Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guest in Progress: Richard Peabody's Reading List of Experimental Fiction

Last week's post about reading lists brought Richard Peabody to my email door.

The chances are that if you’re a writer living in the DC area, you already know Richard—or will meet him soon!—because he’s such an essential part of the DC literary scene that it’s impossible not to cross paths with him either personally or in cyberspace. (He has nearly 2000 Facebook friends.) Founder of the wonderful and long-lived journal Gargoyle and the editor of many fine anthologies (see below for details), he’s also a wonderful writer and a gifted teacher. He’s smart and funny and generous and deeply passionate about books.

Anyway…his email alluded to the comment in my post about “books every writer simply should read” and said that for fun, he was sending me his list of books that would fall into that category. Great, I thought, maybe I can post it on my blog, and I opened the attachment.

The list was 25 pages long.

Truly, this was one of the most amazing lists I’ve ever seen, but it was too long to post (though I'm most definitely hanging onto this amazing resource!).

So my self-interest started churning: My knowledge of experimental literature is lacking, and maybe I could get him to cull out a few titles that I might add to my 2010 reading list (which, at the moment, is composed of Moby-Dick). Richard knows the field from top to bottom, past and present, and he teaches a very popular workshop in experimental fiction at Johns Hopkins. So I invited him to come up with the 12-15 titles he would recommend to someone like me, who wants to learn more about what’s being done out there. Here’s what he came up with, another equally amazing and wonderfully annotated list:

I (Heart) Laurence Sterne
By Richard Peabody

My job is to seduce you to the dark side of fiction writing, where as the bumper stickers say, “We have Cookies.” A mischievous mysterious place otherwise known as avant-garde, Post modern, meta fiction, magical realism, PoMo, surreal, whacked out, or the all encompassing moniker “that weird shit.”

Leslie was generous with her Blog but keeping this to 15 or so titles is nearly impossible for a list-maker like me. So I’m cheating by adding the required texts for my Experimental Writing Workshop at Johns Hopkins from this past fall:

J. Austen & S. Grahame Smith –Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

P. Geyh, F.G. Leebron & A. Levy –Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology

Cris Mazza & J. DeShell – Chick-Lit: PostFeminist Fiction

Cris Mazza, J. DeShell & E. Sheffield—Chick-Lit #2: No Chick Vics

Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan—ParaSpheres 1: Extending Beyond the Spheres of
Literary and Genre Fiction.
(ParaSpheres #2 is due out any second)

David Young & K. Hollaman—Magical Realist Fiction

The Young gives you a decent historical grounding in both the Euro and Latin American traditions. The Norton gives you a broad survey of the US scene since the 60s with William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker and the SciFi of Samuel Delaney, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, while Chick-Lit and ParaSpheres bring you up to speed to the right now. And love it or hate it, what S. Grahame Smith did to poor Jane Austen is legal (you, too, can write though any work in the public domain, as the LANGUAGE poets have been doing for eons) and has created an odd boom of off-the-wall works as writers scramble to add zombies to Huckleberry Finn, War of the Worlds, The Wizard of Oz, and so on. Smith’s work in progress is Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

I would also add an interesting book on how to write experimental fiction. Lance Olsen—Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing. Part interviews, part assignments with examples. Olsen is a master writer and thinker.

And for those with an interest in the history of women writing extreme fiction do find a copy of E.G. Frideman & M. Fuchs –Breaking the Sequence—Women’s Experimental Fiction, which gives an overview on the women who were pioneers including Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.

My picks for a quick dip into the Experimental oceans in the Aughts race beyond the snippets by the masters in the above anthologies and would be the following:

Flann O’Brien – At Swim-Two-Birds
Who can resists a novel about a man writing a novel about a man writing a novel whose characters come alive when he sleeps and rewrite everything?

Jeanette Winterson—The Passion
One of Winterson’s irresistible books from early on in what has become a splendid career. She’s a true original. Part history, part collage, and always fun. And the musical language!

Kurt Vonnegut—Breakfast of Champions
Everybody has their own faves. When the author enters a scene in this book and breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader my young mind was blown.

Donald Barthelme –Sixty Stories

Barthelme was one of the reasons people read The New Yorker in the 60’s. His stories exist sans arc. They’re flat from beginning to end and endlessly fascinating. Like Charles Addams on acid.

Juan Rios – Loves That Bind
A Spanish writer who is as inventive as he is talented. Twenty-six letters to 26 women. Each is a literary character from another author’s work. Each chapter in the style of the existing novel. D is Daisy. L is Lolita. Z is Zazie. Can you figure them all out?

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Mitchell wiped out everybody with this one. A frolic through time and space and identity. Critics compare him to Philip K. Dick, Umberto Eco, and Haruki Murakami. Michael Chabon calls it, “The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book. . . .”

Octavia Butler—Bloodchild and Other Stories
Buy it for the title story alone. Butler always investigated race and sexuality and the idea of male pregnancy at the whim of another species is way out.

Mark Z. Danielewski--House of Leaves
A self-published ghost story about a haunted house with all sorts of odd typography, different colors of ink, drawings, that gathered such a following that a major house picked it up and reproduced it. Not for the faint of heart.

Eurydice – f/32
What happens when a woman is disassociated from her vagina, which runs off on its own adventures?

Kelly Link –Pretty Monsters
Absolutely one of the cleverest writers out there right now. She runs her own litmag and small press (with her husband) and writes stories that you will never forget. She’s like the second coming of Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and all of those other Twilight Zone staffers, with a big dose of James Tiptree thrown in for spice.

Jasper Fforde—The Eyre Affair
Sort of Monty Python meets Douglas Adams meets LitCrit 101. Thursday Next, a Special Operative in literary detection, has to enter into the text of Bronte’s novel to find the absent Jane Eyre. Loads of fun. And there are sequels.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon—Paris out of hand (a wayward guide)
A completely invented guidebook to Paris, which is still somehow an emotionally connected tribute to all things Parisian.

Katherine Dunn—Geek Love
There are always rumors that this will be a movie someday but I have no idea how anybody could film it. Terry Gilliam? Maybe? I wish Dunn would write another novel but how to top this? The ultimate weird circus.

Ted Mooney—Easy Travel to Other Planets
Infamous for a scene in which a woman makes it with a porpoise but so much more than that. An alternate earth where things are coming apart.

Gilbert Sorrentino—Mulligan’s Stew
A tribute to all things James Joyce which begins with Sorrentino’s rejection letters from editors and publishers for the novel. Characters are grabbed from Dashiell Hammett and Joyce and swirled together into a brand new confection.

Hope these tickle your fancy.

But what about Borges, Calvino, Cortrazar, Garcia-Marquez, Grass, Pynchon, Keri Hulme, Rushdie? And how to resist Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector, told from the POV of a 5,000-year-old Sumerian pot?

Ahh. So many books out there. The above is tonight’s list. Try me tomorrow and it’ll be something completely different. ~~Richard Peabody

About: Richard Peabody wears many literary hats. He is editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976), has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited or co-edited eighteen anthologies including: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Mondo Marilyn, Mondo James Dean, Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis, and Wonderland, Sex & Chocolate: Tasty Morsels for Mind and Body, Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix and Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women. Peabody teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. You can find out more at and


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.