Scott Esposito describes this dilemma about as succinctly as it can be:
To a certain extent, however, doesn't innovation require that a book is actually read? It's all well and good if, say, 100 readers and writers collectively are at the forefront of literary innovation, but what is their work really worth if no one knows it exists? I'm all for authors snubbing the marketplace and coming up with great books that are like nothing I've read before. However, it seems to me that if their work is going to be meaningful in terms of changing the way novels are thought of, at some point readers and writers of experimental fiction need to bridge the gap to a mainstream audience.
I'm with Scott on this right up to those last words about bridging the gap to a "mainstream audience." Experimental fiction will never appeal to a "mainstream" audience. The very notion of the mainstream requires that there be practices that just don't belong there, that won't ever make their way to the center of the stream and will always be marginal to it, if not flowing in a different direction altogether. Attempting to take experimental fiction mainstream would only, in effect, cancel out its usefulness.
Of course some experiments in fiction eventually do make it to the mainstream, but usually only after great initial resistance and after enough time has passed that such experiments don't seem all that radical, indeed, seem to have always been among the writer's repertoire of available tricks. Modernist "stream of consciousness" now seems so unexeptional that a critic like James Wood can use it as a stick with which to thrash the postmodernists in an essentially conservative rearguard action, for example.
However, all fiction, even the most outrageously "innovative," does indeed need readers. More readers is better than fewer. However, they need to be the sort of readers for whom innovation in fiction is not just something to be occasionally tolerated, at best, but for whom experiment seems one of the indispensable tests of literature's vitality. Unfortunately, most readers seem to prefer the familiar and the conventional, and, in my opinion, it doesn't accomplish much to insist that these readers change their silly habits and read Beckett or Gaddis instead. This only produces backlash, something often enough inflicted on innovative fiction as it is. The readers who really value experimental fiction will keep it alive until additional interested readers--perhaps a generation later--seek it out. Beckett's fiction is an example. It's only just beginning to be appreciated.
What experimental fiction could use would be more sensitive readers among literary critics, critics who could do something useful toward "changing the way novels are thought of." (And I must say that I am seeing such sensitivity in a number of literary bloggers, among them Scott Esposito, another indication that litblogs may themselves manage to provide that "bridge" Scott speaks of.) Such critics would, ideally, not only make sure that potential readers of experimental fiction "know it exists," but would also attempt to explain why experimental fiction is not an aberration from or exception to literary history, but an inseparable part of that history. In other words, critics who see the value in experimental fiction would find ways to explain that they do so not out of contempt for the accomplishments of literature taken as a whole but from an understanding of them and a fundamental respect for what literature is capable of accomplishing. They would say of experimental fiction something like what Ron Silliman says of "language poetry," which is sometimes considered a wholesale rejection of the "poetic" tradition: "Langpo in this sense was hardly a break with anything. Rather, it was a selective re-envisioning of literary history – and possibility – bringing forward aspects of several tendencies, arriving (hopefully) at a new intersection not as any end point, but rather as an additional jumping-off place for still further, newer modes of art."