to acquire them. He puts his old teeth on the auction block, passing them off as the molars and incisors of dead philosophers. When he has enough money, he buys a set of dentures supposedly crafted from Marilyn Monroe's own teeth, and the story takes a turn.
5'Flowers for Algernon' by Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon follows Charlie, a bakery worker with an intellectual disability, in the days and weeks sandwiching an experimental procedure designed to raise his intelligence. Told through Charlie's personal progress reports written for research purposes, Daniel Keyes' novel is unlike anything written before it.
6'Fever Dream' by Samanta Schweblin
As Amanda lies in an Argentinian hospital, dying of some wormy ailment, a decidedly un-childlike child named David pokes deep into her life story, pulling out streams of dialogue that drive Fever Dream's entire narrative. Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, this short novel deserves a spot on your nightstand.
7'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis
I recall reading American Psycho, realizing that Bret Easton Ellis was pulling off something in the narration, but being unable to dissect exactly how he was doing it. As a writer, that's both infuriating and awe-inspiring. Read the book about the homicidally insane Wall Street yuppie and see for yourself.
8'Atmospheric Disturbances' by Rivka Galchen
In this short novel, a psychiatrist believes that his young wife has been replaced with someone who looks, speaks, and acts exactly like her. Desperate to find out why this "impostress" has walked into his life, the doctor digs into a conspiracy involving a fringe meteorological association and his wife's home country of Argentina.
9'Invisible Monsters Remix' by Chuck Palahniuk
Originally intended as a chapter-skipping maze of fiction with secret passages, Invisible Monsters was tempered — even tamed — by the time it hit store shelves in 1999. This 2012 re-release restores Chuck Palahniuk's gritty tale to its rightful glory.
10'NW' by Zadie Smith
NW follows a group of four Londoners from the same housing project in the northwestern part of the city, shifting between their lives and narratives as the story progresses. With each POV shakeup, the writing style changes as well. At the heart of the tale lie Leah and Natalie, childhood best friends whose paths have diverged in adulthood.