Podcast: The British Experimental Novelists of the 1960s; A Forgotten Avant Garde
In April 2015, Joseph Darlington gave a talk on ‘The British Experimental Novelists of the 1960s; A Forgotten Avant Garde’ at the Ragged University in Manchester. He and Anne Fernie organised it and shared their knowledge in Gulliver’s – a great pub on Oldham Street in the Northern Quarter.
He introduced a history of the life and times of four writers – B.S. Johnson, Eva Figes, Alan Burns, and Ann Quin – and how their close allegiance has, until now, gone unrecognised by literary scholars. He examined how each member of this group broke new ground in their works and painted a picture of their iconoclastic experiments in form which resulted in books being published unbound, some cut apart and stuck back together, some merely transcripts of audio tapes, and other eyecatching and unusual approaches to remaking the novel form.
These writers shared a philosophy of the group and Joe has pieced this together through his extensive researches on the correspondences, unpublished works, notebooks and other archive materials; some of which has still not been made publically available.
Their belief in the power of the book as a material object to change readers’ perceptions, human consciousness and the foundations of society plays a central role in the experimentalism that they undertook as individuals, and as an intriguing group. Joe leads us into new territory as he provokes thought about how this philosophy of the physical book might inspire us as readers in the age of the ebook.
Introduction to his talk:
The 1960s in Britain are popularly feted as a time of tumultuous cultural change. Popular music spurred youth rebellion, theatre and performance art pushed the boundaries of taste, the counterculture set out to raise universal consciousness and the Establishment was under siege on all sides. Yet, amidst this cacophony, the literary mainstream and even its supposedly “high cultural” elite were stuck in their old, traditionalist ways.
Avant garde literature was, according to them, something of the past, with the only worthwhile new writing either emerging from America and France, or else retreading the tried-and-tested formulas in Britain.
Other than a few major figures like Doris Lessing or Anthony Burgess who dabbled in the unusual, one would be forgiven for thinking that no British literary avant garde existed in the 1960s. However, there was one group in particular, at its heart the four figures of B.S. Johnson, Eva Figes, Alan Burns and Ann Quin, whose work was shocking in its inventiveness, brutal in its honesty and still eminently readable.
From lower middle-class and working class backgrounds, their work was snobbishly derided as an exercise in “experimental” novelty and never received any more than cult acclaim. Now, nearly half a century after they were first published, these forgotten novels are beginning to be read again and the writers are gathering growing numbers of new followers.
Until now, each writer has only ever been considered individually, as a lone eccentric in the world of literature. Newly available archive holdings accessed by the speaker of the course of four years research tell a different tale, however. These four writers were in fact close friends who presented events together, campaigned together politically, and even wrote together on occasion.
Their diaries, notebooks and correspondence reveal a shared philosophy which saw innovations in the novel form as a way of changing the world and bringing on a revolution in consciousness. This lecture will tell the story of how this group came to meet, how they joined together on “a campaign for the good stuff”, how they went about “writing as though it mattered”, and how their brief dream came to a sad end. It argues that, in the age of the e-reader, these writers’ experiments with the physical book have a lot to remind us about the power of the printed page which today is threatened to be forgotten.
About Joseph Darlington:
Joe is a part-time lecturer working at the University of Salford and Futureworks Media School. The subject of the talk emerges from research gathered for his PhD, awarded in March 2014, and will – hopefully – appear in book form before too long. His research has been published in academic journals including Textual Practice and The Journal of European Studies. He received a 2013 Harry Ransom Centre Fellowship for his work on Christine Brooke-Rose and is co-editor of BSJ: The B.S. Johnson Journal.
The B.S. Johnson society webpage (http://bsjohnson.org/) offers up-to-date information on the writer, his works, and any media coverage he receives – membership of the society is currently free of charge and the journal is always looking for contributors. The Ann Quin blog is less active but no less passionate about its subject (http://annquin.com/), it’s writer – Nonia Williams – is happy to offer her advice on tracking down Quin-related materials. There is also an Ann Quin facebook page which is rather eccentric, but nevertheless informative.
Website – https://salford.academia.edu/JosefDarlington
Public Email – [email protected]
Academic Email – [email protected]