Saturday, 17 October 2015
Ann Quin: prose as a form of expression
This final posting by Nonnie Williams Korteling about the British experimental writer Ann Quin explores why Quin’s work was forgotten and is only now making a comeback:
‘I was at an English Association conference yesterday, talking about the subject of English, about the transition from A level to undergraduate work. One of the Keynote speakers talked to us about post-2000 fiction, and one moment in the history of British writing he identified as being against ‘realism’ (that loose and baggy monster) was the Avant Garde writing of the 1960s – he mentioned Ann Quin and B. S. Johnson in particular -- and advised us to ‘buy shares’ in them. These writers, he assured us, are most definitely going to be the next big thing in discussions of twentieth-century British literature. Hurrah! And, as if to confirm it, the very same day a friend emailed me to say that Quin had been recommended for a 'retrospective reward' in the New Statesman this week (it’s on pg. 75 if you want to have a look) for Berg. So Quin is most definitely making a comeback….
But why was she forgotten anyway? In my posts so far I’ve talked about Quin’s life and some of her writing – this time I’m going to think more about this question of why Quin, though initially acclaimed, was so soon rejected and forgotten. Published as they were written in the 1960s and ‘70s by Calder and Boyars, the books were then out of print until the early 2000s, when Dalkey Archive republished them.
In Aren’t You Too Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973), B. S. Johnson named Quin as one of few he saw as ‘writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter’. These writers were, he said, in opposition to the ‘stultifyingly philistine […] general book culture of this country’. Whatever we think of his bombastic tone, the sentiment is persuasive: Johnson wanted to rescue British fiction from stultification, to foster a literary culture where experiment and risk would be better allowed to flourish. More recently, Gabriel Josipovici’s much reviewed, sometimes contended What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010) identified similar problems. According to Josipovici, British book culture remains disappointingly mundane. Modernism’s legacy of risk, he says, has been largely ignored by the essentially conservative and anti-continental nature of ‘the prevalent English view’, which is ‘fuelled by anxiety rather than anything else’. While I’m not sure his thinking is entirely fair or even correct, Josipovici does have a point in that on the whole in this country there does seem to have been a neglect, a shying away from really experimental writing. He calls for this to be redressed by the story of British writing in the twentieth-century expanding to include its ‘the blind alleys’ as much as ‘achieved successes’.
As I hope my brief discussion of Quin’s Berg and Three have suggested, these are unusual, vivid, strange and highly creative books. The later books -- Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972) -- are not only startlingly unusual; in places the writing is so familiar it becomes clichéd. While to me the deliberate use of cliché is a success of the writing, for many reviewers such qualities were its downfall. Those responses interpret the increasingly conscious experiment and inclusion and repetition of source texts in Passages and Tripticks as following behind 1950s and early ‘60s American and European Avant Garde writing in a derivative manner: they saw Quin’s later writing as too much and too late. While Berg, and more cautiously Three, had been seen to evidence a compelling and instinctive storyteller, this later prose was claimed to put off and alienate the average reader, who was all often disinclined to carry on.
This apparent difference, between original creative writing and experimental pastiche confirms Johnson’s claim that ‘‘Experimental’ to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for ‘unsuccessful’’. But, rather than dismissing Quin’s fragmented, repeating, resistant writing as failed experiment, I prefer to think of the risks the writing takes by deliberately playing with earlier forms in a similar manner to John Cage’s thinking about experiment in Silence: Lectures and Writings, when he says: ‘the word ‘experimental’ is apt [when] understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown’. This kind of thinking about the experimental artist as shaper rather than maker, an observant ‘tourist’ whose creative process is ‘inclusive rather than exclusive’ is useful for reading Quin. Rather than focussing on ideas of ‘success’ or ‘failure’, it is worth paying attention to the writing’s inclusivity, openness to risk and the unknown of its outcome without reductive value judgements.
The growing vogue for writers like Quin confirms, of course, that I am not alone. Such appreciation follows in the footsteps of those fellow writers, publishers and reviewers who were able to see the value of Quin’s approach, who understood that her writing’s following of, its being behind fashion, was a form of processing, questioning and responding to earlier writing. As well as the example of Johnson’s praise above, the writer Alan Burns placed her among counter-cultural British writers ‘riding the crest’ – as he put it to me: ‘we felt we were the heart of the matter’. This ‘we’ was the ‘Writers Reading’ ‘collective’: Paul Ableman, Alan Burns, Carol Burns, Barry Cole, Eva Figes, B. S. Johnson, Jeff Nuttall, Ann Quin, Alan Sillitoe, and Stefan Themerson. This very loose and diverse group of writers were united by ‘a profound interest in prose as a form of expression and not simply as a medium for story-telling’. With this focus on form, such writers – with Quin as an excellent example – mark a transitional point between Modernism and Postmodernism (and indeed, as the Keynote speaker put it yesterday, ‘post-postmodernism’ !!): a not so much ‘blind’ as fascinating, thought-provoking and alternative-route of an alley along which our thinking about twentieth-century British writing certainly ought to take a wander.'
Scroll down for Nonnie’s earlier posts on Quin.
Nonnie Williams Korteling: Between 2008 and 2012 I was researching and writing a PhD on Quin at UEA. The project, called 'Designing its own shadow' - Reading Ann
Quin, ended up as a combination of critical readings of Quin's work
and biographical vignettes. I now teach at UEA and am particularly interested in twentieth-century literature, women's experimental writing, life-writing, and the essay form. My current writing projects include reflections from the classroom, a life-writing project reflecting on the women who made me, and a book on British Avant Garde
Fiction of the 1960s.’