In the late 1960s and early 1970s an emerging group of American novelists took up the notion that, since "no meaning preexists language but [that, rather] meaning is produced in the process of writing (and reading)," their new fiction would not "attempt to be meaningful, truthful, or realistic" according to any traditional models; it would not "attempt to serve as the vehicle for ready-made meaning" (Federman 13). What it would attempt to do in pursuit of its beliefs, among other things, would be to elevate its typographical and grammatical media so that the "traditional, conventional, fixed, and boring method of reading a book...[would] be questioned, challenged, demolished" (Federman 9) and new possibilities of expression, discursive and typographical, would be created. The results, among others? Raymond Federman's Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It; Ronald Sukenick's Out, 98.6, and Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues; Madeline Gins's Word Rain; and Steve Katz's The Exagggerations of Peter Prince.
Given this innovative writing's tendency to elevate its media, attention given to it has typically focused on its forms. A primary past assumption has been, in fact, that as surfiction explores its own parts and processes, it functions as an "autonomous and autotelic [object], a law unto itself and an end in itself" (Walsh 3). Surfiction's unconventional manipulation of language was understood to collapse the "distinction between representation and the real, or the perceived immanence of the latter in the former" (Walsh 10). Since it does not pay attention, in other words, to the "language of fiction as medium," such arguments claimed that "in it linguistic representation becomes meaningless and fiction is to be appreciated as a mute object" (Walsh 10). The text, it seems, becomes concrete art, its voice choked off.
Of late, critics have rightly taken issue with this view. Richard Walsh, for his part, thinks that this too-single-minded understanding of surfiction's manipulation of form leads us to disregard this innovative fiction's very clear attempts to use non-representational language to "serve the ends of engagement" (11). Rather, and Walsh draws on Sukenick and Federman specifically in support of his claim, "the point of this attempt to collapse the dichotomy between language and reality, leaving fiction as pure event, [is] not to escape reality" but language as it has typically been known; the idea is to exploit the opportunity for different presentation of experience that unconventional language structure and use appear to offer (11). Surfictional improvisations that rewrite the forms through which they gain voice might be unintelligible, but not mute. They might chatter in a foreign tongue, that is, that one can have no fixed way to translate, or even access, but this does not mean that they do not speak. Bjorsq >1
But it even overstates the case to claim that surfictional manipulations of typographical and grammatical media produce unintelligible results. In most cases, such efforts can be quite intelligible, particularly when read in relation to the narratives surrounding them. Ronald Sukenick's formal/ typographical experiments, in fact, frequently complement the narratives to which they are immanent - telling the narratives' stories in formal and visual ways. And too, as they work together, the formal disruptions on the page and their surrounding narratives perform theoretical arguments about the nature of narrative, discourse, and the cultures they inhabit/construct.