02/14/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2012

Literature as an Experiment

Literary criticism is full of definitions of what literature is, and how it functions within its own and our existence. An interesting way I appreciate literature is as an experiment. The formulation of thoughts, and then the re-formulation of time present influential insights that have changed perceptions in ways only a community of history can develop. To say that literature is an experiment, not to be overly scientific, is to identify the practice of making observations, recording them, and then forming conclusions from argumentation. This a common practice when dealing with works of literary merit whenever a scholar or Dutch treat book club makes an assertion about a text. Someone is bound to ask, why do you think that? (even if they are not interested in the answer). Literature as an experiment, though, is meant to lighten the mood that allows for failure as part of a process of exploration. It is meant to free the mind from the restraints of what has been taught and what is expected. Simply, it is a way to intensely investigate a work while enjoying it apart from judgment whether from others or ourselves.

The desire to see literature in this way comes from the need to approach text with an invigorating sense of intellectual freedom. Think of it as a student sitting in class. A common prescription to literature is to understand the form, devices, and rhetoric in order to unlock the meaning from the words. Literature on this level can be very useful in exploring the complexities of the art form, but to start we should allow a more creative thought process. Literature as an experiment engages both the reader and the text in an equal synthesis of interpretation. In this sense, literature becomes an experience, which experimentation must be used to understand it.

An easy way to view this concept is from the reader's perspective. Reading should inspire as much creativity as the writer writing the piece. In the highest realm of the form, literature creates a sense of dialog within the mind as the plot unfolds. It should manifest itself in a way that should remind the reader that he or she is thinking, is reading, is alive. Inspirations from the experience can be as abstract as an emotion, or as analytical as a calculation. These thoughts should be presented as observations, and from them should develop a hypothesis. The reader's hypothesis is then evaluated by a series of test that should justify the conclusion. This process may seem overly mechanical for the casual reader, but it is a process that already happens as a person is actively reading. In the solitary method, justification is of oneself. In an reading community, justification must be met by reading peers. In either case, like all experimentation, the process can be repeated over and over again. Knowledge is never finite, and literature for the creative reader is never docile.

For the writer of the text, or the text itself, literature (in this view) is a process that shows an idea through the mechanics of a story, or poem. These techniques are the writer's lab, where they can create, invent, and edit. Sure there is the sense that a writer might try something new and then get rejected by a publisher, but the true experimentation is the active writing that takes place. Active writing is the creation of a draft that engages thoughts in a process which test life through experimenting in the form. The form in this case is language. A writer experiments with the tools of language to observe and hypothesize in order to justify an interpretive conclusion. The text in itself is not only a representation of the experiment, but it is the experiment. The text actively works on the reader distilling observations and conclusions to be replicated by the reader.

At both ends, active reading and active writing experiment toward interpretation. It is this interpretation that is literature. In a single work, the common interpretation could change over time because the experiment of a text is repeated that allows for different conclusions. It is not that the answer is ever changing, but simply being constantly redefined. Literature should be freed to explore in the experiment in the mind of the collective soul.