In his essay "New Novel, New Man," from For a New Novel, Alain Robbe-Grillet defends the "New Novel" against some of the main criticisms directed at it (and at Robbe-Grillet's previous defenses of the practice). Among those criticisms was the charge that the New Novelists devalued the past, or, as Robbe-Grillet put it, that they "made a tabula rasa of the past." Robbe-Grillet replies that this charge can only itself proceed from an incomplete appreciation of the history of fiction:
Not only has the development been considerable since the middle of the nineteenth century, but it began immediately, in Balzac's own period. Did not Balzac already note the "confusion" in the descriptions of The Charterhouse of Parma? It is obvious that the Battle of Waterloo, as described by Stendhal, no longer belongs to the Balzacian order.
And, since then, the evolution has become increasingly evident: Flaubert, Dostoevski, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett. . .Far from making a tabula rasa of the past, we have most readily reached an agreement on the names of our predecessors; and our ambition is merely to continue them. Not to do better, which has no meaning, but to situate ourselves in their wake, in our own time.
Robbe-Grillet has himself, of course, now become one of those "names," one of the predecessors in whose wake writers inspired by his adventurousness might wish to "situate" themselves. But his account of the impulse behind experiment in fiction-the New Novel being a very prominent variety of experimental fiction in the post World War II era--is still compelling and goes some way toward clearing up a confusion about what motivates the best experimental writers.
Such writers do not consider themselves or their work either as cut off from the flow of literary history or as actively hostile to the acccomplishments of the past. Indeed, as Robbe-Grillet points out, they are likely to see the history of fiction as itself a history of innovation and the greatest writers as the greatest innovators. Experimental writers such as John Barth or Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover saw themselves as continuing the adventurous spirit embodied in their esteemed predecessors (Borges for Barth, for example, the surrealists for Barthelme) and Barth, for one, reached back for inspiration all the way to the beginnings of the novel for his first foray into "experimental" fiction, The Sot-Weed Factor. I'm certain that most younger experimental writers similarly look to the past for innovative touchstones, including the work of Barth, Barthelme, and Coover.
Those who don't risk producing fictions that seem merely eccentric, idiosyncratic, unattached to the historical tradition that itself represents a "development" of a form without "strict and definitive rules" and that proceeds through challenges to "order." Experimental fiction that seeks to be perceived as irrevocably "other" implicitly does regard the history of fiction as without notable predecessors and its writer does suggest he/she can "do better" than Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, et al. (or better than Balzac, for that matter). Absent this tradition, such doing better would, as Robbe-Grillet reminds us, have "no meaning."