In his book on the work of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman (The Novel as Performance (1986)), Jerzy Kutnik comments:
The rise of Action Painting, the Happening, The Living Theatre, John Cage's experimental music and Charles Olson's "projective verse," to name only a few examples of performance-oriented works of the 1950s and 1960s, forced many aestheticians to review the underlying assumptions of classic aesthetics. Performance was now seen as a category which could be made relevant to all art forms. Indeed, for the postmodern artist, performance was shown to be an essential element of all creative activity, a fundamental value in itself, an indispensable, even unavoidable, ingredient of the work of art.
But it should also be noted that performance is not something that, as a result of certain historical developments, was added as a new element in the creative process, for it had always been there, though ignored or suppressed. What was added, rather, was the awareness that all art is always performatory, that it not so much says something about reality, but, by its occurence and presence, does something as a reality in its own right. . . .
Although I am working on a longer post about Federman's fiction that will appear shortly and that will return to what Kutznick says here, I would like to more briefly discuss the implications of Kutznick's point as it applies generally to both "experimental" fiction and to the "aesthetic" approach to fiction as a whole that I pursue on this blog.
Federman is a writer who directly and self-consciously engages in a "performance" strategy--anyone who picks up Double or Nothing or Take It or Leave It will immediately encounter Federman's notational performance as his text spreads itself across and down the page in seemingly (but not actually) chaotic arrangements--but ultimately his work forces us (or should force us) to consider the extent to which the writing of fiction and poetry is always, as Kutznick points out, about doing rather than saying. While few fiction writers play around with "text" as explicitly as Federman (or Sukenick), poets have certainly always done so; thus, what Kutznick is really getting at is that the work of writers like Federman insists that fiction as well be a mode in which the writer "does something as a reality."
The great majority of literary fiction is overwhelmingly dedicated to the task of saying something. This is why the great majority of literary fiction is not worth reading. Not only do most writers of such fiction have very little to say in the first place--the "theme" of most literary novels can usually be reduced to platitudes--but whatever "performance" that is involved in the use of the elements of fiction is dull and familiar, at best focused on forwarding the theme most expeditiously. Much experimental fiction is also dull and familiar, reworkings of previous, and better, performances of other experimentalists. However, the departures from the norm to be found in even the most perfunctory experimental fiction does at least continue to remind us that it is possible to conceive of fiction as a practice in which form and language are malleable, the medium through which the writer may offer a fresh and distinctive performance.
Even from within the confines of conventional practices it is possible to write fiction that is more doing than saying. The enactment of point of view and narrative structure affords ample opportunities for "performance-oriented work," and the best fiction has always taken advantage of these opportunities. Style also can be an "ingredient" in the performance of literary art, as long as style is regarded as something other than, something beyond, "pretty writing" of the usual kind. Unfortunately, most attempts to manipulate these elements that I read (or start to read) are again usually carried out in the name of more colorfully reinforcing theme, not as a performance seeking out its own limits or capable of sustaining interest in and of itself.
As Larry McCaffery puts it in his foreword to Kutznick's book, writers like Sukenick and Federman (and, I might add, Gilbert Sorrentino and Stephen Dixon and David Foster Wallace, to name only three) show us that the most challenging fiction "seeks to be an experience for its own sake." This is precisely what John Dewey, the foremost proponent of "art as experience," had in mind when he extolled the achievement of "adventurous" art. Like all other such art, adventurous fiction enhances experience by encouraging us to attend more closely to performance, in the best cases a performance unlike any we've experienced before.