Returning to the Lost Avant Garde Writers by Joseph Darlington
Back in 2015 I gave a Ragged University talk on the subject of “The Lost Avant Garde Writers”. It’s the work of a young researcher – I admit that I’m a touch embarrassed by it now – but I believe I got across the gist of the movement, what it represented, and my own passion for it.
At the time I had just completed a PhD on the subject. Now, six years later, I am finally releasing a book.
Over the years I have been approached by quite a few researchers and PhD students who tell me that they have watched the lecture. Some have even gone on to read my PhD thesis as a result.
With that in mind, I wanted to take this opportunity to revisit the “Lost Avant Garde Writers” (who I have since re-christened “The Experimentalists”). Firstly, to bring up to date our understanding of the field – they’re not so “lost” anymore – and then to offer my recommendations for the Top 5 Experimentalist Novels for those interested in understanding the movement.
For those interested in the novels themselves, feel free to skip to the next section!
The Story So Far
When I started researching these writers, back in 2010, there was a lot of general interest in the area but not much in the way of hard sources.
Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson came out in 2004 and kick-started the re-emergence of these writers from obscurity. Coe, a brilliant novelist in his own right, engaged with Johnson in exactly the manner he required: as a larger-than-life character; a heroic failure.
My own PhD supervisor Glyn White had written a book exploring the techniques of 1960s experimental writers and, alongside Phil Tew, represented the first generation of academics to treat these writers seriously. Their co-edited collection on Johnson is still a classic in the field.
I wrote and published my own papers on Johnson at this time, and was a founding editor of BSJ: The B.S. Johnson Journal. We brought out three issues of BSJ, but ran out of material half-way through issue 4.
One of the issues with Johnson was that, despite his books being excellent and his life story fascinating, he was not a methodical thinker. His famous pronouncements are all sweeping gestures: “telling stories is telling lies”, “you must write as though it mattered, as though you mean it to matter”, “you shouldn’t be writing books, you should be bloody out there doing something about it!”
He is a romantic figure. But academia is allergic to romantic figures. After a few papers had applied the usual poststructuralist theory to his work, the well ran dry.
After Johnson came the rediscovery of Ann Quin. Interestingly, this was not driven by a new biography or study of the author (Robert Buckeye’s Re: Quin (2013) was the closest to this, but was very short, offered no new research, and painted Quin rather unflatteringly as a type of rock’n’roll suicide).
It was the reissue of Quin’s books by the Dalkey Archive Press that drove the initial interest. They have subsequently been reissued again by & Other Stories. There is a tremendous amount of interest in Quin’s writing, and books about this magical and mercurial writer have been promised by UEA’s Nonia Williams and Jennifer Hodgson, compiler of the collection The Unmapped Country.
In the past couple of years, academics have started to deal with the Experimentalists as a group. Francis Booth attempted this back in 2012 with Amongst Those Left, but, clearly over-faced by the massiveness of the task, his 750-page behemoth of a book reads more like an encyclopaedia than a study. It’s an excellent resource, but one that favours quantity over quality; every experimental writer from the 1950s to the 1980s makes an appearance, with dozens and dozens of bios and bibliographies to please the hardcore book collector.
Andrew Hodgson’s The Post-War Experimental Novel (2019), Adam Guy’s The Nouveau Roman and Writing in Britain After Modernism (2019) and Julia Jordan’s Late Modernism and the Avant-Garde British Novel (2020) are the first full-length studies engaging with the movement as a whole. These coincide with academic essay collections from Williams & Mitchell (2019) and Van Hove & Radford (2021) – I’m in both! With all of this interest, it’s safe to confirm that the experimental writers of the 1960s are well and truly no longer “lost”.
The one thing that at I believe is missing, and that I hope will be provided in the form of my own book, The Experimentalists, is a sense of the group’s collective biography. Like the Beats in New York, the Lost Generation in Paris, or the Romantic Poets wandering around the Lake District, these writers are best understood as products of a specific time and place. In this case: 1960s London. They fit right in there.
By placing them in the midst of a Swinging Scene, as a sixties writer might put it, I trace connections between these previously unknown writers and their better-known friends and colleagues. Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs; they all knew and moved in the same circles as the experimentalists.
The art world, fashion, music – the new craze for sci-fi magazines – all had their impacts shaping these writer’s work. Towards the end, politics too makes an appearance, and even the threat of domestic terrorism (a subject I’ve written about at length in another book).
The Experimentalists in 5 Novels
These were hundreds of experimental novels published in the 1960s – enough to keep me busy for over a decade – and among those are many forgotten masterpieces (and a lot of rubbish as well).
My intention with this list is therefore to provide a starting point for those who might be interested in the movement, who would like an indicative sample of the best it has to offer.
As such, my Top 5 Experimentalist Novels is picked not just for quality’s sake, but also to give a sense of chronological progression: what the movement was like in its early, high and late phases.
B.S. Johnson, Albert Angelo (1964)
B.S. Johnson was the loudest and the most outspoken of the British experimental writers. His first novel, Travelling People (1963), borrows techniques from Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Beowulf, Chaucer and Virginia Woolf but it’s only in his second, Albert Angelo, when the ingredients come together to form something totally new.
The story of a substitute teacher with a passion for creating imaginary architecture, Johnson cuts between his own recollections of life in the classroom and his increasingly strained metaphor for creativity until, at the novel’s climax, he cries out “OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING!”
We are then treated to pages of capitalised invective as Johnson desperately tries to connect with the reader – “what I’m talking about is writing, not all this stuff about architecture” – all the while, perhaps unintentionally, revealing the most compelling character in his fiction to be him, Johnson himself.
1964 is the year when experimentalism first finds its own voice, and Albert Angelo is a striking summation of that: creative and funny, but deeply earnest in wanting to connect to the reader and to move literature forward.
Eva Figes, Winter Journey (1967)
Eva Figes is perhaps the least known of the experimentalists, but, in my estimation, perhaps their finest writer; at least in terms of pure prose. Winter Journey is one of her finest achievements.
It’s a day in the life of an old man. It’s London. It’s winter. It’s cold. He wanders through the literal mist and fog, fogged equally by clouds of memories, cloudy vision and a body and mind that threaten to betray him at each step.
It’s a short novel, but beautifully composed. Figes believed that we experienced the world through our own perceptual “grid”, and it was the job of the writer to construct new grids; ones capable of carrying us into the living bodies of others and walking around in their thoughts.
She amassed moodboards, like visual artists do, and marked out the page into quadrants before writing, believing that, with sufficient attention to word placement, she could control the pace of the reader’s eyes; forcing them to receive the scenes with an intended rhythm (one lifted from Schubert’s song cycle of the same name).
This is an excellent example of experimentalism in its heroic years; the writers still unknown but now published and undertaking ever greater explorations.
Ann Quin, Passages (1969)
The best and also the most impressionistic of Quin’s novels, Passages is a melding of prose, poetry and classical allusion themed around two lovers on a trip through the Greek islands. The narrative is patchy, but ripe with lust, jealousy, epiphany and despair.
Written in 1968, after Quin had fled Britain for a life of international travel and psychedelic exploration, the book is the finest example of the fragmented high-expressionism that predominated in the “high days and holidays” of the revolutionary late sixties.
Where a lot of fragmented experimental writing is now rather pointless – self-indulgent word-salads – Quin’s use of character, fantasy and confessional writing make Passages totally captivating, even if you aren’t exactly sure what’s going on sometimes.
Jeff Nuttall, Snipe’s Spinster (1973)
As the 1960s turned to the 1970s, the mood in Britain had gone sour. The feeling that anything could be done was replaced with the demand that something must be done.
The experimentalists were not immune to this new radicalism. Eva Figes was influential among the feminists, Johnson and Burns were active in the unions, Duffy and Brophy founded the Writer’s Action Group to campaign for writer’s pay.
By 1973 a sense of doom lingered in the air. Four of the experimentalists turned to terrorism as a subject for their novels. Hopeless but angry. Violent with despair. The best of these is Nuttall’s Snipe’s Spinster; a novella about the eponymous Snipe who sets out to kill The Man, only to be nagged at by his inner Spinster.
By turns funny and brutal, and often deeply shocking for modern tastes (the anarcho-terror group The Angry Brigade remind Snipe of “one of those jazz all-star outfits, brilliant but short-lived”), it is the most honest book of this era to deal with “revolution”.
Was it a spiritual revolution they wanted, or did they want blood? Snipe can’t work it out.
Christine Brooke-Rose, Thru (1975)
My final recommendation is more of a punishment than a pleasure. Although the majority of experimentalist writing came to an end in 1973 with the suicides of Ann Quin and B.S. Johnson, the “most experimental” book would not come out until 1975: Christine Brooke-Rose’s Thru.
Thru represents the culmination of experimentalism and the birth of the later postmodernist movement. It is a book about books, writing about writing; a university lecturer tries to run a class analysing a text, only the text is the book itself and she is being written by a student whose work she must also mark.
Visually, it’s an impressive array of word-constructions, graphs, multilingual puns and handwritten annotations. Buried among the academic jargon and Latin are some of the most devastating parodies of academic life ever set to paper.
Thankfully, for Brooke-Rose, nobody could understand her book. If they had, it’s likely she would have been fired from her post as professor at the University of Vincennes. Instead, the book ruined her fiction career, and she carried on as a Parisian academic, laying the groundwork for poststructuralist linguistics alongside figures like Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and her friend Helene Cixous.
Experimentalism ended with the failure of Thru. Ten years later, postmodernism would be the in thing and a succession of famous novelists would come along to eclipse these 1960s writers, repurposing many of their innovative techniques, only for cynical purposes rather than the earnest concern for moving literature forward.
Joseph Darlington is head of animation at Futureworks Media School. His book The Experimentalists: The Life and Times of the British Experimental Writers of the 1960s is published by Bloomsbury and will be released in November 2021.
He is on Twitter at @Joe_Darlo and his online portfolio is here.